Saturday, January 27, 2007

Jack Welch's Forty-Thousand-Hour Work Week

Some good commentary From Mark Schmitt here on rising income inequality in the U.S. I, too, get my dander up when self-professed conservatives pretend that the affluent got that way because they are "more deserving" or "harder-working" than the poor. As someone in a higher-income bracket, I know full well that I do not work three or four times harder than someone who earns a fraction of what I do. I just happen to do work that is well-compensated for structural reasons having to do with relative scarcity, market conditions, and luck.

I would love to believe that I am affluent because I'm just such a very very good person, but let's face it, as Mae West said, "Goodness had nothing to do with it."

As for the idea that markets infallibly reward education, talent, social skills, "emotional intelligence," or other meritorious traits--well, those of our conservative friends who like to think that market fundamentalism comports well with Christian values might consider the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
So much for the notion that success and merit automatically go together. They didn't in the ancient Middle East, and they don't in modern capitalist societies.

One other point: I'd like to see Democrats raise more often the notion that extreme income inequality is undesirable even from the perspective of the affluent. (This point may be implicit in John Edwards's "Two Nations" theme, but I think it should be explicit.)

Think about places where a few very rich people are surrounded by masses of the poor. Mary-Jo and I experienced this when we visited the Dominican Republic and few years ago, and I am seeing it again here in Dhaka. (My sense is that the Dominican is a much better example of what I am about to describe, because there seem to be more truly affluent people there. Very, very few people in Bangladesh actually appear to be rich.)

In these societies, the well-off live in walled compounds surrounded by wrought-iron gates and protected by armed guards. They must travel by limo or private plane because the transportation infrastructure used by ordinary people is crumbling. On the relatively rare occasions when they walk the streets, they are surrounded by indigent people begging for help or (much more rarely) trying to rob them. And they must constantly monitor the political situation and be prepared to flee the moment popular resentment reaches the boiling point and violent revolution breaks out.

If you were rich, is this how you would want to live? Not me. I'd prefer a society where everybody enjoys a decent working-class standard of life, if not a middle-class one--where (again from the perspective of the affluent) waiters and taxi drivers and hotel employees and shop clerks are all well-fed, well-dressed, well-educated, skillful, and friendly. It's just a hell of a lot more pleasant to live like that rather than behind barbed wire--even if it is gilded.

Obviously the US today is not as harshly stratified as the Dominican Republic--although with the rise of gated communities and the flight of the upper classes to privileged sanctuaries like elite private schools, clubs, and resorts, we are drifting in that direction. It's time we reversed course.

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