By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK Nov 1 For Amartya Sen, a Nobel
Prize recipient and Harvard economist and philosopher, a
formative life experience was the Bengal famine of 1943, which
he had observed as a child living in Santiniketan, in West
Bengal, a state in eastern India.
What impressed itself most powerfully upon Sen, and
eventually inspired some of his most important work, was the
uneven impact of the tragedy. Between 2 million and 3 million
people died during the famine, but the young Sen 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 explains in the autobiographical
note he wrote for the Nobel Prize. "It was not a famine that
afflicted even the lower middle classes - only people much
further down the economic ladder, such as landless rural
The so-called Superstorm Sandy, and its devastating
aftermath, has the potential to create a similar epiphany for
much of America. 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 - Google it to see
for yourself - in this disaster is some version of "A Tale of
Two Cities." The power grid cleavage of the island of Manhattan
into a fully functioning uptown - above 34th Street - and dark
and cold downtown, south of that dividing line, inspired some to
muse that, like the famine of Sen's boyhood, Sandy hadn't
touched the affluent. It had afflicted, instead, the
historically rougher neighborhoods.
But, as others quickly noted, unlike famine, this
meteorological disaster was no respecter of class divides. Many
poor communities were hard hit, but so were some glossy ones -
my Twitter feed reflected the irony of refugees from pricey Soho
seeking shelter in less expensive Brooklyn precincts. And one of
Sandy's most dramatic manifestations in New York on Monday was
when the winds bent back the construction crane on One57, a
luxury condominium tower. This skyscraper, which will be the
highest residential building in the city, is a true plutocrats'
palace - apartments in the top 11 floors start at $50 million,
and a duplex penthouse has sold for $90 million - which is being
expressly marketed to the global super-rich.
The real class divide exposed by Sandy, as my colleague
David Rohde has argued, is the way in which money makes natural
disasters more bearable. Finding a hotel room and perhaps a taxi
to take you there is tough this week in New York, but at least
the rich can afford both.
This economic bifurcation is well worth dwelling on,
particularly because it so powerfully reflects the broader ways
in which, in the economically polarized United States of today,
disaster affects the rich and the poor 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 plutocrats, bouncing back
is much easier: Indeed, crisis really 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, those 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
Solnit said that every disaster she had studied created "a
leveling 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
In economically polarized America, Sandy has served up a
meaningful twist on this theme. Sandy hasn't really leveled
Manhattan - the storm has jumbled it up. For a day or two, your
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
The philosopher John B. 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 good way to figure out whether
you really support a particular social construct. Would fans of
apartheid have backed it if subject to the veil of ignorance?
How about limits on reproductive rights?
The veil of ignorance is also a valuable idea when it comes
to thinking about income inequality in America, particularly
because so many winners in this country's
winner-take-all-economy are so certain 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 America responds to rising economic