The Occupy movement has brought the issue of the inequity of wealth and the further escalation of this problem to the forefront. Although the unequal distribution of wealth has been an issue for many many years the Occupy movement has made it more public. At this point pretty well everyone should now know that it is an issue. In a post (Sharing the wealth, November 4, 2011) I highlighted some figures that I have found useful to put this inequity into context. It would be difficult for someone to justify to me why a head of a company would merit getting paid nine hundred times more than the average employees in his organization. Personally I find this act criminal.
Possibly naively but I prefer to think of it as hopeful and thoughtful I also suggested in another post (Choice in Present Times, October 28, 2011) that we could have a better world if we shared a bit. Specifically I suggested that if some of these heads of companies (and governments) would share some of their unnecessary and actually obscene earnings we could offer more of the population a living wage. Having a living wage would allow people to participate in life not just the rat-race to make ends meet. Maybe instead of using the “gini coefficient” to measure inequality of income and wealth around the world we should actually be doing something about it. (See the end of this post for all the boring details about the “gini”)
I know as children we are taught to share our toys and to share in general. When is it that we are to make the switch to the modus operandi where and when sharing becomes a bad word? Maybe the idea of sharing even as children is really just that, an idea and not an action. Although adults may advocate sharing as a value I am not sure many of them truly believe it is a valid value worth practicing.
Reflecting on the idea of sharing took me back to some reading I did on the colonization of the First Nations people in Canada and specifically to their custom of sharing: the “potlatch”.
Potlatch which means “to give” had many purposes for the First Nations people. It was a social, ceremonial and economic custom. The celebrations of the potlatch may last for days or even longer and were meant to celebrate an event in the lives of individuals, families and communities: a coming of age; a new chief; a marriage; a good hunting season. Goods, land, property, songs, names, stories, and dances were shared. The amount that a chief was able to giveaway in a potlatch was used as a measure of his status and his power. Hanging onto property, goods and other forms of wealth was not the custom, giving it away was. An example of sharing in action? The custom served to raise the social status of a chief but also to redistribute wealth and ensure that no one in the clan would live without essential goods and no one would starve. Reciprocity was built into the custom as the guests of one potlatch would then become the hosts of another. To outdo one another they tried to increase the amount that they gave away not how much they kept for themselves. Accumulation of wealth in any form was a foreign concept.
The Euro-Canadian politicians and missionaries who had taken over the land were not comfortable with this custom. It flew in the face of the way they operated and what they expected of the First Nations people whom they were actively colonizing. They noted that the unrestrained and open distribution of material wealth was not consistent with their notion of cultural progress. There idea was to hold that material wealth tight to one’s chest. The Indian agents and the missionaries pressured the government to stop the custom that they found so disgusting and uncivilized. John A. MacDonald, the Prime Minster at the time, is quoted as stating that: “it is not possible that Indians can acquire property or can become industrious with any good result while under the influence of this mania (the potlatch)”. No attention was paid to their custom of sharing rather than wanting to accumulate, to acquire. Therefore the Canadian government declared the custom of the potlatch illegal in 1884 and it remained illegal until 1951. Some 67 years later the integrity of the custom had obviously been damaged.
This custom of sharing was also evident with the First Nations peoples in the US where for example the terms “wopila or otuhan” are Lakota words for giveaway. Like the Canadian government the U.S. Government wanted to put a stop to the custom of these “giveaways”. As stated by Joseph Bruchac in his article on Sacred Giving, Scared Receiving the U.S. government did ban the custom of sharing: “In a letter sent to all of the superintendents of the U.S. Indian reservations in 1922, Charles H. Burke, the Federal Indian Commissioner, stated that in order to “foster a competitive, individualistic economic mentality and a Christian faith, using missionaries as aides in this effort” certain practices need to be eliminated.”
I was aware of the custom of the potlatch but fairly ignorant of the white man’s reaction to the custom. I had a difficult time accepting and incorporating this information and a tough time understanding the action of these two governments. I stand embarrassed by my government’s closed mind, and its ethnocentric and bullying approach toward the First Nations people of Canada.
Fostering a competitive, individualistic economic mentality rather than continuing a tradition of sharing and redistribution of wealth so that no one person would be without the essentials of life seems like a poor choice to me. It is clearly evident now that the choice has not resulted in good outcomes for the majority of the population in the western world.
So what are the next steps? How do we start the conversation that is absolutely necessary to take us to a saner way of operating? How do we open up that discussion to the citizens of the world not just the appointed or self-appointed leaders? How can we structure the dialogue so that all participants can understand each other? Are there actions that each one of us can take to move us in a more reasonable direction?
I have no idea what the answers are but I do know that to believe that we can continue without any fundamental change in how our society operates and specifically distributes wealth is to be in denial. I also believe that we must shift our focus away from a sole emphasis on economics and look at how we live together in a more harmonious way. We need to move past money as the key motivator for all decisions even those that do not lend themselves to an economic lens.
Perhaps we could learn how to share?
The Gini coefficient sometimes referred to as the Gini Index or the Gini coefficient of inequality is a measure of statistical dispersion that was developed in 1912 by an Italian statistician –Corrado Gini. The measure can be applied in the areas of sociology, health science, chemistry, ecology, or agriculture but today is most commonly used in economics, specifically to measure inequality of income or wealth. The coefficient ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (complete inequality). It is usually expressed as a percentage so that a coefficient of .32 is expressed as 32. The lower the number the more equality there is.
To put things in perspective here is a direct quote from the Government of Canada’s website:
“Using the Gini coefficient, income disparity in Canada had a value of 32. Along with Japan, Canada’s Gini coefficient was the third lowest among the G7 countries (2004 and 2005 data). The Gini coefficient ranged from 28 in France to 38 in the United States.
Canada’s Gini coefficient was slightly higher than the average for 30 OECD member countries. The Gini coefficient was comparable to that of many OECD countries. It ranged from 23 for Denmark and Sweden to 47 for Mexico.”
Irene McDermott © 2011