Income inequality, though always with us, is certainly in the media more these days, thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the focus on the 1% vs. the 99%. Social movements tend to need neat dividing lines, though I am not so sure what a household earning $350,000 per year (putting you in like the 97-98%) has in common with someone who is truly destitute.
What I do find interesting, as I’ve been trying to think broadly about issues of money, is what the market rewards and does not. I’ve been quite aware of this in my own life, in the different jobs I’ve held over the years.
For instance, when I was 17, I spent a summer working in Fazoli’s Italian restaurant, a fast food chain. I earned $4.90/hour which, at the time, was just above minimum wage. We often got a store-wide bonus of $.50/hour for scoring well on different quality metrics. I’ve written elsewhere of some of the wretched things that encouraged, but that is a different matter. So I was earning $5.40/hour, and worked about 30 hours/week all summer. I probably took home $1250 for long, stressful days of standing on my feet and splashing myself with garlic to the point where I reeked so badly that anyone sharing a car with me on the way home had to open the window.
Now, consider this: the reason the ebook I’m working on is called “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast” is that a blog post I wrote in May for BNET with that title seems to keep luring people to click on it. I don’t know what about that formula is pure reader bait, but it is. Since I keep getting paid by the click, I now know that that one blog post — which literally took me less than an hour to write — has garnered me multiple times what I earned in an entire summer of smelling like garlic.
So what are we to make of this? On one hand, this seems atrociously unfair, that someone can earn more with an hour’s labor than it takes someone else an entire summer to earn. On the other hand, in this example, the someone else is the same person. Over time, this same individual is able to move into work that the market rewards more.
I tend to think that an ideal society would tolerate inequality but offer lots of opportunity. You work crappy jobs when you’re young and unskilled but have a clear path to earning more by learning different skills. Do we have that society now? The answer people give probably determines more of their politics than any other question you could ask.