Individual to Collective Decision-Making
from Robert Reich
Widening Wealth Gap
We are currently seeing, in the United States and in the world,
a widening divergence of wealth, income, and opportunity.
Two major forces are driving this gap: globalization and technology.
If you are well-educated (with a college degree or above)
and well-connected (with social and business networks), globalization
is working to your benefit. You are increasingly able to sell
your skills and insights, directly or indirectly, into a global
market. If you are not highly educated and well-connected,
you are probably being undercut by globalization. Companies
can hire your labor more cheaply elsewhere.
Globalization doesn't mean there are fewer
jobs-just a different allocation of jobs. Increasingly,
jobs fall into one of two categories: 1) those that involve
creative, problem-solving, symbolic, and analytic work;
and 2) those that are routine and monotonous, involving
hard labor or personal service work, such as in restaurants,
hospitals, and hotels, or in child and elder care. In the
second category, pay is going down and benefits are shrinking,
while in the first, income and benefits are increasing (when
there is not a recession).
Overall, globalization and technological
change are generating a larger economic pie for society.
This pie can be divided in whatever way we wish, with money
being allocated, for example, toward health care, the environment,
or education. However, both nationally and globally, these
trends are not resulting in greater justice and equality
but in concentrations of wealth and poverty. We are a society
that is stratifying. Economic inequality is greater in the
United States than in 1992 when President Clinton was elected
to his first term.
The Ethical Dilemma
The ethical problem of the increasing wealth, income, and
opportunity gap lies in our failure-individually and collectively
-to develop opportunities and policies that enable everyone
in our society to enjoy more of the advantages of a growing
economy. We need to create opportunities for more people
to use their talents in ways that enable them to live good,
full lives. The heart of the dilemma is that, as each of
us makes personal, individual choices to secede from the
community-none of which are necessarily harmful in themselves-the
collective effect is profound and disturbing.
We consider our decisions about job and
career and living locations to be personal decisions, not
social decisions. We shop where we can get the best deal.
We settle where we get the best job offer and find the best
schools-public or private. We shop for the best recreational
services, the best health services, the best insurance against
bad luck. We tend to socialize and marry within our own
economic class. As individuals, our choices are rational
and understandable, but collectively, these personal decisions
exacerbate the wealth, income, and opportunity gap between
the haves and have-nots.
When we move into an affluent community,
the price we pay for our house is really a disguised coupon
for public school tuition. When we who are welleducated
and well-connected marry someone who is also educated and
socially connected, that multiplies our own economic and
social advantage. When we purchase low-rate group health
insurance, we are furthering the segmentation of the insurance
market into groups-with-risk and groups-withoutrisk. Increasingly,
our individual choices create a sorting mechanism that is
based on social and economic status.
We go to private health clubs instead of
using the public pool. We buy books instead of using the
public library. These are part of a downward cycle of publicness,
in which society is becoming increasingly segmented by economic
class-but we don't focus on the fact that we're participating.
When tax cuts that go mostly to those on
top are instituted, how do we respond? The economically
privileged are not sufficiently active to ensure that society
is not becoming less just.
A Potential Solution
As we who are affluent, well-educated, and well-connected
benefit from the trends toward globalization and increased
technology, how will we respond? People typically choose
one of two responses, either advocating that we preserve
and protect the old jobs and old economic ways or that we
let the free market take its course.
But there is another course open to us,
and that is to embrace change and the larger economic pie
that is generated through economic change. We need to use
the riches generated by globalization to make our societies
more socially just. To do that, we need to translate individual
decision-making into collective decision- making.
As individuals, it is much harder for us
to generate social change than it is as groups. We can have
greater effect when we work as groups-and we're all members
of all sorts of groups, through our places of business or
worship, our families, and our communities.
What Can You Do?
do, specifically, to make our social
and economic system more equitable? Through your place of
business or worship, you can develop social connections
to people in communities that are fundamentally different
from yours. These connections can serve as bridges, helping
to overcome social gaps that separate us by class and race.
You can run for local office, in your community or on your
school board. You can volunteer to work on state and national
political campaigns. Perhaps your place of employment has
a retirement account; you can get together with others to
be sure it is using your money ethically. You can focus
some of your charitable contributions on efforts to decrease
the system of privilege in society.
Our Ethical Responsibility
As the economic pie grows, the default mechanism is that
the great social and economic divide widens, because those
with power are the wealthy. I think most people are decent
and have ethical principles, but to the extent that any
of us are making personal decisions in our lives without
considering the collective consequences, we are unwittingly
allowing our portion of the economic pie to become larger
at the expense of those who do not have the same choices
available to them. We need to recognize that our personal
decisions are ethical choices that have an impact on our
I see three major obstacles to taking responsible,
ethical action in this area- and all of them are under our
control: 1) Denial: not knowing or accepting the truth about
what is happening or why it is happening. 2) Escapism: We
may say, "Yes, the gap is getting worse, but it's not my
problem. I'm fine and my children and grandchildren are
fine." 3) Resignation or cynicism: We may say, "It's not
going to change. That's just the way it is." I regard this
last as the worst of the three. We must be active and positive
about what can be done, or nothing is going to change. If
we believe that nothing will change, it won't. If we tell
ourselves we don't have power, then we don't have power.
Affluent people in the United States have more power per
person than almost any group in the entire world.
We can use our increased bounty for greater
justice and opportunity for more of our people or we can
allow the wealth, income, and opportunity gap to widen.
It's our choice. The responsibility, ethically, lies with
all of us.
From a lecture
given at Harvard Divinity School's Theological Opportunities
Program, "How Many Privileges Are Rooted in Economics?"
October 23, 2003, excerpted and adapted by Pamela Gerloff,
with permission from Robert Reich.
Robert Reich, J.D., is the Maurice B.
Hexter professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis
University. He served as U.S. secretary of labor during
President Clinton's first term and as director of the policy
planning staff of the Federal Trade Commission under President
Carter. Formerly a faculty member at Harvard University's
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Reich is also
the founder and national editor of
The American Prospect
magazine. He is the author of ten books, including
Work of Nations
, translated into 22 languages, and
Be Short: Essentials for a Decent Working Society
1993, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclav Havel
Vision Foundation Prize by the former Czech president for
his pioneering work in economic and social thought.
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