Talking fairness By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Talking fairness

By Shea Howell October 25, 2011

We are entering the second month of the Occupy Wall Street movement. No one thinks it is going away. More and more people are recognizing that the movement has tapped a deep core of frustration and hope. Now hundreds of thousands of people are participating. The small but growing “occupiers” around the country are being joined by others for marches, rallies, speeches and just hanging out in an atmosphere of hopeful change. While some of these occupations have been met with police violence and efforts to dislodge them, most have been peaceful, disciplined and remarkably organized.

As a result the effort by the mainstream media to minimize their importance is faltering. In Detroit, most local news coverage has become favorable, with the notable exception of Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley. Finley’s latest effort was to support the 1% because they happily give away some of their money to support music, museums and the occasional social justice activity.

Finley would do well to read Joseph Stiglitz’s column that appeared in Vanity Fair in May, long before anyone carried a sleeping bag to Wall Street. Nobel prize winning Stiglitz is no radical. But as he watched the Arab spring unfold, he wrote of economic inequality in America saying:

“Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century-inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called “marginal-productivity theory.” In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin. The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years-whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative-went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards “performance bonuses” that they felt compelled to change the name to “retention bonuses” (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance). Those who have contributed great positive innovations to our society, from the pioneers of genetic understanding to the pioneers of the Information Age, have received a pittance compared with those responsible for the financial innovations that brought our global economy to the brink of ruin.”

Stiglitz understands that this inequality has a corrosive effect on our human connections. He comments:

“The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy become to spend money on common needs. The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security-they can buy all these things for themselves. In the process, they become more distant from ordinary people, losing whatever empathy they may once have had. They also worry about strong government-one that could use its powers to adjust the balance, take some of their wealth, and invest it for the common good. The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes.”

It is precisely this lack of common connection that the “Occupiers” are challenging. At their core, this new movement is offering us an opportunity to restore basic fairness to life, to acknowledge our connection to one another and our common fate.

In the space of a few weeks, more Americans have engaged in conversations about fairness and the future than at any time in the last decade. We have no idea where these conversations will take us. We have the “occupiers” to thank for them.