Icefi: Cutting the cake of inequality
By Juan José Urbina, Senior Economist, Icefi (Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies)
A 10-layer cake, each layer smaller than the last, symbolizes the wealth of the nation, reminding us of its inequitable distribution. It’s a metaphor used often to explain income inequality, that was brought to life during a recent event put on by the joint initiative “Paraíso Desigual,” Unequal Paradise, of Oxfam International and Icefi. Below I share my experience with this exercise/dessert/reflection.
Once the conferences and discussion wrapped up, we the attendees were asked to open the envelopes we had received at the beginning of the day. Each envelope contained a colored paper that gave us our place on the “income scale” and at a table with others of our social standing. The ten layers of cake – each destined for a different table – represented the share of income of each decile of the Guatemalan population. As the good space cadet that I am, I’d lost my envelope – if, that is, I was ever given this alleged envelope – and so I began without fanfare to serve slices of cake without enjoying any myself.
Soon, though – I don’t know whether it was to portray social mobility or simply because people at the table with the cake didn’t want to get cake on their hands – I was invited to the cake table and ended up serving it up. The four large bottom rounds of cake remained at the table, heaped on top of each other, for just eight people plus two interlopers (me being one).
I began to serve the cake in enormous pieces proportional to its abundance. While some accepted their obscene portions without complaint, a couple of more cautious cake-eaters asked for half, enjoying their privilege to do so. To make room on the table, after the first cake round was finished, we passed its meagre leftovers to the table of those who represented the decile with the least income – any relation to real life is no coincidence.
Another table suffering a cake shortage arrived to ask for cake and got a share. That is, after negotiations concluded that this would be a one-time contribution and they wouldn’t ask for more. Does that sound like a certain kind of tax? Meanwhile, one of the coordinators of the event arrived and took a whole round. As my job was to serve and not to regulate, I never found out if it was distributed or hidden in some tax haven for haven regulars.
In the end, nobody wanted more cake but there were still one and a half rounds left, plus a piece with a bite taken out of it that no one owned up to. There were leftovers despite the warning of the organizers that there wouldn’t be enough, a miracle attributed in part to the other commitments that obligated many to leave the event – perhaps metaphorical migration?
An eleventh chocolate cake, bathed in ostentation, represented the multimillionaires that aren’t even reflected in the national data. According to what I was told, since this phenomenon goes unseen, it was enjoyed by a single person, despite the fact that it was physically impossible to eat all that wealth alone.
So what was I left with after all that sugar, metaphor, and reflection over a cake served so unequally? Apart from a glucose spike, the conviction that we should look for ways to put the brakes on the mechanisms that generate income inequality, as well as the other manifestations of inequality that limit human development. To do this, the only path forward is to create an agenda that includes the convinced, but that also creates awareness in those who are not convinced. Despite the cliché, it remains a question not of the size of the cake, but of how it’s divided.