March 11, 2007

Broad Prosperity vs zero-sum games

I blogged earlier some of my responses to reading Kozol's Savage Inequalities. My biggest impression was the "zero-sum game" mentality of almost all of those who either justify the inequalities or argue against any real attempts to rectify the situation.

I have a feeling that, while there are strong human, Christian (and I'm not excluding other religions of course), and emotional arguments in favour of doing something about these terrible inequities and injustices, there are also strong economic or other arguments to be made. Wouldn't society be even more prosperous if a much greater effort was made to prevent these kinds of injustices? All of society, not just the poor, because I do not believe that human life is a zero-sum game.

Kozol quotes a Bronx school principal if they do not give these children a sufficient education to lead healthy and productive lives, we will be their victims later on. We'll pay the price someday - in violence, in economic costs.

Common sense would suggest that this is true, however I would make a stronger argument: namely, that not only will society have to pay later in some way, but that the potential future benefits (even sticking to purely economic ones) far outway the costs of doing something now. In other words, these inequities and injustices should be dealt with now, despite the costs, not just to avoid higher costs further down the road, but to help create more wealth down the road than would be obtained by ignoring the problems and putting the lid on them.
“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known.
Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”

R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980

The zero-sum mentality is holding us back.
Here's a challenge:
Buckminster Fuller challenged us with a bold vision: "To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."


The title for this post came from this review of an article by economist James K. Galbraith in Mother Jones. According to the Wikipedia entry, Galbraith argues that modern America has fallen prey to a wealthy, government-controlling "predatory class".

I'm not sure I fully understand what that means, but it seems to be compatible with the zero-sum game thinking exhibited by those in Kozol's book who argue against making any real changes that would benefit the poor.

The review brings in the concept of Broad Prosperity, apparently originating with George Lakoff in a book called Don't Think of an Elephant!
In Chapter 8 of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant!, we can recognize why broad prosperity, rather than merely individual opportunity, should be our goal. Let's see how the concept of broad prosperity emerges from our values and principles. First, note the connections between the values freedom, opportunity, and prosperity:
"There is no fulfillment without freedom, no freedom without opportunity, and no opportunity without prosperity."


If we share any of these values, then we should seek a prosperity of which all can partake. (As Rockridge guest scholar Delwin Brown notes, this understanding has deep roots in religious traditions as well.) This is why we would not be content with an extreme case in which the average income of a society rises, but most of its people toil in dire poverty while a few wealthy families grow richer.

These values lead to an important progressive principle, equity:

"If you work hard; play by the rules; and serve your family, community, and nation, then the nation should provide a decent standard of living, as well as freedom, security, and opportunity."

Most Americans surely share this understanding, which is fundamentally at odds with the views of conservative market idolaters, who argue, for instance, that the minimum wage should be zero.

Continuing from Chapter 8 of Elephant!, the principle of equity then leads us to the concept of broad prosperity:

"An economy centered on innovation that creates millions of good-paying jobs and provides every American with a fair opportunity to prosper."

Broad prosperity also recognizes that markets are "constructed for someone's benefit." They are the products of the laws of people, not nature. As such, we can and should choose to ensure that they are constructed to serve the broadest possible prosperity.
The concept of broad prosperity is one that Kozol would probably agree with. It seems to match what he is calling for in his book. The concept also highlights a broader context: the inequities that Kozol describes are not limited to schools (Kozol also describes hospitals which are obscenely under-equipped), and I feel that a solution to these inequities cannot be limited to addressing concerns of schools or education, in the same way that AIDS cannot be considered merely a medical problem. (And, no, that doesn't mean we can give up trying to find a medical cure.)

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