Occupy movement about sense of unfairness

‘Occupy’ movement about sense of unfairness

Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is an expression of resentment about inequality. The motto of the movement – “We are the 99%” – shows this. The top 1% of Americans hold half of the nation’s wealth. Corporate CEOs are doing well, while wages stagnate, hours are cut and debt increases for the rest of us.

It is not surprising that these inequalities cause resentment. Resentment is about fairness. And things seem unfair to many Americans today.

Some inequalities are fair: such as inequalities that result from differences in talent or expertise. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. Resulting inequality of income is fair – so long as it is reasonable and leaves the flight attendant doing well. In a similar way, inequalities resulting from certain genetic differences can be fair. Tall and fast kids get to play on the basketball team. But fairness means that there should be other opportunities for other kids.

Genetic differences can produce unfair inequalities. Racial discrimination and sexual inequality are unfair because racial and gender differences are irrelevant to performance. It would be unfair if women were not allowed to be pilots, for example, as was once the case.

Individuals do not earn the advantages or disadvantages of their genetic differences – these differences are a matter of luck. The advantage of inherited wealth is also a matter of luck. Rich kids don’t earn the advantages of wealth: They are just fortunate. Individual initiative does matter in the long run. Poor kids can do well, despite their relative disadvantage; and rich kids can fail to achieve. But a privileged starting point will give you an advantage. And this seems unfair – because neither the poor kid nor the rich kid has earned their relative difference.

This is not to say that we should engage in “class warfare” to make rich kids miserable. In a certain sense, that would be unfair as well, since parents should be free to help their own children excel. Rather, the point is that poor children should have fair opportunities for wellbeing. The drive for equality is not about bringing the privileged down. Instead it is about lifting the underprivileged up and providing a fair starting place. Women should be able to fly planes and poor kids should have decent schools.

The basic idea here is equality of opportunity. This idea was defended by John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the past century. Rawls said that inequalities are justified only when they benefit the least advantaged. The basic idea is that as the rich get richer, the poor should also do better. When this happens, resentment diminishes because even the poor will agree that they benefit from the system.

This idea undergirds our graduated income tax system: as the rich get richer, their tax dollars help poor kids in poor schools. This creates equality of opportunity and a sense of fairness. For Rawls, the aim is to “improve the long-term expectations of the least favored.”

Presumably, most Americans agree with this idea. It is a basic value in the Christian tradition. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, Jesus says that we have an obligation to the “least of these” among us: the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned.

But one wonders whether we are actually fulfilling that obligation. The “least favored” includes a growing number of unemployed, disenfranchised, imprisoned and indebted people. Unemployment hovers around 10% (15% here in Fresno County). Twenty percent of American homeowners are underwater in their mortgages (closer to 45% here in Fresno). The median student loan debt for recent college graduates is $20,000 – without good job prospects. And 1 in 100 adults are in prison – the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Statistics such as these remind us that we are not improving the long-term expectations of the least favored. And this is what is fueling the resentment of the “Occupy” movement.

The Occupy protesters have not offered much in terms of concrete policy initiatives. It is not clear what we should do to promote fairness in a dysfunctional economy. But first we should get clear about our shared conception of justice. The Occupy movement is reminding us of the basic idea of fairness. This is not the only principle of justice: liberty matters too. But it is important to focus our concern on the “least” among us.