The old proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” captures the reality that people and families don’t exist in isolation, but instead are socially connected member-citizens of larger communities, society and, increasingly, the world. One of the most profound implications of this truth is an economic one: just as children exist in a larger social context with varying levels of contributions from family, teachers, doctors and countless others who invest in their upbringing, so too do all products in society, from test scores to share prices, result from a series of interdependent group processes in which many people contribute.
Take my college degree, for example. While it took countless hours of my own work, I didn’t earn it on my own and, in fact, if it weren’t for the talent and effort of a myriad of others who supported me throughout the process, I’d likely still be cleaning floors in upstate New York. Contributions and investments from friends, family and advisors made it possible for me to work full-time while chipping away at a bachelor’s degree. Over-stretched co-workers, like Jackie, took on parts of my workload so that I could have time to study for tests and prepare class presentations. Students offered advice on my admissions essays, lent me their expensive GRE prep materials and made sure that I knew which internships and student positions were desirable. Administrators figured out how to make every credit that I took work triple-time. The city bus driver picked me up near my home every morning so I didn’t have to walk to work in the dark at 4 a.m. My family cooked meals for me because I had no time or energy to cook for myself. Academic advisors and mentors encouraged me, believed in me and kept me on course. The local union reps fought to protect the employee-benefit program that allowed me to attend classes while working.
The list of people who contributed to my college degree goes on and on, yet, I always get all the credit for the result. When we think about upward mobility and achieving economic success, we tend to think in terms of meritocratic ideals and individual success. Is a system that takes so much input to get a single positive output the best we can do? More importantly, what does it say about our notions of success when some of the people who helped me climb the social ladder remain trapped at the bottom?
As the nation grapples with the nature of inequality, a commonly asked question is whether the unprecedented levels of income and wealth inequality in the United States are the result of a fair and open contest in which the most talented and productive secure the most rewards. Or have the “rules of the game” become corrupt and unfair, calling into question the legitimacy of inequality? The trouble with this question is that it offer only two options: either the rules of society are fair and inequality is justified, or the game is corrupt and inequality is not justified. In other words, inequalities are a given, and even if we could root out corruption, then whatever we’re left with — no matter the level of inequality or suffering it includes — would be legitimate and fair.
Unfortunately, corruption and nepotism aren’t new, nor are they contained to Wall Street. So while this setup between fair or corrupt inequality is alluring in its simplicity, we must resist the bait and entertain alternatives. Fairness isn’t simply the absence of corruption, but rather an ongoing commitment to examine and evaluate the opportunities and outcomes that our society jointly produces. Corruption isn’t only individual people taking advantage of their position, but also a system that allows people to contribute to the success of others with no improvement to their own material standard of living. Why is it that chances for upward mobility have become so thin, are so few and far between? What I hope for is a shift in the way that we think about how value is created in our society and a realization that what we produce — for better and for worse — is a collaborative endeavor.
Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology