Fulfilling America’s Promise: Build Equity, Bridge the Gap

The TakeAway: As we celebrate Independence Day, it’s time to rededicate ourselves to those very ideals on which our nation was founded: liberty, opportunity, and justice for all. That means bridging the equity gap that undermines the American dream and invites degradation, despair, and despotism. How to do it? Leverage billions of tax-exempt investment dollars in our communities toward environmental, social, economic, and governance prosperity.

“My country, ‘tis of thee … Sweet land of liberty … Of thee I sing.”

So go the words to “America”, that de facto hymn to America’s promise, penned by seminary student Samuel Francis Smith not far from where I live and first sung on the steps of Boston’s Park Street Church by its Sunday School children on July 4, 1831—the same location where, two years earlier, William Lloyd Garrison gave his first public address against slavery, what one historian called “an epochal moment in the history of freedom.”

But the U.S. doesn’t seem so “sweet” these days, not with all the pain and grief we see around us: the Charleston church massacre, continued police killings of (mostly male) unarmed civilians,[1] and an insidious racism that reminds us there is no “post-racial America”.[2]

The gaps are everywhere. Gaps between us as human beings. Not just race, but religion and class, region and context, age and body type.

Gaps between our espoused national values and the reality—a government that lies to us and spies on us, and leaves a mountain of nuclear waste in a place where it can spill into the sea.[3]

Gaps between our earthly selves and the Earth that sustains us, now crying for mercy as we foul its soil, air, and waters, with CO2 emissions concentrated in an atmosphere whose carrying capacity is limited—emissions that linger for 100 years or more.

Gaps between the purposes and impact of our institutions, where Washington gridlock corrodes self-governance, Wall Street greed undermines economic well-being, and discouraged workers have given up.  Add to the mix the fact that, despite the hype, technology’s tools threaten to consolidate power, not expand it.[4]

Then there’s perhaps the biggest gap of all — the gap between the rich and the rest of us, a gap that contains its own gap: the 0.1 percent of the 0.1 percent. That’s a gap that troubles all Americans across all the other gaps, one that’s insidious and ugly and evil, a cancer on the body politic that many decry but few fix.

That’s an inequality that involves equity, in all meanings of the term. It’s not just about money. It’s about “standing”, a “middle class”, about mutual respect and well-being, about having a fair chance to get ahead, a stake in society — and pitching in for future generations so they’ll have one, too. The lower you are on society’s ladder, the less likely you are to go anywhere; not only that, the rungs have gotten further apart.[5]

What will it take to bridge these gaps? What will it take to revive a sense of agency and meaning, a belief in the possibility of a good life, a belonging to something bigger and better? What will it take to revive civic engagement in preserving the American dream and all it embodies, with liberty, opportunity, and justice for all?

Let me offer an idea, one that involves cracking into billions of dollars of financial capital that surrounds us, hidden but very very real, and capable of restoring some sense of balance to our personal, public, and planetary lives.

It involves an ancient concept that is making a quiet comeback: the idea that managing money carries with it civic duty to a greater good. That’s a fiduciary principle you can find in all the major religions and philosophical traditions. You also could say it’s a principle embedded in our DNA, because the survival of the species isn’t just about the fittest, but the presence of fitness-enhancing ethical principles.[6] It’s about cohesion and cooperation, a sense of trust, and a faith in a future.

That’s not exactly where we find ourselves today.

So as we celebrate the Red, White, and Blue and that Grand Ol’ Flag, blast fireworks in favor of freedom and equality, and celebrate our 239th birthday, let’s turn our gaze and flex our muscles for what lies ahead, and bridge that damn equity gap. Let’s help fulfill America’s promise and make the money power work for the public interest, not undermine it. The infrastructure is there. The tools are there. The financial, legal, regulatory, and historic teachings are there, for we, the people to leverage.

With idealism, inventiveness, and a sense of historical obligation, we can do this, together. And in so doing, address the range of social, environmental, economic, and governance challenges that beset us.

Time to get busy. That’s a way to honor truly the “Land where my fathers died … Land of the pilgrims’ pride” and justify the words, “From ev’ry mountain side … Let freedom ring.”


[1] According to The Washington Post, which keeps an interactive, up-to-date tally of police killings across the land, 51 unarmed individuals have been shot and killed by police thus far in 2015. All but one were men; 19 were black, 14 were white, and 14 were Hispanic. Their ages were evenly distributed, with one victim under 18, 15 between the ages of 18 and 24, 15 between the ages of 25 to 34, and 16 between the ages of 35 to 44. Three of the civilian dead were between 45 and 54 years old; one victim was 55 years or older. As of this Fourth of July, there have been 466 people shot dead by police this year. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, “As many of our sharper activists and writers have pointed out, America’s struggle is to become not post-racial, but post-racist. Put differently, we should seek not a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.” See http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/post-racial-society-distant-dream/395255/.

[3] In a remote location in the South Pacific sits a ticking time bomb—the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs, to be exact, detonated every day for 12 years. The Reunit Dome, called “The Tomb” by locals, consists of 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left behind after 12 years of nuclear tests in the midst of the Marshall Islands. Called “Operation Ivy”, “the detonations blanketed the islands with irradiated debris, including Plutonium-239, the fissile isotope used in nuclear warheads, which has a half-life of 24,000 years.” That’s according to a report by the climate change team at the Ground Truth Project, which appeared recently in The Guardian. See Coleen Jose, Kim Wall, and Jan Hendrik Hinzel, “This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste — and it’s leaking,” The Guardian, 3 July 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/03/runit-dome-pacific-radioactive-waste?CMP=share_btn_tw.

[4] Frank Pasquale makes a persuasive argument for curbing “runaway data”, and “black box algorithms” in his must-read book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[5] For a heartbreaking and soul-stirring account of how far apart the rungs have become and intractable the way forward for America’s children, see Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

[6] “Groups with strong moral systems that enhance cohesion and cooperation can have fitness advantage over other groups with less effective moral systems,” writes Geoffrey Hodgson in his marvelous book, From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics Without Homo Economicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 120.

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