Legal Advocacy at Its Finest

As a law student, I aspire to balance a fulfilling career with legal advocacy, taking on causes pro bono for those who lack the means to seek justice.  That is why I seek inspiration from the thousands of lawyers and jurists around the world who dedicate themselves to giving a legal voice to the voiceless — often at great risk and sacrifice.

Fortunately, I have no shortage of examples to follow, most recently and dramatically in the form of Saif-ul-Mulook, a Pakistani lawyer who saved his client from certain death, and who now faces death threats as a result. As the South China Morning Post reported:

After saving condemned Christian Asia Bibi from the gallows in Pakistan, her lawyer says he is facing the wrath of Islamist extremists – and wonders who will save him. But despite the threats against him, Saif-ul-Mulook says he regrets nothing, and will continue his legal fight against intolerance.

Mulook’s latest victory saw the freeing of Asia Bibi – a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, who spent nearly a decade on death row – after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction on Wednesday.

[…]

The defence of Bibi was just the latest in a long line of controversial cases taken up by the barrister.

In 2011, Mulook was the lead prosecutor against Mumtaz Qadri over the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer – a prominent critic of the country’s blasphemy laws and supporter of Bibi.

Qadri – one of Taseer’s bodyguards – gunned down his boss in broad daylight, citing the governor’s calls for reform of the blasphemy laws as his motive.

Mulook said he took on the case as others cowered, fearing reprisals from extremists. His prosecution resulted in the conviction and subsequent execution of Qadri, who was feted by Islamists and later honoured with a shrine on the outskirts of Islamabad.

If this man can brave violent extremism to save the lives of those condemned by both public opinion and an unjust legal system, I am pretty sure I can stay true to my goal.

Louis Brandeis

On this day in 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish person to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve until 1939.

800px-brandeisl

Born to immigrants fleeing antisemitism from what was then the Austrian Empire, he graduated Harvard Law at only 20 years old, with what is rumored to be the highest GPA in the school’s history.

As early as 1890, he helped develop the concept of a “right to privacy” and rallied against big banks, powerful corporations, monopolies, political corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were anathema to American values. As an attorney, he devoted most of his time to public causes, earning the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer” for his insistence on working pro bono in order to take on the most important issues of the day. He was also dubbed the “Robin Hood of the law” for his fight against railroad monopolies, defense of workers’ rights, and the conceptualization of the newly created Federal Trade Commission, which protected consumers from unfair business practices. He was also recognized for developing the “Brandeis Brief,” which relied on expert testimony from people in other professions to support his case, setting a new precedent in evidence presentation.

Brandeis’ nomination to the Court was so fraught that, for the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on it. According to fellow Justice William O. Douglas, it was controversial because Brandeis was a “militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible… [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.” Indeed, opponents regarded him as an anti business “radical” and “agitator” who lacked the “dispassionate temperament” needed to be a judge. Blatant anti semitism was, of course, also a factor. But enough people came to his defense that he won the nomination 47 to 22.

Ultimately, Brandeis became one of the most influential figures ever to serve on the Court, his opinions recognized by legal scholars as some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a Justice. Throughout my first year of law school, I came across many of his brilliant opinions, many of them lonely dissents in the face of familiar uphill battles against privacy violations — see his prescient dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928):

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

The Anniversary of Separate But Equal

On this day in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation in public transportation was constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

The effects were immediate: already significant disparities in funding for segregated schools widened, flying in the face of the vague doctrine. States that had successfully integrated blacks quickly adopted legislation that reversed the progress made during Reconstruction. These segregation laws would eventually become known as  the Jim Crow system. Continue reading

Americans Have the Right to Insult Police Officers

Given the frequent reports of police brutality and misconduct in the U.S., particularly during the course of pullovers and arrests, Americans might be surprised to learn that they have a well-established right to be rude and even downright nasty to police officers. As The Atlantic’s CityLab column notes:

The courts have made it clear that individuals have a right to insult police officers. In 1987, the Supreme Court decided in City of Houston v. Hill that the First Amendment allows for a “significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers,” ruling against a Houston, Texas, ordinance making it “unlawful for any person to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty, or any person summoned to aid in making an arrest.”

The case involved a gay rights activist who had been arrested numerous times for allegedly interfering with the police.

The First Amendment, the court noted, does not protect “fighting words,” statements “that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” But criticism, even when angrily voiced, is protected.

“The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the majority, “is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”

That case built upon the 1974 decision in Lewis v. City of New Orleans, when the court ruled against an ordinance in that city making it “unlawful and a breach of the peace for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty.”

The Lewis case involved a couple following behind a squad car that was taking their young son away. Another officer pulled them over and, after the woman got out, allegedly said, “you get in the car woman. Get your black ass in the god damned car or I will show you something.” The police officer testified that the woman said, “you god damn m.f. police – I am going to [the Superintendent of Police] about this.” The woman denied using any profanity. Either way, the court ruled that the ordinance under which she was arrested was so broad as to apply to “speech, although vulgar or offensive, that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., in a concurring opinion cited by Justice Brennan in the 1987 case, wrote that police should be able to deal with more offensive language than a private citizen—meaning that verbal abuse had to reach a higher threshold to count as fighting words when they are directed at a cop.

That abuse can run quite high and stay within constitutional bounds, something that a cottage industry of people who make a point of testing cops on their First Amendment knowledge by giving them the middle finger has proven.

Continue reading

Prisons of the World

The New York Times highlights prisons around the world that take a unique and often wildly different approach to dealing with convicts. The samples from Bolivia, India, and even Saudi Arabia are most interesting in their apparently humane and constructive approach (though any research showing efficacy is lacking).

1. San Pedro Prison, Bolivia

The prison’s only goal is to prevent escape. There are no guards inside the walls. Its 1,500 inmates must purchase or rent their cells, according to their means; they govern their own community, complete with markets for food, clothes and drugs. Wives and children often stay inside, and there are two nurseries within the prison.

2. Ezeiza Penitentiary Complex, Argentina

Despite underground movement-detection cables, remotely controlled doors and extensive video surveillance, 13 inmates managed to escape at once from the maximum-security facility in August 2013 through a tunnel. In all, roughly 100 inmates escaped from Argentine prisons in 2013, most likely aided by corrupt staff.

3. Pollsmoor Prison, South Africa

An elaborately structured prison gang called the Numbers Gang — and its subgangs, the 26s, 27s and 28s — plagues the overcrowded Pollsmoor. The Numbers have operated for decades throughout South African prisons, with baroque hierarchies and rituals; its power is so widespread that years of attempts to eradicate the gang have failed.

4. Al-Ha’ir Prison, Saudi Arabia

Though Saudi Arabia is routinely criticized for public floggings, executions and suspected use of torture, this high-security prison for inmates under terrorism charges is known for its high level of comfort. It offers welfare payments for families and a hotel for extended family visits — all intended to entice dissidents to recommit to society.

5. Tihar Jail, India

The largest prison complex in South Asia, Tihar encompasses nine high-security facilities with more than 11,000 inmates, despite an official capacity of 5,200. Nearly 25 percent are in for murder charges or convictions. Rehabilitation programs include art and music therapy, meditation and workshops for carpentry, baking and textiles.

6. Bang Kwang Prison, Thailand

Known as Big Tiger or the Bangkok Hilton, Bang Kwang holds death-row inmates and those with sentences longer than 25 years. Until 2013, it was common practice to weld metal shackles onto the legs of prisoners for years at a time; permanently for those condemned to death.

7. Petak Island Prison, Russia

Here, in total isolation on an island in Novozero Lake, 193 prisoners serve life sentences. Only two small wooden bridges connect the island to the mainland. Prisoners spend 22.5 hours a day in a small-group or single cell and the other 1.5 hours in an outdoor cage.

8. Qincheng Prison, China

This maximum-security prison holds many political prisoners who are accused of crimes against the state. According to several memoirs, prisoners are largely isolated from one another and identified only by number. More recently, it has become home to corrupt politicians, who are held in more luxurious conditions.

Here are how the nations of the G20, a group comprised of most of the world’s largest economies, pan out in three controversial approaches to punishment.

Tangentially related: a map of the world based on the number of people incarcerated.

The U.S. has some interesting bedfellows in criminal justice.

The Poor Have It Easy In America

That is a sentiment that appears to be widely held by the nation’s wealthiest citizens, according to a recent Pew survey reported by the Washington Post.

The center surveyed a nationally representative group of people this past fall, and found that the majority of the country’s most financially secure citizens (54 percent at the very top, and 57 percent just below) believe the “poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” America’s least financially secure, meanwhile, vehemently disagree — nearly 70 percent say the poor have hard lives because the benefits “don’t go far enough.” Nationally, the population is almost evenly split.

Here are the results in visual form; note the large minorities of poor and middle-class people that agree with this view.

Unsurprisingly, the report also found that those who identify as conservatives — around 40 percent of the most financially secure groups — are more likely to believe the poor have it good thanks to the government, and that the poor do not work hard enough. Another Pew report confirmed that around 75 percent of conservatives in general feel this way about the poor, regardless of income.

So in essence, if you are wealthy or conservative — but especially both — you are likely to take a dim view of America’s least fortunate — and conversely, to believe that wealthy people have it harder, due to perceived higher taxes, onerous government regulations, and the usual bugbears of the right.

As columnist Christopher Ingraham points out, such a perception of America’s poor is greatly at odds with reality:

But I have a hard time understanding how you could read about the experience of families relying on food stamps to eat, or those trying tomanage chronic conditions with Medicaid, and conclude that these people somehow have it easy. For context, here is a brief and wildly incomplete list of the ways life is “easy” when you’re poor:

Of course, it is no coincidence that those who think the poor have it easy also think the poor do not work hard enough and just live off the government (and by extension, live off the hardworking taxpayer). If you think that poor people get what they deserve for their laziness and irresponsibility, no amount of data demonstrating their difficult circumstances — and by contrast how much better the wealthy are doing — will sway the wealthy’s sympathy; nor will any of the evidence showing the role that external factors — from low wages to unstable business cycles — have contributed to growing and persistent poverty.

Moreover, with many of these same wealthy Americans having a disproportionate influence on our media and politics, it is little wonder that more is not being done to address the mounting socioeconomic conditions faced by a growing proportion of Americans.

As for how so many wealthy people can retain such callous views of the nation’s poor, that can be attributed to a range of factors. Richer people are increasingly holing up in gated communities or gentrified areas where poor people are largely absent. They are more likely to interact with and know only other well off or at least middle-class people. Some evidence even suggests that wealth accumulation itself contributes to an empathy gap with those who are not rich.

Whatever the cause, it goes without saying that this arrangement is not sustainable. No society has ever endured such a wide and growing gap between rich and poor without ultimately subsiding into sociopolitical instability — including revolution. While the U.S. may not necessarily go the way of 18th century France or Bolshevik Russia, it will certainly experience the same sort of underlying tensions and political problems that tend to bode ill for long-term prosperity.

It is time we start caring about the least vulnerable in America and doing more to help them, namely by promoting a more sustainable and equitable economic system. If more companies paid their employees better (perhaps by tapping into those record-breaking profits), that alone would go a long way. Of course, viewing the poor as people that deserve dignified wages and treatment would be the natural place to start — it is a shame that even needs to be a lesson to learn.

Congolese Gynecologist Wins Sakharov Prize

According to NPR, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in recognition of his work treating thousands of rape victims in his country.

I admit to having never heard of this amazing man prior to seeing this reported in Wikipedia’s news page today. Of course, that is not surprising given the humility that is often characteristic of these unsung heroes (not to mention the woeful lack of attention to the causes they serve).

As The New York Times reports:

Dr. Mukwege is known for his work in one of the most traumatized places in the world. In the hills above Bukavu, where for years there was little electricity or anesthetic, Dr. Mukwege has performed surgery on countless women, some a few steps away from death, who have reached his hospital.

At the same time, he has campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of Congolese women, even after an assassination attempt two years ago.

“It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” Dr. Mukwege said in an interview last year. “It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

A winner of over a dozen other humanitarian awards, and long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, the 69-year-old Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his entire life to delivering these desperately needed services. The third of nine children, he pursued medicine in a desire to heal the many people that his minister father would pray for, working at first in a local rural hospital.

During his time there, he witnessed many women endure painful and often fatal complications from childbirth, due largely to the lack of qualified specialists. This inspired him to pursue the study of gynecology in France, which would come to be applied for another purpose: treating the horrific consequences of gang-rape that has been rampant in many parts of war-torn Congo for decades.

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

That in itself is a valuable aim, but hopefully this prize will also bring attention to Panzi Hospital’s need for donations: initially built for 120 beds, it as now squeezed in 350, out of which more than half are devoted to survivors of sexual violence. With an average of 410 patients per month, the hospital is currently running at maximum capacity and lacks staff, supplies, and resources.

While Dr. Mukwege’s $63,600 prize money will go a long way, we should consider donating to the Panzi Foundation and the good work it has done to help restore thousands of lives — and hopefully many more that are needed until this scourge of violence  and terror is finally done with.

The doctor collects his well-deserved prize.

 

 

Work and Worth

What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.

Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?

On the other hand, what’s the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.

How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.

What’s the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their ben pans? Surely higher than their median wage of$11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.

Or of child care workers, who get $10.33 an hour, $21.490 a year? And preschool teachers, who earn $13.26 an hour, $27,570 a year?

Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?

Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.

Before you conclude that’s generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.

One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.

And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.

At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.

They’re getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.

I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose jobs entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).

They don’t even build the economy.

Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.

They’re paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.

It’s said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.

In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.

They demand ever more cunning innovations but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.

Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society — if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.

Graduates of Ivy League universities are more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.

For example, in 2010 (the most recent date for which we have data) close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance (down from the pre-financial crisis high of 46 percent in 2006). Add in management consulting, and it was close to 60 percent.

The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids’ admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.

But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching.

Robert Reich

Prisoners and the Art of Winemaking

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system, but perhaps the chiefest problem is high recidivism: as of 2011 (the most recent reliable data I could find) an average of 43.3 percent of prisoners fall back into crime. Clearly, the rehabilitation system isn’t living up to its name.

One of the key causes of this is the lack of skills and opportunities among the largely poor and marginalized groups that make up the prison population. Easing up on the restrictions imposed on the formerly incarcerated, while imparting them with marketable skills, would go a long way in improving their lives and those of their families and communities (which in turn would help the U.S. economy as a whole, given the size and proportion of this population).

Italy is another country struggling with this problem — in fact, the rate of re-offense is as high as 80 percent, and Italian prisons meet similar criticisms regarding the poor and counterproductive treatment of prisoners. So some enterprising reformers decided to address the matter in a uniquely Italian way: teaching prisoners the art of winemaking, which is being spearheaded in the penal colony of Gorgona in Tuscany. As the New York Times reported:

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

As you would imagine, the details of this program are both interesting and inspiring:

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying their individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mr. Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mr. Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence. “At least here you get an opportunity. In many cases people leave prison angrier than before.”

It’s a small start, and not without its challenges, but it is definitely worth trying. While there are similar initiatives in the U.S. (albeit many of which are accused of being exploitative and underpaying), we should definitely take steps to make such programs the norm, along with minimizing such an unusually high rate of incarceration to begin with (although that is a different story for another post).

The Problem With Being “Paid What You’re Worth”

In American culture, there is a widespread tendency to determine someone’s social value based on how they earn a living and what they get paid. Setting aside the fact that one’s moral has nothing to do with what sort of job they end up with, how much money you make isn’t really reflective of your personal or professional value either.

After all, some of the lowest-paying jobs in the U.S. include such necessary work as custodial services, care giving, social work, nursing home assistance, and more. Even the fast-food and retail work that is often looked-down upon is valuable, insofar as we rely on these workers to get the goods and services we demand (heck, these aren’t some of the fastest-growing sectors for nothing).

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich highlights the fallacy of this mentality in his recent piece in Salon, noting just how arbitrary corporate pay structures can be:

Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour.

Does this mean the typical GM employee a half-century ago was worth four times what today’s typical Walmart employee is worth? Not at all. Yes, that GM worker helped produce cars rather than retail sales. But he wasn’t much better educated or even that much more productive. He often hadn’t graduated from high school. And he worked on a slow-moving assembly line. Today’s Walmart worker is surrounded by digital gadgets — mobile inventory controls, instant checkout devices, retail search engines — making him or her quite productive.

The real difference is the GM worker a half-century ago had a strong union behind him that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members. And because more than a third of workers across America belonged to a labor union, the bargains those unions struck with employers raised the wages and benefits of non-unionized workers as well. Non-union firms knew they’d be unionized if they didn’t come close to matching the union contracts.

Today’s Walmart workers don’t have a union to negotiate a better deal. They’re on their own. And because fewer than 7 percent of today’s private-sector workers are unionized, non-union employers across America don’t have to match union contracts. This puts unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage. The result has been a race to the bottom.

Juxtapose this fact with the following one:

If you still believe people are paid what they’re worth, take a look at Wall Street bonuses. Last year’s average bonus was up 15 percent over the year before, to more than $164,000. It was the largest average Wall Street bonus since the 2008 financial crisis and the third highest on record, according to New York’s state comptroller. Remember, we’re talking bonuses, above and beyond salaries.

All told, the Street paid out a whopping $26.7 billion in bonuses last year.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the $26.7 billion of bonuses Wall Street banks paid out last year would be enough to more than double the pay of every one of America’s 1,085,000 full-time minimum wage workers.

Does this disparity in compensation truly reflect the worth of these positions and those who work them? Or are is it simply the result of power imbalances between employers and employees, as the latter lack the leverage to negotiate better salaries and treatment due to declining unionization and mass unemployment (which brings down labor costs)? Aren’t the subsidies and tax breaks that are going to corporations and big financial firms — in conjunction with the erosion of worker protections and the minimum wage — also reflected in the way jobs are paid?

In short, there are many systemic, institutional, and political reasons why people make the amount they do. It has little to nothing to do with their individual or collective worth, and everything to do with the vagaries of our economic and political system, which has become increasingly unequal and unfair in terms of how compensation is allocated (e.g. executives and shareholders receiving massive bonuses during profitable years while average workers receive nothing or even endure cuts).

But what do you think?