Inversion

“Public bodies must tackle these inequalities in a concerted and sustained way. That is what this duty will require. They will need to think strategically about what more they can do to address socio-economic disadvantage individually and with their partner organisations when they decide their key priorities, set their targets and plan and commission their services. That goes directly to the heart of the matter….  We have made clear in the wording of the duty that we want to see real change with tangible, measurable outcomes.”

- Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, March 2010

What started three weeks ago as a group of protesters occupying Wall Street has spread to other cities and other forms of protest. People are registering their anger at growing economic inequalities, though not making any specific demands around which solutions could take shape.  (Smashing the Wall Street bull is probably not something around which most of us would rally.)

In the absence of clear demands from the protesters, the natural reaction is to jump in and suggest some.  (Nicholas Kristof did in his column; blogger Jason Karsch provides another list on his blog.)  However, while “protecting banks from themselves,” regulating Wall Street, and instituting a financial transactions tax is all enticing stuff for further thought, I wonder what would happen if protesters shifted their thinking from what they are against to what they stand for.  They are against corporate greed and growing inequality.  They are frustrated by stories of high CEO salaries and bailouts as so many Americans and others around the world suffer.  The remedies that I have heard, however, fall short.  We continue to think small and dance around the edges of any lasting shift in those elements of our society that lead to greater equality for all.

Let’s take the inverse all of the challenges facing us and our world and imagine what society might look like.  What does the opposite of unfair tax code, loopholes, unbalanced pay scales, and disempowerment look like?  In turn, what kind of legislation would affirm and expand those elements of our society that we value and aspire most to have?

One answer can be found across the Atlantic.  The Equality Trust in the U.K. has worked tirelessly for legislation that recognizes that we are all stronger when we all have equal opportunities to succeed.  The Equality Trust has conducted rigorous research and study into equality and has provided considerable evidence to show how all members of society are better off in societies where they is a higher level of equality.  A year ago this weekend, the Equality Act took affect to provide an Equality Strategy that sets out a vision for a “strong, modern and fair Britain.”

The Act is built on two principles of equality – equal treatment and equal opportunity.  In reality, only the first principle was enacted in 2010, forbidding discrimination on the basis of many of the same characteristics as disallowed in the U.S.  The socio-economic duty provision addressing income inequality was not approved.  However, through the work of the Equality Trust and others, 101 MPs in the British Parliament have now expressed support for the provision.  Equality Trust continues to push legislation that builds “a stronger, fairer and more cohesive society where equality is for everyone and is everyone’s responsibility.”

The Equality Strategy, when fully implemented, would force all decisions about legislation and government spending through a filter that asks one question: What impact would this have on equality?  It resembles a strategy screen used by civic leaders to create criteria to guide strategic decisions in advance of those decisions, allowing them to respond in real time to the dynamic nature of their work.  The beauty of a strategy screen is that it allows leaders to be forward thinking, not just responding to past legislation but setting up a values-based framework by which new legislation can be measured.

As Georgetown University professor of history said, “Rants based on discontents are the first stage of any movement.” It is natural for a movement to start in protest, and we can get for the most part universal agreement on what we don’t want in our world: poverty, lack of opportunity, and generational wealth consolidation.  However, keeping the fight as one against negative aspects of society forces us to create solutions in the margins, tweaking tax code or legislating CEO salaries.  It is a lot harder to get agreement on what we want— equality, shared responsibility so that all members of our society receive opportunity.  Only by fighting for the inverse of the bad can we achieve lasting good.

I applaud the protesters for taking a stand and registering their concern about the growing divide that plagues our nation, as well as world.  Now that they have our attention, it is up to us to enact a practical agenda that holds our elected officials accountable for rebuilding our communities with the most fundamental of American values: equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, class, or tax bracket.

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