A Sobering Perspective On Wealth


I recently came across a series of informational charts and tables highlighting some interesting details about economic divisions in the Unites States in a blog posting entitled It's The Inequality, Stupid. One of these charts displayed in simple graphical terms the differences between the public's perception of what the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is, what the public thinks it should be and what it actually is. Another one of these charts shows how the distribution of wealth has changed over time. (If you have not already seen the article, I urge you to visit the website and take a look.)

In a nutshell, what these graphs show is the age-old axiom that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class gets squeezed. In one sense, nothing we haven't heard or read many times before.

But what makes these and the other graphs in the posting so compelling is how they collectively reveal the extent of the economic disparity. The rich are not just richer. They are A LOT richer, with 10% of the population holding more than 80% of the wealth. And they continue getting richer at a disproportionately faster pace both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the population. It is a mind-boggling accumulation of wealth that, given the limited nature of the world's resources, can only come at the expense of the rest of the population.

Most of us would probably agree that the right of individuals to determine their destiny through their own efforts is a fundamental and minimum requirement for any society that considers itself free. Yet while the freedom to determine one's destiny can encompass a broad range of liberties and life circumstances, in more recent times and particularly in the United States, it seems that it has become increasingly defined by the right to accumulate wealth, i.e. that everyone (regardless of race, color, ethnicity, religion, etc.) has the right to work hard to improve his position in life and is entitled to all of the wealth that flows to him through that hard work (minus taxes, of course).

It is difficult to deny that there is something seemingly just and fair about allowing people to reap the fruits of their own labor and life circumstances. Some may even argue that this is why economic disparities are inevitable in a free society -- i.e. that such disparities are not only a reflection of the fundamental lack of fairness in life itself (after all, good and bad things do not seem to flow to all in equal proportions) but that they are also the product of people exercising their freedom of choice as to how they live their lives.

Yet, at the same time, there is also something about the growing disparity in the division of wealth both in this country and around the world that is highly disconcerting, to say the least. On a visceral level, it just seems unfair and wrong.

Furthermore, in any culture, but particularly in a culture that equates democratic ideals with capitalism's free markets, wealth is itself a form of freedom. So, as important as it is in a free society to safeguard the rights of the individual, can a society truly deem itself to be free if its freedoms are only available to some but not all of its members?

We all have a right to a piece of the pie. But there is only one pie to share among all. And if we simply keep trying to grab as much of the pie as we can get, without regard for what we actually need or for how our taking impacts what others can take, then we will only succeed in creating a heartbreakingly impoverished world.

In the years to come, I believe that questions about the distribution of wealth are going to demand an increasing proportion of our attention. First of all, if you look closely at the challenges facing the modern world, what you inevitably find is that many of them are ultimately rooted in the use and misuse of wealth. For instance, consider that most of the world's environmental issues would not even exist were it not for the wealth that bankrolls the technology of pollution.

It is not so much that money is the root of all evil, as the old adage admonishes us. Rather, it is that we become overly (even obsessively) preoccupied with money -- having it, making it, keeping it. In the process, we lose sight of the many other factors that go into creating a truly happy and satisfying life and we end up exploiting the planet, each other and ultimately ourselves.

Secondly, wealth cannot be created out of thin air and in one way or another all wealth is rooted in the extraction and exploitation of natural resources. As such, the question of the distribution of wealth is really a question about how we allocate the planet's resources. And in a world of limited and ever-dwindling resources, no one person or group of people has, or can have, an inherent right to hoard. And yet, that is exactly what many of the inequities in the distribution of wealth represent -- hoarding. They are inequities that are rooted in an amassing of wealth that is grossly disproportionate to need and often seems to exist solely for the sake of acquisitiveness.

But, acknowledging that disparities in wealth represent a pressing and formidable societal problem that needs to be addressed will only be the beginning. There will still be the more daunting challenge of discerning how we actually do that.

Debates about disparities in the division of wealth, like debates about religion or politics, are often polarizing and uncomfortable. At heart, these subjects represent different aspects of the duality of life. (In the case of the distribution of wealth, it is not just the duality of the haves and the have nots but also the equally, if not more, challenging duality of the interests of the individual versus the interests of the group). And in that sense, these dualities will always contain within them the inherent tension of their respective polarities -- end points along a spectrum that tug in opposite directions. This is what makes discussions about these topics so divisive and difficult to reconcile. When it comes time to make a decision, where along the spectrum do you draw the line?

For better or worse, one of the more common, knee-jerk responses to dealing with such conflicting dualities is to avoid the issue (and its intrinsic discomfort) altogether by aligning with one of the polarities, segregating yourself from "the other" and then hoping that the other either comes around or goes away. The other, arguably more useful, response is to push for compromise as a way of creating detente. The problem with these approaches, however, is that that they don't go far enough. The "avoidance approach" of course does nothing to bridge the divide of duality. But even compromise, notwithstanding its aim to bring the two sides together, is still rooted in the underlying sense of separation and conflict. As such, neither is a very satisfying or viable response in the long term.

Given the seriousness of its impact on human lives, the question of inequities in the distribution of wealth -- like many of the questions about how we choose to live together -- deserves not only a more satisfying and thoughtful response but a more transcendent one as well, i.e. a response that does not merely seek to resolve the tension of competing polarities but that has the courage and the vision to move us beyond the separation of duality and lift us up to a higher perspective from where we might see a third, previously unrecognized or imagined possibility. We must find the unity in the duality by seeking relationship where only difference and separation seem to exist. In short, what is required is an expansion of consciousness.

Our mandate now is to create this higher vision for the world and for humanity. A vision that not only seeks answers through compromise and a new allocation of rights between the individual and the group but that that also understands and recognizes that the rights of the individual and the rights of the group are not necessarily at odds with each other because they are in fact one and the same - different sides of the same coin.

It is ultimately only our rigid attachment to what we think we know about ourselves that limits our sense of who we are. We are not just either rich or poor. We are not just either Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddihst, Agnoistic or Atheist. We are not just either Repbulican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal. We are one of those things, none of those things and all of those things all at the same time. Because regardless of how we may define ourselves at any given moment as individuals or even as a group , we always are, and never cease to also be, part of the whole. As such, what happens to every individual and what happens to every group -- whether or not I identify or associate with that person or group -- affects me because it affects the whole of which I am inextricably a part.

In the well-known words of John Donne, which seem so relevant to this understanding of duality: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Ultimately, there are no "right answers" let alone easy answers to be found. Nonetheless, as discomforting as the issue of inequities in wealth is, we cannot continue to ignore it or rationalize it away. My fate is inextricably tied to the fate of the other such that no matter how wealthy I may be, so long as there are others who only know lack and need, then I am still living in an impoverished world.

Within our country and all around the world, from the stalemates of our political parties and the current uprisings in the Middle East, to the problematic destruction of the environment and the increasing poverty here and around the world, we are witnessing the failure of our societal institutions at every level and on an unprecedented scale.

What is happening in the world is not an aberration, a temporary glitch or an isolated upheaval relevant only to someone else or to a particular part of the world. It is a sign of the times. It is the bell that tolls for each of us and for all of us, awakening us to the limitations of our current beliefs and calling on us to aspire not to more (more wealth, more security, more freedom) but to higher -- higher aims, higher expressions of our humanity and higher consciousness.

It is asking of us that we assist in birthing a new world where solutions are found in the understanding that I and the other are one, and that only when I am willing to take care of the other as myself am I truly enriched.