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All Things Being Equal, or Not

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I have just had one of those days on the Internet that makes me wonder why we don’t all go back to using manual typewriters and get it over with.  It would be faster.

I did it in order to get hold of this link:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/02/14/944388/-Nine-Pictures-Of-The-Extreme-Income-Wealth-Gap

And getting hold of it was so bad, and took so much time, that before I came onto WordPad to write this post, I sent it to myself.  And now I’m going to stop for a moment and make sure I’ve saved this to drafts, because I don’t want to spend another two hours trying to find it and get it to load again. 

Really.

The article is from a web site called The Daily Kos, which is at

http://www.dailykos.com

and which is a fairly predictable liberal-to-left.

I don’t look at it very much, not because it’s liberal to left–I look at a lot of those–but because its owner has been on Olbermann’s show a couple of times and come off as an arrogant ass.   I get all the arrogant ass I want these days from eye surgeons.  I don’t need to go looking for it on the Web.

This article was posted to Facebook by a friend from rec.arts.mystery, which is a site I used to visit a lot and now have very little time for. 

I’ve reposted it here because I found myself being oddly ambivalent about its message–or rather, not its message, but some of the things it touched on.

Let’s clear up a couple of the little things first.

1) Like all these sites, on the right as well as on the left, the writers simply cannot pass up a chance to be tendentious.   In this case, the tendentiousness arises in the form of reporting “inequality” by “mean individual income” rather than mean household income, something that makes the gap look much wider than it actually is. 

2) The article also leaves out the elephant in the living room–the problem is never that there is “a huge gap between rich and poor.”  That’s always the case.  The problem is whether or not there is a gradually increasing level of wealth and income between the rich and the poor.   When we say of a country that it has a large gap between rich and poor, what we’re almost always saying is that it lacks a middle class.  There are rich people and poor people, and that’s it.  This is not our problem, and never has been.

3) The article relies–as all such articles do–on an assumption:  that the very fact that some people have far more than other people is prima facie evidence of “injustice.”

But I don’t think this is true.  I think it is entirely just that Bill Gates lives in a house he needs a golf cart to get around in and the local crack addict lives on the street.  I think it is entirely just that Bill Gates lives in that house and I live in mine, which is, after all, somewhat smaller.

I don’t even have a problem with people who inherit the stuff.  If I make money honestly, it is mine by right, whether it amounts to 50 billion dollars or 50 cents, and as mine by right is mine to distribute as I wish.  If what I feel like doing with it is leaving it to my intellectually challenged relatives–well, I’m an idiot, but that should be nobody’s business but my own.

Nor does it bother me that so many of the people who get rich do it by doing things I have little or no respect for.   There is no cosmic value system by which one set of things is “really worth it” and others are not even if people want them.

In a capitalist system, people get rich by giving the public what it wants for what it wants to pay for it.  The public often has the taste of a pet rock, but that, too, is nobody’s business but its own.

And it would do us all good to try to remember that Stephen King isn’t “worth 5 million dollars a book.”  He’s worth $7.99 to five million people, or more.  And, really, it’s hard to argue that the books aren’t worth $7.99.

But I said I was ambivalent about this piece, and I am, so I might as well get to what makes me ambivalent.

First is the fact that a lot of people are making money not by selling books at $7.99 or software packages at $300.   They’re making it by getting the government to give it to them.

And I’m not talking about “welfare queens,” either.  The thing that bothered me most about the crash of the financial system was not that people were doing stupid reckless things–it happens.   Nor was it that a bunch of big banks nearly went belly up and took the rest of us with them.

What bugs me is that most of those people still have their jobs and all of them still have their money.

The entire idea of risk to reward is this–you take big risks, you win big rewards, if you win.  If you lose, you go crash on the sidewalk, and you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.

The guys who lost should, right now, be taking bottles back to the grocery store to see if they can work up enough money to take the kids to McDonald’s tonight–and they should be doing it in Hope, Mississippi, because Manhattan is now way too expensive.

Instead, most of these people have their private jets and their pied a terres on the Upper East Side, and none of them that I know of has to worry about how to pay the next electric bill.

I do know people who worked on Wall Street and crashed and burned after the meltdown, but they were all low level traders who had no responsibility at all for setting the policies that got their firms into this them. 

I should not have to listen to bankruptcy court judges fretting about whether giving Mr. CEO of the Mortgage Company enough left over after his debts have been discharged to “live as he is accustomed to.”

I mean, what?

The second thing is something I’ve brought up before–it bothers me how we’ve somehow become a culture where nothing matters but the money.

Something has gone wrong when we no longer really care how somebody got his money, as long as he has it, and the more the better. And something has gone wrong when “having money” means spending as much of it as possible for stuff that is…well, it’s just stuff.

If you’ve made your money honestly–and not by getting the government to bail you ought of wrecking your bank–then I think you have an absolute right to buy a car for a million dollars.  I just think we were a better culture when most people would have been embarrassed to do it, because it’s…stupid.

And you know, gauche.

A bit much, as they used to say when I was growing up.

I also think it’s one thing to really love writing horror stories and dedicate you life to it and then find that you’ve made a pile of cash, and another to dedicate your life to making cash any way you can get it. 

Most of the people I admire in this world have done the first thing and not the second.  Most of the things I truly hate about modern life–the way “not for profit”  hospitals take tax deductions for being charities and then have collections departments that would put credit card companies in jail; the way everything from elementary school education to nuns providing services to the poor and homeless to little church quartets doing Bach fret about cost/benefit ratios and maximizing revenue flow.

The streets need the potholes fixed.  Your public library is supposed to be a repository of the culture and carry even the stuff you don’t think you want to read.  The Middlebury police really do deserve working police radios.

I’m not making that last one up.

In the middle of all this, I find myself what I can only say is not sanguine about the prospects of anything changing any time soon.

The Democrats are completely clueless about why people so strenuously oppose all their programs for “the public good.” They fall back on “well, those people must be stupid or racist or both.”

But when your average American attracted by the Tea Party rants and rails about “too much government regulation,” he isn’t talking about the regulation of Wall Street banks and huge corporations.

He’s talking about the regulation of himself.

You want a single payer health care plan, expanded public benefits and a stronger financial regulation bill?

Do what you have to–support the passage of Constitutional amendments if you have to–to end the endless government nattering and regulating of private habits.  Shut up about “the obesity epidemic.”  Stop passing laws forbidding smoking in restaurants (and talking about passing laws forbidding smoking at home when there’s a child in the house).  Reform the juvenile and family court systems so that people don’t lose their Constitutional rights as soon as they have to deal with them.  Get used to the fact that some things may have to differ between states, including some very big things, like abortion, gay marriage, and whether or not the local school gets to give a Christmas concert.

I wonder endlessly if the Democrats are ever going to understand just how much of the public opposition to the new health care reforms comes from the fear that a new government benefit will be a wedge for yet more government regulation of private and local life.

I wonder endlessly if the Democrats are ever going to understand that they can have their social agenda, or their economic agenda–but that they will never have both.

FDR understood that. 

In the meantime, when the Republicans say they want to shrink government, the left thinks “they want to let corporations off the hook!”  And they’re largely right.

The ordinary guy in the street thinks, “yes! this means I can tell that obnoxious social worker from school that Johnny isn’t going on Ritalin and there’s nothing she can do about it.”

If you’re sitting on the left and thinking that it’s impossible, letting East Podunk, Louisiana have Christmas concerts, teach abstinence, and eliminate all mention of Darwin from biology class is just going too far–people have rights!

Well, if you’re thinking that, try thinking instead of what you’d feel if the law demanded that your school pray to Jesus every morning and spend health class teaching that any girl who has sex before marriage is a slut. 

In the end, it’s all about the culture.

And, in a way differently than this article intends, the money.

Written by janeh

February 15th, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'All Things Being Equal, or Not'

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  1. Intesting. The usual statistical dodge is for Republicans to talk about mean individual income (and never mind that all the increase went to one person) and for Democrats to discuss mean household income (and never mind that the household is shrinking because the kids can afford their own place.)

    Bankruptcy. Used to be you were wiped out. Then you were left clothes, then house–and now evidently you’re entitled to income, because Heaven forbid anyone should have to work, or live on less than they’re used to.

    Fully agree overall. FDR was not always right on details, but he understood how the system worked. The current crowd does not. If you micromanage programs–bills in thousands of pages–legislate behavior contrary to local community standards, and rely on court decisions rather than legislative compromises, this is where you wind up, and it’s an inherently corrupt and freedom-threatening place. You can argue this or that individual decision, but if smoking bans and fighting obesity are the sorts of things you want government to do, and thousand-page bills like health care and cap and trade are how you want to do things, this is where you will wind up.

    There was a 44-page cap and trade bill proposed in the last session of Congress. It went nowhere. No room for inserting speical favors for one’s friends.

    It will get worse, but not forever.

    robert_piepenbrink

    16 Feb 11 at 6:21 am

  2. I had no trouble downloading the article but it confirms my opinion that “justice” to the left is what I’d call jealousy, envy and spite. I really don’t care if some people have incomes of a billion
    a year. That amounts to $3 or $4 per person per year in the US.

    jd

    16 Feb 11 at 2:05 pm

  3. The Daily Kos article mentioned the Maybach. I came across this which may amuse.

    http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2011/02/14/why-does-the-maybach-62s-cost-500000/

    I rather liked the comment that most Maybach owners have chauffeurs. Now there is an accessory I’d like to have!

    jd

    16 Feb 11 at 9:36 pm

  4. I had a close look at a Maybach in London in 2007. At that time, 2007 – or as close as I could get without actually crawling all over it. At that time, the very few that were likely to reach Australia were being sold for about $AU1 million. While I’ve often day-dreamed about being rich enough to afford such toys, I eventually grew up to a point where I realised that paying the equivalent of the price of a very good house for something that I would likely spend no more than an hour or so a day in, at most, would be self-indulgent to the point of stupidity.

    But not for one minute would I begrudge anyone the right to spend their own money on such a thing if that’s what they wanted to do. It really is a beautiful artifact, and well up there with the best of classic cars ever produced. I don’t do the politics of envy, and have no patience with those who do.

    Mique

    17 Feb 11 at 3:34 am

  5. I couldn’t raise enough interest to read the entire article, but what struck me about what I did read was the repetition of the fact that ‘you’ (presumably me, the reader,) would never see the art or the car or the private island.

    So what? The nicest interpretation I can put on someone’s desire to see someone else’s possessions, whether they’re mine or those of a multi-billionaire, is nosiness. The interpretation that actually popped into my mind first, nasty person that I can be, was that this was an attempt to stir up envy, which is quite rightly considered a sin by the religious and generally a bad and mentally unhealthy emotion by a lot of non-religious.

    It’s the sort of thing really nasty-minded people do when they want to stir up trouble in a clique or social group, or to shut out one member – make everyone else think there’s something owing them by the target, even it it’s something like the right to walk uninvited into a private home to goggle at the decorations or cars, and then encourage them to feel ill-done by because they can’t do it, and can’t own the decorations and cars themselves.

    Cheryl

    17 Feb 11 at 7:26 am

  6. Several thoughts occur….

    The entire government now seems to carry the attitude that any money earned is theirs first, and they’ll let us have what they’ve decided is good for us after they’re through spending what they want to. If nothing is left…oh well. Corporations, evil entities that they are, have nothing to do with creating wealth. Money just…occurs, I guess.

    Those sites that rave about how the upper 5% gets most of the money somehow always neglect to mention they also pay the majority of the taxes. Not exactly equivalent to their income, true, but darn close. If the economy had to depend on the taxes and spending of the lower 85% income earners, well, let’s just say there’d be no economy. And certainly no innovation, no R&D, no business investment.

    Believing that somehow, someone who has more than you do *owes* you something (the basis of every welfare state) is one of the most insidious and evil notions I’ve ever seen, and I do mean from both directions. It saps motivation, destroys ambition, creates guilt, and engenders hatred.

    Charity or support based in generosity of spirit is one thing. Obligatory extraction of resources for the benefit of someone chosen by the extractors somehow always ends up benefitting the extractors more than the intended recipient. Even if the recipients are ones the contributor would have chosen.

    I’ve seen Maybachs, more than one Testarossa and Lambourghini on the freeways of LA. My husband wants a Tesla, one of which we’ve also seen. Pretty damn cool.

    Lymaree

    17 Feb 11 at 2:44 pm

  7. Ah well, we’re headed for a two class world anyway.

    There will be the owning class, and then everybody else. Well, there may be a small management/engineering class just below the owners – someone will have to keep the machines running, but at the rate the economy is progressing, far from machines giving everyone money an leisure, the owners of the machines will have everything and some kind of Dystopian hell will be the lot of the rest of us.

    Yes, I’m depressed to day. But if you doubt me:

    “…the Watson experiment indicates how truly important artificial intelligence and natural language processing can be for all kinds of business uses, including health care, law, call centers and a lot more…”
    http://www.eweek.com/c/a/IT-Infrastructure/IBMs-Watson-Jeopardy-Win-Just-the-Beginning-214309/

    You can already see the winner take all/superstar phenomena everywhere, from executive salaries to music performers to, yes, law. And when machines can replace paralegals and jr. associates it’ll just get worse. You either get the gold ring, or you get kicked to the curb.

    I don’t care if someone can afford a private jet. I’ll care very much if I can’t get bad tooth fixed because I can barely feed myself.

    michaelwfisher@cox.net

    17 Feb 11 at 3:12 pm

  8. True, Michael. I just Obama declaring anyone wealthy who can still afford to feed themselves.

    Lymaree

    17 Feb 11 at 4:16 pm

  9. Er..that’s “I just see Obama…etc.”

    Lymaree

    17 Feb 11 at 4:16 pm

  10. I goofed. Ought to have typed “MEDIAN household income” above.

    Jane’s right overall. The article didn’t say “we’re not getting what we’ve earned” but “How dare they have so much!”

    What she missed was the companion of government bailouts–government creating private fortunes by creating legal monopolies, forcing out competition or mandating purchases. The usual tools are licensing boards, zoning commissions and tariffs, but I’m sure there were individual paragraphs in the recent “health care reform” which have created millionaires. It seems inescapable from detailed government and long bills.

    The best investment one can make these days is to rent a member of Congress. If we could lower the rate of return on that one, I think a number of problems would go away.

    robert_piepenbrink

    17 Feb 11 at 4:48 pm

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