If we do not address this issue and the other three, then our future will not be bright. But the consequences of failure are also getting more and more severe.
What is the measure by which we should judge ourselves as a society? What yardstick do we hold as a universal truth, a lens through which we can see our progress? Will future historians look back on our age as a golden age of progress or as something more sinister?
We are not short of measuring sticks. There are stock market gains, economic output numbers like GDP which give a financial snapshot. There are social yardsticks such as the numbers of people falling below the poverty line, levels of homelessness, crime statistics, levels of educational attainment. There are also healthcare statistics, such as infant mortality, longevity, the prevalence of certain diseases.
On almost all of these measures, and many others, a historian looking back would determine that we had advanced tremendously and well. The numbers tell a story of financial, social and health progress in society that look very impressive on paper. And yet, can we say that we are all better off? Can we say that society as a whole is happier?
When you look at questions such as these which are perhaps harder to find, the answer is quite different. The gini coefficient is a number which measures the gap that exists between the wealthiest and the poorest, and the distribution of that wealth. Put simply, it measures income inequality. As a single number, it tells a very different story. Society today is at its most unequal. Looking at the US, the number is at its highest in history.
It isn’t how well you are doing; it is how well you are doing relative to your neighbour.
Silly? Shouldn’t we be happy that fewer among us live below the poverty line? Yes, of course. But the essence of society, is that a rising tide should float all boats. As inequality grows, the sense of social injustice grows with it.
It has been said that a society can be measured by how it treats its prisoners. On this measure, the US is an abject failure. On the measure of income inequality, it is too. Our collective ability to care for our most vulnerable, our least advantaged is indeed relative. When a social safety net is defined by the crumbs falling from the table, which are proportionally less than they were in the 1800’s, that is not a sign that all is well.
And why is that? Shouldn’t poor people just be happy with their lot? After all, they have more than they used to have. It doesn’t work that way. Western Society is defined by a keep-up-with-the-Joneses culture. It is increasingly material. When you don’t have the spoils of success, you are made to feel it, and have your face rubbed in it. Social media is an accelerant, but all aspects of our culture bombard us daily with messages about our inadequacy or need for this or that product that we don’t yet have. And all the while there is a growing sense that the “haves” are just laughing at us and getting away with it.
I fear the path we are on as a society is unsustainable. Let me qualify that. I am hopeful that its unsustainability will lead to positive change, because the alternative is a dystopian world where most of us are enslaved. This is consistent with the current trajectory.
We no longer own our own data—massive wealth has been transferred from citizens to an elite few by taking our data and harvesting it (Facebook, Google, Amazon…are just the obvious ones, but their wealth is based on taking what is rightfully the property of each citizen). Housing costs have raised the cost of home-ownership out of reach for an increasing number of people, and current trends are making it worse. This is exacerbated by companies like AirBnB where highly leveraged corporate owners (the haves) have priced out the have-nots because of their access to money, and have created an entirely new class of property ownership—and thus driving up rents.
In the US, healthcare is not considered a basic human right, which adds a level of stressful uncertainty to the uninsured, but also means health outcomes are totally dependent on money. And unfortunately, the politics around all of these issues have made it impossible to engage in adult conversation. It is now just a shouting match. One side gets the ball for 4-8 years and makes the rules according to their fringe base, then the other side gets the ball for 4-8 years and undoes what the other side put in place or goes in a different direction. There is no longer a collective project, and the fringe voices are not only louder, but have become the tail that wags the dog.
All of these issues are symptoms of one major social disease, and that is one of respect. Humanity has lost respect for the “other” and in so doing, is losing respect for our humanity, and our role together in building culture and a just society.
Income inequality is one of the scourges of modern life, and it is one of the biggest challenges we face. Collective and universal awareness and action are the only ways we will move past this. I fear mightily for our future if we do not.
But this is only 1 of 4 great challenges I see facing society today. All four, however, are rooted in the same fundamental issue—lack of respect for the other. When all we care about is to get ahead, to win for ourselves or our tribe, to beat the other guy, we have lost the plot.
The four greatest issues facing us today?
- Income inequality (discussed above)
- Intolerance: sexism, racism, various forms of social hate
- Industrial Agriculture
- Planet Care
This post has been about the first of these four issues. The other three merit their own discussion and will follow over the coming days.