After reading a blog where the author made the argument that economic inequality was the cause of many social ills in our country and listed off quite a few using a recent book, The Spirit Level, it made me think again about the issue of have and have-nots, about economic fairness.
I haven't read the book and know only what the article and blog said about it, but it seems it's making the case for socialism and communism as economic tools-- not the dictator version where the rulers are living a different life than those under them. This is where the citizens have decided to level the economics and that it -- supposedly-- leads to happier people on all levels. Examples come from the richest countries around the world where some are more equal economically and some decidedly less.
What has led to this economic disparity and, of especial interest to me, to the increasing inequality in the United States? There is no doubt that the difference between the richest and poorest or even the ordinary working stiff and the top of the food chain has grown a lot in my lifetime. The argument from the book is that our violence and many other social negatives are directly attributable to this disparity.
Not taking up their argument, or trying to disprove or prove it, I think there is another factor at work in the United States that is contributing to more unhappiness and that is the fear that the middle class may be disappearing as we see the jobs that fueled its growth disappearing to other countries. The belief that there will always be a middle class is shown to be false by history. And despite the concern for poverty, a valid concern, the middle has always been where the poor could rise up into. It was their hope.
It's not like most people who grow up in poverty will end up being Demi Moore and wealthy through a combination of talent, beauty, marriage, and luck. They won't be a top sports star or become a president. But they might become an engineer, store manager, or a teacher and earn a good living, get a nice house, raise some kids, and know a peaceful retirement.. Most felt that could be possible for children from any economic class with hard work.
I grew up in a working class and union home. I heard my father and grandfather argue over whether communism was the ideal way-- grandpa's view-- or whether communism would impoverish even him-- my father's view. Neither of these men were intellectual elites. They didn't have high school diplomas and both worked hard their whole lives. Both had seen the advantages unions brought to their jobs but also the cost in strikes.
My grandfather was in the meat industry until he retired to be a faller for a logging operation and when that got too tough, he became an independent dory boat fisherman which means he went out into the ocean in a small boat, over the waves in this case, and fished to earn his living. Even way back then, he didn't like the direction he saw the country heading if unions and the power of people banding together for rights was lost.
My father also worked hard his whole life with construction jobs when younger, then the meat industry and finally as a school janitor. When he came to live on this farm with us, he was always busy at something because he liked working and did so until the day he died. He felt if the world leveled what everybody had, the end result is most people would have less; but he also saw the dangers of an increasing time of have-nots. He died in 1980; so that wasn't any recent concern that he was viewing.
So here we are thirty years later and we are still looking at the issue without a lot more solutions so far as I can see. In our country we definitely are seeing more disparity in wealth that has gotten to the obscene level (yes, righties, it has). The Republicans support this growth of the richest as the result of capitalism and fairness (like our economic system is so fair), while the Democrats talk of its problems and unfairness but do nothing about it. What can they do?
That's the real question I have right now. It's happening more and more that we see the extremely wealthy getting richer while the ordinary working people are getting less raises, being fired more often, seeing their dollars worth less, and having to work longer and harder for less money if they are lucky enough to have a job.
[Incidentally it's not that there are no jobs like some say. Look at any city newspaper. Here is what Portland's has for August 8, 2010-- Classified ad jobs. It's that many people cannot qualify for what is needed or they don't want to accept the pay and retraining required. There are jobs; and in many cases, like my kids' business, the business owners cannot find people willing to be responsible and honest for the living wage jobs they offer (with benefits). People want to do less or be paid more in many cases. Sometimes they physically cannot make the grade.]
Here's another of those conundrums we face in our world today. A lot of the benefits workers had for so long came through unionization. Some of the inability of corporations to be competitive in a worldwide market likewise came from unionization.
Back to the original question-- if you accept the concept that income inequality is a problem, what can be done about it?
If you read the newspapers, you saw Mark Hurd just got fired from HP over an ethics violation. (Incidentally, when you get fired at his level, you don't go quietly into the night but you take a big paycheck with you.) Hurd had instigated policies that the stock market loved hence HP stock fell immediately. He did it by a policy of firing the bottom 5% of the employees regularly. Jack Welch apparently wrote in his book about how he did the same thing at GE; so it's not like Hurd invented the idea. This firing happens even if the workers are doing a good job, meeting all requirements, because they can be replaced by 'new blood' and likely at lower salaries.
Now the stock market loves such policies but can you imagine what that does to the worker knowing that if he helps someone else look good, he may fall below that guy's percentage of looking good? Forget genuine cooperation. What you get is making it look like you cooperate while you feather your own nest first and foremost. It is certainly the opposite of socialism and more of a Darwinian theory of to the fittest go the spoils and make sure it looks like you are the fittest.
What can any individual worker do about policies like that? When these policies were instigated at HP, the stress diseases showing in nearby medical clinics likewise rose and all a doctor had to do was ask-- work at HP?
Still the problem with the other side of this coin, the one those authors are promoting is long term do you ever, given the nature of humans, see socialism or communism work (not that you see many pure examples of it). A lot of what looks good is only for awhile. To make it work, you would have to convince the workers that what matters most is the system and not the individual. In a way, that was the power of unions (for those who see unions as bad guys, it depends on where you sit. About the only real pensions left have been gotten through collective bargaining). Unions though have been out of favor for quite a few years. They have earned disfavor through corruption and often being shortsighted about the very jobs they were supposed to protect.
Our country, more now than at any other time in my life, worships at the cult of the individual. Especially to the right wing, if the individual flourishes, the whole system will benefit. That doesn't make it possible to accept socialism as anything but an evil foisted onto mankind to destroy the individual. Say the word and people think Mao not Sweden.
The other problem with the idea of either socialism or communism, as a leveling economic tool, is quickly raised. What does it do to the work ethic? How hard will you work if you see someone else goofing off but not paying a penalty for that? Most communes, with a few exceptions, have run into this problem. People might work for awhile anyway; but after that awhile, they don't like it if they see others not working.
To make such systems work long term would have to require some kind of regulatory body forcing everyone to work hard-- there goes freedom. And here comes power of the regulatory body which generally is going to be a government. It's not like I trust government anymore than a lot of righties. You know the old saying about power and how it corrupts-- with absolute power corrupting absolutely. Giving more power to a body that I don't trust to use what it has? Not likely.
So, after this rambling conversation, is there any solution to economic inequality? Does anybody really believe we are born equal? Should those with more skills earn more money? Want government to regulate wages? Tax to a level that some are losing it all and others being handed money? Anybody really believe we have pure capitalism in the United States or that we ever had it? How about Santa Claus?