A little respect: Can we restore relational equality?

Employees sort packages at the Amazon distribution center warehouse in Saran, near Orleans, France, November 22, 2016.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer - RC184ABAB660

Equality can be thought of in three different ways: Basic equality, granted to all in the form of political or legal rights; material equality, measured principally in terms of economic and other resources; and relational equality, which is earned through respect of oneself and of others. A primary source of relational equality is work. But workers in America are struggling. Many are out of work, and for many more paid workers, wages have remained stagnant as income inequality has widened. There has also been an erosion in the quality of work, especially with regard to autonomy, voice, status, and security. As a result, the U.S. is becoming more unequal, both in resource and relational terms, especially along class lines. This widening respect gap not only means that the winners—those in the upper class—have less respect for the losers—those who are less successful, it also means the losers have less self-respect. In “A little respect: Can we restore relational equality?” (PDF), Richard V. Reeves looks at ways to narrow this respect gap. He outlines two options for narrowing this gap and attempting to restore relational equity between classes.

Restore work as a basis of status and respect

Restoring work to its central cultural and economic position will likely require a combination of a sustained, expansionary macroeconomic stance, including heavy direct state investment; significantly lower taxes on labor; strong incentives for greater profit sharing and support for trade unions; and direct job creation. This will also require cultural shifts, including a greater willingness on the part of men to take “women’s jobs”. What does this mean for policy, above and beyond the traditional pro-work policies mentioned above? In her forthcoming book The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation, Isabel Sawhill out-lines what she labels a “GI Bill for America’s Workers” built on four cornerstones:

  1. Ensuring full employment through macroeconomic policy;
  2. investing in “active labor market policies”, including training and job search assistance;
  3. introducing national service (including not only military activities but broader social and com-munity work); and
  4. providing job subsidies to draw the harder-to-employ into the labor force.

Replace work as basis of status and respect

Well-intentioned attempts to improve the social performance of the labor market, even those as bold as those mentioned above, may not be enough; band-aids over a growing wound. This is why the idea of a universal basic income is capturing the imagination and attention of policy intellectuals, across the globe and across the political spectrum. If the labor market is no longer going to cut it in terms of distribution, it might be time for more radical solutions. Politically, the idea that working taxpayers should support the lifestyle of a full-time surfer remains challenging.  The moral arguments against basic income are similar to some of the arguments for the mutual respect necessary for civic republicanism, respect that is generated by people earning their place, rather than simply taking it. But thoughtful proponents of a basic income point out that bad work and intrusive means-testing can also undermine respect. If we are to move away from paid work as the primary mechanism for the distribution of income and generation of mutual respect, the idea of participation may nonetheless be important. Not only in terms of political viability, but also, and crucially for my purposes, in the capacity for cash transfers to bolster rather than undermine respect, for ourselves and for others. One thing is for sure: Increasing relational equality is inseparable from tackling resource inequalities of various kinds; reducing the degree of segregation between social classes; and learning once again to treat each other as equals, not only as a matter of law and theory, but in the thick of daily life. Read the full paper here.