In the “Opinion” section of this week’s Sunday paper, there is a syndicated column by a Lawrence Mitchell who is a Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. He takes it as a given that in the last 30 years we have a problem with worsening income inequality and that the cause is that we have favored liberty over equality. I have to admit that until today, I had not considered that these two things might be mutually exclusive. I was compelled to read the whole column – first to understand the logic and then to see how he proposed to solve this problem. As an aside, I’m sure he got paid for writing his column, but I get nothing for writing this blog post. So take my comments for what they are worth.
I had several difficulties with his opinion piece, starting with the fact that he defined what he obviously sees as a problem, but suggested no solution. Neither did he admit that he had no solution to suggest. If one is to criticize what is going on, one ought to either suggest an alternative or admit that there may not be a good one. Beyond that, there are some specifics of his analysis with which I would take issue. First is the subject of income inequality and whether it has gotten worse in a way that should be considered a serious problem. This was a subject of several my blogs earlier this year. The evidence seems to be that for 99% of us there is no more inequality than there has been for at least the last 50 years. So is this a problem? Maybe, if your worried about the fairness of the income increases of the top 1%. But the rest of us are likely better off than we were 50 years ago and the top 1% were making more than we were then as well. He states that the only reason the “advantaged” think that the “working poor” are not equally as wealthy is because they “don’t work hard”. But he says that it’s not hard work, but “luck” that defines the difference between the “working poor” and the “advantaged”. And he says “by luck, I mean mostly the circumstances of birth, natural talents and abilities”. The problem he says is that we have “favored liberty over equality”, both socially and legally.
So what problem could I possibility have with this. After all, I believe “luck” to be a factor in how far you go, and not all people are born with the same talents and abilities. I also think that hard work is a factor to success, but not the only factor. Common sense plays a part, and I believe that we are all born with useful, but different talents and abilities. The fact that we don’t all have the same talents and abilities is no doubt a good thing for our welfare. But it also means we need to discover what our gifts are.
Mitchell does not differentiate between equality of opportunity and equality of results. When I was in High School, I was given an equal opportunity to be on the track team. I would like to have been a 100 yard dash man. Unfortunately, even though I worked as hard as the dash men, my results weren’t as good. So I didn’t make the team as a dash man. However, I had the liberty to switch from track to baseball, where I had more of the needed ability. But even though our baseball team did pretty well and I was a starter, the 100 yard dash athlete set the state record and got a lot more fame than I did. I needed to discover what I was good at, but the rewards for my hard work were not the same as those of some of the track team. Should I have felt unfairly treated? Was I a victim of “bad luck” because of “circumstances of birth”? Maybe, but I didn’t feel mistreated at all! I had the liberty to try other things and found something that I liked and was reasonably good at.
Another example: Our local symphony orchestra is currently in the process of hiring a new director. Our local University is also looking for a new head football coach. The symphony board is expecting to pay the new symphony director between $75,000 and 100,000 per year. The new football coach is coming from another private university where he was an assistant being paid a little over $500,000/yr. There were reported to be multiple applications for each job. They are both leadership positions in their profession and the education and experience requirement for are at least comparable (some think the symphony director position needs more training and experience). Is this fair? Should a football coach be paid 5 time or more than an orchestra director? I personally think it’s a little out of whack. But some would say that it isn’t. The fact is that although I go to both the concerts and the games, there are a lot more people in the country who go to football games than go to symphony concerts – and they are willing to pay more for tickets. So maybe a football coach is worth more. But we have in this country the liberty to choose what we do and where we live. A lot of people do things, I believe, because they enjoy it and are good at it, even though they might not make more money doing something else. They may even have the talent and ability to do something else. But if you’re doing something that you enjoy and are good at, and are being paid enough money to have all the necessities of life, what’s wrong with that? Equal opportunity and liberty are both important to that. If that’s where you are and you’re jealous of the guy down the street with the $5 million house, I think you have a personal problem. Most of us will likely be happier than the person with a lot more money doing something that he doesn’t like.
Another Case Western University professor, Frederick Herzberg, believed that money was not a primary motivator for the American working middle class. He believed that people were motivated by doing something we enjoyed; were good at; and we worked with people we liked and respected and who appreciated our work. We need to be able to afford the necessities of life and we want to be “fairly paid” for what we do. We might become dis-satisfied if we discovered that someone was being paid a lot more than we were for doing the same thing.
So do we have a problem in country? I think we do because we have too many people who don’t know how to be successful. For most things today, one needs some education, but we also need to discover what we enjoy and what our talents and abilities are. The education part, we are trying to address with our public school systems. The discovery of talents, interests and abilities, is something each individual needs to discover for him/her self – but I don’t think everyone recognizes the importance of that. Our new symphony conductor – squarely in the middle class – is not likely to be surprised or terribly upset that the football coach – clearly in the top 1% – is making more money. He’s dong what he’s good at, will be recognized and appreciated for his work by the community, and will be paid a comparable income to other conductors for his work.
The belief that you can be successful, self-sufficient, and respected for something you are good at and enjoy I think is paramount. Opinion columns like Lawrence Mitchell’s don’t help in this regard. But he’s getting paid for his opinion and I’m not for mine. So take it for what it’s worth.