[This guest post on income inequality is by new Cowgirl contributor Bud White, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org A discussion on this topic is long overdue.]
As the recognition grows regarding the issue of economic inequality in America, the discussion invariably comes around to upward mobility. In an attempt to describe the current situation, many observers and experts turn to an analogy of a ladder with ever lengthening rungs to paint a picture of why it is difficult to advance. The idea being the opportunity to move up the ladder is there, but it is just harder to reach the next step.
These experts then go on to offer a variety of factors to explain why. They mention inadequate worker preparedness, globalization, education, etc. All these imply that the opportunity to advance is hindered by something lacking in the individual that prevents him or her from reaching the next rung. It’s possible, one just has to improve and work harder to reach it. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The game is rigged and those writing the rules continue to change the rules as the game is being played.
If one must use the ladder analogy, a more accurate image is of a ladder that has gotten increasingly higher and higher. Standing on the top rung is a small group of people, while huddled on the tightly compacted rungs near the bottom is everyone else. And the rungs in between are not elongated, they have been kicked out by those at the top during their insatiable climb over the last 30 years. Not only that, but those at the top aren’t satisfied with their current state of affairs either. In their quest for ever increasing wealth and political influence, they continue to add rungs on top, climbing ever higher, all the time furthering the distance between themselves and those further down.
Occasionally, they open a portal to the top for someone new, typically of exclusive pedigree or political influence. Rarely is it based on an individual’s willingness to improve and work harder. For this is where the game keeps changing. Today, especially in the aftermath of the second worst financial meltdown in American history, the reward for a willingness to work harder is to be expected to do even more, and for the same or less pay. A person is asked to work harder so they can, not climb the ladder, but simply stay on the same rung. If this isn’t a rigged game, then it is one that, at a minimum, favors the house.
Looking up from below, what does this ladder look like? For one thing, no one can really see the top, or put another way, see the path to the top. Oh sure one can glimpse, and maybe even covet life at the top through the media glamorization of the lives of the rich and famous. But one can no more touch it in reality than they could through the television screen. In many ways, celebrity worship has become a symbolic substitute for real opportunity.
To be sure, mobility is alive, but not particularly well on the remaining rungs. Unfortunately a downward direction may be as likely as upward in this stratum, even a certainty if you were unlucky enough to lose your job to the recession. Many at the top are more than happy to advise those very people to just be willing to work, regardless of pay. After all it is better to start again a few rungs further down than not be on the ladder at all.
Of course what they don’t mention is another rule change. This rule is more like one of those strange laws of physics, where how things look depends on your point of reference. When looking down, the rungs of the ladder look very close together, it being easy to slide lower. But looking up is where those steps elongate, for it is still difficult to move upward. Start a few rungs down and one may just stay there permanently.
Indeed it is a rigged game. A game where those few obscenely wealthy and powerful at the very top enjoy the only opportunity to move further up in any significant fashion. A game where everyone else faces a grim, but very real, prospect of little or no upward movement. And the vast nearly empty space in between offers little, if any, opportunity. It is a distance so great and difficult to pass, and usually only transversed by the anointed few. A game where the rules are written to extend the advantages for those at the top and perpetuate the disadvantages to those in servitude everywhere else.
The only way to restore this broken ladder to some semblance of its former self is to change the rules. And even if the missing rungs are restored the ladder will still be too long for most. Those at the top will never permit themselves to be denied their present status and be forced to give up some of their wealth to shorten the ladder. That is one rule unlikely to change. Yet restoring the rungs in the middle, along with restoring the rewards for improving and working harder, will give more space for everyone to move into and grant real opportunity to grow and prosper.
For this to happen, those at the top will not be able to climb at the uncontrolled rate they currently enjoy. Some of the financial gains flowing exclusively in that direction need to be more evenly and fairly restored to all those on the other rungs of the ladder. It doesn’t require taking from the top what is already there. That will never happen anyway. But it does require changing the rules so that some of that flow breaks up and spreads to everyone else. To do otherwise is flirting with disaster. If the middle rungs of the ladder are not restored, one day those at the top could very easily discover they don’t have a leg to stand on and the whole thing will come crashing down again, and maybe this time even taking them with it.