An Idealist Meditates on the State of the Union
Income inequality is as old as income. It will always exist, since people aspire to different things, which they pursue with differing levels of ability. In the real estate business in New York, we work with the most fortunate members of our economic society. The price points even of smaller units rule out home ownership in Manhattan and its close environs for any but the wealthy or well compensated. This IS a problem, for both our city’s economic and moral future, and this problem requires a solution.
The President, in last week’s State of the Union address, acknowledged that income inequality is growing throughout the country. More than any other single factor, this expanding disparity threatens the underpinning of civil society. But the notion of a guilty 1% exploiting an underserved 99% remains both short-sighted and inaccurate. We cannot permit success to be seen as inherently undermining of good values or integrity. The land of opportunity must OFFER opportunity, and the upside of opportunity is success. If we as a culture begin to denigrate success, or the ability to pass some of its fruits along to our sons and daughters and grandchildren, we are undermining the very opportunities which continue to draw immigrants to our shores from all over the world.
There is no more tangible and American aspiration than home ownership. The founders of the United States came from a Europe in which class strictly determined who owned and who did not. The aristocracy owned vast tracts of land which were farmed by others, generation after generation, who could never hope to own it. From its inception the United States grew strong on self-reliance. And who can feel fully self-reliant in a home owned by someone else? Nothing rehabilitates neighborhoods more effectively than the economic stake of owning your home.
Neither our generation nor any other will banish the differences between the rich and the poor. But it remains a worthy goal to try to shrink those differences, and to make sure the barriers to success don’t grow so high that they are unscalable except to those who already have advantages of birth or education. Decent education to prepare young men and women for opportunity, and job opportunities with a living wage for them to seize once prepared, underpin the American promise. Every year, small businesses like mine expand, creating jobs and opportunities for advancement which hold people and families in the ranks of the middle class and, hopefully, help them move towards home ownership.
Over the years Warburg Realty has helped people of all sorts become homeowners: those with inherited wealth and those whose money is newly earned, whether in finance, law, medicine, technology, entertainment, real estate, or any one of a number of other professions. We have helped members of every successive wave of immigrants who have come to the U.S. seeking and finding the chance to improve life for themselves and their families: Irish, Italian, Jewish, Asian, and Latino. We have worked for African-Americans who have overcome the terrible legacy of slavery to enjoy economic comfort as the fruit of their labor. Many of these individuals have enjoyed enormous financial success, placing them at the top of the economic pyramid, and with few exceptions they remain committed to creating for others the same chances they had themselves.
Fear and desire for political advantage should never be used to turn us on one another. Inequality is most effectively challenged through collaboration. In New York and across the country, those who have risen to the economic top need to be sought out for their expertise, not reviled for their success. Each segment of our enormous and diverse population has something to contribute: work, knowledge, commitment, confidence. Pitting one group against another will get us precisely where we are today. But if we need jobs and homes and security which fulfill the hopes within us all, that means we must embrace our differences (all of them) and work together.