Inequality and Defining Success

Today I came across an article from NPR titled, “The Income Gap: Unfair, Or Are We Just Jealous?”

The article quotes Mit Romney, a front-runner for the Republican presidential candidate nomination, talking to Matt Lauer, host of the Today Show, about his views on inequality:

“I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare,” Romney responded. “I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the idea of 99 percent versus 1 percent, and those people who’ve been most successful will be in the 1 percent, you’ve opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of ‘one nation under God.'”

The whole article is very interesting, a definitely worth checking out, but it was one word in this quote that started me thinking the most: successful. I want us to reconsider what being successful really means.

For Romney, being successful must mean making the most money, pure and simple. After all, it is money that puts people in that infamous 1 percent. But is that really all being successful should be about?

The way I see things, success should be more than an economic measure. I think success should be measured in terms of how much someone has been able to give back to his or her community. In terms of contribution to society, culture, or the arts. In terms of how many lives someone has improved or saved.

If a billionaire gives $100, $1000, or even $10,000 to a cause, is he really more of a success than someone in the 99 percent, who makes less money each year and has less to donate, but who volunteers every week at a local Boys and Girls Club? Is it better to see someone give up a small fraction of his wealth than it is to see someone who dedicates his life to making the lives of others better? In terms of the community, which of these two people is the greater success?

So, thinking about success in these terms, I ask, is it really fair to say that the people in the 1 percent are the most successful?

And when, as a society, we value making money more than we value making a contribution, where are we headed? According to Alan Krueger, an economist for the Obama administration featured in the article, down:

“When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy — from top to bottom,” he said.

Unless we begin to value people for more than just their ability to make money, the gap between the rich and the poor will only widen. Class struggles will worsen, bringing down the entire economy. To avert such a disaster, we need a government which supports people who are truly successful, not the people who make the most money. Or maybe we need the disaster, however painful it may be, to really learn our lesson and rise, wiser, from the ashes of change and destruction. Personally, however, I hope we come to our senses before then.

Finally, I have to wonder, is acknowledging inequality and the consequences of such inequality really about envy? I wonder what it is that I am supposed to be jealous of, exactly. Am I supposed to be envious of being able to take advantage of the people around me? Am I supposed to be jealous of being able to take more for myself than I give to others? That’s not what I want. I don’t want their money; I just want the people on top to be forced to pay for the true cost of their wealth. The societal cost of low income children not having the opportunities they deserve for education and health and happiness. All the costs to society that inequality creates.

It is not envy to ask those who benefit most from the structure of society to give back as much as everyone else gives, and it is not begging to do so either. It is simply asking the 1 percent to do what is right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s