By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK, Nov 1 (Reuters) - 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 laborers.”
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 that line.
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 societies.
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 life’s lottery.
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 disparity.