That title sounds more like an Abstract for a research grant than a blog post… deal with it.
Fairness: an idea so commonplace, so basic, that we teach it to our children before they can even read or write. Sharing, equality, and fairness extend far beyond the Kindergarten classroom… or so we hope. In reality, most Americans face disadvantage in some form or another, hence making relevant the study of the “average American”. But who is this average American? We know that they have exactly 1.9 children, for instance, but how much money do they earn in a year? And what type of average are we discussing, anyway: a median? an arithmetic mean? More importantly, how does the median American income compare to the mean? That’s what this video (link here) is touching on: the fairness of the distribution of wealth in the United States.
Clearly, there is no better way to frame an economic discussion than to employ statistics. Drawing from reliable sources, such as Mother Jones and CNN, eye-opening data is presented with a guarantee of trust and credibility. Though the video is, overall, successful in presenting the topic neutrally, opinionated language does occur, such as describing the current distribution of American wealth as being “skewed unfairly”. While I may personally agree with this view, an argument can be made for some of the wealthiest Americans having earned each one of their dollars through hard work, ingenuity, careful planning, and wise risk-taking. However, the crux of this argument — that there must be a better way to distribute (explicitly not through government redistribution) the wealth of the American people — leans more heavily on our innate human sense of fairness than mere numbers. When shown the difference between the perceived ideal and perceived actual distribution of wealth, we are reminded of our pre-conceived notions of labor equity, taxation, and social mobility. Somewhat sarcastically, the narrator points out that even our perceived actual distribution of wealth allows for the top 10% to be making a mere “100 times that of the poorest Americans”. The following presentation of the actual distribution of wealth in the US shocks the viewer with the graph’s skew toward the ultra-wealthy. Likewise, the narrator’s argument plays on the audience’s pity, by showing that, under the current system, the vast majority of Americans have less money than they think others in their socioeconomic group should. As most people know, living in poverty is extremely difficult; if we were to implement the “ideal distribution”, virtually no one would live below the poverty line. Additionally, visual effects impact the viewer, such as representing wealth with bundles of money, and using blue to represent the poor (a color often associated with sadness and strife) while using red (associated with evil and malice) to represent the wealthy. Lastly, the argument is appealing because it does not force an opinion down the viewer’s throat. Instead, facts are presented in a specific order that leads one toward a certain conclusion. In summary, the narrator, after building his credibility, plays on the viewer’s sense of fairness and pity, and juxtaposes different statistics in order to argue that the distribution of wealth in the United States needs to change.
Though I have spent considerable time discovering my own views about economic policy, I can see how this video would help one develop a sense of right and wrong regarding the distribution of wealth. Despite not reaching a new opinion on the issue, I took in new, interesting facts that I will factor (pun intended) into my own beliefs.
After watching this video, it is easy to see what inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby. Seeing the ultra-wealthy’s incredible disconnect from the financial struggles of regular Americans, the reader must realize that the rich lead fundamentally different lives than the rest of us: money is more of a source of social power than a means of acquiring material power. The elite are given no incentive to relinquish their wealth, and they exploit the system, thus perpetuating, if not expanding, the inequality of wealth distribution.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the ultra-poor, like the Joads, live in abject poverty. Seeing no hospitality or positive government intervention until late in the novel, they are at the mercy of the greedy economic system that displaced them initially. The Grapes of Wrath comments on the disenfranchisement of the poor, and their social subjugation; likewise, the video points out that the wealthiest fraction of Americans control the vast majority of the US stock market, while the lower half owns less than a percent. I am curious as to how the distribution of wealth in the 1920s and 1930s compares to today’s, and to what extent we can apply these novels to our current situation. Obviously, the struggle of the poor and the cluelessness/greed of the upper echelon persists. Will we, as a society, embrace the sentiment of The Grapes of Wrath in its call for socialism, or shall any change in public opinion or outlook remain just that — an opinion?
Whew. That’s enough rhetorical questions for now. My brain hurts. I think I’ll walk from my full-size bed in my personal bedroom, across my remodeled kitchen, and take a dose of industrially-produced, brand-name Aspirin. That should help my headache.
I believe that it is crucial for those like me, who have much more wealth than the average American, let alone human, to recognize their privilege. In the 1970s and 1980s, my parents rose from poverty to PhD, through their grit and determination. Even they, coming from poorer backgrounds, acknowledge the ways society took mercy on them: for example, they did not have to fear racial or sexual orientation(al?) discrimination, or going bankrupt for not being able to pay for medical expenses. Teenagers, especially, need to take a step back and consider their immense blessings, whether they feel #blessed or not. Unless you are “a black lesbian dwarf with Down syndrome who’s in a wheelchair” (Please read this brief, yet fabulous op-ed by the creators of Key and Peele), you have a significant advantage of some sort, whether is is economic, psychological, physical, or social.