December 31, 2013
By Carol Driscoll
At the end of 2013, Friends of Labor has been very much stirred about a matter widely talked about these days—income inequality: the inability of men and women to earn enough to provide for themselves and their families because the wealth they produce goes mainly to persons (and corporations) who are already exceedingly wealthy. The alarming rise in income inequality means that while a few people are getting steadily richer, most of the rest of us are getting poorer.
While the stock market goes up and corporations continue to show profits—sometimes massive—on their balance sheets; and while these corporations give their officers bloated bonuses, and pay dividends to their shareholders, the ability of working people to pay for the necessities of life such as food, shelter, clothing, is steadily and ruinously eroding. Millions of people—our brothers and sisters—are struggling just to make ends meet, put food on the table, and pay for shelter and clothing, and many are no longer succeeding. Representative of what one out of five New Yorkers are made to endure is Betty, who frequents the New York Food Bank. She says:
“I have a college education….I work for a health care agency, but it’s not enough. And I’m getting too old to work. I go grocery shopping about once a month. I buy the essentials I need for nutrients. What I need to survive. I come [to the Food Bank] twice a week. I couldn’t get by without this.”
The Attacks on America’s Unions–Why They Are Taking Place
As union members well know—despite efforts to mask the facts—the cost of living has outstripped wage increases for years. And there’s also been a relentless effort by corporate America and some state governments to cripple the ability of unions to negotiate contracts that include better wages and benefits. Millions of good-paying, full-time jobs have disappeared, replaced by part-time work, often paying minimum wage and no benefits. And the one reason for the unrelenting efforts to destroy unions is because of their great success in getting better wages and benefits for their members. Clearly, every dollar paid to a person working is that much less for corporate America and its shareholders.
The expanding divide between the wealthiest 1% and everyone else has aroused concerns that we believe are new in America. For example, Janet Yellen, the nominee for the Federal Reserve, recently said about rising income inequality: it’s a “very serious problem….For many, many years, the middle and those below the middle [have been] actually losing absolutely.” Nobel economist Robert Shiller described income inequality as “the most important problem that we are facing today.” And, in his courageous Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis stated unequivocally that income inequality kills, and asked: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
The Central Cause of Rising Income Inequality
What has caused the rise in inequality of income? Globalization and its shipping of American jobs overseas, slashing taxes for the very wealthy, deregulation, the decline of unions: each of these is a factor. But we believe the underlying cause is described by Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by Eli Siegel. Income inequality is the inevitable by-product, the direct result of an economic system based on profit, in which a person is seen solely in terms of how much money can be extracted from his or her labor. To see a human being this way, we’ve learned, is contempt: it denies a person’s fundamental humanity, robs them of their right to be seen with respect—which includes being paid well and treated with dignity.
In the 1970s Mr. Siegel gave a series of lectures in which he showed that an economic system based on contempt had irrevocably failed. In the years since, we’ve seen all kinds of tricks to prop it up, mostly by callously firing millions of workers. They are seen as disposable commodities, while profits are zealously pursued at the expense of these hardworking men and women. Despite these efforts, we’ve learned that annual sales are nevertheless flat or down for such huge companies as Kelloggs, FedEx, Best Buy, and McDonalds.
The Hoped For Solution
In the periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss writes:
“ Aesthetic Realism makes clear the big, underlying question of economics. It is hidden by various elaborate economic terms, though present in some fashion in all of them. It is: Should our economy be based on contempt, on the seeing of people’s labor and needs as means for someone else’s profit, or should it be based on good will, on having the people of our nation get what they deserve?
And she describes what needs to replace contempt-driven profit economics:
…a way of seeing people, products, work, finance, earth, that is different from anything which has been before. The economics people are hoping for, the only kind that will work, is aesthetics: the oneness of opposites—including the opposites of freedom and justice; the expression of each individual and fairness to all people. This way of economics will also be ethics: it will be based on a true answer to the question, articulated by Mr. Siegel, “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
So we conclude this post with our fervent hope that in answering this question in 2014, our economy becomes ethical, is based on good will as Aesthetic Realism describes it. When the jobs of America, from fast food chains to the automotive industry, are owned by the people doing the work, our nation will have an economy that is at last fair to all people!