Monday, November 25, 2013

An Equitable Society

I have, among my list of posts, a number of "draft" pieces that I've never quite figured out how to finish or what to do with them. This is one I started a while ago after a report on the news one morning. It's far from a complete, even thoughtful exploration of an idea, but it's an emerging theme that I want to think about in more depth. It concerns the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor and everyone else in-between. Theologically, it is the starting point for thinking about what the gospel has to say about economics and issues around greed, power, and wealth. 

Am I getting old or is the world actually becoming a less equitable society? I choose the word carefully because I'm not advocating equality, an equalised distribution of wealth and resources. I have no problem with there being a degree of differentiation, but the current state of economics leaves me wondering if the first world economic dream can be anything but unrealistic  and inequitable.

This morning the news carried the story of the referendum in Switzerland to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker. It will probably fail. Vested interests will make sure of that. Apparently businesses will leave the country in droves should it pass, or at least that's what we are told. For years we've been fed the half-truth that you have to pay high salaries to chief executives if we want the best, but as we all know those people we thought were the best turned out to less than capable of leading the way anywhere except into a financial meltdown.

And whoever came up with the idea that the performance of a business is based solely on the performance of the person at the top? Good as they may be, they rely on the performance of those lower down the ladder for the success of the company. I'm not sure at what point along the way we lose sight of this simple truth. Is it when we reach a position of authority where we have more to lose financially, or is it just a matter of personal greed?

So, apart from being just a rant about executive pay in the top 100 companies going up by 14% while most workers have lost money, hours or jobs, what am I trying to say? I'm not sure. I just know that something must change. A new model is needed if we are going to dismantle the growing divide between rich and poor and replace it with something that reflects an understanding of society that doesn't concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. The issue isn't that some people are rich while others are poor, it's that the difference continues to grow wider and deeper.

Perhaps, if the top 100 companies took a longer term look at themselves they would invest across the workforce and encourage their senior executives to see themselves as part of the package and not the icing on the cake. There are examples of this, executives who don't pay themselves excessively, but they are probably too few and too far between.

Maybe if we stopped measuring our value in terms of what we own or what we can buy, then that too might just make a move in the direction of a more equitable society.

Perhaps this is all just tilting at windmills, but while the divide grows, so too it seems does a presumption that the poor are poor because of something they have done. It's their fault. While we buy into such an argument, we will never ask the truly tough questions about our first world greed and the kind of model we are exporting to the rest of the world. Concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the few cannot be good for society as a whole.

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