Real Consequences of Income Inequality

As we go about our lives in this presidential election year we know, hear and read about rapidly growing income disparity, particularly in the United States and Europe. While we know that this is a problem that can lead to civil unrest and worse, and while we see various examples of evidence in street people and in other sad human scenes on television, we rarely experience it first hand with any personal consequences. When that does happen, it comes as a rude shock and as a personal assault, which leaves lingering concerns for what that may foreshadow.

A couple of days ago, in the Zurich airport railroad station, which has not been known as a risky place with beggars and thieves, I encountered, I rudely discovered, a team of rough, tough and clever pickpockets. (I will explain below how they operated, in the hopes of alerting interested readers how to be careful.)

The consequence of my encounter was not only the loss of my wallet from my left hand trouser pocket with the usual credit/debit cards and some cash but also, very importantly, my identity. Quickly I realized that my pocket had been picked and, thanks to modern technology, was able immediately to inform the airline, the train officials and all the relevant credit card companies and banks. Consequently, I believe and hope that the damage may have been contained.

I also learned from the train conductor that the railroad police know all about these gangs, have a lot of their pictures but have not be been able to catch any of them red-handed, and without fresh physical evidence cannot put them away to protect their passengers. For weeks recently there have been two and three such events a day. And the Swiss officials have not yet informed the public because they fear publicity adverse to their tourist businesses.

They also seem to have extraordinary humanitarian concerns for plight of the perpetrators. Evidently Swiss police and officials take a rather benign view of these events because there is rarely any physical harm and usually only relatively small financial damage, if one ignores the downstream costs of credit card confusion, etc.

As my initial shock abated, I began to think about the larger context in which it had occurred. Whoever those gangsters are, they probably/may have had jobs until recent economic events engulfed them along with many other citizens. One has to assume they have families to feed and rent to pay, so by their lights they had to take matters into their own hands. They figured out how to obtain what they needed while inflicting as little pain and damage as they could on their targets, and at the same time exposing themselves to minimum risk of exposure, capture and loss of freedom. “Smart” some might say; “opportunistic” others might say; “practical” under the circumstances? Of course, nothing justifies stealing from other people. But when “extraordinary” circumstances arise, some types of people appear to make bad choices. In all events there is nothing noble in what they do. Please understand that all I am trying to do is draw something useful from my experience. Perhaps my view is a stretch, but if there is germ of validity to my perspective, it warrants some thought.

Another current debate is how to fix our broken economies. One view is to cut public expenditures. Another view is to raise taxes, particularly among the richer elements in our societies. And the third way is to balance and do both. Even before my recent experience I favored the balanced way. I would far and away prefer to pay more taxes (even a lot more than I lost to the pickpockets) in order to reduce the need of out of work people to take the law into their own hands.

If more of “the relatively wealthy” members of our societies experienced at first hand the horror of the consequences of growing income inequality, perhaps more people might wake up to what really needs to be done. Simply putting “bad guys” in jail will not change much. Finding the right policy mix to create more jobs is the real challenge.

For those who are interested, here is how it happened. The train came into the Zurich Airport station. My wife and I, with our rolling bags, entered the nearest door to open; she was ahead of me. As I was moving from the entryway into the car itself, I suddenly was caught between a man in front of me who turned around, apparently in confusion as to where he was, and a man behind me who was “roughing me up,” apparently in an effort to rush ahead into the car. My reaction was “what in hell is going on? Cut it out, mister!” And then suddenly, those two and a couple of others were gone. As my wife and I started to settle in, I reached into my trouser pocket and realized my wallet was also gone. The job performed took, maybe, ten seconds. There were two diversions: the guy in front, whom I saw, did nothing except distract me; the guy behind me, whom I never saw, muscled me to divert me from feeling his hand entering my pocket,. Pretty clever and smooth! And rotten too.

So a little encounter opened my complacent and privileged mind to a not so brave new world out there that we have to deal with and try to correct. But, do not worry — I am too clumsy to become a counter-pickpocket!


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