One of the dangers of having a national discussion on “income inequality,” which the president declared is the “defining issue of our time” in his State of the Union speech, is simply defining the phrase.
In simple terms, the phrase refers to the concentration of a nation’s wealth in the bank accounts of a few. If that’s the case, it’s been a trend since the 1970s that seems to accelerate with every passing decade.
The phrase “income inequality” is so nebulous — a higher order of abstraction that can mean so many different things to many different people.
Is income inequality the fact that Bill Gates get makes so much more for inventing Microsoft, or that Oprah makes all she does compared to the cameraman on her show?
How about the head of the Walton family making so much more than a Wal-Mart cashier, or even the investor in Wal-Mart stock benefitting from the work of the Sam’s Club greeter?
Or is it just, why does he (point to someone) make more than me?
In the midst of a teachers strike, a wise editor once told me that everyone thinks they work hard, and everyone thinks they are underpaid.
The note of income inequality struck by the president resonates with the press, since reporters believe they are critically underpaid for the work they do, especially compared to some of the folks they come in daily contact with — police dispatchers, second year teachers, toll-takers, etc.
The real questions are what is causing the concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer people and then what do we do about it?
Only 600 people can play Major League Baseball, and they get paid an exorbitant amount for it. Thousands play in the minors and get a pittance.
That’s how it works. In the mid-1990s I was invited to talk to Oak Park-River Forest High School students about issues of the day. One student asked me what they should do to prepare for the global economy. I told him that first of all, when you hear the phrase “Global Economy” think “lower American wages.”
Looking back, I should have said “fewer American jobs,” or “fewer jobs that pay a living wage.”
We live in an economy where labor is cheap. Today, if a job can be done anywhere, it will be done where it is cheapest. And thanks to technology, a lot of jobs can be done anywhere.
So what do we do about it?
Obviously education is the key. We must learn to do jobs better than anyone else in the world, or invent jobs that can only be done here, or do them more cheaply.
Yet, our education system is failing those who are most likely to become victims of this “income inequality,” we seek to end.
Sometimes I wonder if the wealth that flowed so freely to create a large middle class in the 30 years or so following World War II was just an odd blip in the economic history of the nation.