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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT