Somewhere on the internet, someone suggested blogs on the question of inequality. It’s hard to know what that means, but I assume it has something to do with the current publicity about inequality of income and net worth. Not to make too much of it, but one might start with the observation that the issue did not become prominent until the white middle class became aware that they were slip-sliding downward on a hill tilted in favor of a few already at the top. However, starting there would probably take us down a rabbit hole. Suffice it to say that the white middle class remains, at least for a few more years, a sort of barometer of general economic well being, and when they are slip-sliding we had better pay attention because the whole system is hurting.
Having said that, I’d like to move in another direction and suggest that inequality is not as important as inequity. Equality cannot be achieved across the breadth of a population, nor would we want that. Part of what makes life interesting, challenging, and rewarding are the differences between us; our different abilities, interests, tastes, personalities, and so forth. We are, and want to be, unequal in so many ways. Equity is another matter. Equity is more about the well known level playing field. We need to strive for a national ethos that places its highest value on equity, on the assurance that no obstacle is placed in the path of any person to achieve what they are capable of achieving. Recognizing and removing existing obstacles is a start, and an often a difficult one because we don’t easily recognize existing obstacles if they are in someone else’s way, but not in our way. Beyond that, it also means a cultural bent toward providing the tools, education, training, and policies that are equitably available to all persons to aid them in achieving what they are able to achieve. The early advocates of universal public education understood that. They hoped for a nation in which every child got a first class education at public expense instead of the British system of second rate or non-existent education for most while those who could afford it got a good education in private schools.
The last century produced enormous strides in understanding what is needed for an organization (or nation) to perform well. Researchers such as Deming, Bennis, Herzberg, Maslow, Kendrick, Likert, Lewin, and others all agreed on a few fundamentals that can be summed up as providing an environment in which each person can succeed (not will succeed). Doing that requires the discipline of assuring that the right education, training, equipment and quality materials to do the job are available to each without prejudice. It also requires a constant vigilance of the environment along with dedication to research and development to assure that methods change with technology and social conditions. That’s the hub of equity, and I think we have two problems with it today.
First, the dominant American culture has historically been the myth of a generic white middle class that is often blind to the inequity that rules the lives of others who are not a part of it. That’s changing rapidly, if not smoothly, with claims, counter claims, and taunts along the lines of, “You think you had a hard time of it, let me tell you how hard it was for me.” Just the same, it is changing. Part of that is the growing recognition that we need to change our definition of the dominant American culture to accommodate diverse races and ethnicities. Maybe that will help us see more clearly the obstacles that are in our way, and in the way of others who are not like us.
Second, we have stumbled into a set of tax laws and compensation practices that have become so warped that only a very few are able to benefit from economic growth. It’s the 1% phenomena of popular media fame wherein, even if equity is broadly distributed, there is little likelihood that rewards will be commensurate with achievement. Declining purchasing power through stagnant wages for the majority of the population while a certain very small minority are able to reap unheard of riches is a prescription for national collapse.