Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The Rawls Test: A journey to the most unequal place in America

By John D. Sutter, CNN
August 7, 2013 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
This CNN experiment is based on the work of the late philosopher John Rawls, seen in Paris in 1987.
This CNN experiment is based on the work of the late philosopher John Rawls, seen in Paris in 1987.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Much has been made in recent years about America's growing gap between rich and poor. I'm sure you feel beaten over the head with statistics comparing the struggling 99% with the top 1% of earners, those chosen few whose economic and political clout of rich few has increased to levels not seen since the Great Depression. So I'll spare you the stats and simply ask one question that's not considered nearly often enough in the post-Occupy era: Is America's current income distribution fair?

Forget about how we got here. Forget the Wall Street suits and the cardboard-holding protesters. Obama and Romney. Bloomberg and Buffett. Pretty much delete 2007 to 2013 from your brain.

Is the system fair?

And what information do you need in order to decide?

For intellectual guidance, I'm turning to the work of the late philosopher John Rawls, whose 1971 book "A Theory of Justice" was written about eight years before this rich-poor gap in the United States started to widen. Rawls argues, in a roundabout way, that a society is unfair if its citizens would not agree to be randomly reassigned to another income class. Michael Norton, an associate professor at Harvard, explained it to me this way: Imagine you're moving to a new country, but when you do, you will randomly be assigned to any income level that currently exists in that society.

Would you move? If so, it's fair.

If not? Well ...

This idea is great as far as thought experiments go, but how should I know whether I would make that gamble? Like most Americans, I tend to come into contact with people who are very much like me, economically at least. Most of my friends have gone to college. Many hold jobs in highly skilled industries. There's a range, and I do live in a neighborhood with a serious homelessness problem, but I don't engage the full spectrum of modern American wealth -- from the very poor to the extremely rich -- in my day to day life, and I bet that you don't either, if you're honest. It's hard to assess the state of inequality if it's partly invisible.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Would I play that John Rawls lottery? I'm not sure.

So I'm going to test this theory in real life. And I'm going to call it the Rawls Test, named for the philosopher whose work inspired this journey. This week, I'll be going to an undisclosed location, which happens to be the most unequal place* in America. I'm going to meet people from all five income brackets, spend time with them, trying to get a real understanding of the economic challenges they face. Step away from the statistics. And then I'll decide: Is this the America I want to live in? Do you? Does everyone in this country have a more or less equal chance of success if they work hard and want to get ahead, as politicians from both parties argue they should? Consider this a referendum not on this undisclosed place but on inequality in America writ large.

The Rawls Test and the stories that will follow originated with you. This summer, I asked readers of this column to vote on five stories you wanted me to cover as part of the Change the List project. Income inequality was the top pick, with 16,789 of 32,546 voters putting this issue in their top five.

This test is just the start of a big conversation on the topic.

I invite you to follow the journey on a Tumblr called "Rawls Test," or on Twitter. I'll be tweeting with the hashtag #rawlstest. If you have questions about the project or for the people I encounter, please ask.

At the end of the experiment, I'll ask you to consider this fairness question with me.

Then, if needed, we can get into the messy details about what would make our society better.

Until then, think about the Rawlsian lottery and whether you might play it. And wish me luck!

*Data note: There are many ways to measure the "most unequal place" in the United States. By one measure, which I'm not disclosing for fear of giving away the location, I'm in the most unequal place in the country. By others, I could be in New York.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT