Eliminating inequality is everyone’s concern

By Seth Bornstein

The word “inequality” is used quite a bit these days. But anyone who has been around 5-year-olds for more than 15 minutes is familiar with the refrain “it’s not fair,” usually screamed in a high pitch and followed by a meltdown.

When my two daughters were toddlers, we heard our share of this refrain. After a long car ride, I pulled into the driveway, opened the door, and ordered them on a forced march. They were not allowed to utter a single word. Going around the block in freezing rain, I agreed with them.

“Yes, life is unfair. There will always be someone who has more Cheerios in the snack bag than you. Someone else will always have more Barbie doll accessories. And later on you’ll find out that there will always be people who are taller, prettier, smarter, and funnier than you. Accept it, but realize that there will be times when you are taller, prettier, smarter, and funnier than others. And you might have more Cheerios in your snack bag the next time. But you have to be aware of the differences and figure out ways to make everything even. You’ll both be better for it—I promise!”

Twenty years later, I’m not entirely sure if my daughters bought into it. (Maybe they just wanted to get out of the rain.) But I did drive home a point to two wet youngsters that the world is not equal. And those of us who have a lot of Cheerios have to figure out ways to assist those who don’t.

I was reminded of this incident recently at a lecture by a financial journalist who claimed that inequality is a good thing: let the market do what it wants—eliminate regulations—and those with money and power will do the right thing and make life better for all. He was especially disgusted by government regulators who stifle innovation. As a brow-beaten executive director of a small non-profit that spends more time than he likes dealing with government regulations, I thought perhaps he had a point. But as I drove back to the office afterwards, there was a piece on the radio about Frances Kelsey, a junior FDA regulator in the 1950s who fought against the use of thalidomide. The drug was touted to alleviate nausea and morning sickness in pregnant women, and there was enormous pressure from a well-funded drug company to allow its use (and reap enormous profits). Kelsey held firm to her belief that it caused malformation of limbs and premature death in babies and eventually convinced the regulatory agency to prohibit it, thus saving countless babies from being born with life-altering disabilities.

Believing that the private sector—left unfettered—will eliminate inequality is a noble concept. But while I can be a bit naïve sometimes, I do think that, if left to its own devices, the private sector would become overrun with greed and self-centeredness. And that’s what we have to transform. It should be noted that the entire membership (193 countries!) of the United Nations agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda last week. These goals take in many items such as providing basic human rights, a clean environment, decent healthcare, and quality education for all. Would a consortium of the private sector have done that?

Helping people achieve economic self-sufficiency, whether they are baking brownies, opening a child care center or embarking on their own contracting business, helps to build their careers and their communities. Starting out, not everyone will have the same amount of Cheerios in their snack bags, but a just world will ensure that we make an attempt to even it out.

Seth Bornstein

Director, Queens Economic Development Corporation