For Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize recipient and Harvard economist and philosopher, a formative life experience was the Bengal famine of 1943, which he observed as a child living in Santiniketan, in eastern India.
What impressed itself most powerfully upon him, and inspired some of his most important work, was the tragedy’s uneven impact. Between two million and three million people died in the famine, but he noticed that his personal acquaintances were unaffected.
“I knew of no one in my school or my many friends and relations whose family had experienced the slightest problem during the entire famine,” he explained in the autobiographical note he wrote for the Nobel Prize in economics. “It was not a famine that afflicted even the lower middle classes – only people much further down the economic ladder, such as landless rural labourers.”
Hurricane Sandy, and its devastating aftermath, has the potential to create a similar epiphany for much of the United States. Mr. Sen’s central observation was of the “thoroughly class-dependent character” of famine. The first instinct of many Americans was to note that Sandy’s damage had likewise been drawn along economic lines.
One of the most hard-working metaphors in this disaster is some version of a tale of two cities. The power-grid cleavage in Manhattan into a fully functioning uptown (above 34th Street) and a dark and cold downtown, south of that dividing line, inspired some to muse that Sandy hadn’t touched the affluent. It had afflicted, instead, the historically rougher neighbourhoods.
But, as others quickly noted, this meteorological disaster, unlike famine, was no respecter of class. Many poor communities were hard hit, but so were some glossy ones. One of the most dramatic manifestations in New York was when the winds bent a construction crane on One57, a luxury condominium tower. This skyscraper, which will be the highest residential building in the city, is being marketed to the world’s super-rich: Apartments in the top 11 floors start at $50-million (U.S.), and a duplex penthouse has sold for $90-million.
The real class divide exposed by Sandy is the way in which money makes natural disasters more bearable. Finding a hotel room and perhaps a taxi to get you there is tough this week in New York, but the rich can afford both. This economic bifurcation powerfully reflects the broader ways in which disaster affects rich and poor Americans so differently. If you are a member of the hollowed-out middle class, getting sick or losing your job is a blow from which you, and perhaps your children, will never recover. For the wealthy, bouncing back is much easier; indeed, crisis can be opportunity.
If Sandy prompts Americans to dwell on this divide, that will be an important consequence, particularly on the eve of the presidential election. But an equally powerful impact of the storm may lie elsewhere. Sandy, as Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, told me, was about “geography, not economy.”
For a few hours or days, the geographic lines bisected Manhattan into a new community of privilege and deprivation. Privilege meant living north of 34th Street, no matter what your income, race, gender or creed; deprivation meant living south of that line.
Ms. Solnit said every disaster she has studied created “a levelling moment – we are all in it together.” She argues that this instant of solidarity creates a “rupture” that can forever transform individual human lives and, sometimes, entire societies.
Sandy has served up a meaningful twist on this theme. For a day or two, life circumstances were most powerfully shaped not by the size of your bank account, but by your particular street address. That gave some of the denizens of the city’s hippest quarters a brief taste of what it is like to suddenly be the losers in life’s lottery.
Philosopher John Rawls imagined a veil of ignorance to help judge the justice of any particular social order. As Mr. Rawls described it, “No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength and the like.”
The veil of ignorance is a valuable idea when it comes to thinking about income inequality in the United States, particularly because so many winners in its winner-take-all economy are sure they fully deserve their good fortune. Sandy should be a reminder that very often in life neither triumph nor disaster are deserved. Understanding that would profoundly change how the country responds to rising economic disparity.