Cultural values should take leading role in economic decision-making

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Recently, an article in the June 20 Wall Street Journal caught my attention. While businesses have been seriously reducing the benefits of regular workers, the same companies are boosting the benefits of their executives.

The WSJ story focuses on two people, Sonny Arnold, a 62-year-old welder-mechanic, and Richard Korpan, 59, the former chief executive, both of whom joined the Florida Progress Corp. in 1989 and have lost their jobs as the result of a corporate takeover by Carolina Power & Light Co.

Arnold didn't work the required 15 years to begin drawing his pension of $681 a month. He must wait three more years for that. His home is paid for and the children are grown and on their own. Arnold receives $22,968 in severance pay, but he still needs the paycheck. Arnold is looking for work, but it won't be easy. He has asbestosis and lost much of the use of his left hand in an accident on the job. He isn't eligible for retiree medical coverage, and won't be eligible for Medicare until he turns 65.

Korpan can just relax. He enjoys the benefit of a pension agreement designed just for him. Among other things, it credits him with 35 years of service, though he only worked with Florida Progress for 12 years, the same as Arnold. However, this non-existent service helps bring his pension to $828,845, or $69,070 a month. Korpan also got $15.8 million in severance.

This example is just one of many that illustrates the gulf between the haves and have nots, which is growing larger all the time. Executives may get as much as 50 percent of their salary in retirement benefits, while workers are left with 20 percent to 30 percent of their working salary as benefits, if they are lucky. Of course, all of this is on top of the trend of the last decade or so where company executives are rewarded with millions of dollars in compensation for enhancing profits through layoffs of often thousands of workers.

We in Indian country know all too well the results of this kind of economics in relation to tribes. For far too long we have seen the inequity and downright failure of the Western model vis-?-vis American Indian peoples. The same pattern has replicated itself throughout the world and continues today with mainstream economic development still exploiting Indigenous peoples throughout the globe.

So, we are seeing happening to mainstream society what tribes have long experienced at the hands of the Western economic model and its so-called economic development. The general society is just waking up to the logical results of a model that glorifies creating a few very rich at the expense of many very poor.

In contrast, American Indian ways mean economic development activities which are driven by a community's cultural values, based on kinship, shared responsibilities and benefits and respect for the environment.

In the particular case of pensions, mainstream society obviously does not share American Indian values. Companies would not be greatly increasing benefits for one group while greatly reducing benefits for others if they did.

Tribes must stake out a position of leadership by example that shows the way for mainstream society. That leadership includes showing how American Indian values provide fair benefits to all participants, not creating two classes of workers. American Indian leadership should be exemplified in all Native American enterprises, where treating all workers fairly is more important than making some rich at the expense of others.

True economic development follows traditional cultural ways and values, no matter how much money may come into tribal coffers. Whether the money comes from royalties in mineral resources, timber, agriculture and ranching, light industry or gaming - the most recent and greatest source of wealth for some - American Indians must emphasize their core cultural values in dealing with business partners, customers and workers at all levels.

Above all, we must be true to ourselves, making certain that such inequities that we see in the mainstream economy do not infiltrate and spoil our culture. We can have both economic development and our cultural values. The choices may be difficult at times, but our children will thank us for making the right choices now.