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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT