Our Sense of Fairness

If you’re a parent you know the endless hours you spend dealing with the whining kid saying it’s just not fair – difficult homework, or how Sally got a pony and she didn’t, or whatever it is. You can fix the situation (usually impossible), or very patiently explain that, yes, it really is fair when you think about it (almost always impossible, as kids don’t want to hear that) – or you tell the kid that life isn’t fair and they’d better get used to it (which sort of settles the matter). Mick Jagger and Keith Richards tried to explain it to a whole generation – “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, yeah, you just might find you get what you need.”

That’s the fourth alternative. What seems unfair to you – not getting what you want, or what you are sure you deserve, or what you worked so hard to get – can be good for you. What you do get can be what you actually needed. Sending a bunch of your hard-earned money to the government gets you roads and bridges and dams and schools, and a military and a whole bunch of diplomats that keep you safe, and a stable currency, a safe food supply, and clean air, and clear water, and an air-traffic control system too – and hurricane warnings. Grumble all you want, but you get what you need, even if everyone else gets all that too. Stop whining. It may also seem unfair that some of your hard-earned money goes to those who are out of work for this reason or that. Maybe some of them are lazy bums, not pulling their weight, but everyone knows most of them are down on their luck, or got screwed as the structure of the economy shifted one more time, again, and they lost their job – but it doesn’t matter. Keeping them afloat keeps them from getting ideas, from taking to the streets – and they spend what funds they get to stay afloat, keeping the economy going. They buy things. They have to. That’s good for everyone, and for you too, if not directly. Maybe it’s just not fair – you can’t keep all that you worked so hard to earn – but you get what you need.

The Rolling Stones, perhaps the ultimate bar band, was not a crew of existential philosophers, but if you were paying attention, that song from 1969 was about the hardest of life’s lessons – we pretend the world is what we want it to be, and that through hard work or earnestness or connections or a positive attitude or personal charm, or through very clever underhanded sneakiness or manly brute force, we can get what we obviously deserve. But things never work out as planned. Life isn’t fair. We get what we get, and the trick is to not only accept that, but to realize what we do get is useful in its own way. That’s the only thing we’ll be getting, we might as well make the best of it. Lose your ego. Go with the flow.

That’s a bit Zen, but for most of the seventies those of us who found ourselves teaching adolescents, the whole thing played out every day. It was the late seventies at an expensive prep school in upstate New York. The idea was to get these rather sharp kids to settle down and read Dickens or the Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey or whatever, and to think about what they read, and then write about it. Many a fifteen-year-old would react as fifteen-year-olds do – this is useless stuff, it’s not fair and I won’t do it and you can’t make me and so on and so forth. Teaching turned out to be about a quarter of the job. The other three quarters was humming the Stones tune while letting the kids whine about life and the unfairness of everything – waiting them out until they realized there was some good stuff there and they had a few things to say about it. It was exhausting.

That’s why current politics are exhausting. Everyone’s current position seems to be that it just isn’t fair – whatever it is – take your pick. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern covers how that is playing out in North Carolina:

On Monday, the North Carolina Senate overrode Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a startling bill that would allow magistrates to refuse to marry any couple – so long as they have a “sincerely held religious objection.” The bill will now go to the state house, where conservative legislators have probably rounded up the votes to push beyond McCrory’s veto. Should these legislators succeed, they will have passed one of the most far-reaching and dangerous pieces of discriminatory legislation in recent memory.

But they say this is a matter of fairness:

At first glance, the North Carolina bill might seem pretty similar to the anti-gay “religious liberty” measure recently passed in Indiana. It uses the same language about protecting individuals’ religious objections, and it arose out of the same concern that spurred the Indiana law: the arrival of same-sex marriage in the state through judicial fiat.

But that’s where the similarities end. North Carolina’s bill is actually far more radical than Indiana’s, a dramatic expansion of civil servants’ right to inflict discrimination on others with the full endorsement of the government. The Indiana law allowed “compelling governmental interests” to trump religious exercise – but the North Carolina bill has no such upper limit. In effect, the bill declares that protecting civil servants’ right to discriminate on the job is more important than anything else. All a magistrate need do under the bill is declare that she holds a religious objection to issuing a marriage license to a certain couple, and she can legally turn them away.

That’s where this gets dicey:

In an obvious effort to avoid seeing the law struck down as unconstitutional anti-gay discrimination, the North Carolina legislature couched their bill in the broadest terms possible. A magistrate isn’t just empowered to turn away same-sex couples – he can turn away any couple, so long as he can articulate a religious objection to their marriage. That gives racist magistrates an excellent opportunity to refuse to marry interracial couples. The Virginia trial judge who forced Mildred and Richard Loving to leave their state or go to jail, after all, grounded his ruling in religious beliefs, writing:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

In 1967, the Supreme Court rejected that argument, but it could be returning through the back door:

Conservatives in the North Carolina legislature are pitching the debate over their new bill as a conflict between gay rights and religious freedom. That’s not quite right. This debate is about whether magistrates – who take an oath to “faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties” of their office and to “administer justice without favoritism” – can place their own personal prejudices above the law. (When McCrory vetoed the bill, he did so because he refused to give civil servants the freedom to violate this oath.) The First Amendment undoubtedly protects these individuals’ right to hold and express bigoted views. But until now, civil servants were expected to place the duties and responsibilities of their (taxpayer-funded) job ahead of their own intolerance.

Now, however, the calculus has changed. The legislature doesn’t seem to care that its bill could inflict serious dignitary harms on thousands of couples across the state – or that magistrates who fiercely oppose certain marriages probably shouldn’t have a government job that requires them to perform civil marriages.

If these prejudiced magistrates were truly principled, they would resign from the jobs that they can no longer perform in accordance with the law. Instead, they petitioned the legislature to grant them special rights that elevate them above the law.

Yes, they took an oath to “faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties” of their office and to “administer justice without favoritism” – and the courts ruled that the state’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional – and they said that’s just not fair. The hard-ass Republican governor told them they can’t always get what they want. The even-harder-ass Republican legislature said yes, you can. This will not turn out well, but this sort of thing – all these religious-freedom-restoration acts – have been defended by Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz and other Republicans who want to be president, and by Bill O’Reilly and everyone on Fox News. Christianity is under attack! No one will let us practice our religion!

Well, it seems the folks in North Carolina will actually get what they want, but not what they need. Sooner or later, IBM and the other high-tech giants in Research Triangle Park will pull up stakes and move out – none of the brilliant young geeks, who have no problem with gays, and who really don’t see race at all, will want to end up in that place. The universities, Duke and the UNC system, will lose faculty, and then those young students, who don’t get any of this at all. The state could end up with only angry old straight white folks, who hope they’re straight. The economy could collapse – but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

They won’t try. Why should they? There’s a whole electoral apparatus, from the precinct level to their national party, telling they don’t have to – because it’s just not fair.

That, however, can be stood on its head:

Americans are broadly concerned about inequality of wealth and income despite an economy that has improved by most measures, a sentiment that is already driving the 2016 presidential contest, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll found that a strong majority say that wealth should be more evenly divided and that it is a problem that should be addressed urgently. Nearly six in 10 Americans said government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but they split sharply along partisan lines. Only one-third of Republicans supported a more active government role, versus eight in 10 of Democrats.

These findings help explain the populist appeals from politicians of both parties, but particularly Democrats, who are seeking to capitalize on the sense among Americans that the economic recovery is benefiting only a handful at the very top.

Let that sink in. Even accounting for the Republicans, who hate government as much as they hate gay marriage and maybe interracial marriage, almost two-thirds of Americans said government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. It may seem unfair that some of your hard-earned money goes to those who are out of work for this reason or that, and maybe some of them are lazy bums, but things have gotten out of hand.

It seems that Americans also overwhelmingly favor strengthening workers’ rights, including paid sick leave and paid family leave, and a clear majority continues to support raising the federal minimum wage way up there – over ten dollars. Enough is enough:

The percentage of Americans who say everyone has a fair chance to get ahead in today’s economy has fallen 17 percentage points since early 2014. Six in 10 Americans now say that only a few people at the top have an opportunity to advance.

And there’s this:

When asked about the other end of the income spectrum, two-thirds of Americans favored raising taxes on people with annual salaries exceeding $1 million. By 50 to 45 percent, they favored capping the income of top executives at large corporations, a measure that more than one-third of Republicans supported as well.

That’s punishing the successful, the job-creators, isn’t it? A third of Republicans are fine with that. There may be no more Joe-the-Plumber talk about the moral evil of income redistribution. And those foolish tax-and-spend Democrats are right to say that we ought to tax and spend – sixty percent of us say so, including a lot of Republicans.

Dan Gilmore in the Patriot Post is unhappy with that:

The report goes onto say inequality of wealth may become a prominent issue in the larger 2016 election. It’s a convenient narrative for the Obama administration. Its policies stalled the nation’s economic engine, yet it can simply tell the poor and middle class dissatisfied with their finances that society is set against them. This narrative has been carried along by the Leftmedia, which has dutifully passed along the Democrat propaganda. While the Left tells constituents they were cheated out of the nation’s wealth, the means to create wealth languishes.

Ayn Rand lives, but Michael Gerson is a little more subtle:

Deep down, many Republicans would prefer to focus on economic growth. But this abstract goal does not touch on the economic concerns of most Americans, including stagnant wages and difficulties getting education and skills. In recent presidential elections, Republican talk of entrepreneurship and risk-taking has been disconnected from working-class struggles and middle-class fears.

So we get this:

The parties have backed into America’s most urgent domestic priority: Resisting the development of a class-based society in which birth equals destiny. This division runs like an ugly, concrete wall across the American ideal. On one side are the wealthy and educated, living in communities characterized by greater family stability, economic opportunity and neighborhood cohesion. On the other side is the working class, living in communities featuring economic stagnation, family instability and neighborhood breakdown. The best advice for success? Be born on the right side of the wall. That is not a very American-sounding answer.

The entry-level commitment for Republicans in this debate is recognition that equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. Economic growth is important – but its benefits are only shared if people have the knowledge and human capital to succeed in a modern economy. This preparation requires active, effective, reform-oriented government at every level.

Oops. He called for government to do things. You can’t always get what you want, but sometime, if you try real hard, you get what you need. And if you don’t try real hard you get what you really don’t need. Chris Hedges has a new book – Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt – arguing that the world is currently at a crisis point, a place we’ve not been before, but kind of like the era of the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe, inspired by the 1789 French Revolution and ours.

Elias Isquith interviews Hedges and Hedges explains:

It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.

That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about. He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil. So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean. And the facade of power – both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power – appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.

There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that. Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place – especially in terms of internal security – have no popularity at all.

All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry. … Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.

There is a revolutionary consciousness building in America:

So you have, every 28 hours, a person of color, usually a poor person of color, being killed with lethal force – and, of course, in most of these cases they are unarmed. So people march in the streets and people protest; and yet the killings don’t stop. Even when they are captured on video. I mean we have videos of people being murdered by the police and the police walk away. This is symptomatic of a state that is ossified and can no longer respond rationally to what is happening to the citizenry, because it exclusively serves the interest of corporate power.

We have, to quote John Ralston Saul, “undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion” and it’s over. The normal mechanisms, by which we carry out incremental and piecemeal reform through liberal institutions, no longer function. They have been seized by corporate power – including the press. That sets the stage for inevitable blowback, because these corporations have no internal constraints, and now they have no external constraints. So they will exploit, because, as Marx understood, that’s their nature, until exhaustion or collapse.

This man is not optimistic:

I covered war for 20 years; we didn’t use terms like pessimist or optimist, because if you were overly optimistic, it could get you killed. You really tried to read the landscape as astutely as you could and then take calculated risks based on the reality around you – or at least on the reality insofar as you could interpret it. I kind of bring that mentality out of war zones.

If we are not brutal about diagnosing what we are up against, then all of our resistance is futile. If we think that voting for Hillary Clinton … is really going to make a difference, then I would argue we don’t understand corporate power and how it works. If you read the writings of anthropologists, there are studies about how civilizations break down; and we are certainly following that pattern. Unfortunately, there’s nothing within human nature to argue that we won’t go down the ways other civilizations have gone down. The difference is now, of course, that when we go down, the whole planet is going to go with us.

That’s not very cheery, but you can’t always get what you want. Life isn’t fair. You don’t get an exemption from the law because your religion has rigid rules no one else cares about. You can’t live in this interdependent interlocking social system and not chip in, for the good of all, and for your own good, when you think about it. Yes, you can whine – it’s just not fair. Or you can hum that Rolling Stones tune. Good things may happen.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Our Sense of Fairness

  1. BabaO says:

    This is an excellent column.
    I wondered while reading this how long it will be before objects ranging in size from perhaps 1/20th scale to 1/4 scale, but clearly representing an 18th century guillotine, may replace the comic face of “A”, and become a fixture among the stuff paraded along Pennsylvania Avenue, and be placed on display outside every entrance/exit to the Capitol Building. Let the fools therein taste doubt and anxiety, or something that may evolve into fear – or maybe even wisdom, though that’s a proverbial thin reed.
    They are not “representatives of the people”. Generally speaking, they are petty tyrants whose loyalties lie with this epoch’s praetorian guards: corporate lobbyists.

    PS. Bring back the draft and make deferments VERY hard to come by. That will perk up some interest in the wealthy, and what little is left of the “middle class”, that would soon have the all-time record for “America’s longest war” established at a point that it will never be approached again.

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