What’s behind middle class’ feeling of unfairness?

The idea that people read “Playboy” magazine for the articles seemed so unlikely that it was fodder for sitcom writers and stand-up comics. It doesn’t alter the comic value of that idea, though, to realize that “Playboy” actually did recognize writing talent and it created a wider readership for many fine writers.

One of those writers was Jean Shepherd, today best known for the holiday favorite movie, “A Christmas Story.” That movie is based on one of his short stories, first published in “Playboy,” where we were first introduced to his beloved Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

Eventually, Shepherd published a collection of his Playboy stories under the title, “In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash.” That expression was a popular one, displayed on signs near the cash register in many of the grocery stores, diners, and bars that dotted the American landscape before national franchises entered the picture. And to an extent it was a way of laughing off the way trust and distrust exist side by side in our economy and in our lives.

Trust and fairness are directly linked in our economy. We trust the market system to act fairly and not play favorites. The marketplace is not an arena where any of us can expect sympathy, understanding or even mercy, but we do expect it to be fair to all participants and to treat them the same. This is why revelations of insider trading and crony capitalism do so much to raise the level of cynicism about democracy and free-market capitalism.

One of the most interesting, and most valuable, public opinion polls on this subject is the Rasmussen survey, which is currently shedding some light on the extent that people believe that our economic system is fair.

The Rasmussen folks’ most recent poll on this subject, taken in the second week of July 2013, sought the views of 1,000 likely voters on the fairness of the U.S. economy. The results are possibly best described as revealing, if sometimes puzzling.

What the results reveal isn’t all that pretty. Only 38 percent of voters view our overall economic system as “very fair” (4 percent) or “somewhat fair” (34 percent). In both categories, the July results show a marked and rapid decline from the December 2012 survey, when nearly half the voters (47 percent) viewed the economy as fair.

The reasons for the decline aren’t clear from the survey itself, but the numbers do provide fuel for speculation. One clue that the numbers do provide, though, is in the views of voters on how fair the economy is toward the middle class, and toward those willing to work hard.

The percentage of voters who see the economy as unfair to the middle class reached a new high of 63 percent. This is quite possibly related to the very low number of respondents, only 45 percent, who think that our economy today is fair to people who are willing to work hard.

The survey results prompt several questions about our economy’s current state of health and its prognosis. The first is very worrisome: Why is our view of the economy’s fairness declining? And the answer is even more worrisome: We don’t know.

The survey data shows a general relationship between how well an individual is doing economically and how fair he or she thinks the economic system is. This is very natural, of course, and in this case we might assume that overall, the effects of the economic recession are driving the fairness assessment numbers down.

This diagnosis, though, is inconsistent with the reported status of our economy, which is supposedly going in the other direction. Our economy is recovering, incomes and job numbers are rising, and this should impart an upward force to the people’s view of the system’s fairness.

What is also difficult to interpret is that the Rasmussen survey reports that only 33 percent of those polled think that “the U.S. economy will be stronger in a year’s time.” That level of pessimism about our prospects is not reflected in other surveys of consumer confidence, or even in related questions within the Rasmussen survey itself.

Pessimism about our economy’s future may possibly be related to a gap between our official economic reports and the economic reality of day-to-day life. Even more likely, it could be the result of a rising level of distrust in government and its willingness to do the right thing when it comes to our economy.

It’s all connected, from “Playboy” and BB guns to trust, fairness and our faith in the future. Trust and fairness have to be our values, the values of our economy and the values of those we elect to lead us. Accept no substitutes.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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