I have just returned after two and a half weeks on the road around Pennsylvania and the Pacific northwest, spreading the message of The Bond about survival of the fairest – our need to care, share and be fair.
It was my first trip back to my home country since January, and what smacked me right between the eyes about the current state of my home country was the unfairness I saw, everywhere I looked. Everything about the current American experience these days appears to be manifestly, grossly unfair.
First of all, there were the bald statistics. A tiny 1 per cent of Americans takes in nearly one-quarter of America’s entire income every year, and that 1 per cent also controls 40 per cent of the country’s entire wealth.
And the fortunes of this tiny minority are spiraling upward. That self-same 1 per cent has doubled their proportion of total American income in 25 years. While income for the 1 per cent has risen by 18 per cent over the last 10 years, the rest of America has observed its income fall by 12 per cent in the same time period.
The divide is getting wider by the day. One in five – and in some quarters one in two – young people remain unemployed. One in six Americans who’d like a full-time job cannot get work.
Although one in every 39 Americans is a millionaire, one in seven – a total of 39.1 million Americans – lives on food stamps and below the poverty line.
So, the question I must ask is simply this: whatever happened to fairness?
Marginal productivity in action
An article in the May edition of Vanity Fair entitled, ‘Of the 1 %, By the 1 %, For the 1 %’ by Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz zeroed in on some of these statistics to evaluate the effectiveness of what has been called ‘marginal-productivity theory.’
This theory holds that those with higher incomes deserve their pile because they have far higher productivity and therefore a far greater contribution to society. It’s also responsible for the ‘trickle-down theory’ – the idea that these high flyers will naturally generate more opportunity for all the rest of us.
The problem is, there’s just no evidence that either theory is true, says Stiglitz. The top 1 per cent are the self-same people who were paid record bonuses during years in which the recession they helped to create has caused vast numbers of Americans to lose their jobs, their savings – even their homes.
America is not only the most unfair in its history; it is now the most unfair of any major Western country. The division between rich and poor is more akin to present conditions in Russia and Iran, says Stiglitz, than it is to the conditions in any country in Europe.
Stiglitz also makes the point that growing economic inequality actually hurts the economy, which gets undermined because a disproportionate number of people either have no opportunity or elect to go into finance, because it is more lucrative than other fields. It hurts the infrastructure – our roads, our education, our railway systems and airports – because the rich have the ability to avoid paying taxes toward it.
The top 1 per cent block opportunity for the 99 per cent. They have the means to keep things as they are because they have the power to make sure that government and corporate policy are bought and paid for. And instead of ‘trickle-down economics,’ vast wealth centered on the few only breeds ‘trickledown behavior’ – all the rest of the people striving to live like the 1 per cent, well beyond their means.
Eventually it makes for revolution, as it has all across the Middle East.
‘These are societies,’ writes Stiglitz, ‘where a minuscule fraction of the population – less than 1 per cent – controls the lion’s share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power; where entrenched corruption of one sort of another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve life for people in general.’
These, in short, are societies like today’s America. America is brewing the self-same conditions that historically cause the majority at the bottom to overthrow the few at the top.
The rich may get richers, but nobody actually wins when things are unfair. The latest evidence shows that the more unfair any society, the worse off everyone is – both rich and poor – in terms of virtually every social problem. Both the most affluent and the very poorest suffer from higher rates of ill health, crime, mental illness, environmental problems, and violence.
Although one of the wealthiest countries in the world with half the world’s billionaires, America has the highest level of all social problems – crime, lack of education, mental illness, suicide, disease of all varieties – of twenty other countries examined.
One-quarter of all people in America have been diagnosed with mental illness — the highest percentage among the most advanced developed countries — compared to less than one in ten in Germany, Japan, and Spain.
Although the United States spends nearly half the entire world’s expenditure on health, and has only 5 per cent of the world’s population, the fact remains that a baby born in the United States has a 40 per cent higher risk of dying during the first year than a baby born in Greece, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where the population makes half as much on average and the country spends half as much on healthcare. Furthermore, that Greek baby can expect to live 1.2 years longer than the American.
Fairness is necessary to our survival. As I write in The Bond, we were made to share, care and be fair; scientists and economists have demonstrated that fairness has is at the heart of who we are and how we interact with each other. It’s hardwired in us to take only our fair share. Turn-taking has even been shown to be an essential part of evolution.
Consequently, I am launching The Fairness Campaign this week to put that good old-fashioned virtue back into the center of our lives and communities.
In The Bond and elsewhere on the new Bond website (www.thebond.net), I offer people practical tools, skills and processes proven to work around the world, even in war-torn areas, to restore fairness in their lives and their society from the bottom up. One relationship, neighborhood or organization at a time. These processes have also proven successful in bringing both sides together over highly polarized issues, such as abortion.
More information will follow in coming weeks on my websites and in these pages. If you are not joined up yet, join www.thebond.net for more information.
Selflessness is the most self-serving act of all because it is the position naturally most beneficial to us all. As the character John Nash realizes in the movie A Beautiful Mind, ‘The best result is for everyone in the group doing what’s best for himself . . . and the group.’
Life is unfair, but the point is: we don’t have to be.