Sunday, February 02, 2014

Inequality and injustice for all? (Or: What would you buyz with your PCH* prize?)

It has been suggested that Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is the writer/early poli-sci wonk most likely to be invoked by people who've never actually read any of his work; along those lines, his most-(improperly?)-quoted work would have to be Democracy in America. I have read de Tocqueville, at length, and so I feel not at all like a dilettante in paraphrasing the overarching supposition of his thoughts on democracy and, by extension, the free market.

The man believed that in order for a democracy to work, it must be peopled and run by men (and, yes, women) of moral intent; inversely, he believed that absent those moral intentions (and/or the controls to keep folks on the proper path), the democracy will be undone by man's natural (Hobbesian?) tendencies toward avarice and self-interest. The whole thing will implode.
 I happen to think American democracy and its hallowed free market are not working as they should, and though one hates to devolve into cliched sloganeering, I think the numbers on income inequality/distribution of wealth pretty much tell the story, ipso facto. Those numbers are ubiquitous, much more widely quoted than our Frenchman pal, so I won't bother linking to them here. The takeaway is that the top 1% of Americans control an extraordinary amount of both revenue and (asset-type) wealth, and the skew grows ever wider over time. (One thing to which I will link is last week's Oxfam study, which posed that the top 85 wealthiest people in the world have as much money as the bottom 3.5 billion. Don't just sigh or SMH and move on. Think about it a sec. Think about what it signifies.) 

The numbers make clear that we are a society that's rapidly being undone by its Hobbesian (or Gordon Gecko) tendencies. The wealth is not being spread. America is imploding. 
Think of how things would run in some hypothetical society that truly were governed by good will toward one's fellow man, and then compare that Elysian vision to what we know about American reality. In today's society, does the entrepreneur who banks his inaugural $1 million think first of distributing bonuses to the rank-and-file who helped get him there? Does he think of adding more employees for the altruistic purpose of spreading the wealth among more of his neighbors, which is to say, not chiefly for the purpose of further expanding his empire?

We know what most such entrepreneurs and highly paid execs, manifestly, do or don't do. They do not cut the million dollars into, say, 25 $40,000 bonuses, or 50 $20,000 bonuses. What they do instead is run out and buy themselves a McMansion and a jaunty sport coupe more befitting their new station in life. And even if you want to excuse that as typical nouveau riche extravagance...what to conclude, then, about successful businesspeople who act the same basic way with the first $10 million and $100 million? They may hire on new employees, but that is simply a pragmatic/organic function of building their business to still greater heights of personal glory. They continue to hire employees for the best salaries at which they can get them. If they themselves earn a salary 100 times larger than what their average employee is earning, they are not the least squeamish or apologetic about it. In fact, they flaunt it. They seemingly dedicate their public lives to the newfound ethic of being and looking and acting rich. They do their Christmas shopping on Luxist, where they outfit their homes with insanely pricy accoutrements that, each individually, could've paid the expenses of a struggling middle-class family for a year.

Such successful Americans are not acting with the good will de Tocqueville had in mind. They are acting more like another notorious Frenchman (or -woman), of "let them eat cake" infamy.

Now let's talk about you. Suppose you're the lucky SOB who beats the roughly 505 million-to-one odds and sees the *Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol pulling up in your driveway, to bestow upon you your $1 million a year "forever"! Do you immediately, after being revived, write checks to everyone in your neighborhood or city or state who didn't win? No, maybe if you're super-generous you decide to tithegiving 10% to charity "forever." Then, if you're also super-practical/sensible, you arrange to pay off all the family mortgages and set aside college funds for your kids and grandkids. 

But why should your kids and grandkids go to college when there are other kids who aren't even eating three squares a day? How do you construct a moral justification for keeping all that money to yourself and a privileged few others that you hand-select? See, we Americans, raised amid the ethos of rugged individualism, just don't think this way. We "take care of our own." And we justify it by arguing that "if everyone takes care of his/her own, then no one's at a disadvantage." 

Unfortunately, not everyone can take care of his/her own. No matter how hard s/he might try.

Speaking of trying hard, let's leave behind the rarefied air of Publishers Clearing House and bring things down to the workaday level. If you work very hard and get a great promotion, doubling your already well-above-average salary from $125,000 to $250,000, how do you celebrate? Maybe you run out and buy your spouse that new convertible s/he always wanted? Get a new kitchen? Trade the McMansion for a nicer home without the "Mc"?

Again...why? Did you work harder than the other five people who were up for the promotion and didn't get it? Not necessarily you didn't. Maybe you're just the right color or ethnicity or gender.  Maybe you're taller or better-looking (both of which accidents of birth, we hear, pay substantial dividends in pay). Maybe the boss likes the way you laugh at his/her jokes, or enjoys looking at your tits or that bulge in your pants** when you attend meetings, which you'll be attending more of now that you're senior management.

Did you even work harder than the 50 people in middle-management or the thousand people in cubicles (you know, the "hump day" crowd) who never even got a chance to be considered for the big promotion? 

And they probably never will.

For that matter, do you work harder than the guy or gal who swabs out the john in your building? The cook in that diner up the street who prepares your Caesar salad several days a week? The agri-worker in Southern California who supplies some of the ingredients for the salad? And don't try to fall back on telling me how smart or ambitious you are. Did you choose to be smart and ambitious? Or were those attributes hard-wired? Did you choose to be born in a family that could afford to send you to the good college that stood out so prominently on your resume, and helped get you the job in the first place?

Sure, many of these problems fall in the category of "that's life," and as we all know, life isn't fair.  No, life isn't fair. But a moral society, a moral people, would try harder to make it so. That's what I'm pretty sure old Alexis would tell you, anyway.  

** We'll assume for the sake of argument that no one candidate offers both attributes.


roger o'keefe said...

You knew you'd hear from me and I won't keep you long, I don't even know where to begin with this. Are we to assume that every time anybody gets a step up in life he's supposed to feel guilty about it and then share his good fortune with everybody he knows who isn't doing as well? You've always leaned in this direction I know and so you've said some pretty crazy things on this blog through the years but this may be the topper.

Enjoy the Super Bowl. I guess the winning team should cut up its rings and give little pieces to everyone in the NFL huh?

RevRon's Rants said...

Somehow, I knew Roger would pop in here first, eager to defend his apparent sense of entitlement.

Roger, there's no reason to feel guilty, but it does behoove every one of us to recognize that we don't live in a bubble, and that we are inexorably tied to - and responsible to - the world around us. The failure to live up to that responsibility is to abdicate the very "dominion" which so many claim, yet who conveniently forget that the greatest aspect of that dominion is stewardship. I suspect that even those who so abdicate are aware that they are ignoring a moral imperative, or they wouldn't be so defensive when represented with a suggestion that they put a little less emphasis upon acquiring and hoarding and a little more on helping.

We are not responsible *for* our fellow man, our environment, or the other creatures that inhabit this planet. But if we are to rightfully claim to be guided by anything resembling a moral compass, we *are* responsible *to* those people and things. Not to enable laziness, bit to place compassion above greed, knowing that when it comes down to the wire, we will truly reap whatever we sow. And hoarding largess while those around us who work as hard as (or harder than) we do are struggling or even starving is planting seeds that we'd rather not come to fruition if we're smart. That "cake" lady to whom Steve referred learned that the hard way, and a bit too late.

Anonymous said...

Roger okeefe how do respond with such venom and not even give any consideration to the valid point steve is making. Whether or not he goes overboard you know what he's trying to say here. You see no merit in his point about the unfairness of wealth distribution?

Ed Martinez, Manhattan said...

This is very well put. If you look at more advanced economic metrics like Theile or Gini, you see in dollars and cents, and percentiles just how absurd it's getting. I'm not as sure-footed as you seem of what this bodes for democracy as a principal, but I don't see how the fabric of society can hold together if things continue you as they are. Thank you for posting.

roger o'keefe said...

So predictable, just like Ron knew I'd call Steve to task, here he is in a heartbeat to do the same to me.

When Steve wrote SHAM I thought he was defending the principles that made America great before all that whining and self-help psychobabble created a legion of victims. Now all of a sudden he's on the victims side, arguing that those of us who showed REAL self-reliance should somehow be ashamed of ourselves. And I don't need lectures about the American spirit from you Ron. I served my country and then yes I made my fortune and if some of you people spent more time applauding me or at least emulating me instead of attacking me maybe you could make yours too.

Steve Salerno said...

Wow Roger, that is pretty cold. So all those people who lost their unemployment bennies and are about to lose their food stamps, they all just didn't try hard enough, in your view? Or else they'd have "made their fortune too"?

As Bill Maher puts it, life in the bubble must be nice.

renee said...

At times like this, I think of the wisdom of Dolly Levi: "Money, you should forgive the expression, is like manure. It's only good if you spread it around." Or something like that. I've found that there's very little in life that puzzles me for long if I turn to musical theatre as my guide. Happy snow day, Steve!

Steve Salerno said...


"Girl, girl, crazy girl... Stay loooose, girl.... Got a rocket, in your pocket... Turn off the juice girrrl... Go girl, go, but not like a yo-yo schoool-girrrrl... Just play it cool, girl... Real coool..."

Don't know why I drifted into West Side Story, but certainly it's as good as score as any, if utterly irrelevant here...

RevRon's Rants said...

Roger, I served my country as well, and I continue to try to serve those I can and who need it, rather than trying to tell myself that my own good fortune releases me of any responsibility to those who have been less fortunate than I. You see, I can acknowledge the fact that my own good fortune was not solely the product of my own self-reliance, but rather the beneficiary of both my own hard work and that of many who went before me, without whom, my potential would have been significantly diminished. There have been times in my life when I needed and received a helping hand, and whether you admit it or not (even to yourself), you have benefited from others' efforts, as well. I appreciate those who have been there for me, and the best way I know to acknowledge their compassion and generosity is to try in my own best way to emulate those qualities in my actions toward others. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

As to your implication that others would be better off emulating your indifference, we obviously have vastly different definitions of what it is to be "better off." Not to mention who we consider to be the greater victim. IMO, the victim of circumstance who finds him/herself the beneficiary of the social contract upon which this country thrives has a much brighter future than one who is a victim of their own arrogance and denies their responsibility to that social contract. Finally, I neither applaud nor attack you, and I choose to emulate "those people" whose genuine (as opposed to professed) values I have come to respect.

roger o'keefe said...

All right then Ron, even if I'm feeling charitable and I give you the point that none of us succeed based solely on our own efforts, how the hell do you go about managing a system where you try to ascertain who's entitled to what? The core belief of democracy and the free market says we're all individuals and we pursue our own path in life. Some of us do better than others and even if I concede that's a shame, how do you pragmatically try to address that without tearing the whole system apart?

Also keep in mind that nowhere where it's been tried has it worked. You take away the incentive for superior reward and suddenly no one is motivated to do anything. Or are you unfamiliar with the course of Communism in the old Soviet Union and even China until it embraced a modified form of capitalism?

I think before you spout off on what we should do you would be well served to look at where it's actually been tried and how well it worked, which is NOT AT ALL.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sigh... Roger, the answer is pretty simple, though it's not one you'd like. We could begin by NOT stacking the deck against those who are less wealthy and powerful, by requiring the wealthiest to pay the same rate on all their income that the rest of the people pay. That alone would go a long way toward funding the social contract upon which so many depend even to barely get by.

Secondly, we should quit trying to antromorphize corporations by assigning to them the same rights as (the wealthiest) human citizens. As the recent meme states, I will acknowledge that corporations are people when Rick Perry executes a few of them. We pay far more in taxes to subsidize the biggest and most profitable corporations than we do to the most needy of our citizens, and that, IMO, is patently obscene.

Thirdly, we might try being honest in our dialog, even if only in our self-dialog, and admit that if this is a Christian nation as so many claim, we need to ACT in a manner consistent with the Christ's teachings, rather than selectively parrot scriptures while ignoring what those scriptures can teach us. While I am not a Christian, I would rejoice if this were truly a Christian - as in Christ-emulating rather than proselytizing - nation. If that were the case, there would be no need for this debate, as compassion for our fellow beings would be the rule, rather than the exception. THAT is a core belief that I could get behind. If you think that the free market is a core belief, then you would have to be in favor of a return to slavery, since it was more market-driven than is the use of paid labor. Truth is, if you really want to live in a free-market society, you need to emigrate to Hong Kong, where the market is truly king. Of course, you'd have to work a lot harder to ignore the needy, as the vast majority of its citizens live in the most abject poverty imaginable, while the minuscule percentage of residents hold far more that 99% of the total wealth. I've been there, and I for one could not simply ignore the widespread suffering.

And just for the record, your assertion that it would be "charitable" of you to acknowledge that you benefited from the efforts of others in whatever you have achieved, is frankly either a case of ignorance, willful denial, or unfounded arrogance.

I know that sounds harsh, but if you disagree, please tell me how you personally built all the roads you drive on and the communications network you use regularly, and that you eschew the services of the police department in your city, preferring to provide your own protection. And while you're at it, please tell me how you managed to develop and produce the vaccines that have protected you from disease, some quite likely developed before you were out of diapers. If you truly did all that by yourself, I will gladly and publicly apologize for having challenged you and assuming that you, like the rest of us, benefited from the efforts, compassion, and commitment that have made life so great for myself and all the rest of "those people."

RevRon's Rants said...

OMT - I think you should bear in mind that we are a Keynesian system, which can only thrive so long as there is a viable consumer base. As wealth inequality continues to lean toward investors rather than consumers, our system will continue to decline. And the Social Darwinist system with which you are apparently so enamored has never been successful. But again, I guess that depends upon how you define success.

a recent emigre said...

I'm a newbie here but I'm with Roger on this. There is now way to implement a system that levels everything out without having all sorts of effects of the law of unintended consequences kicking in. If you destroy the entrepreneur's or top executive's incentive to reap great financial reward he doesn't take the risks or make the bold moves that create great growth spurts and along with them, jobs. I don't think you should be so cynical about Gordon Gecko, because even if greed isn't exactly a pure-hearted emotions, its effects are mostly good.

I'm also afraid that being a little bit socialist is like being a little bit pregnant, there's really no such thing. Even if there is it puts you on that slippery slope that eventually undermines the power and beauty of the free market.

RevRon's Rants said...

s`The idea isn't to "level everything," but to make the rules the same for everyone, regardless of their income level. When one family (the Waltons of WalMart) possesses more wealth than the poorest 40% of the country's population, something is wrong, especially when you consider that they pay their employees so poorly that the employees collect more in government assistance than the Walton empire pays in taxes every year. That puts the Waltons in the category of "takers" that is so reviled by the oddly misnamed "conservatives." They are also called "job creators," yet many of the jobs they provide are taken by people whose small businesses were destroyed because they couldn't match WalMart prices... which, by the way, they are able to offer primarily because they use economic extortion tactics with suppliers.

Finally, there has never been a viable society that did not have some elements that would be considered to be socialist. The old "slippery slope" rationalization would be more appropriately applied to a society that thrives on the exploitation of its citizens. As I mentioned earlier, the closest you'll see to a "free market society" is in Hong Kong. And IMO, any society that is structured to provide opulent luxury to a minuscule percentage of its citizens bu exploiting all the rest is NOT one that can be considered "successful," unless one's definition of success is a the exercise of narcissism and their image of a perfect society is one based in unfettered Social Darwinism.

Steve Salerno said...

Rodger et al: Note the Machiavelli quote on today's front page. Kind of like, pride comes before the fall.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion, thanks for posting. I'm amazed by people like Rodger who deny the reality that's there for the seeing. The rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting screwed but people like Rodger and Trump or the tea party will complain that they're the victims.

Jenny said...

a recent emigre says... the effects of greed are mostly good. Show us, please, where and how this is true. I've been studying some of the research on overindulgence and it points to just the opposite of what you are saying.

Mark said...

Steve, have you read about the fallout that James Arthur Ray has dealt with since his sentencing for negligent homicide?

It made me feel sorry for him - for a few seconds, at which point I thought about the victims and their families.