Reflection 88: Economic Inequality, Part 2 – Making Things Different

Robert Reich’s new book, Saving Capitalism – the subject of last week’s Reflection – describes the mechanisms that have been the main drivers behind the shocking acceleration in economic stratification, over the last 40 of our history. It also offers ideas about how a more equitable economic system might be structured.

Building on these points, this week’s Reflection addresses this all-important question: How can we create a movement that has the clarity of vision, and sustained passion and energy, to significantly alter our economic/political trajectory, moving toward greater equity?

My answer: Our efforts need to be grounded in an inclusive values-based challenge to our “business as usual” ways of operating.


As those of you who are familiar with my Radical Decency writings know, my argument begins with this premise: There is a specific set of values that predominates in our culture: Compete and win, dominant and control. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with these values, they are wildly overstated.

They permeate all areas of living, from the most private to the most public and political, and are thoroughly woven into the fabric of virtually every institution of any size and persistence. They also dominate every stage of life, driving us to be a top performer from grade school forward – so we can get into the best possible college – leading “of course” to the most prestigious possible job – where the coin of the realm is, once again, “success;” the next promotion or raise, and more and more power and money.

Because these values are deeply corrosive in their effect, lasting change in our lives and in the world needs to grow out of a “radical” shift away from compete to win toward a very different set of values that I refer to as “decency”: Respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice.


The broad outlines of our “compete to win” ethos is apparent to most. But what is harder to fully appreciate is the grip it has over our lives. Many of us think we can “just turn away” from these values, putting them aside, no sweat, if we decide to. But that is seldom the case. Far more that we like to admit, we are ensnared by a witches brew of fear and seduction:

1. The dread of a being “loser” – socially and economically marginalized.

And on the flip side,

2. The allure of “success” – the toys, attention, adrenaline high of “winning,” and sense (however ephemeral) of invulnerability.

So the great majority of us play by the rules of this mainstream game, even those of us who – squeezing our larger life concerns into nights and weekends – like to tell our selves that we stand apart from these debased values.

We are all in the dirty bathtub.


When it comes our economic choices, the grip of these values is especially strong. In ways that are often unawares – and, frequently, indignantly denied – they deeply and fundamentally shape our outlooks and day-by-day choices at work and in our careers.

Take me, for example.

As one of those unawares and, at times, indignant deniers, I was exposed to the system’s amorality as a law student who, working at a big Washington firm, wrote Congressional testimony for the head of a credit bureau, arguing against the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

My reaction: This isn’t for me. I am different and better. So I turned by back on all of that – so I thought – choosing instead to work for an “apolitical” Philadelphia firm.

But, of course, there was nothing in the least apolitical about my firm. To the contrary, my partners and I worked long hours, crafting aggressive, consequences be damned legal strategies designed to protect and expand our clients’ wealth and (to use Reich’s phrase) upward pre-distribution capabilities.

It is important to note that the culture’s compete to win values are also thoroughly woven into the fabric of my new, seemingly far more benign, profession. Psychotherapists routinely wrap up treatment when insurance reimbursements end; after 4 or 6 sessions in the case of Employee Assistance Plans, or 30 days in the case of drug rehabilitation. We also, with only the rarest of exceptions, end our sessions, not at a moment that makes sense within the context of this particular intimate human interaction, but whenever the hour that is the cornerstone of our billing model expires.

And what is true in my chosen professions is true across the board:

  • Otherwise devoted teachers reluctantly abandoning real learning to teach to the standardized tests upon which their school’s funding depends;
  • Marketing and sales people routinely making patently untrue claims for their companies and products, the unquestioned priority being sales and profit and not a forceful, persuasive – but honest – recitation of their strengths;
  • Accountants maneuvering at the edge of legality, to reduce clients’ tax liability with creativity and aggressiveness in direct proportion to the wealth and, thus, size of the fees their clients generate.
  • Doctors leaving primary care for narrow gauge specialties (from 70% to 30%) and psychiatrists becoming drug prescribing specialists, abandoning talk therapy in droves (from 90% plus to less than 8%) – because that’s where the money is.

And then, of course, there are all the (fear driven) accommodations and/or (ambition-induced) acts of appeasement and pandering to bosses; choices that are, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception for employees up and down our authoritarian corporate hierarchies.


I offer these examples to make a crucial point. The problem is with the system and not with its egregious examples. We can’t fix our economy and politics by curbing the actions of a finite group of bad actors. Instead, it’s a matter of diverging from the compete/win mindset that shows up everywhere; in the choices made by virtually all of us, whether we are lawyers, psychotherapists, line workers, or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

One helpful by-product of this insight is that it gets us away from the unfortunate tendency to over focus on finding and punishing the “bad guys.” CEOs and their legal, financial, and accounting handmaidens – who slash jobs and pump their compensation into the stratosphere – are, without question, far more culpable for the inequity and indecency with which we are afflicted.

But we need to understand that they, like us, are trapped by the system: The demands of their banks and investors; the need for still another profitable quarter; and, more generally, the system’s witch’s brew of fear and seduction. We also need to recognize that many (though certainly not all) of them honestly see themselves as we see our selves: As decent people who want to do the right thing – if only they could. Indeed, if you think about it, this reality is fairly intuitive.


A fundamental problem with the current compete/win system – beyond its inequitable economic outcomes – is its psychological toll. The pressure to be a winner and, at all costs, to avoid being a loser, has brought with it:

  • Chronic dissatisfaction when, as is true for the great majority of us, we fall short of the “wins” we are forever seeking.
  • Relentless, remorseless, spirit-draining self-judgment – and its expectable byproduct, the episodic anxiety and depression that, in the mainstream view, is seen as an inevitable part of living;
  • A pandemic of perfection-seeking and pain-medicating behaviors (workaholism; compulsive dieting; drug, alcohol, and sex addictions); and
  • A model for intimacy that, reflecting our compete/win values, over-emphasizes possessiveness and judgment; hence our sky high divorce rates and the enormous, unnecessary conflict and pain that so many families endure and feel powerless to change.

And this point is key: While the seductive rewards of the current system are, of course, exponentially greater for those at the very top, these people do not escape any of these painful psychological realities.


So what are the lessons to be taken from these realities as we seek to craft an effective change strategy?

The first thing to notice is that most current reform initiatives fail to address this fundamental values issue in a focused and sustained way. While their stated goal is typically fairness and justice (2 of decency’s 7 values), they are, at an operational level, engaged in a “fight fire with fire” approach to change; employing the mindsets and tactics of the mainstream culture in an effort to beat it at its own game. Their hope: If we can elect this fresh new leader he will, once in office, change things.

These electoral efforts are very important. Candidates are different and who we elect affects the lives of millions. But it isn’t enough.

Here’s the problem. This fresh new leader and the advisors who surround him – like all the rest of us – are children of our compete to win system. And in order survive and get ahead in politics they have, necessarily, intensely immersed themselves in the current system’s ways of operating. That is who they had to become to win. And, it is an integral part of who they are when they take power.

The result? Over time, and with utter predictability, these fresh new leaders – while continuing to say all the right things – make (mostly quiet and discrete) compromises and deals with the wealthy; deals that allow them to retain their hard-won power but, as they accumulate, progressively marginalize their initial reform agenda.

So while we need to continue to fight for better candidates (and lobby for better laws), these efforts need to operate within the context of a larger movement that directly challenges the compete and win values that are so formative in perpetuating, and extending, our deeply inequitable economic/political system. This movement would:

  1. Focus on the pervasive influence that these values exercise over the many, many individual choices – by each of us – that, cumulatively, are responsible for our current situation; and
  2. Work to expand the reach of a new set of values – decency – that, as they deepen and take hold, will create a growing constituency that, instead of feeling pressure to shrink from reform initiatives, will instinctually seek extend and expand them.

How would this initiative look in practice?

It begins with us.

In a process that will never be complete, we need to continually deepen our understanding of the many the ways in which compete and win mindsets infiltrate our lives and, as this discovery process unfolds, movie steadily toward choices that are more decent in all areas of living.

And, then, with our increasing clarity about what is decent and what is not, we need to make decency the cornerstone of the expectations we have for our leaders– in the political arena, of course, but also at our churches, mosques, and synagogues; in our unions and professional organizations; at our places of businesses; and, indeed, in all of our shared, communal venues. We need to expect our leaders – like us – to be people who lean hard and consistently toward more decent choices, continually seeking ways to expand the organization’s decent ways of operating into more and more areas.

Note, importantly, we would not make sainthood a requirement for leadership. To the contrary, since decency to self is every bit as important as decency to others and the world, our leaders will also need to be competent, effective and fully committed to our organizational goals – but not at the expense of decency.

In choosing our leaders, the crucial crux of the matter would be this: We need to wean ourselves from our habitual readiness to excuse problematic behaviors because: He’s so good at making money – or gets the job done – or sticks it to our adversaries – or because he’s “one of us” and is under is attack by “them.”

Failing to decisively diverge from these and similar mainstream mindsets, we will continue to pay far too high a price. In the end, the organizations, communities, and businesses of which we are a part will continue to “do what needs to be done”; receding, inevitably, back to the compete/win values that so permeate our lives and world.

Note, importantly, that our vigilance in weaning our selves from our current ways needs to be matched by an equally fulsome commitment to decency’s 7 values. Failing to chart an ever clearer course in this very different direction, the massive centrifugal pull of our mainstream ways of being will, through a myriad of small, frequently imperceptible compromises, pull us back to our indecent, inequitable norms.


The current system is extraordinarily powerful and dynamic. Any meaningful reform initiative – including the values-based approach I advocate – will be difficult to implement and uncertain of success. But, unlike simpler, more straightforward appeals to fairness and justice, this approach has the distinct advantage of speaking directly to the current system’s Achilles Heal: The very real psychological pain that it inflicts – on all of us.

The crucial, hidden power of this approach? Wholly without regard to outcomes, a decisive shift to decency’s 7 values promises a far more nourishing and satisfying life.

Here’s how it works.

Fully invested in these values, the challenge, then, is to figure out how to balance and integrate decency to self with decency others and the world, in every situation. Doing so, we are repeatedly confronted with in-the-moment, wisdom stretching dilemmas. And because these choices are – in their immediacy – a consuming pre-occupation, we wind up living more and more in the present.

The fortuitous by-product of this steady and increasing attention to what we can do, here and now? A progressive withering of two of compete and win’s most painful byproducts: Fear and anxiety about the future; and shame, guilt, and remorse about the past.

And that is not all. When all that we do is approached with the curiosity and growing sense of discernment that a radical commitment to decency demands, we have an increased and growing sense of:

  • Empathy and acceptance for our self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control; and
  • A clear – and ennobling – sense purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust and an increased sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.


Remember, crucially, that all of us – even the richest amongst us – are psychological victims of the current system. Thus, the vitalizing immediacy of a committed decency practice – and its spirit affirming byproducts – is not limited to the economically disadvantaged.

The compelling, spirit-affirming power of our message will, it is true, be increasingly compromised by the current system’s seductive aspects as we move up the economic ladder. But, even as we acknowledge this reality, the pivotal point remains: Because our values-based approach speaks to our deepest, most fundamental human longings, a surprising number of people – even those at the top – will be powerfully drawn to it.

Our movement for change will no longer be an “us against them” phenomenon. Steadily appealing in the best in all of us, an increasing number of privileged people will “get it” and join up. And then, as more and more people at every level migrate toward decency, the credibility of the “old way” will progressively erode even as decency becomes an irresistible force – changing not just our lives, but the world as well.

Admittedly, this vision for the future is wildly optimistic. But because – wholly apart from outcomes in the larger world – it is the vital pathway to a better life, our approach, unlike current change efforts, promises to unleash the sustained passion and energy that is so essential, if we hope to create a more equitable and humane world.


Disclaimer: The application of Radical Decency is inherently open to different, valid interpretations. While the opinions expressed in this and other Reflections represent the author’s interpretation of the philosophy, it should not  be taken as “the truth” or “final word” on what Radical Decency means.