Our view of the world is skewed by what we do. If you work at Weber State, your world view is colored by academia. If you work in law enforcement, you have a different view than the criminal defense attorney. Employees at Hill Air Force Base have a different take than those at Autoliv or someone at a new tech start-up. Politicians see the world in a way that is difficult to fathom. Copernicus may have been right about the earth revolving around the sun, but the reality is each individual lives their life as the center of their own universe. Nature decreed it and our brains enforce it -- you can’t escape your own skin.
The law is the social mechanism we use to escape our inherent narcissism, leveling the playing field so all these self-centered individuals can form a cohesive society. Criminal laws keep out the most invasive attacks on individuals. Our civil laws set the other rules that streamline behavior. Our entire capitalistic society is built on the idea that people will act in their own self-interest within the law.
Me? I’m a consumer bankruptcy attorney and it seems that my world is filled with people who have lost a job or substantial income, been divorced or fallen ill. My daily world is a world of financial catastrophe.
So what happens when someone who deals daily with personal financial doom and gloom sees glowing stories about the Ogden-Clearfield areas lack of income inequality? In case you missed it, the LA Times and Newsweek have taken recent census data and touted our home as the metropolitan area with the lowest income inequality in the country. So if everything is so economically rosey in Ogden, how come I still have work?
The reason I still have work and why my business is steadily busy is because income equality isn’t inherently good or bad. Income equality doesn’t prevent personal financial tragedy and guarantee high wages and growth. In pure long term economic terms, Ogden might actually be a little better off financially with a little more income inequality.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading economists (Thomas Pikketty, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich) and one philosopher (Harry Frankfurt) on income inequality. Their views correspond, but each through a slightly different lens (Pikketty for example is French). I had begun reading these authors at about the same time all the glowing praise was being heaped on the Ogden area.
What I learned from these writers and what resonates with my world view is that economic inequality is nothing more than an indicator of how well our laws are operating, not in delivering income equality, but in delivering income incentives and income hope to the public. We want our laws to create a level economic playing field. We don’t want our laws to feel like you are playing Monopoly with an older brother who manipulates the rules so he always wins. (Dear Younger Siblings, I’m truly sorry, but this may also explain why I’m the only attorney in the family.)
The Trumps and the Sanders in our political world are merely two sides of the same coin -- populist, younger sibling ire at the unfair rules of the game. (Trump wanting to replace the older sibling, Sanders wanting to restructure the rules.) The rules are currently too unfair. The worldview of a consumer bankruptcy attorney is an on-the-ground, up close and personal look at the unfair nature of our current legal and economic system. Over the next three or four weeks, I’m going to take a look at specific types of laws in this column and see how those laws foster or hinder income opportunity and fairness that show up in the census data as income inequality.
Our political decisions and our actions as citizens determine the type of laws we have. Laws will be passed and enforced. Income equality is not our end goal, equal opportunity, personal motivation. responsibility, and equal justice is what we want. For a community like Ogden to be truly great, we don’t need to pat ourselves on the back at how egalitarian our economics currently are. We need to expand our personal outlooks and politics by supplementing them with just one more perspective: “when ye have done it to the least of these my brethren...”