What can we do about inequality?
This is the fourth in our series of brief articles about inequality. In this article we will look at what we can do about inequality. In order to support and drive change we need to know why change is important and why it is urgent. So staying informed about the facts and consequences of inequality is an important first step, this when there is much misleading information that can obscure the truth. This means staying informed about inequality in all of its dimensions, for example in income, wealth, education, health care, even life expectancy. And this message of economic justice is central to our theology and ethics. Nehemiah, in the fifth century B.C., explained how wealth and income redistribution were needed in his society to stop families having to sell their children into slavery. But that couldn’t happen here could it? Just ask those who monitor human trafficking how the Walnut Creek BART station is a gateway for some young people into modern day slavery. Our son speaks of an example of some members of the basketball team in one of the top high schools in Madison, Wisconsin, rooting through waste baskets to recover food scraps from treats the team had been given. The basketball players had no food at home. Meanwhile we allow political interests to remove funding from food stamp programs. Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, and the example of members of the early church sharing their possessions, remind us that economic justice is a central tenet of our faith, as it is in other faiths, and it should be a central tenet of a noble society.
While it is easy to be drawn into thinking that acts of charity are sufficient, and while they may be personally meaningful, honorable, and important, their ability to affect fundamental social change is limited today as it was in Nehemiah’s time. Here’s Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, from a 2013 New York Times piece: “Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left…As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life…Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine. It’s an old story; we really need a new one.
Another path is recourse to our political system, and this is an avenue we must pursue. However, a paper, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” by Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright in the March 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics is sobering. This describes a study of the political views of the wealthiest 1% and 0.1% of the population based on a sample in the Chicago area. The authors confirm that the wealthiest participate disproportionately in politics and that their views diverge significantly from the general population – the wealthy are much less supportive of social programs such as social security and effective universal health care or providing broad educational opportunities, and they are less supportive of economic regulation that might have averted the recent economic collapse. The authors conclude that “if policy makers do weigh citizens’ policy preferences differently based on their income or wealth, the result will not only significantly violate democratic ideals of political equality, but will also affect the substantive contours of American public policy.” So relying only on the existing political structure is naïve as this structure primarily protects the vested interests of a small wealthy group. The need for a movement to re-establish the fundamental basis for our democracy is clear.
Another direction we can look is to the business community. This too is a path we must pursue as highlighted in the book Business Behaving Well. However, voices such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seem to take positions that benefit corporations at the expense of the community. Indeed large organizations are not democracies; rather they are oligarchies of entrenched power that now serve primarily the interests of senior management. This route too presents major challenges. So let’s consider some other steps that we can take:
- Stay informed about emerging social, business, and workplace issues so we can decide where to best commit our time and energy.
- Become well informed about organizations and their approach to social responsibility so that, based on their performance, we can decide to engage or not, whether as member, employee, contractor, supplier, investor, or customer.
- Influence public policy by supporting candidates who speak to the needs of all in our society, not just the wealthy and powerful, and engage in legislative campaigns and direct action in this regard. Encourage participation in our political processes, addressing the challenge of lower voting rates at lower income levels.
- Support social and community causes that benefit all, such as full access to healthcare in the United States through a Medicare-for-all system, and needed progressive taxation levels for individuals and organizations.
- Support strengthened education at all levels, recognizing that education offers a significant opportunity to break the bonds of poverty.
- Each create our own work/life direction, not beholden to others in organizations, rather a direction that matches our values, interests, skills and preferences so as to be fulfilling and rewarding, unencumbered by corporate bureaucracies.
- Speak to issues of inequality so that we are all better informed about, and can communicate, what is really happening. In the words of Joan Chittister “Courage is coming to realize that what does and does not happen in the world does so because of what you and I fail to say – not when silence is right, but when we fear the cost to ourselves of speaking out.”
It is in embracing such courage, individually and collectively, that we can create a better world for all. This can take us to a place as a society of real community, where all are valued and supported, and all come together and benefit from the fruits of shared labor. Perhaps one day our community will be global, all inclusive, where all are our neighbors. I hope we can then say, “Compassionate at last, we are compassionate at last.”
Parts of this article are excerpted from Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing, 2013, edited by Ron Elsdon, Potomac Books, Inc., http://www.potomacbooksinc.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=293765