Mention income inequality and many explode and rail against various methods of redistributing wealth – taxing the rich, raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, the Affordable Care act, expanding social programs. Every one of those ideas has countless enemies and so the debate goes nowhere. People who dislike arguments shut down. Those with strong opinions about any of the above are beyond listening to anyone else.
Let’s add some clarity.
Before you talk about any of the ideas mentioned above, we need to first agree on whether income inequality exists. The evidence seems pretty conclusive, but that doesn’t mean this concept is widely accepted. Of course, part of the reason there isn’t wide acceptance is because it is hard to broach the subject without someone screaming about no new taxes.
The next question to discuss is whether it is a problem. Does it matter that income inequality exists? I am confident that there is no general agreement on this question. Of course, once again, it is very difficult to discuss whether it is a problem without hearing that a) people should just lift themselves up by their bootstraps and b) people shouldn’t be punished for working hard and making money. The other side, meanwhile, extolls their favorite fix. And yet, no one has agreed there is a problem that requires fixing.
Were we to hold off on the emotional and fruitless arguments long enough to obtain sufficient agreement that we have a problem, that income inequality is not a desirable condition, we could then move the conversation on to two new productive questions:
- What is causing income inequality? Unless we eliminate the cause, we will continue to create the problem. And if we can’t agree on the cause, we will never agree on the solution.
- Should we be doing something in the interim to ameliorate this condition? These are the band aids. The contingent actions. They won’t reduce income inequality, but they will reduce the impact.
Now none of these discussions is going to be easy, but it they don’t happen in this order and with this degree of clarity, we will get nowhere fast. Progress requires:
- Agreeing on the current state – that we have income inequality
- Agreeing that the current state is a problem – that income inequality is a problem
- Identifying the possible causes of the problem, which usually requires looking beyond those that first jump to mind
- Agreeing on the most significant causes of the problem – the factors contributing the most to this undesirable state
- Agreeing on the best ways to eliminate the most significant causes – solutions that will eliminate or reduce the factors contributing to the inequality
- Agreeing on whether contingent actions are needed to lessen the impact of the problem and what actions make the most sense – reducing the pain, breadth and depth of inequality
- Identifying and assessing the risks associated with both the preventive (step 5) and contingent (step 6) actions
- Agreeing on whether we can accept, reduce, or eliminate those risks
All the emotionally laden arguments about taxes, unemployment benefits, social services, and more are legitimate inputs to steps 5 – 7. But because the conversation has skipped steps 1 – 4, the wait for good answers, never mind agreement on answers, to these most critical questions, will strain the patience of even the most incurable optimists. Those caught up in the argument wouldn’t even agree on which of the many proposed “solutions” fall under step 5 – real solutions that will eliminate income inequality, such as education improvements, or step 6 – contingency actions, bandaids, efforts to ameliorate the impact of the problem such as feeding hungry people and providing shelter.
This failure to make critical distinctions, this propensity to jumble these conversations into one confused, emotional argument, and the conflation of risks, solutions, bandaids, objectives, limitations, opinions, and facts guarantee that tempers will boil, progress will stall, precious time will be lost, and, perhaps most important of all, some of the smartest and best informed people most capable of sorting this out will keep their distance and fail to participate.
Our country can’t afford this level of dysfunction.
Your company can’t either.
When I am party to such discussions, I provide the clarity. I steer the conversation so we address the right questions in the right order and with input from the right parties.
Make 2014 the year for clarity. Create a logical process before jumping into the content.