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It Ain’t Fair


Standing in line at a supermarket the other day, I perused the magazines on display as I waited for the woman in front of me to cash out. I’m not usually arrested by headlines about the latest doings of Meghan and Harry or other perennial tabloid favorites but this time my attention was grabbed by a National Geographic special edition titled, The Genius of Dogs.

Celebrities aren’t my thing but dogs are. During my life, I have shared a home with about 24 of these befurred friends and I flatter myself that I have had complex and loving relationships with them all.

I am gratified that researchers are now concluding what I have long believed—that dogs are sentient and sensitive beings with a range of abilities we know little about. So, a magazine exploring their “genius” seemed just the right thing for some light reading and I tucked the journal into my cart.

A lot of the material I either already knew or had deduced through observation but one essay on fairness really caught my attention. Researchers have determined canines recognize when they are being treated unfairly.

In experiments two dogs were asked to perform the same tasks such as giving a paw, sitting and the like. They were rewarded, but unequally, with one dog getting a better treat than the other. It did not take long before the dog being inequitably rewarded ceased to cooperate. In some instances, the favored dog even turned away from the better treat perhaps in solidarity with the unfairly treated animal. Researchers surmise eschewing the better treat may have been an instinct to secure future cooperation from the other pack mate.

In play, fairness is valued as well. Larger, stronger dogs will take turns winning when playing with smaller canines. Canines are quick to apologize if the play gets too rough and dogs who are too aggressive, who do not follow the rules, are not invited to play.

Dogs, like people, are social creatures and rely on cooperation to perpetuate their society. It has been observed that wolves are fairer with their pack mates than domestic dogs perhaps because domesticated animals do not have to work together to get food.

So, a sense of equity is vital to the social contract. But it occurs to me that in America today humans are not in touch with this primal instinct. We live in a world of inequality where even distribution of assets is a foreign concept (except for Bernie Sanders).

It is no revelation that wealth is being increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few at the top of the economic pyramid. But if we applied the standards of the canine world, the human pack could still have its hierarchy while assets could be more equitably distributed. The alpha male and female would still get the support of lesser members; they would still eat first and best and they would still make the decisions.

However, since the 1980s, the corporate world has lost sight of a fair distribution of wealth. Just from 2019 to 2021, CEO salaries increased 264 times more than the average worker. Company heads now make 324 times as much as the employee working on the floor of a factory or behind the counter at a McDonald’s.

As an example, C. Douglas McMillen, president and CEO of Walmart, made $24,642,309 in 2022. As the largest employer in the US, with nearly 1.6 million workers, Walmart has faced criticism for years over low wages, working conditions, a reliance on keeping workers on part-time schedules and wage theft. In response, Walmart has incrementally raised its wages over the past two years to $17.50 an hour for the average sales associate (I love the word “associate,” it makes it sound as if workers have some input). At that increased level, an associate would have to work 40-hour weeks for 50 years to earn a total of $1,800,000.

McMillen, if he worked a 40-hour week like his sales associates (I know he works much more than that but I want to compare apples to apples) would make $11,847 an hour. In three hours, he would make more than his worker earns in a year.

If human underdogs go on strike, emulating their canine companions who refuse to play with the big dogs when they perceive unfairness, jobs simply disappear overseas where exploitation is even more severe.

The divide is wide and widening. There is tremendous anger in this country expressed in the streets, in political polarization, in ever-increasing levels of anxiety and stress. There is much handwringing over the future of the country and whether its democracy can survive. I think the answer is simple.

The nation was founded on the principal of equality, on a man or woman’s—okay, I know women weren’t mentioned by the Founding Fathers—right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There is not much to life if you don’t have the liberty to pursue your dreams; if you are working two or three jobs to just keep your household together. And there is not much happiness if you are exhausted and anxious about job security, paying bills and the future of your children.

I believe that much of the anger and frustration in the United States would dissipate if corporations were reined in; if workers were equitably compensated and felt secure in their ability to work with dignity.

Dignity is a pivotal word here. I still remember when I briefly worked for a corporation in the 1970s and was called to a general meeting of all the workers to talk about why we should not unionize. As we assembled, the PA system was playing “Talk to the Animals” from the movie Dr. Doolittle. The choice, perhaps subliminal, said so much about how the company viewed us. Very little dignity in that but it was only beginning. Between 1978 to 2019, CEO compensation grew by 1,167 percent. The compensation of a typical worker, meanwhile, rose just 13.7 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

It is a constant battle to restrain corporate greed. Indeed, today’s economic distribution is not much different than the 1890s when Gilded Age robber barons—the top 1 percent—controlled 51 percent of all wealth and the lower 44 percent of the population had just 1.2 percent. It was only through the rise of the unions that mid-20th century Americans achieved the level of prosperity and confidence that those of a certain age still recall so comfortably.

We cannot expect that corporations will spread the wealth out of good will. We must demand that our legislators enact laws that will make corporations less self-serving. Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, initiated a bill in 2021 that would increase taxes on corporations earning more than $100 million annually that compensate their top administrators excessively.

The tax penalties would begin at 0.5 percentage points for companies paying their top executives 50 to 100 times more than their typical workers. The highest penalty would kick in for companies paying top executives over 500 times more than the median worker. Under this plan, Walmart would have paid up to $854.9 million more in taxes in 2021.

So what happened to the legislation. It was read twice in March 2021 and forwarded to the Republican-led Senate Committee on Finance. It has not been heard of since. No noblesse oblige there.