Friday, April 19, 2013

Americans Don’t Understand Each Other

Three issues have been in the press this week – American income inequality, a need for companies to raise wages, and the failure of gun control bills in the U.S. Senate.  What do they have in common?

Since long before the United States was a country, Americans have differed greatly in the amount of money they earn.  The national spirit of hard work, when combined with a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, personal abilities and inclinations, and lifestyle choices, has fashioned an unusually heterogeneous society.  As I have commented many times, inequality only becomes perceived as an issue when large numbers of people cannot achieve what they see as a minimum acceptable prosperity level for themselves.  In the 1890s, a time of rail barons and urban poverty, there was much less concern, as there was plenty of work available.  In the early 1980s and early 2000s, when the Gates’s and Zuckerbergs were national news, likewise.  Yet yesterday in there was a column by Robert Reich, who has shown himself to be outstandingly aware of the permanent nature of the jobs crisis, regretting that Americans have not been as unified in making incomes more equal as they were in confronting the Boston bombing. 

In the Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson wrote Tuesday on low-paying service jobs.  Wal-Mart was the villain, guilty not only of “crummy, low-wage jobs” but for “slashing their workforce.”  He also named a similar situation with McDonalds, and documented recent service and logistical problems, caused by a lack of employees, at both companies.  Yet businesses are fully able to decide when downsizing goes too far, as it did for many in the late 1990s, and they will judge accordingly. 

That brings us to gun control.  A set of seven bills restricting firearm ownership in some form were voted upon in the Senate, and all failed.  Newspaper editorials blasted that result, with even the Chicago Tribune, no stranger to expressing conservative views, calling it “shameful,” “a vote for violence” and saying that senators were choosing between “listening to the public or to the gun lobby.” 

So what is happening here?  Is income inequality, on the top as well as the bottom, in dire need of correction?  Is Wal-Mart immoral for not hiring more people and paying them more?  Is the result of a recent set of Senate votes “shameful?”

That depends on where you stand.  Tens of millions of good, reasonably-thinking Americans would take views opposite to the above.  Income inequality, they would say, is not a problem in itself, though poverty and a lack of jobs may be.  Wal-Mart and McDonalds have helped poorer Americans at least as much as government programs by providing food and other goods at ever-lower constant-dollar prices, and by creating over a million jobs popular enough that it would be a losing business decision for workers’ pay to be increased.  Gun control is not only a slippery-slope danger to personal freedom, but has the heaviest burden on the exact people who are no threat.

What do I think?  I happen to see more merit in the statements in the previous paragraph than in the items above them, but that is not the point.  The idea is that perspectives vary.  Political debate is an old tradition in this country, and political debate requires conflicting political views.  Having thoughts different from yours on gun control, the economy, immigration, foreign involvements, or any other issue does not make people crazy, ill-informed, thoughtless, or traitors;  most likely, they just see things another way.  Opposing opinions must be taken seriously. 

We have one thing in common – we are all Americans.  Make that two – we are dealing with crises for which we have no clear solutions, and whatever our politics, we consistently want the best for our country.  Only when we respect what others think, and at least partially try it on for size ourselves, will we accomplish that.

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