Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Everyone's using "equity." Does it mean anything?

In recent years, certain advocates have created a discussion using "equity" capitalizing on the fact that in the context it is used it is a word without meaning.

As used finance, equity seemingly has a clear enough meaning. But does it? Or do we depend upon a court system to define it case-by-case?

In social sciences, the term equity refers to the principle of fairness. While it is often misused interchangeably with the principle of equality, equity encompasses a wide variety of social science models, programs, and strategies. Generally, when used equity does imply a lack of equality. The problem, of course, is that "fair" and "impartial" are words which derive their meanings from the point of view of the person uttering them.

Historical context doesn't really offer clarity.

Enlightened despotism, aka benevolent despotism, was a form of government in the 18th century in which a despot pursued reforms such as legal, social, and educational reforms. Inspired by the Enlightenment, enlightened despots such as Frederick the Great and Peter The Great instituted administrative reform, religious toleration, and economic development but did not propose broad equity reforms that would undermine their sovereignty.

In the Declaration of Independence, "absolute" despotism is carefully offered as the cause for the American Revolution. The implication is that "enlightened" despotism would be ok.

It is in the context of that Declaration that we learn that some men of the Enlightenment time thought that "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their creator" with some "unalienable rights" such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

If we ignore the likelihood that those men literally meant "men" and by "creator" meant some version of a god, we can speculate that within the right to the "pursuit of happiness" might be found the right to pursue equity.

If we speculate further,  a people might say they feel some "happiness" in life because within America their pursuit of equitable treatment - aka equity - was successful to some adequate level of satisfaction. Others might say their pursuit failed.

The good thing is, one can say the pursuit of equity is an unalienable right. But one must acknowledge that equity is, like all other elements of happiness, a judgement call with which you might not agree.

With that understanding, it is correct to state that disputes over how much equity is offered in our society will always be with us.

In California we see some confusion about the word. Consider the following chart:

Hispanics are now the largest ethnic group in California, slightly ahead of whites. Asians are the third largest ethnic group. Blacks constitute only 6% and everyone else makes up 3%. One of the more curious facts is the representation of these groups in the undergraduate student body at the University of California. Consider the following charts:

The top chart is what we get in reports. The problem with that chart is the inclusion of foreign students and unidentified students don't give us a picture. When you remove them from the count and recalculate the percentages we get a better idea. It's simple - Asians students make up nearly 3 times their portion of the population.

Why would that happen? The answer is their families push them harder to study and get good grades. It's that simple.

The question is: What constitutes equity when a subculture does what is asked of them specific to the objective they are seeking resulting in a receiving greater share? How on earth could anyone say equity can be found by any action other than rewarding those who work hardest?

Confused? Barbara A. Perry, a professor and director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center offered this clarity: “As a concept of fairness of the law, equity is meant as a remedy. If someone hurts you the person can be punished and assessed compensatory damage to make you whole again."

When you apply that thinking to a legal case, it is likely to be complicated. If you apply it to social science models, programs, and strategies it becomes a debate reflecting the nation's history of inequity.

The term equity reflects the point of view of the person uttering it, unfortunately. It is hard to visualize a world in which everyone thinks that they have been fairly treated.

The image at the beginning of this post deserves some thought. There are those who would argue that the solution to the equity problem would be to eliminate all barriers, not fund boxes. The problem with that is folks will get injured by hard hit "baseballs" more frequently without protection.

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