Tuesday, July 30, 2013

We're all equal...right? Right?

With the economy being what it is these days, there is a lot of talk about what is fair and what isn't. Everyone from President Obama on down are addressing the issues of income and jobs. A particularly interesting aspect of this discussion is the subject of income equality. I was looking at an article posted on CNN's website today that talks about the idea of whether income inequality is moral or not.

There isn't much questions that incomes in the United States are becoming more and more unequal. The CNN article quotes Mr. Obama, from a speech the other day, where he said that the "average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 400 percent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999." Of course, the Republicans are going to argue with the President's numbers, but I'm not about to. From the things I saw when I was writing finance news for several online sites based in the UK (a job which I lost, not so coincidentally, due to the crappy economy), the numbers sound about right to me.

These would be the same Republicans, I should add, who have in the past and are still arguing that the minimum wage should be abolished so that businesses can pay whatever they want to their employees - and I can pretty much guarantee that "what they want" would not be higher than the federal minimum wage now, which is $7.25 per hour. That's $15,080 per year before taxes, assuming working a 40 hour week all 52 weeks in a year, with no vacations and no holiday pay. Assuming Mitt Romney's 13 percent tax rate (quite an assumption), that would mean that take-home, not including other deductions, would be around $12,818 take-home. Being as there are, of course deductions for things like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance, the employee making federal minimum wage would probably actually be taking home more on the order or somewhere between $10,000 and $11,000 per year. For an individual, that is slightly below the poverty line as defined in 2012. For a family of four that is substantially below the poverty level.

So, basically, these particular Republican politicians are arguing that it is fair, or moral, for people working full time to still be living in poverty while other people, who don't work any harder than those folks, make many times more simply because their jobs are seen as more "prestigious". They would argue, I would bet (because some of them have done so and continue to do so), that it's really the fault of the people who don't earn much, because they just haven't shown sufficient ambition, and that if they want to earn more, they should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get with the program.

Which brings me back to the CNN article. One of the most interesting arguments about income inequality that the author of the article writes about is the argument that income inequality is moral so long as opportunity is equal. The problem with that, as is pointed out in the article, is that opportunity isn't equal, and never has been. Not even here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In fact, I would argue that in some ways opportunity is less equal, at least for some people, than it has been in quite a while. This is because it isn't just that people from the lower-middle and working classes have less opportunity open to them for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post and that, as much as we would like to think that it isn't so, that opportunities for people of color are still not as great as those for whites. Those are serious problems, clearly. But today, you also have the very shallow requirement that you have to have the right "look" in order for certain opportunities to be available.

By "look", I'm not just talking about wearing clean clothes and combing one's hair and brushing one's teeth. No, today your opportunities are limited if you weigh more than society likes, if your teeth aren't white enough and straight enough to be perceived as attractive, if you can't afford clothes that look expensive, if you have any gray hair, or if you don't have the smooth skin of a 25-year-old. If you don't look young and thin and prosperous, there are just some (make that quite a few) opportunities that are not open to you. If you can do the job, it seems in many cases, is irrelevant if you don't have the right look.

And then there's education. Of course education is important. The problem is that opportunities for education are also constrained depending on a number of factors. Not the least of these are moves by some in Congress to reduce or eliminate grants for those who cannot afford school past high school and attempts to raise interest rates on student loans. And, even if the student from the lower economic rungs can get to college, every time the economy suffers, the first thing that happens is that public colleges and universities cut class offerings and limit the number of students they accept into school. There are, of course, private schools that can sometimes avoid these cuts, but those schools are much more expensive to attend. The biggest issue here is that, despite testimonials that this or that person barely graduated high school but still made millions, having a two or four year college degree is what having a high-school diploma was a generation or two ago. No, seriously - there were stories in the media just a little while back about fast-food restaurants (in New York City, I think, but I could be misremembering) that had made a college degree a requirement to be hired to flip burgers.

The point of all this, I guess, is that I'm really starting to resent those who complain about "takers" as opposed to "makers", and yet do all they can to keep both incomes and opportunity unequal in this country. I know too many competent people who really want to work but who can't find a job for reasons that are completely irrelevant to whether or not they can do the job. Of course, the politicians who argue to eliminate minimum wage, to cut or eliminate financial aid for students, continue to take money from the corporations who won't hire based not on ability but on whether people present the proper "corporate image" and vote for laws that work, in practice, to keep their contributors wealthy at the expense of those who actually work for a living, are the same ones who don't seem to have any trouble insulting as "lazy" and "stupid" the same people their policies would hurt the most.

There is a lot more to the article I linked to at the beginning of the post. Go read all of it. And, understand - I'm not arguing that everyone should make exactly the same amount of money, no matter what job they do. All I'm saying is that there is something wrong with a society in which advocates for the richest people in the society work actively to cut the pay to and further limit the opportunities available to the poorest people in the society. Which seems to be where were are in this country today.

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