Throwing a Fit for Fairness

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Picture this: a 3-year-old throwing a temper tantrum, kicking and screaming and rolling on the floor. His lower lip is pooched out in a prize-winning pout, his fists clenched. What does he say? “It’s not FAIR!” Now, we’re only watching this; we don’t know what terrible injustice he’s suffering, but we suspect he’s overplaying things a bit. Perhaps his big brother got a bike and he didn’t. Maybe his sister ate her vegies and therefore is slurping on a Popsicle. It doesn’t matter; what is important here is his undeveloped sense of justice. He thinks fair means equal.

I’m beginning to realize that this is the one of the big differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints. I hear Democrats constantly talking (read that whining) about fairness. Our president has made the issue the cornerstone of his administration, but he doesn’t really mean fair as in just or unbiased. He means, like our red-faced 3-year-old, equal. Those terms are not interchangeable, tangential maybe, but not synonymous. 

Equal is an absolute mathematical concept: A = A. Granted, we use it more loosely, but maybe that’s the problem. For instance, it may be possible to get equal pay, mathematically, but only if the salary was for exactly equal work, equal dependability, equal devotion, and that’s hard to measure. I used to teach across the hall from a charming man who, like myself had a master’s degree, and like myself had years and years of experience, but unlike me, he mostly showed videos – pretty much all the time. Pop in the cassette, turn on the TV and that’s called teaching. We were paid equally, but you can’t call it fair.

Fairness involves action; equality doesn’t. If Orville builds an airplane, he has to buy the parts, and the tools. He must secure a place to work, and then he must spend hours and hours applying the knowledge and expertise that he had previously spent years and years attaining. When he goes to sell this plane, if the market is good for handcrafted airplanes, he will get a price that will not only recompense him for the parts he had to buy, but also for the effort and expertise he put into it. If Wilbur buys the plane from Orville and then flies it across the country and sells it to Amelia, it is fair for him to charge more than his purchase price because he’s taken the risk of buying it from Orville and the trouble to make it available to Amelia. Not equal, but fair.

Fairness has nothing to do with need; it has to do with effective effort -- I’ve been interested lately in watching the fast food walkouts. Thousands of employees, who originally agreed to work for the minimum wage (at a job that requires a minimum of intelligence, education and training) have walked out on their jobs now demanding they be paid double. Double! They aren’t offering to double their efforts on behalf of Mickey D or The King. (In all fairness, I have no idea what that would look like. No matter how fast you flip that burger, it still takes time to cook.), but they want double the pay.  I find that mind-boggling.

These folks – whose predicament I don’t envy – are basing their demands on their needs, which is inherently unfair.  Now, it would be awful to try to live on $8.95 (Oregon) an hour. That would be tricky, though no one is limiting anyone to just one place of employment; no one wants anyone to stay in a low-paying job.

A wage is based on the employer’s need, not the employee’s. If I’m going to open a restaurant I have to consider how many workers I’ll need to accomplish the work, what level of expertise they will need to have, and what price I can successfully charge for my food. The higher the profit margin and the higher the level of workers I need – a sommelier as opposed to a busboy – the more I can pay those workers. It has nothing at all to do with what the workers’ needs. If it did, then I would have to pay the young, single mother more than the high school kid who still lives at home, or because the cleaning lady’s husband has a bad heart, I’d have to pay her more than the chef who’s young, healthy and has a working wife. Doesn’t that just open a can of tapeworms? What you need has no connection to what you are paid.

If Vera is smart and talented, has a college degree, and ten years of experience in textile design, then she has something to market, something to exchange for money. If, however, she dropped out of high school, has never developed much interest in anything, let alone any specific skills, then all she has to market is her time, and it may take a great deal of her time to earn enough to live on.

Is that fair? Mostly. Theoretically she could have learned something and graduated from high school. I’ve watched way too many students just choose not to. During my high school teaching days I dealt with close to 6,000 students. A few were slow enough to make school obviously difficult, but I never had one student who couldn’t learn. I had many who found life thoroughly boring – at 16! – but none who were fundamentally unable to earn a living. True, many came from horrible homes, had suffered terrible traumas, had health issues – but none of those things affect the price of labor in the economy. That young people live in homes where their parents mistreat them, or stumble into the world of sex and drugs long before they know what they were doing is just tragic, but it is not up to Wendy’s to rectify that situation.

Part of the frustration for these unskilled people is that we no longer have available a plethora of jobs that don’t require an education. Twenty years ago I’d have students who would say to me, “Why do I have to learn this? I’m just going to go work in the mill.” Then the spotted owl stopped the woodcutting and the saw mills closed. What do those unskilled workers do for a living wage? That’s a problem, but not one that Taco Bell has to subsidize.

The strikers are also furious that the CEO’s of these companies are making 6 and 7-figure salaries while they make less than 9 dollars an hour.  Mentally return to our fit-throwing toddler – “That’s not fair!” No, it’s fair; it just isn’t equal.  CEO’s may be obnoxious, golf-playing, promiscuous manipulators, but they have college degrees, managerial skills, drive, determination, and are generally high-risk personalities. Not only that but each of these restaurant chains has only a handful of CEO’s and thousands of burger-flippers – even if you divvied up the salaries of the hot shots and passed them out to the workers, it wouldn’t make life financially comfortable for anyone. The men at the top are being paid what their companies think they are worth, not what anyone thinks they need. The companies pay their cooks what they are worth as well.

Fairness is not about having a Popsicle every time your sister has one. It’s not about having what other people have. It’s not about having at all. And equality is a myth. If we all behave ourselves we can all be socially equal.  If we follow the Constitution we can all be legally equal – one citizen, one vote, but we are each so unique that absolute equality, absolute parity is not possible, nor is it desirable. They only way to be equal is to be identical which destroys everything.

The only way to be fair is to be as much like God as we can be – He knows what is going on – has complete information; He is love – cares so much about us that He became a man and took our punishment on Himself; He is perfect goodness and is incapable of doing anything evil.

If we are as informed as possible, as loving as we can be and as good as we know how to be, and if we are immersing ourselves in God’s Word so that we might be even better, then fairness, justice, will happen around us. And – news flash – barring our raising of children, we can only make ourselves fair; we have no control over the fairness of anyone else.