Inequality, Freedom, and Dignity
If you’re reading this blog, or blogging at it, chances are you’re doing okay financially.
Chances are you’ve received or are working on a college degree. At your job you probably work at a computer, and can sneak a few minutes here and there to comment at The League or a handful of other blogs you may enjoy. Or play Solitaire. You have both the time, money, and wherewithal to engage in conversation about politics and watch silly YouTube videos. Whether or not you fall on the left or right of the dividing line here, and regardless of your take on economic inequality, it’s unlikely that you suffer from the myriad small indignities that people whose jobs and lives prevent them from reading blogs face.
I used to work in a food manufacturing plant. When I started there, I worked on the plant floor. It was a good working class job. We worked four twelve-hour shifts one week and three the next. This meant I had four-day weekends every other week. It also mean that every few weeks I’d switch to midnight shifts, and my whole world would go upside down. Working from 7PM to 7AM is much more difficult than the other way around, and even after only three nights of this, the next couple days are spent simply readjusting your schedule again to days. And then, just as you’ve reoriented yourself, it’s back to night shifts.
Other positions in the plant worked regular 8-hour shifts, five days a week. These people would shift between day, afternoon, and midnight shifts, sometimes within the same week or two. Often they wouldn’t have two days off in a row. These people worked in warehouse jobs, or on packing lines. Some of them were college kids, but mostly they were working class people without much in the way of an education, or immigrants.
When I worked on the plant floor I rarely read anything online. I was physically and mentally drained at the end of each day, and during work I had no access to an internet connection (and, indeed, could not leave the plant at any time.) On my days off I did things with family, or watched TV, or read books, or played video games. Blogging was a thing I had only a passing familiarity with.
Later, when I moved into an office position within the company my left transformed to a 9 to 5 existence. Suddenly, I had autonomy, a flexible work schedule. I had access to the internet, to blogs – a whole new window into what work life could be like, connected to the web, cozied away in my own office.
I actually didn’t make any more money at all (at least at first) but everything changed.
When we talk about inequality we often talk about the gap between the super rich and the super poor or the middle class. We crutch on the stupid 1% vs. the 99% meme. But we ought to talk about the many mundane ways that truly make inequality matter, or rather the nature of things when nothing is done to take the sting out of the inevitability of economic inequality.
Sure, people in the lower classes these days can afford iPhones, but they will often face disciplinary action at work if they use their iPhones on the clock. Up the ladder a ways, you’ll never need to worry about using your smartphone. The types and quantity of indignities people face as they move up in the world diminish, and increase as they move down.
Managers do face a different kind of stress and responsibility, but this is more than made up for (typically) by increases in pay, autonomy, power, and self-satisfaction. Meanwhile, those at the bottom rungs have little access to small perks like checking in on their RSS reader, taking personal calls, or setting their own hours (or, sometimes, even being able to leave work for lunch.)These may seem like small things, but then again, how much do you value your access to the internet at work? How much do you take it for granted? And how do you suppose these small indignities and miniature restrictions to your autonomy add up?
I suspect that the real problem with inequality is not so much the gap between the very rich and very poor, or really the gap at all. Rather, all the small ways that being poor impacts your life and community add up to create widespread stress – stress that affects entire communities, and even whole regions. Lower class people in America suffer from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems while at the same time having poorer access to healthcare, and often worse healthcare providers. Access to good jobs, good education, fitness facilities, safe environments, and any other innumerable service is often severely restricted. The things many people in the middle class simply take for granted are not present in many poorer communities, including value sets that place priorities on things like a college education.
The problem with inequality isn’t the gap between rich and poor, even though the word “inequality” suggests as much. The real problem with economic inequality is that we’ve created a system that’s structurally rigged against economic mobility. Of course, not everyone can be helped, and there’s truth to the “teach a man to fish” parable, but plenty of other countries have done a better job at improving economic mobility through more robust safety nets and better universal access to dignity-increasing-services, while maintaining market economies and hewing to basic market principles.
Inequality cannot be extinguished, and even in countries like Sweden with very large welfare states, inequality is still a glaring reality. The rich still have a great deal more than the poor. The trick is finding ways to ensure a better baseline. Better labor standards, increased access to healthcare, education, the internet, and a reasonable work week.
Countries like Australia have done a good job at ensuring that wealth transfers move from the rich to the poor rather than the other way around, and have done so without huge tax burdens.
Meanwhile, in the US we’ve compounded our inequality by creating a system that transfers wealth upwards through corporate subsidies, a severely bloated defense budget, and The War on Drugs – a cleverly named atrocity which may as well be called The War on the Poor and Minorities. People complain about welfare, but the real scandal is that so much money is spent to maintain a shameful status quo. Part of this is a problem with our government, and part of it is a problem with our culture.
Inequality is not just about how much money we make, it’s about how we’re treated in society. Our prisons are not filled with young, middle-class men. White college kids who get busted for pot rarely do time in jail. This honor is reserved for the poor. Our system is structurally rigged against the least among us in ways that go far beyond our paychecks. We talk about freedom a great deal in our political discourse, and spend far too little time on human dignity.
Whether we’re talking about access to the internet at work, or the right to pursue happiness in a neighborhood destroyed by our drug war, inequality is a problem that can’t be solved by focusing on the income gap. But it can be solved if we agree to certain baselines of human dignity. Indeed, although some may see a more robust welfare state as anathema to freedom, I see the trade-off as more than reasonable. If we can toss in an end to the war on drugs, corporate subsidies, and the wasteful, destructive trillion-dollar defense budget, I think liberty will have been served.
Tyranny takes many shapes, whether in the workplace or the state. The worst tyranny almost certainly occurs in the family. Creating a society in which the weakest among us have freedom to exit these small tyrannies is something worth working toward, because freedom to exit tyranny and poverty isn’t done for its own sake: it’s done to increase levels of human dignity and to reduce the stress and weight of life for the many among us with no time to read blogs.