"Come spirit come. Our hearts control. Our spirits long to be made whole."
The great catcher for the New York Yankees, Yogi Bierra, got his start in the minor leagues. Once, the team bus was winding its way through the hinterlands looking for some small town where the team was due to play. Yogi was studying the road map. He looked at his watch. "We're lost," he announced. "But we're making good time."
Our economy for the last 75 years -- the recent recession notwithstanding – has been making good time. But we got lost. We took a wrong turn when we decided that the measure of how well we’re doing is our total wealth rather than how it is distributed. We take a wrong turn every time we look at our national mean per capita income, or mean per capita spending, or mean per capita productivity, but don’t look at the standard deviation, don't look at the growing gaps between us and how that gap corrodes our common life.
There is an argument that we should be concerned with poverty, but not with inequality. It’s our business as a society to make sure that everybody has enough, but not our business how much more than enough the rich have. Comedian Louis C.K.’s illustrates that point. In one episode of his show, Louis is making dinner. There’s an extra slice of mango, which he gives to his older daughter, Lilly, and goes back to making dinner. The younger daughter, Jane, appears and says, “Can I have a mango pop?”
Louis says, "There was only one." Jane says, "Why does she get one and not me? It’s not fair."
Louie squats down to be face-to-face with his daughter at her level. He says, “Listen. The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.”
That sounds wise and mature. Envy, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins, right?
Here’s the thing. What we want is to care and be cared for. We want to be in relations of mutual care. We weren’t built to keep caring and caring if others just take advantage of us, use us, and care nothing for us in return. That’s not healthy. We need to care – and we also need some level of mutuality and reciprocity. Reciprocation need not be exact – we don’t keep score – we just need some sign that caring about each other does go both ways.
When Jane asks for a mango pop because her sister has one, it’s not about the mango pop. That’s just a symbol to test whether she’s being held in a relation of mutual care. I don't see envy going on here -- though over time, if Jane is systematically excluded from the full participation in the family's circle of care, envy might emerge. In the moment, I simply see a little girl who needs affirmation that she counts. If she gets it when she needs it when she's young, as she gets older she won't need that affirmation as immediately. She'll begin to see that, as her father says (see the full clip, below), sometimes her sister is the luckier one, and sometimes she is, and over the longer term, it balances out.
Right now, Jane's developmental stage requires a more immediate "evening of the score." Our fairness needs gets looser as we mature, but we retain them in some form. We have a need to be in relations of mutual care. And when that need is not met, it makes anxiety, depression, and social alienation more likely.
This segment from Louis C.K.'s show has been getting attention on the blogosphere and in social media. Most of that attention has focused on what a great lesson Louis offers when he says "The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough." And that is a lovely ideal. It's worth saying even though Jane is not at a developmental stage to hear it right now. (Which is OK -- if the lesson is repeated regularly, she'll remember it when she is ready to hear it -- though, really, how many of us ever become spiritually advanced enough to truly follow that lesson?) For me, though, the greater wisdom comes a moment later, when Louis accedes to Jane's plea for fairness, grants Jane some "calcium chocolate" -- and adds, thus reinforcing the very need for fairness Jane was expressing, "make sure your sister gets one, too." So now Lilly gets a mango pop AND a calcium chocolate while Jane gets only a calcium chocolate. But that's OK. Jane's happy with that because she doesn't need precise score-keeping. She just needs to know her Dad cares about her, too.
There’s a joke about a mother explaining to a little boy, "We are here to care for others."
The little boy says, "What are the others here for?"
The answer, of course, is, we’re all here to care for each other.
It does me good to care for others, and part of that caring is wanting them to also have the good of caring for others – which, for them, includes me. Systems of mutual care are good for all of us -- not just because we all get cared for, but because we all have opportunities for the joy of caring for others.
* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Income Inequality"
Part 2: It's Getting Worse
Part 3: Inequality Harms Social Health
Part 4: Equality Is Good for Us