What You Should Think About Fairness

“Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Do men like Bill Gates make this country great?  Does this country make men like Bill Gates great?  Is Bill Gates a great man?  Hopefully even the Microsoft founder himself has matured to the point of understanding these are not at all simple questions.  Yet for many Americans, the analysis is painfully simple, “Bill Gates received a tremendous amount of personal income.  He has not been convicted of a major crime or implicated in a breach of traditional values.  Therefore, Bill Gates is a great man.”

The self-made tycoon is a popular American archetype.  It is so deeply woven into our culture that The Pursuit of Happiness was never questioned as the title for a biographical tale about the pursuit of riches.  It is so deeply woven into our public policy that few debates are not clouded by the assumption that investors are the alpha and omega of American economic activity.  The consequences for entrepreneurs and shareholders are weighed carefully in all matters, while the consequences for working families with no substantial investments are often dismissed as a distraction from the vital business of lowering taxes, promoting trade, subsidizing industry, etc.

It is fair to argue that the United States has experienced generally good economic progress in the last thirty years.  It is also fair to argue that a position of such eminence could have and should have been parleyed into much greater national gains.  However, the immensity of the global economy prevents any of these opinions from rising above the level of pontification.  I suppose the most honest assertion that approaches the level of fact would be to look at our history of growth and conclude, “it could have been worse, and it could have been better.”

Yet it does not seem at all fair to argue that entrepreneurs and investors were exclusively responsible for these gains.  Even with contemporary Wall Street flimflam — the argument that widespread participation in mutual funds imparts universal status on the special interests of investors — it remains the case that many hard-working Americans carry debts far larger than the value of any investment portfolio they may have accumulated.  Of those prepared for a comfortable retirement, many still find the best decades of their lives shaped much more by levels of earned income than by investment outcomes.

Thus it is that, for more than thirty years, four out of five Americans have been effectively shut out from participation in economic growth.  The theory of trickle down economics is soundly repudiated by the profound failure of any real wealth to actually trickle down.  Some might argue that this is because corrupt public officials have not really put these ideals to a true test.  How is that any different from the argument that human beings are “too greedy” to sustain an economic commune the size of a large nation?*  I dispute the idea that trickle down economics was a good thing in principle.  Yet even those who romanticize it must face the cold hard fact that it does not produce the intended results in practice.

Of course, this assumes the intended results did not involve confining economic growth so narrowly as to promote the emergence of a new American aristocracy.  Hereditary titles, uselessly large personal fortunes, social climbers jockeying for appointments — only a feudal tradition is lacking.  Perhaps that is actually a bad thing, considering the role noblesse oblige played in feudal life.  Our economic elites can purchase a different standard of justice, exert extraordinary political influence, and still have time to accumulate vast amounts of real estate for personal use while the nation’s homeless rate continues along an alarming increase.

If only 20% of our citizenry were actually involved in pushing the economy forward, the fact that the other 80% are prevented from enjoying the progress might be fair.  Yet that conclusion can only be reached by starting with the absurd assumption that labor, training, management, research, art, and so much more are irrelevant.  It credits executive leaders, financiers, and the idle rich with exclusive participation in the economic achievements of the past three decades.  Personal incomes in those areas have ballooned to a downright insane extent.

Rational evaluation forbids any conclusion about a failure of industry on the part of the American worker.  Employees are laboring more hours and making larger sacrifices for the very same economic rewards analogous jobs would provide a generation earlier.  The reality of the working American has changed for the worse.  Degradation of opportunity is ongoing.  The labor force continues to become more and more productive, yet it is the corporate elite and old money that continue to receive more and more rewards.

An optimist might view this through the lens of Twain.  Wall Street institutions play the part of Tom Sawyer, reaping the rewards of hard work that others are induced to perform for a pittance.  A darker perspective might be seen through Orwell’s eyes.  There the metaphor of the working class as Boxer remains apt.  Had the President’s plan to significantly privatize Social Security been implemented promptly after it was proposed, would the surge of geriatric poverty suggest the approach of the knacker’s wagon?  Perhaps being frozen out of an entire generation of economic progress is not that dramatic, but surely it is no joke either.

Most ironic in all of this is presence of low points where pinnacles were thought to be built up by trickle down policies.  With decades of growth concentrated in the hands of an economic elite, amazing achievements ought to have emerged from those beneficiaries.  Instead of solutions to energy problems clearly understood in the 1970s, we find parasitism Enron-style.  Philanthropy to promote science, education, and general welfare was expected to blossom from the fortunes supply-side tax cuts would create.  Statistically, this mechanism has also failed to ameliorate the ongoing concentration of American wealth.

Of couse, symbolically it has done much more.  Rare confluences of vision and kindess create a false impression regarding the extent to which this nation’s most fortunate citizens actually give back to the society that facilitated their success.  Just as the self-made tycoon archetype promotes the blatant misconception that America enjoys greater socioeconomic mobility than the societies of Western Europe (some of which actually have feudal traditions,) the high profile philanthropy of Microsoft’s tycoons whitewashes over both the destructive business practices that forged said enterprise and the relatively rare nature of non-token generosity amongst living American tycoons.

Perhaps Bill Gates is a great man.  Perhaps the chef who prepared his dinner the last time he ate out is a great man.  Perhaps the dishwasher who cleaned his plate after the meal is a great man.  Perhaps all three are great.  Whether your definition of greatness involves hard work or loyalty or ambition or talent, who would presume to judge the character, or foretell the destiny, of the dishwasher?  Yet one thing is for sure — decades economic dialogue dominated by supply-side thinking recognize only the worthiness of men like Bill Gates.  Those who work hard without either being born into great wealth or thriving in a cutthroat business environment have labored for thousands upon thousands of days without earning any real gains.

The premise that proposed reforms like universal health care or expanded educational grant programs are somehow unfair to people already able to pay their own way is absurd.  This absurdity comes from the childlike assumption that present conditions were the product of a fair process.  We can continue to practice politics like children, crossing our fingers and hoping that, starting now, there will be no more significant corruption in political life.  Alternatively, we can face the reality we inhabit like adults.  We can recognize what has been unfair in the past.  We can take action to shape a future that brings us closer to fairness.

Of course, progressive economic reforms are not just about promoting the fairness of social justice.  Millions upon millions of Americans would enjoy a real improvement to the quality of their lives as a result of policies that duly consider the merits of demand-side interests.  Everyone would be able to wake up in a society with improved public health and improved public morale.  Even investments would be uplifted as a heavily strained labor force is given greater opportunity for financial security and professional development.  The fundamental fairness of correcting for decades in which four out of five Americans were excluded from any real reward for their part in achieving real growth — consider that icing on the proverbial cake.

*For clarity’s sake, I continue to believe the “communism has never been given a fair shake” argument is legitimate.  The crucial difference between the chance trickle down actually had and any historical regimes employing the term “communism” is the matter of open vs. closed societies.  With free speech, a free press, and a political system that has at times been the envy of the world, our nation still was unable to make supply-side economics work for anyone without personal control over an abundant supply of capital.  When a similarly open society attempts true communism, then it can be said to have been put to a test comparable to the one trickle down economics has clearly failed.
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