Our country is unequivocally encumbered by economic inequality. And although there is this wide-spread notion in the United States that “people should get what they deserve and deserve what they get” (Olin Wright & Rogers 183), it is being hotly debated that this inequality is a social injustice. The way Olin Wright & Rogers describe social injustice is that it is not simply the unfairness of “bad luck;” rather, it is an inequality that is unfair, and that could potentially be remedied (183). They give the example that it is unfair for some children to be born with physical disabilities, but that condition in itself is not an injustice. They mention that it becomes a social injustice when we as a society can take action to lessen the effect of the unfairness of bad luck on these people’s lives and fail to do so. Two examples Olin Wright & Rogers give are the lack of curb cuts in sidewalks (an injustice for people in wheelchairs) and the lack of affordable prosthetic limbs (an injustice for amputees) (184).
Having now defined social injustice, it may be apparent that we have striking injustices right here in the States. For example, a study done at Brandeis University noted by observing the same set of families over a span of 25 years, that the total wealth gap between the Caucasian and African-American families nearly tripled. In fact, the gap increased from $85,000 in 1984, to $236,500 in 2009 (Shapiro, Meschede & Osoro). Additionally, the study’s evidence pointed not to personal attributes and behavioral choices as the reasons for this gap, but rather to “policy and the configuration of both opportunities and barriers in workplaces, schools, and communities that reinforce deeply entrenched racial dynamics in how wealth is accumulated and that continue to permeate the most important spheres of everyday life” (Shapiro, Meschede & Osoro). Although there are laws to protect from racial discrimination, they do not appear to be reinforced effectively enough.
Yet, this inequality is not merely a matter of race. The “Daily Conversation” notes in its video Wealth Inequality in America that whole bottom 80% (in terms of finance) of the American public has just 7% of the Nation’s wealth. Furthermore, the top 1% has a full 40% of the Country’s wealth. This fact points to the incredible disparity that impacts even the middle class. An average worker – and the video stressed the difference between “average” and “lowest-paid,” must work for more than a month to earn what the CEO might make in an hour (The Daily Conversation).
This inequality is unhealthy for a country, literally as well as figuratively. Comparisons between nations show that their average health and their GDP are not really correlated. But, when the comparison is done within a nation, that is, between individual citizens of a same country, the correlation is much higher. Indeed, social epidemiologist, author and advocate Richard Wilkinson says that “even the people just below the top have less good health than the people at the top.” He further explains that, compared to more equality-based countries, more unequal countries do worse on: life expectancy, math & literacy, infant mortality, homicides, imprisonment, teenage births, trust, obesity, mental illness (including drug & alcohol addiction), and social mobility (Wilkinson). In unequal societies people tend to lose their modesty and are much more strained by stressful situations in public than by stressful situations in private. This is because status is much more important in unequal societies than in more equitable ones (Wilkinson). Thus, Olin Wright & Rogers hold that inequality undermines a sense of community within a society. Going back to the subject of health, Wilkinson also added that, according to a study done by UNICEF, children’s wellbeing is also worse in unequal countries. So, even though inequality is known to have these “side effects,” Wilkinson says that the States, and for that matter, also the UK, are twice as unequal as some of the other market democracies, such as Japan and the Nordic countries.
Inequality is clearly detrimental. Yet, two of its driving components are the notions of fair-play and fair-share. Fair-play ties into the aforementioned idea that people deserve what they get and get what they deserve. It is based upon the theory that if the rules of the economic game are the same for everyone, success or failure is completely up to the individual. As long as there is something “approximating equal opportunity, inequality of results is not a moral problem” (Olin Wright & Rogers 187). The fair-share view is rather different: it holds that everyone has a right to “a share of society’s resources sufficient to live a dignified, flourishing life” regardless of the levels of success (Olin Wright & Rogers 187). Yet, taken individually, neither view can effectively solve the problem of wealth inequality.
As mentioned in the film Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream by “Why Poverty,” fair-play is difficult to even achieve. “Why Poverty” parallels the American Dream and the dynamics of economics to a game of Monopoly. In theory, anyone can play, but if the game has already been started, it is much harder for the newcomer to catch up. This is because certain opportunities are unfair or completely absent, all of the rules have been decided, property has already been bought up, and much of the wealth is in the hands of other players. Staying with this parallelism, one could argue that the “newcomer” is actually the whole bottom 80% mentioned above. I think it is worth pointing out that as Olin Wright & Rogers say, “high levels of inequality on income and wealth undermine the principles of fair play itself” (188).
Fair-share, on the other hand, may improve inequality, but it would do so at the expense of those who are wealthier. It would seem unfair for people who work hard to earn money to have to pay (through taxes) for the “sufficient” share of society’s resources to be supplied to people who do not work as hard. Additionally, the wealthier population counters this ideology by saying that by redistributing too much wealth, the economy may collapse, and thus the poor would be even worse off than before. This would happen because, supposedly, the poor would start to lose the incentive to work if they see that they are being supported by the richer portion of society. This would imply that the more a person earns, the more incentive this person has to work. Olin Wright & Rogers counter this presupposition by highlighting the fact that the incentives required to get people to work and invest “are not themselves affected by the level of inequality in a society” (191). Simply put, they are saying that a CEO who earns 380 times what his average worker earns (as denounce by The Daily Conversation), does not have 380 times the incentive of his average worker. The proportion is totally unbalanced. Additionally, Olin Wright & Rogers argue that CEOs in the States are not much more talented or hard-working, and do not require greater incentive, than their Japanese or German counterparts.
Because neither the fair-play nor the fair-share approach taken on its own would engender a more just situation, Olin Wright & Rogers stress the fact that fair play and fair share interact and should be taken together (188). I tend to agree. If someone is dedicated to the idea of equal opportunity of fair play, then some form of fair shares should at least be considered to level the playing ground. Only after having a more equitable starting point can people attain equal opportunities and truly experience fair play.
Daily Conversation, The. Wealth Inequality in America. “The Daily Conversation.” Mar. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTj9AcwkaKM&feature=youtu.be
Olin Wright, Erick, and Joel Rogers. American Society: How it Really Works. New York: Norton, 2011. Print.
Shapiro, Thomas, Tatjana Meschede and Sam Osoro. The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide. “Institute on Assets and Social Policy.” Feb. 2013. Retrieved from: http://iasp.brandeis.edu/pdfs/Author/shapiro-thomas-m/racialwealthgapbrief.pdf
Wilkinson, Richard G. How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. “Ted Talks.” July 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson
—. “We quite suddenly realized that we were looking at a general pattern”: Q&A with Richard Wilkinson. “Ted Blog.” Oct. 2011. Retrieved from: http://blog.ted.com/2011/10/26/we-quite-suddenly-realized-that-what-we-were-looking-at-was-a-general-pattern-qa-with-richard-wilkinson/