The Challenges of Economic Inequality

By Skip Mendler

Reprinted with permission from the San Diego Free Press

Reprinted with permission from the San Diego Free Press

I should probably state this explicitly at the outset: I am by no means an egalitarian. I don’t expect, or even desire, that everyone should have exactly the same kind of economic situation. I know that society, at any level, will always have some degree of stratification.

I accept that some folks – those who take on particularly great responsibilities, for example, or skilled and highly trained professionals like doctors and teachers – will deserve a greater level of compensation than, say, a mere first-line manager like myself.

But let’s face it: when it comes to economic inequality in the United States, things are starting to get out of hand. I won’t go through the laundry list of statistics; it’s easy to find any number of sources, from the US Census Bureau  to the Institute for Policy Studies  to the excellent website for Robert Reich’s critically-acclaimed new film “Inequality for All” , that will illustrate the extent of the problem, and how quickly it is growing. Let it suffice to say that the distribution of wealth and income in the United States is now the most imbalanced since 1929.

Chart used in the film Inequality for All.

Chart used in the film Inequality for All.

(By the way, Transition Honesdale is investigating the possibility of sponsoring a showing of “Inequality for All”; let us know if you’d be interested.)

The general effects of this imbalance on our political and economic landscape are widespread and well-known. Member of the lower socio-economic classes lose power and gain debt, and find themselves working harder while facing increasing insecurity. From the specific point of view of Transition, though, inequality poses additional challenges, particularly if we consider its effects on community cohesion, a key factor of community resilience.

The Transition philosophy takes as one of its starting points the notion that business-as-usual will not – indeed, cannot – continue much longer. At some point, we believe, the fundamental underpinnings of our society will begin to give way (whether gradually or catastrophically), to be supplanted by a different and more sustainable way of life.  In this new economy, the ethos of excess, individual accumulation, narrow self-interest, and competition will be replaced by one of lower consumption, community well-being, mutual aid, and cooperation.

But if we have a class of people accustomed to always having the “best of the best,” we have to wonder whether they will be able, not to mention willing, to make that transition gracefully.  We may see the well-to-do withdraw into their own heavily guarded and well-supplied enclaves, leaving the rest of us to squabble over their leftovers, or they may try to keep the status quo in place through increasingly coercive measures.

As wealth and power continue to concentrate at the top, the spirit of community splinters – not just between classes, but within and between different groups, as they struggle to secure their share of a dwindling supply of resources and opportunities.  Tensions between groups will be manipulated to protect sheltered interests.

Even now, inequality is undermining community – right out from under our feet, in fact.  As society becomes more stratified, we see casual contact and meaningful communication between members of different classes becoming more and more uncommon.  Suspicions, resentments, and fears increase, as stereotypes and prejudices blossom.  Eventually, we might end up with something like a caste system, where social mobility is strictly regulated.

But such nightmarish scenarios can be avoided.  The primary challenge is for all of us, in all sectors of the community, to see how in the long run, too much inequality harms everyone.  Then we can begin to explore how we might work together to create and sustain shared prosperity.  This process starts simply, locally, through pilot programs and economic experiments designed to embody the values of a more sustainable society.

Let’s begin that process, and bring our lives, our relationships, and our communities back into balance.

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