I love it when seemingly totally unrelated ideas and articles come together to create a logical argument or obvious solution. The topic is economic inequality.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the income and wealth inequality in America — indeed in the world — is corrosive to civil society. I have written about this before, particularly about the book “The Spirit Level” first published in 2010. Authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate in this seminal book the significant negative impact on social well-being and public health caused by the growing income and wealth disparity in the developed world. The authors are now developing a movie, based on the model of “An Inconvenient Truth,” to tell this story.
In last week’s Washington Post is coverage of a new report that adds to the evidence of the corrosive impacts of income inequality. The Report, entitled “Trickle Down Consumption”, written by Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse, argues that there is a circular reinforcing nature to the problem — the wealthier the top gets they more they spend and drive up prices for the tier below them, and then that tier spends more, and so it goes on down the economic line. That is, the more the top 1% use their wealth to drive an economy to serve their needs, the more everyone else spends – and borrows—to try and keep up. Though the report does not reference “The Spirit Level,” the assumptions underlying the study – the motivations of the various economic classes – are the same assumptions that are more explicit in “The Spirit Level.”
Both identify a form of upward mobility tension in society as the top becomes wealthier and more ostentatious in their differences; both discuss a form of stress the system creates for everyone: those at the top to stay there and those in the bottom 99% who constantly try to keep up with a ‘life-style inflation’ (my term) that the “keeping up with the Jones” engenders.
So what’s the solution? The New York Times provided a partial answer when it reported on March 25th about an organization made up of young “wealthy” people whose mission is to facilitate the voluntary redistribution and use of the wealth for a more just and equitable society. The organization, called Resource Generation, is getting ready to celebrate its 15th anniversary on April 12. Its goal is to organize “young people with financial wealth to leverage resources and privilege for social change.” There are many opportunities for the young and wealthy to use their money for social change, but Resource Generation’s approach stems from their focus to create a culture of equality and sharing.
Just days after these reports made news, the New York Times published a profile of Adam Grant, a super-star Wharton School academic whose core theory of the path to success and productivity in life and work is simply to be helpful. According to the Times, Grant’s new book “Give and Take,” makes the point that “The greatest untapped source of motivation is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”
As unequal as things are, there seems to be paths to solutions, and not necessarily those one might expect. It was delightful to read about Resource Generation and then see a whole business theory based on being helpful and sharing; both of which are strongly counter-culture to historic approaches of “eat what you kill,” “to the victor belongs the spoils,” or “let them eat cake” — approaches that may have led to today’s unequal society.
The synchronicities of these articles are topped off with a perfect example of what a world of humility, equality and generosity might look like: Winners of a one million dollar lottery ticket — a group of employees in a Florida Real Estate Company — decided to share their winnings with the one employee who had opted out of the ticket purchase. On the Today Show, a spokeswoman for the group admitted that they — the winners — got the most out of their decision to include the non-player. I’d call that a win-win.