On the Subject of Inequality: What Separates Us?

July 26, 2014
On the Subject of Inequality: What Separates Us?
Inequality is a very complex issue. There are many contributors to it.  There is great disagreement about it—how to measure it; what causes it; whether it is good or bad; at what point it becomes a problem; how to control it or reverse it, with the least negative side effects.
But sometimes it seems the major dividing line between those who want to do something about it and those who don’t, is very simple. Maybe it comes down to our highly personal views on the nature of people. This may be something we develop at a very early age.
If one is of a mind to view the vast majority of people as generally desirous of working hard and obeying the law, one is likely to want to help people have that opportunity. However, if one believes that most people are inclined to seek the easiest way out, to take advantage of the social support system, then one is not inclined to waste money on these folks. Ergo the increasingly dominant conservative view which has come to control our social support system—that we only help those who help themselves (who work). This is the natural product of that thinking. 
Maybe this choice is close to our seemingly natural tendency to either trust others or be suspicious of others.
Add just one other dimension, and we may have the essence of it: If one believes he/she made it to some degree of success on the basis of nothing more than his/her own competence and hard work, then one is likely to feel everyone else has the same opportunity. However, if one feels that he/she has enjoyed advantages that others do not have, and that these advantages have been highly contributory to one’s success, one is likely to be supportive of helping others without such advantages.
Perhaps this is where our basic attitudes are formed.  From here, perhaps we tend to complicate to better justify our prejudices. We add on economic arguments—inequality restrains growth, or policies to restrain inequality reduce growth; the pie is only so big and if we help others, it diminishes what is left for us—maybe I haven’t made it yet, but I don’t want to dilute the opportunity—success is like grading on the curve, only so many of us can succeed; the wealthy invest and that’s what promotes growth, or the poor spend more of their savings and that’s what promotes growth; or political arguments–that government encroaches on our personal freedoms, or that government is necessary to assure our collective freedom, etc., etc., etc.
I’m in the trusting camp. I was born to a poor family, but I am white, was born in America, and Protestant. I had responsible parents. I have an uncle who achieved some success and was able to introduce me to a few influential people who helped me obtain a scholarship to a good college. I graduated at a good time, when employment opportunities were plentiful. I had some bad fortune, but more good than bad. I had some very helpful mentors along the way. I am blessed with good health.
While there are some who only want a free ride, my “prejudice” has always been that most people can be trusted, that most people want to do the right thing, to be self sufficient, and that there are increasing numbers of good people who need a helping hand, given the obstacles which have accumulated during the 30 years since the conservative Right began its climb to dominating politics and economics.

Maybe it’s that simple.

San Francisco’s Minimum Wage–2014

This is my opinion piece, published in the San Francisco Chronicle July 11, 2014:

A free-market banker’s conversion to working-class advocate
Dale Walker
Updated 11:10 pm, Thursday, July 10, 2014
I was an executive at some of the largest and most powerful financial services companies in the nation, including San Francisco’s Wells Fargo and Union Bank, as well as Citibank, AIG, ITT Financial and Ford Motor Credit. I enjoyed the financial benefits of my roles and took the economic status quo for granted. I’ve since repented.
Today, I support increasing the minimum wage in San Francisco to $15 per hour. I support increases on a city or county basis throughout the United States where the minimum wage is below the median wage, as it is in San Francisco. Economic studies have shown that economic growth is not slowed and jobs are not lost when this is the circumstance.
I came from a poor family in North Carolina. My parents were factory workers with high school educations. However, those of us who were able to attend decent colleges in the 1960s found an abundance of good jobs waiting for us. In my career, I climbed the ladder and made it to titles like executive vice president, group head and president of subsidiary companies. Like most of my colleagues in the upper echelons of large financial services companies, I believed the free market was the right answer for most everything. It was good to me.
However, I was not blind to the troublesome reality that the accumulation of wealth around me was not entirely meritocratic. I saw that the job market facing my children was far more challenging than what I had experienced. I witnessed the delivery of personal jets, luxury homes, ranches, vineyards and lavish art and jewelry to the more fortunate around me. Most of my neighbors in Pacific Heights began sending their kids to private schools starting at kindergarten, leaving the woes of public schools to the middle class and the poor. The furniture industry in my hometown moved to China, and displaced workers in their 50s and 60s couldn’t get new jobs. In the aftermath of Reaganomics, government support for them withered.
My work and subsequent travel abroad confirmed that these problems were not unique to the United States. I was struck by the abject poverty still existing in many parts of the world. This was the era when free trade, deregulated markets, reduced government spending and globalization were heralded as the path to prosperity, with trickle-down for all.
Then, in 2012, I had the opportunity to study in London at a unit of the University of London specializing in development economics. Professors explained the flaws in our economic system and offered tons of data to back up their arguments. For example, it turns out that most of the much-touted global reduction of poverty evaporates if you remove China, which did not follow the free trade economic prescriptions and delivered far better results than countries that did.
Since the ’80s, the middle class in the United States has seen stagnant wages, while the top 10, 1, and 0.1 percentiles have seen astronomical increases in income and wealth. Poverty worsened in much of the world.
I came away from my studies a liberal. I worried about the sustainability of our social and economic systems in the United States and around the world. I remain sensitive to the pressure on our valued San Francisco businesses, which depend on low-cost labor, but we have to balance our concerns. Our divided Congress precludes any bigger fixes, so we must make small gains where we can. The greater good this time is to retain and take care of our critical lower-paid workforce. Our good life depends on these good citizens.
There are many ways for all of us to work together to gradually restore the United States to a more egalitarian nation. Raising the minimum wage in San Francisco is a first step.
Getting by in San Francisco
Proposed minimum wage compared with current median household income:
Annual income based on the proposed hourly minimum wage of $15 an hour
Current median household
income in San Francisco
Dale Walker is a retired financial services executive and a longtime Bay Area resident.

The Intent of Forefathers

July 3, 2014

Today’s NYT describes an interesting finding by Professor Danielle Allen, in regard to a key section of the US Declaration of Independence. Here is how the section has been transcribed in the past:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

Professor Allen argues that the phrase ending with Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness is not properly interpreted as being followed with a period. She interprets that mark to be just an ink spot on the original document. The impact of removing it would be to no longer hold those goals to be higher than the accompanying role of Government in assuring those goals.

While this debate doesn’t change anything, it is interesting and relevant in a political sense. Why? Because both sides of our divided body politic seek to justify their positions by going back to such founding documents as the Declaration and the Constitution.

On the Right, government is argued to be intrusive to Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Anything that can be done to reduce government is a good thing. Professor Allen argues that’s not what it said or implied, if the period is removed. But the Right feels taxes should be reduced. Regulations should be reduced. Everyone should ideally be free to live his/her life as he/she wishes, apparently without consideration to the ways in which our individual lives impact others negatively, or could impact others positively if we should join together for some common good.
As Margaret Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals (sic). Many of the winners on the Right, feel their success is totally meritocratic.

On the Left, there is strong recognition that there is a solid role of properly elected government to assure the greater good from a collective point of view. The Left generally feels there are privileged and there are underprivileged. Some of the underprivileged may be lazy, as are some of the beneficiaries of inherited wealth. But most of the underprivileged would have substantially better lives if they had the parentage, skin color, religion or other attributes of the privileged. Most on the left endorse collectivism, which means government, with all its flaws–because it is the only mechanism to assure a reasonable degree of justice and fairness–to assure that “all men are created equal” is furthered by assuring reasonably equal opportunity for all.

Inequality is one of the most dangerous threats to our sustainability. Its manifestations are not only economic, but also religious, gender based, ethnicity and nationality based, and more.

I know that my accomplishment, modest as it is, and as hard as it was to attain, would likely not have been possible for me had I not been born in the US, of good although poor parents, of white caucasian skin color and of protestant faith, with an uncle who was able to get summer jobs for me and another uncle who was able to introduce me to a few people of influence who then elected to recommend me for a scholarship to a good University. I know it wasn’t all just my hard work or talent, and I know that we must collect together in government and other ways to level the playing field.

And I recommend we stop defending our biases by trying to find comfort in the documents of origin in our wonderful country, but rather to face and deal with the realities of what our country has come to, and the risks ahead for future generations.

Link ro the NYT article:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/03/us/politics/a-period-is-questioned-in-the-declaration-of-independence.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=HpSumSmallMediaHigh&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0