In the aftermath of the horrific events at three Georgia spas, there is renewed talk about the “problem” of anti—Asian sentiment in America. This accompanies talk about the “problem” of anti—black racism, the “problem” of economic inequality, the “problem” of obstacles to voting, and so forth. I should like to spend just a moment objecting to this use of the word “problem,” which, I believe, confuses and obscures certain obvious truths about American society.
Let us start with economic inequality. The enormous gap between the wealth of the rich and the wealth of the poor (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos between them have as much wealth as the poorest 120 million people in America) is not a problem of or for capitalism. It is the point of capitalism. As the saying goes in this digital age, economic inequality is a feature, not a bug. Capitalism exists in order to exploit workers and accumulate wealth in the hands of capitalists. That is why it existed in the 19th century, in the 20th century, and now in the 21st century.
An analogous observation is true of the other so-called problems mentioned above. The word “problem” suggests a technical or conceptual difficulty that may be overcome by the application of science, technology, or the rational organization and deployment of available resources. Building an affordable car that runs on electricity rather than by means of an internal combustion engine was a problem. Putting human beings on the moon was a problem. Building a nuclear weapon was a problem. Developing and deploying a vaccine for Covid – 19 was a problem. All of these, including the last, turned out to be solvable, fortunately in the case of the vaccine, rather less fortunately in the case of nuclear weapons.
Racism, economic inequality, and the suppression of the vote are, or arise out of, conflicts of interest, between whites and nonwhites, between rich and poor, and currently (although not always historically) between Republicans and Democrats. There are no technical solutions to these conflicts, there are only struggles in which some win and some lose.
To describe the struggles as “problems” suggests falsely that what is needed is a research grant or government program to “solve” them. This, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s lovely phrase, afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.