On this day of thanks1, I’m moved to think about all the -isms that seem to plague us, and how to deal with them.

The world is not fair.

This is already the wrong formulation. A better one, perhaps, is:

The system is not fair.

It’s hard to think about changing the world, and perhaps a tiny bit better to think about changing the system. In addition, the system is made up of smaller systems, and sometimes, we might be able to change a smaller one to improve the larger.

What’s not fair about the system? Innumerable things. If I miss your favorite here, it’s an oversight. I’ll list just a few that come to mind.

Certainly racism is in the top few ways the world is unfair. People of color are underdogs in so many ways. The system is stacked against them from the moment they’re born.
Here again, sexism is in the top few. Half the people in the world are discriminated against in opportunity, in pay for work, and in many places, they aren’t even free to choose where they go or how they dress.
Sex, Gender, and All That Jazz
People are discriminated against because of who they love, or because they don’t look or act like the gender they know they really are. I can’t even do justice to naming this problem, there are so many dimensions, all entangled.
People are treated unfairly because of the presence or lack of the ability to walk, or to see or to hear. They are treated poorly because their mind does not work quite the way others do.
Probably more people have died in the name of religion than for any other cause, although modern mass murder methods could tip the odds here. Even today there are groups of people who are surely genetically indistinguishable, trying to kill each other because of who they worship.
Are you on some kind of desirable land? Then there may be another group of people who will kill you in order to have that land.

I Must Stop

I could depress myself by going on with everything that’s wrong, and I’m here to talk about the system.

I Must Begin

Fixing things, of course, starts with ourselves. We have to do what we can, where we are. That could mean carefully hiring people, and compensating people, without regard to any of the dimensions above, but only with regard to the value of the work they do. (Note: we’ll come back to this.)

Maybe we don’t hire people into real jobs. But perhaps we do hire home repair people, and we can certainly make a point of doing so fairly and equitably. On our Nextdoor, web thing, a “Handy(Wo)man” recently advertised. Next time I need something done, why not get in touch with her?

Maybe all we can do is to be kind and be respectful to those around us. If we are biased–and we all are–we can try harder to be kind and respectful where we might unconsciously lean the other way.

And for EXPLETIVE DELETED sake, don’t punch down! Don’t be rude to people who are below you on your perceived hierarchy. It’s simply tacky.

For extra credit, don’t punch at all. It probably doesn’t help. Yes, I am aware of some probable exceptions. Let’s start by assuming we can do without war, even if we’re going to be wrong sometimes.

The System(s)

But I’m here to talk about the systems and their components. I have in mind a particular aspect of the problem. It seems to me that there’s a general property to these systems that we want to correct:

The system favors one class of individuals over another class.

Let’s just call the classes OVER and UNDER. You can think of your favorite unfairness here, but I think I’d advise thinking of an unfairness that isn’t quite so close to your heart. It might make reasoning a bit easier.

Whatever benefits this bit of the system provides, OVERs get more of those benefits than UNDERs. It’s not fair. We’ll consider two cases, zero sum and non-zero sum:

Zero Sum
If the benefits are fixed and finite, fixing this system will inevitably have to reduce the benefits to the OVERs, to provide them to the UNDERs. OVERs cannot be expected to like this, and they can be expected to fight to stop the change. This is why non-zero sum thinking is better.
Non-Zero Sum
At the beginning of our change, the OVER-UNDER system is under-resourced if we are to bring everyone up to where the OVERs are now. We have to get the benefits from somewhere. There are only two cases as far as I know.

Equity might allow the system to have more benefits to share around. “If we pay the UNDERs as much as the OVERs, productivity will increase and everyone will benefit.” It’s hard to prove this, it’s not always the case that it will happen, and even if it does, the OVERs may need to suffer for a while. There’s the alternative of saying “If you UNDERs will improve your productivity, we’ll pay you like the OVERs”. As far as I know, no one has ever fallen for that.

We might get resources from outside the system. If we really believe the productivity argument, perhaps we could borrow the money to pay the UNDERs up to snuff, and pay back the loan out of the increased productivity. Risky, but possible. Or we can just “tax” someone. We can reduce corporate profits for a while, or reduce executive pay. This always seems to take the form of pointing to a privileged class and saying “they can pay for it”.

Someone Thinks They’ll Lose

I’m overstating the case here, but I think that when benefits are not allocated fairly today, someone must lose, at least temporarily, if they are to be allocated fairly tomorrow.

If we stop gerrymandering, some politicians will lose their positions.

If we stop allowing corporations to give vast sums to politicians, politicians will change the law so that they don’t lose out. Or they’ll take their money even less fairly than they do today.

If we pay people fairly, profits will go down, shareholders will be angry, or executives will lose pay and be angry, or we’ll have to borrow money and again the shareholders will be angry, and probably the bean counters as well.

It’s a vicious circle and it’s really difficult to break out. Advantaged groups have more power and more money than the disadvantaged, and they will perceive, correctly or not, that they’re going to lose out under the new scheme, and because they have more power and more money, they manage to stop most of the changes.

Must Someone Lose?

It’s a hard question. I am afraid that the answer, at least in the near to middle term, is that someone has to lose. Economically, in the middle to long term, we should be able to outgrow any near term losses, as we conquer the near-term zero-sum effects that seem inevitable.

But what about the dimension of power? There are those among us who value power over other people. At a guess, 30 or 40 percent of the human population thinks this way. Maybe all of us do. It’s hard to say.

Even if we somehow manage to transition to a post-capitalist prosperity for all economy, where people work only on what they care to work on, where robots do all the work, where agriculture provides more than enough food for everyone, and so on into the brightest future we can imagine, what can we do about the people who want power over others?

Luck is Cumulative

Worse yet, luck is cumulative. No, seriously.

Imagine a situation where everyone has the same amount of money, so that they can all buy whatever they want, a reasonable number of luxuries, whatever.

Imagine a lottery in that situation. Many people put in a buck, and some schmo wins a million. Now most schmos probably just spend until it’s all gone. But once in a while, someone hits the lottery and they begin using their money in trade. They buy some good thing at a low price over here, transport it over there, sell it at a higher price because it’s scarce over there, and a few years go by and they have a billion dollars and fifty thousand people working for them.

And it turns out that they like it. And it turns out that in many small ways, they clamp down on those people and change their lives for the worse. And inequity is back.

Luck is cumulative. If you get lucky once, you have resources that can be deployed to increase your chances of getting lucky again, and again, and again. That is likely to work to someone’s serious disadvantage.

Stop With the Easy Answer!

I bet you have an easy answer in mind, like “100% or 150% tax rates at the high end”, or “abolish money”, or “just do X”.

If it were really easy, and really better for everyone, we’d have done it. We have to conclude that either it isn’t really better for everyone, or that it really isn’t easy. My guess is: both.

I can’t prove this, but my bet is that any economic system inherently creates haves and have-nots. Inherently creates OVERs and UNDERs. We can clearly work to reduce this, and we bloody well should. But my best is that we can’t just “fix the system”, that instead we have to be continually tuning the system, making adjustments, seeing what happens, making further adjustments, ad infinitum.

We Must Change Minds

Since some percentage of the advantaged will fight to retain their advantage, we’ll face powerful opposition every time we try to make a change. We can try to over-power the opposition, but by the nature of the problem, they have more power than we have, and that’ll be difficult.

So we need to change minds. Lots of minds. Most of the minds.

We need to help people to see that unfairness is bad, and that they are part of that unfairness, and that they can and should do what they can about it. Maybe it’s just “be kind, be respectful, be helpful”, but then comes voting time and there’s one more thing we can do: “Vote out those who are not kind, respectful, and helpful.”

And if that weren’t hard enough, we need to understand that our systems are truly complex, in the formal sense of the term, and that therefore we cannot just fix it. We’ll have to be trying things, observing what happens, and changing what we do in the face of what the system does.

We cannot figure out the system once and for all. There is no finite set of rules by which chaos turns into order. There’s always a need for just one more rule, and probably for two other rules to be turned down or removed. Forever.

Bottom Line?

Well, there is none. I just made the point that we’ll be at this forever. For me, there are two angles that need to be kept in mind:

First, we have to accept that we are in a very complex system, in which some elements have great power on various dimensions, and we have to continually find ways to adjust that system to be more like we wish it were. And we’ll have to do that forever.

Second, closer to home and more important:

Be kind, be respectful, be helpful.
And vote out those who are not.

  1. I am particularly thankful for my family, notably my dear wife Ricia, without whom I’d not be here. And for my immense good fortune having been born, raised, and educated as I was. Without those things, I’d be nothing.