Pop Culture Sheds Different View on Inequality Debate
Pop culture is a better indicator of the public mood than political talking points, so it’s interesting to see how two top-rated and long-running CBS television dramas have recently dealt with the issue of inequality. They suggest it’s a real issue, but not in the way politicians talk about it.
“Bones” features a brilliant but socially awkward forensic scientist who uses her logic and powers of observation to bring killers to justice. Recent episodes told of a serial killer who escaped justice for two decades. She got away with it because her wealthy father was able to buy off enough people to hide the truth and imprison somebody else in her place.
The falsely accused man mocked the notion that his testimony could help lock up the wealthy wrongdoer — “You think you can get justice? The law isn’t for people like them.”
On “NCIS,” the naval crime investigators dealt with a similar storyline. A man falsely accused of murder was put on death row because another wealthy father bought off an NCIS investigator. The long-running cover-up even involved a congressman who committed suicide as the truth finally came out.
In both cases, it was not the wealth per se that was offensive; it was the fact that the wealth was used to abuse the justice system. Americans believe that we should all be equal before the law, and we are offended when corruption prevents that from happening.
While the TV dramas present particularly extreme and unbelievable abuses, these shows resonate with their audiences because they build upon a kernel of truth. It is an unfortunate reality that some members of society are treated better than others. You don’t even have to be super rich to benefit from special treatment. If a poor black teenager is caught smoking pot, he’s likely to get arrested. If an affluent white teenager is caught doing the same thing, he’s unlikely to even see a courtroom.
A similar theme can be found in other perceptions of wealth and inequality. People hate crony capitalism and resent those who get rich because of their political connections. At the same time, millions celebrate an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs, even though he was fabulously wealthy. Why? Because Jobs earned his wealth by providing a service that was purchased by hundreds of millions of people.
Once again, it’s not the wealth per se that is offensive; it’s the unequal treatment of people by their government. Americans hate it when those who are well-connected get treated better than anybody else. Those who get special favors from political friends are seen by others as violating the basic social compact of American equality. That’s true whether it’s securing a government contract over a more qualified bidder or a developer receiving special treatment from the local zoning authorities.
In other words, it’s the interaction between wealth and government that creates the most anger.
Americans want everyone to receive equal treatment from the court system and all agencies of government. They want all businessmen and women to compete on a level playing field. And, of course, Americans want laws written by Congress to apply to members of Congress.
There are certainly legitimate reasons to raise questions about the distribution of wealth in America. But the lesson from the popular culture is that the biggest inequality problem is not about dollars; it’s about justice.