So how exactly can we address income inequality by simply asking everyone to learn new skills and find a better job, avoiding the reality of the need for a re-distribution of social resources? We can’t.
Analyzing the evolution of class and income inequality under capitalism, Marx and Engels famously asserted, “What the bourgeoisie . . . produces, above all, is its own gravediggers.” They meant that the capitalist class would through relentless exploitation create conditions for its own death by unifying the working class into an engine of historical change, spurring the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism itself. Marx and Engels, of course, delighted in this prospect, envisioning an egalitarian socialist society.
These days, the prospects do not seem quite as gleeful. While the capitalist class, including but not limited to the infamous-and infamously greedy-one percent, might no doubt be engaged in digging their own graves, the rest of us might really need to worry that they will be digging our graves too-at least one can infer as much from a recent Harvard Business School study. The study, entitled “An Economy Doing Half Its Job,” points out that while large and midsize businesses have been performing strongly coming out of the Great Recession, “middle-class and working-class citizens are struggling.” This “divergence,” the study argues, is “unsustainable.” The study underscores corporate America’s self-interest in improving the overall standard of living in the United States, warning, “Businesses cannot thrive for long while their communities languish.”
Even former President Bill Clinton recognizes the need for a change in economic behavior and values suggestive of redistribution. At the recent Clinton Global Initiative, he offered the prediction that corporations will someday care more about their employees and overall social well-being than maximizing profits, suggesting they will do so “because of proof that markets work better that way.” He prophesized this choice: “We’re going to share inequality, misery, and conflict, or we’re going to share prosperity, responsibilities and a sense of community.”
While a hopeful prediction, we can find examples of thriving enterprises that already have these values built into their plans; and they aren’t necessarily doing so “because of proof that markets work better that way” but because they value people and the work they do, promoting a broader social vision. Take Honey Butter Fried Chicken, a small, independently-owned restaurant on the Northwest side of Chicago. Josh Kulp explains that he and his co-chef and co-managing partner Christine Cikowski, along with their business partners and designers Jen Mayer and Chris Jennings, opened the restaurant “in a conscious attempt to provide a space where employees could thrive.” They wanted to be “known and respected not only for offering responsible and delicious food . . . but also for being an amazing place to work.” Kulp stresses that “from the outset, we have emphasized paying a fair wage, offering paid sick time, paid vacation time, and health benefits,” which they have been able to offer through Affordable Care Act. They share all financial information with their employees and hope to offer profit-sharing to their employees in the future.
They do not ask the busboys or dishwashers to increase their value or improve their skills to earn a higher wage. There is a recognition that for the restaurant to be successful, this work is necessary. They don’t try to de-value the work to maximize value. They have in fact re-valued the work by focusing on the vital role the worker fulfills in the enterprise. This is not a redistribution of wealth but simply a sensible distribution of it. In my one visit to the restaurant, Kulp introduced me to several of his employees, including younger ones whom he was encouraging to attend college. It was clear Kulp viewed his business as part of a larger social project that will lead to the kind of humane world he envisions and from which he will benefit.
Photo: “Ladies of the line rule brunch today” at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, July 19. (via FB page)