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“The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die” by Keith Payne

Terri Schlichenmeyer | OW contributor | 5/15/2017, 9:33 a.m.
He got more. There was a time in your life when just noticing that was reason to throw a tantrum. ...

He got more.

There was a time in your life when just noticing that was reason to throw a tantrum. It was enough to make any adult near you want to run away. But now that you’re all grown up, “He got more” means more – and in the new book “The Broken Ladder” by Keith Payne, you’ll see how it might affect your life.

Airplane kerfuffles are hardly news these days, but Keith Payne sees them differently: they are, he says, linked to status hierarchy. First-Class has wider, plusher seats while coach fliers must cram themselves into tiny cushions and share an armrest. Whether they know it or not, that causes envy; in fact, air rage increases, say researchers, when people are forced to see this inequality. Add a delayed or canceled flight, and things escalate to violence.

The thing is that flights aren’t cheap. Just the fact that someone is on a plane says a lot about their income but when people perceive inequality, they “feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.” Even so, it’s true that the rich do get richer, while the poorest people have treaded financial water for about the last half-century.

Payne imagines a ladder as a metaphor for inequality. The higher the rung an individual reaches, the better their status and income, health, safety, and future. Racial inequality – which is “qualitatively different,” no matter how big a person’s paycheck is – affects one’s position on the ladder. So does geography, and education, or lack thereof. The lower the rung, the less the person has, monetarily and otherwise.

The good thing is that each person’s situation may change within parameters, and can be relative to that of others: the Haves, in other words, think they have not… until they see that the Have Nots have less. That changes perceptions and may, at least temporarily, lead to a more satisfied life. Even so, in the incessant effort to get ahead, an individual’s needs (or imagined needs) can cause risk-taking, and the accompanying adrenaline rush affects body organs negatively.

Simply put: inequality can kill you. And if you’re on a lower rung of that imaginary ladder, even your death will be unequal.

Oh, my, but the first three-fifths of “The Broken Ladder” is an eye-opener. In those pages, author Keith Payne sets readers up with a plethora of statistics to support what he’s about to lay down; specifically, that inequality is worse than we think it is.

Once the point is made, however, the last of this book is quite repetitive. It’s filled with the commonsensical, a rehashing of brain science with which audiences for this book are likely familiar, stereotyping, and frequent comparisons to our simian relatives, ending with a Kumbaya that really just barely matches the books’ original tone.

Heavy sigh.

And yet – in this world of widening class gaps, how could you miss the important first chapters here? You can’t, that’s all, because every little bit helps understand it and with “The Broken Ladder,” you get more.