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Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Politics of Compassion

Today in the Seattle Times, a guest op-ed titled "The Politics of Envy" in print, and prosaically  "We have a Fixation on Income Inequality" missed entirely what is really happening in today's economy. .  It's author, Richard Davis essentially claims income inequality does not matter.

 He gives the misleading example that if the four richest men in King County moved to Boises income inequality would fall, but we would be not better off. This is utterly misleading for several reasons. We don't measure income using a median figure. The essential problem that some had benefited extensively from the relative poverty of others would remain and the poverty would remain.  And lastly, it would only be a matter of time when another handful of individuals would amass the same wealth as the first few.

Davis says it is better to concentrate on generating employment and income opportunity for the lower income without a recognition of what has made them lower income.  It is not generally within the power of workers of resolve extensive unemployment, nor with the tattered condition of the union movement do workers have much leverage over income opportunity.

He says we must ensure that people have access to affordable quality education.  He fails to see that current income restricts opportunity, so that many cannot afford the desired education.  They are in the situation of the Real Change salesperson I met st the bus stop.  the bus was coming and he was two dollar short of the fair.  He could not take the bus unless I bought a copy of real change from him. Too many people in our country are too poor to get on the bus.

Davis criticizes the proposed new state minimum wage of $12 an hour as something that could not close the wage gap between a CEO and a fry cook.  That is true as a single measure, but it points to the essential problem.  Wages and benefits for most occupations are stagnant and far to little for the work actually preformed.

He erroneously suggests that minimum wage increases reduce employment, citing on of the few studies to back this assertion. In fact the overwhelming evidence is that when workers on the bottom get higher wages they generate economic activity by paying bills faster and spending more on goods and services.  Any jobs replaced by automation or other efficiencies are more than off set by this activity. In fact automation creates opportunities elsewhere.

He also ignores that many workers at or near minimum wage are actually often highly skilled.  To be a good kitchen worker you must know how to use many food processing machines and hand tools, understand food safety,  understand food chemistry , taste and presentation.   A janitor has to know  cleaning technique, the use of several machines, a certain degree of chemistry and the safe handling of bodily fluids. The same can be said for many occupations not rewarded for their knowledge any more than for their hard work.  As a society we over value thr contributions of a elite and under value vastly the efforts of others.   It is precisely income inequality that we must adress.

But this view of income equality is not about envy.  It is about human dignity, compassion and justice.  And ultimately it is about greater societal happiness. It has been demonstrated that socieities with greater income equality are happier.  Even the richer members of a nation are generally happier when their wealth is not vastly greater than it's poorest members.  We all seem to get a long much better when equality is greater.

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