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What is Fair?

As a web-connected, media-savvy, upwardly-mobile, globe-trotting and hoodie-wearing young professional, I am sure the question of "fairness" might not come up in your day-to-day. Ok, maybe it might pop up in the context of "it's not fair that she gets to go to Katy Perry concert." or "that latte is expensive because it is shade-grown and fair-trade."

But should fairness be something we all spend more time thinking about and talking about? The Economist had a great article also titled "What is fair" (yes, it partially inspired this blog entry). In it, it talks about whether from an upward mobility perspective, whether the American Dream of meritocracy still really exist. Specifically, the article points to data that shows that while American still believe in fairness and meritocracy, social mobility has declined in the U.S.

But I want to broaden the topic to include the globe and narrow the topic to focus specifically on young professionals for a moment. Here are some different aspect of fairness that global young professionals like us should spend more time thinking/talking about.

Privileged vs Earned

Do you deserve all the great things you have in your life? Yes, this is definitely a very confrontational question, and it is likely going to ruffle feathers. Yet, it is not something we really ask ourselves often enough. Am I simply lucky/privileged because I was born into the right family at the right time in the right country? Or, did I earn everything I have and I deserve my success? For myself personally, I was lucky to be born into a middleclass family in an economically rapidly expanding time at a stable and open democracy (Taiwan, 1978-1996). I was further lucky that my parents made the sacrifice to send me to the U.S. for education. Now, I know of many people with similar opportunities and completely threw away those gifts, and I believe that I worked hard and applied myself. But, what contributed more to my present circumstances?

Wealthier vs Wealth

There is almost nothing more relative than money. Is US$20 a lot of money? Depends on who you are and where you are. So, what is more important to us? To be wealthier than others so we can be the kings of a hill, or to be wealthy enough so that we could satisfy our desires. There is that old saying that "money doesn't buy happiness", but more and more data are showing that people who are wealthier are happier. So, when we say it is no fair that a CEO makes billions while a worker make US$50,000, it opens a whole can of worms. Are we saying that it is not fair that the CEO is so much wealthier in a relative sense, are we saying that it is not fair that a worker doesn't make enough in an absolute sense to support his/her family, or are we simply ignoring that both billions and US$50,000 would seem like an astronomical sum to vast majority of the people around the globe?

Investing vs Giving

How do you spend your free time and disposable income? Assuming you would like to help others with your hard-earned resources, what is the best return on investment when it comes to social/environmental benefit? Some of my friends believe that since they are young, and their time/income is limited, it is more worth while to spend those resources on various types of investment, whether investment in personal education, investment in financial market or investment in entrepreneurial ventures. The thought behind that is "Instead of using the two hours a week and/or $200 a month and give it to a charitable cause, I could invest that so that I could give so much more later." Of course, the risk you run is that even assuming that there is a large payoff in the future, does it necessarily mean that you would still choose to give it away, Buffett/Gates style? Maybe limited contribution now is more impactful because it keeps one in the mode of caring/giving. It really depends on both the return on investment and how you go about calculating it.

Deserved vs Guilt

Have you ever had this experience before? You are hanging out with friends, maybe at a bar, or a restaurant, or a party. You are having a good time. You look good and you are feeling good. People around you are beautiful, witty, affluent and well dressed. Suddenly, you feel a sense of guilt, because here you are, selfishly enjoying yourself while there are starving people around the world for whom what you spent on your gin and tonic could mean the difference between life and death. Ever had that? Maybe it happened when you are buying a new gadget that you really don't need. Maybe it happened when you are planning a trip. How do upwardly mobile young professional balance between personal needs/desires and the knowledge that you can never live up to the example of somebody like Mother Theresa? Is it possible to find a balance between the two without becoming either completely callous or debilitating guilt-ridden?

Ignore vs Overwhelmed

A poorly dressed woman with a small child approaches you on the street with a look of desperation and an outstretched hand. What do you do? I think a large factor that unconsciously influences your decision is whether this type of incident occurs frequently in your day-to-day life or not. If you live in a small close-knit community where the wealth distribution is fairly even, something like this would be incredibly rare, and if you are to encounter it, you are likely willing to help. However, if you live in a large city, this might be a multiple-times a day experience for you, and you probably have well-rehearsed deflection mechanism that enables you to carry on your day without being overwhelmed. When I turn on the TV, there are natural disasters, wars, famine, starvation, deprivation, diseases, hatreds and suffering. Do you say “Bah. Not my problem.” and move on to YouTube for LOL Cats? But what is the alternative? How many of us are going to quit our jobs, leave our families and throw our entire being into solving all of worlds’ problems? Is the choice between a stone or a saint?


Yes, this post is quite the downer. :-) But I think it is important to realize that as a member of the first globally connected and IT savvy generation, we will no longer have "I didn't know" as an excuse to hide behind. Whatever it is that we choose to do, we better do it consciously with deliberate intention. Otherwise, history might judge us more harshly than any of our predecessors. Thoughts? howardw@beanonline.org

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