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What Disparities in Wealth Say About Society

Dear Diane,

As you read this, I'll be in flight to Japan with my two sons and one of my granddaughters—Roger, Nick, and Lilli. As I write this, it's still hard to believe. By next week I'll have spoken three times and visited some schools and just had fun—and will be in Kyoto being a tourist and will soon be coming home. I'm hoping I can send in a letter from Japan.

Meanwhile.

In last Sunday's New York Times there was a story about a 22-year-old Russian girl, who is attending an American university outside of New York City and wanted a pied-a-terre when she visits the city. So her father bought one for her at 60th and Central Park West. For $88 million dollars.

Am I jealous? Not one wit. Would I like to live there? Possibly, although I like where I'm living now in Columbia County. Might it be a nice place for those days I visit NYC? Hmmm. It's nicer to stay with my son, my daughter-in-law, et al.

But I am deeply offended. Not angry at her; it would do no one (but herself) any good for her to go to a hotel or a friend's place when she visits the city.

But what kind of society allows such disparities based on one and only one special "talent"—the talent some have for handling money? The ability to take financial advantage of his/her good luck? Possibly. The luck of being born to wealth? Definitely.

Or perhaps on belief in the principle that one is worth whatever one can get—by hook or by crook, or combination thereof.

Lots of people have unusual talents, work hard, make sacrifices, save their pennies, and end up anywhere from poo tor sort of "doing OK" like me. The Russian girl's father was worth $9 billion (he just scrapes into the top 100 on Forbes' billionaires list). Someone please work out that ratio for me—between our Russian father and the earnings of a "reduced-lunch" family.

I think it's bad for society for such disparities, although they are hardly new. But they were always bad for the general welfare and health of the rest of the people.

But, offended as I am, I'm more concerned about the fact that it makes democracy, in any serious sense, virtually impossible. Because money comes with power—the more money, the more power. A society ruled by laws is a farce when some must defend themselves with a court-appointed attorney and others ... .

Yes, a good education also increases one's power. But a good education also takes money. And it carries far less power than the money that does or doesn't flow from it. Having both is surely worth a lot of votes.

When I was young we thought of the rich as lazy and leisured. Many these days actually do work hard and have minimal time to spend on citizenship. But unlike the rest of us, they can hire smart people to spend all their time being active citizens on their behalf. We call these people lobbyists. And the truly wealthy create powerful separate institutions whose task it is to influence others in ways that benefit them. Sometimes we call that philanthropy.

Some friends of mine favor democratic schools in which everyone—including 5-year-olds—has one vote. My objections to this conception of school democracy actually rest on the same problem. As long as the adults have much greater knowledge, more political smarts, and final control over the money, we are fooling ourselves, and fooling kids about democracy. To pretend that one vote each at election time actually creates equal power is to miseducate. It's what's wrong with many attempts to expose children (and parents) to the idea that they are treated "democratically" in school when they are not. Such measures—and these include many schemes for creating parent advisory boards, etc.—create a fa├žade; they actually prepare us to accept the shabbiness of our larger experiment in democracy.

As a kindergarten teacher, I occasionally invited the kids to vote between x and y. But only because I was pretty sure that both x and y were acceptable to me. In most schools, even teachers, even parents, don't have equal power with regard to virtually anything. Their opinions may or may not be taken seriously. Any half-way competent dictator may well also concern him/herself with the opinions of their underlings. But that is not democracy in action.

No democracy ever gets it all right—because there are contradictions and complications, and thus trade-offs. But it's the struggle over which compromise is acceptable which is what democracy "looks like."

Modest gradations in wealth are tolerable. Exactly what the ratio from top to bottom should be is worth thinking about. On what basis these gradations should rest is also worth arguing about. For example, with teachers, should gradations rest on their seniority, experience, education, their particular responsibilities, a vote of their peers, or their students' test scores. It's worth discussion. The discussion should, I believe, focus on the impact of each policy on the institution or society. At Mission Hill, we accepted many of the contractual inequities between paraprofessionals, teachers, and principals. But we tried in small ways to minimize these in the distribution of funds that we had power over as a community. I think it made us a better school. But no school I know of operates well if the differences between the highest- and lowest-paid are comparable to those we tolerate in society at large these days.

What lies behind this way of viewing policy? How has the idea of "fairness" changed—if at all—over time? It has a history, and it's worth arguing about. I wonder what the differences are like in Japan? More next week.

Deb

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