A New Year

It is difficult for me to separate the writing of a blog from writing a diary.  My diary entries are introspective — concerned mainly with what I am thinking, feeling, and how I am responding to events.  This is not really interesting material for most readers — and there seem to be too many bloggers already who somehow think that their day-to-day musings are of interest to the world.

A blog should be a bit in the direction of an editorial from a mere diary entry.  The author should take the time to make the material interesting to the reader and the time to craft the words so that it reads well.

So I am sitting here trying to get out of diary mode.

I had exchange of comments with someone on freakanomics.com about a podcast on income inequality.   My point was tautological — that the statistic offered (degree of movement from the bottom to the top quintile) was misleading because it ignores a constraint.

There are potentially many weaknesses in his statistic, but there was not enough detail in the podcast to determine if his analysis addresses them appropriately.  The one that stood out in the podcast is the fact that the movement from the bottom to the top had to be matched by an equivalent shift downward through the quintiles.  To focus on only the movement between two specific quintiles is to attach special importance to one set of people over the others.

One can do any number of thought experiments to demonstrate how misleading the statistic is.

  1.  Suppose that the fifth quintile this year is as rich as the first quintile last —  i.e. that everyone prospered.  Somehow the statistic loses much of the meaning that its proponents seem to attribute to it.
  2. Suppose that the fifth quintile replaces entirely the first quintile by simply transferring all of the wealth from the first to the fifth.  Does society benefit when those who have proven, to some extent, that they have competencies that they can get paid for are replaced by  those who have not generally demonstrated their economic value?

I have no doubt that there are historical injustices and inequalities.  I have no doubt that many of the current crop of privileged (myself included) have had advantages not availabl to others due to these historical facts.  I have no doubt that there are those who feel that their lives could have been better had history been different.

But haven’t these things always been true?  Something drove my ancestors to leave Holland to come to the United States.  Some of them drowned on the way.  They did manage to make a living farming in Nebraska, but they were definitely poor up to at least WWII.  They struggled, I am sure.  My grandfather was keenly aware of the fact that, unlike his three sons, he had no education.  The sons, by the way, got their college degrees via that GI bill as a result of their service in the military during WWII.  Certainly a government program but perhaps not a free lunch.

My mother’s family had a similar history in northern Indiana.  Times were tough in the depression.

My father’s side has done pretty well since the war — most are well-educated and seem to have spread out through the midwest.  My mother’s side not so well, although not terribly.

I am a Boomer and no doubt have benefited from this history.  This is what my ancestor’s wanted for me and what I want for my descendants — to prosper on the foundation which they have been provided.

I do not feel any particular shame for my privileges, although there seem to be many urging me to do so.  I do think that I understand the source of the feeling on the part of those whose ancestors were oppressed.  It is undoubtedly frustrating to think that your life could have been different if only someone or other had not wronged your ancestors.

But whose ancestors have not been wronged at some time or another?  What redress is logically or practically possible for historical wrongs?  How do we even know the counterfactual?  Do we really know that the great grandson of a slave is worse off because his great grandfather was a slave than he would have been had his ancestors not be forcibly relocated to North America?  I wonder how many Africans would be willing to change places with a distant relative who happens to be African-American?

The better attitude is to look at what one has and quit coming up with reasons why one deserves more than has been gained through the rules in play now.  We live in a pretty good place, even the poor among us.  We have schools and parks and libraries and opportunities for employment that are not too demanding.  We have scholarships and food banks and all kinds of social network that the typical third-worlder would find amazing and wondrous.

All this is just thinking aloud, trying to work my way through the issues and to understand where this apparent perpetual sense of grievance comes from.  I am being told that I am smug and self-satisfied because I am lucky (which is true — I have been lucky) and only because I am lucky (which is false — my success has built upon the work not only of my direct ancestors, but on many others — founding fathers, great thinkers, laborers and slaves going back most directly to ancient Greece and coming to me through the Magna Carta and the US Constitution, among many other threads.

I want people to recognize the great gift that this represents to them regardless of their current economic status.  I want people to get help when they need it but not to overstate their needs or their rights or their historical claims for restitution.

I worry that the recent political events have polarized our country and that, if the next four years do not yield more mutual understanding and accommodation that the next election will bring progressive fascism with French Revolution like treatment of the “rich” and the “elites.”

 

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