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The Importance of Balance

By Paul Sullivan,
Georgetown

One of the most difficult things for a society to do is to create some sense of social balance and social justice, while at the same time developing and growing an economy. Just about every country that has developed its economy has had time periods of great income and wealth inequality. This does not mean that income and wealth inequality helps drive economic development. It likely means just the inverse: economic development helps drive income and wealth inequality.
Many philosophers and economists in the past have thought that there must be a way around this. It is important to have some sense of balance in an economy and in a society. This is important for stability reasons and for long term societal satisfaction. The real issue it seems, according to many psychological studies, is not that you are rich or poor, but how you can measure up to your neighbors or others in your society. Anger, resentment and frustration are relative concepts.
If you live in a tiny house and work 100 hour weeks at hard labor when your neighbor is living in a mansion and you see them in the pool, tanned and rested all the time then you have a different sense of balance than if everyone was within some moderate range of differences. Having a hard working, but better off neighbor beside you in a reasonably larger house seem less unequal, and less frustrating, than having the tanned leisure class beside you.
Housing is but one example of the sources of tensions that can result from imbalances. Those imbalances can give people incentives to better themselves or they can create social tensions that can lead to rather bad results for a country.
I have been to many countries over the years. My first view of truly gigantic housing inequality was while living in India doing research for my Ph.D. I often roam the poorer and richer parts of cities where I live or visit. India presented to me a stark contrast that I had never seen before. In some places I would walk by a small palace of a rich family and then see people living in the streets on the same road. I visited one weekend the richest neighborhood in what was then called Bombay. Then I visited an orphanage run by the Agha Khan Foundation in one of the poorer areas of the city. I was very thoughtful that evening.
I was a roamer even as a young man. I liked to observe people and their surroundings. I suppose I was a budding scholar and did not even realize it. I was not a big note taker. I was more of the type to absorb it all in and try to figure it out later.
My first solid memory of real difficult living was when I was working on a truck in Boston. We delivered very heavy boxes to some of the toughest places in the city. (My father thought I was getting arrogant so he handed me a union card and said: “you start work tomorrow”. It was one of the smartest things he ever did for me.) I worked with men from hard backgrounds who were tough people who often went through a lot in their lives. As we drove through the streets I took much of it in. Seeing the unemployed youth standing listlessly at street corners looking like the menaces that they were was something of an eye-opener also. Given my upbringing in a highly competitive household in highly competitive area the idea of hanging around on a street corner seemed to be in another world. I also learned that life was very hard for most people. This was a lesson that would help me in the future in so many ways.
This experience also taught me how to talk with, have coffee with and commiserate with some of the toughest, most resilient, and poorest people. These were not my co-workers, but the many people I met along the way. I lost about 25 pounds in the first few weeks of this job – and also got a lot of the fat out of my head with the thoughts I may have had about being better than anyone else. There is not a lot of dignity in poverty, but there are many dignified poor people.
It taught me the importance of balance. I did not understand this fully until I traveled more and learned more about life. Countries with huge imbalances without some outlet for opportunity for those at the lower end of the scale to better themselves are countries heading for some trouble. That trouble can be seen in increases in crime in times of increasing imbalance or even civil strife at larger scales heading into revolutions.
Educational imbalances could some of the most venal imbalances in a society. I do not mean imbalances in educational potential, but in educational opportunity.
There are some people who are really good a fixing things like cars, planes, buses, plumbing. Some people have natural talents in carpentry, masonry, and building houses to hotels. Others could not hammer a nail with a hammer without hitting their thumb first. Some people are very good at mathematics and science. Others have artistic and writing talents. Still others are natural leaders of either small groups or of entire provinces or countries. After seeing some very talented people get put into square holes in the educational system when they should have been put in round holes I am convinced that there are natural imbalances across people with regard to their skills, talents, and more. However, most mass education systems do not see this.
Many very talented children end up frustrated and lacking in confidence even though they innately have good, very good or even great skills in something. Trying to create a fully egalitarian educational system can destroy the best talents. However, a fully stratified educational system could ruin the confidence of the average students and leave the country much worse off. There has to be a good and thoughtful balance in all of this.
Every child in a society needs and really should get an educational opportunity that will allow him or her to strive for a better life. If some groups of children are held back due to prejudice or the inability or unwillingness of society to allow them to improve themselves then it is a matter of time before trouble starts. It also seems immoral and unethical that only a small part of a society has educational chances whereas the rest wallow in mediocre and poor education that can trap them in low income and harsh conditions for life.
Sure there are the stories of the poor children from poor schools who ended up teaching themselves and becoming great leaders, thinkers, artists, scholars, and more. These are rare. There needs to be an edge of challenge in education, but there also needs to be time for the children to percolate ideas in their minds so they can think better. That better thinking can help them have better lives. However, it must be hard for a young child to think of a better world and some of the big ideas they will face as riots are undulating in the streets below or across from their tenement houses or shacks.
I have visited public school systems in various parts of the world. Some seem very good. Others are mixed. Some others are disasters and you can see that in the development of these countries. The public school systems also seem a lot better in the richer neighborhoods than the poorer ones, but that need not be the case.
There are no simple answers to the tensions between having balance, creating imbalances to give incentives for working and thinking harder and better and social stability in the medium and long runs. Housing and education are two of the things a country needs to consider.
Next week I will write about balances and imbalances in health and in the environment.

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Posted by on Jan 31 2013. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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