Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Human Rights and Inequity

“Do you think everyone should be paid equally?” the young man across the restaurant table asked me.

He had read my blog about how, four years ago, in one year the top 1 percent on America’s economic ladder received an increase in income that far exceeded the entire earnings of the lower 20 percent.

I had called the inequity an “outrage.”

“I don’t share your outrage,” he said.

There followed a long lunch-time conversation about executive compensation, compensation committees, compensation consultants, conflicts of interest, shareholder activism (or passivity), the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the nature of the free market, long-term vs. short-term investment returns, the destruction of the planet and the general question “How much is enough?“

At the end of our lunch, he still wasn’t outraged.

As is often the case, I carried the conversation around in my head for several hours. Bits and pieces still rattle around as I write this.

Among the ponderous chunks is his initial question: “Do you think everyone should be paid equally.” At the time I had answered “no,” but could feel a fuzziness in where this Q&A was headed. I have written here on The Red Electric about and talked with him about CEOs’ being compensated at 400 times the rate of the average worker. That contributed to my expression of outrage at injustice.

He wasn’t bothered by the inequity. “If workers don’t like it, they can quit.” Let the market determine what executives are paid, he said. But is the market rigged? I asked. Where does the free market — if it even exists — lead us?

Subsequently I called him for his consent to my writing this post about our private conversation. We agreed it is worth extending and sharing with you.

It seems to me we need to ask ourselves the question at the other extreme from “Should we all be paid equally?” Let's ask whether we should allow the market to produce a society in which the top 1 percent live in extreme excess and the remaining 99 percent live in utter poverty?

Where is the balance between the extreme posed by the questions?

The answer to the problem of inequality rests with how it is approached.

Our conversation led me to cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed at the 1948 UN General Assembly. I couldn’t quote articles and subsections verbatim at lunch, but I can now as I have the declaration before me. The document is worth reading in its entirety. It isn’t long. It does suffer from language that today is seen as sexist — and I’ve altered the following to address the problem.

Several sections are directly relevant to our lunch-time discussion.


Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of (humanity).

Article 23 …(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring … an existence worthy of human dignity … (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his (or her) interests.

Article 24 Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25 (a) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of (the individual and the family), including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in (uncontrollable) circumstances

Article 26 Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

To return to the beginning: Should everyone be paid equally? No. Indeed many wouldn’t want the wealth that the very rich bestow upon themselves. Many believe that to be part of such excess hastens the destruction of the planet.

But should we all have our basic needs met, as listed in Article 25? Indeed we should, and if that means the wealthy few are forced to sell their yachts, their private jets, $1000 bottles of wine or chalets in Aspen, if that means that we are compensated more equitably, so be it.



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