Why I’m Sick to Death of Hearing About “Inequality”

If “inequality is increasing”, it can mean a couple of things:

  • The poor are getting poorer
  • The rich are getting richer, or
  • Some combination of the two

I care about poor people. I am agreeable to political measures to help them. If poverty is increasing, I see that as a dire crisis requiring action.

But, by and large, we have not been seeing great increases in poverty. We have been seeing the richest people getting richer, and the rest of the population has not been keeping up with them.

In 2006, I read the book “The Conscience of a Liberal” by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. I did it to expose myself to a contrast to my own conservative views about economics. I was expecting him to go on and on about “poverty”. But he didn’t. I’m not sure the word “poverty” even occurs in the whole book. But he went on and on and on about “inequality”. It became pretty clear that Krugman lies awake at night, dreading the possibility that anyone else out there might have it better than he does.

It gets worse — he describes the Great Depression as the “Great Compression” because inequality was greatly reduced by FDR massively confiscating the property of rich people with ridiculous, extornionate tax rates over 90%. There were far fewer rich people at the end of the Great Depression, and Krugman thinks that was just dandy, he waxes nostalgic over this era. Most of the labor-saving devices we use to do housework hadn’t been invented yet, so women had to stay at home — being a “housewife” was a busy full-time job. In 1947, the median family’s income was 44% of what it is now, but the important thing is that there were far fewer of those oh-so-nasty rich people around so the likes of Paul Krugman could sleep soundly.

There are a number of problematic trends that are worth talking about:

  • the plight of the poor
  • median wage stagnation (in real terms — median wages have been keeping up with inflation as defined by CPI, but not increasing any faster than that)
  • medical inflation far outstripping CPI
  • many jobs that were previously done just fine by high school graduates now require a college degree (why?) and inflation of college tuition and the price of textbooks has far outstripped even medical inflation

All of those problems are worth talking about. And if you discuss any of them under their own specific name, I have no problem with you. But talking about “inequality” is intellectual sleight of hand, a way of pretending to be motivated by compassion while really being motivated by envy. Talking about “growing inequality” makes it sound to the uninformed like someone is getting worse off, which is baloney — in our times “growing inequality” does not reflect a trend of people getting worse off, it reflects the rich getting richer, and if you can’t live with that, I suggest you seek counseling.

And if people want to be especially misleading, they start giving figures on “wealth inequality” rather than “income inequality”. The thing is, culturally, most Americans don’t save squat. Only a few are too poor to save anything, there are many Americans whose income, in real terms, is stratospheric compared to many people in the third world who are getting by just fine. But they lack the maturity to save anything. American culture is about “keeping up with the Joneses” so you buy a house you can barely afford, same for your car, and tons of other useless crap, and the whole time it’s the height of bad manners for anyone to ask “Is it paid for?”. The financial sector has been doing such a great job of making credit available to such a large share of the population that people don’t see any need to save up a “rainy day fund”. If hard times hit, they’ll just go into credit card debt.

Sometimes you get figures like “the 8 richest people in the world have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the world’s population”. I’ve got news for you, the net wealth of “the bottom 50% of the world’s population” is very probably negative. You have more change in your pockets than “the wealth of the bottom 50% of the world’s population”.

In the US, except for really, exceptionally poor people, a failure to accumulate wealth reflects an inability, or at least an unwillness, to delay gratification. And there’s a lot of that going around.

The Plan

I see the left’s whole identity politics as a deliberate plan to destroy Western Civilization. To begin with, they don’t see that as a bad end, since they see Western Civilization as a criminal enterprise.

The society consists of a large number of demographics. In virtually all cases there are cultural differences between them, and very often intrinsic differences. These differences amount to advantages and disadvantages, so that if society is operated in a fair manner, treating all groups equally and basing everything on fundamental rights of individuals, different demographics will experience different outcomes.

With the wild success of market reforms in Red China after Mao’s death, followed by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Warsaw Pact, the far left faced a crisis — everyone knew at that point that they didn’t know their asses from a hole in the ground about economics, so what were they going to talk about? So they went into new areas, mostly environmentalism and identity politics. These fields enabled them to vilify most of the same people who they had hated all along, with the added bonus that in identity politics, many in the Western World felt that the principle of free speech didn’t really apply.

They moved aggressively to punish anyone who talked about intrinsic or even cultural advantages or disadvantages between demographics. They never established any scientific or historic reason that such advantages and disadvantages couldn’t exist — they didn’t have to — they just said it wasn’t a nice thing to say. Once they had done this, they aggressively asserted that the only reason for a difference in outcomes was injustice. This warping of the rules of debate resulting in a spectacular over estimation of the amount of injustice in the society. The far left could then weaponize this perception as a tool to tear everything down.

This continues with a systematic and deliberate attack on American society’s symbols, heroes, and history, and an attempt to portray everything as unjust and unsustainable, as no one having justly earned anything that they have.

The Pessimism of 2019

I was born in 1960, but I had siblings 10 years older than me.  So by the time I was old enough to read, I was surrounded by many 10-year old children’s books bought on their behalf, and was an avid reader.  I was particularly interested in science, and the science books written around 1960 were extremely optimistic.  They were written by people who could remember using outhouses and refrigerators cooled by huge blocks of ice.  We were barely starting to have regular commercial flights across the Atlantic.  The improvement in the world that these authors had seen in their lifetimes had been enormous.  And they were very confident that we would have permanent colonies on the moon, if not Mars, by the year 2000.

The period around 1960 was just a very, very optimistic time.

The seventies were another matter.  There was a war in the middle east in 1973 and the US and Europe supported Israel, and the Gulf States retaliated by cutting off our oil supply.  This was followed by an energy panic lasting for years.  I remember reading, around 1973/74, that the world had 30 years of oil left, and 20 years of natural gas.  The media was full of stories about how we were running out of oil, how important it was that we conserve energy and somehow adapt our whole infrastructure to other sources of power.

In 1976, a lecturer came to my high school, and his thesis was that the 1970’s were a very pessimistic time.  One fact that he brought up was that the human race had more years of proven oil reserves available than at any previous time.  The lecture hall was silent.  That didn’t make sense.  It did not compute.  The media had been screaming at us that we were running out of oil for years.

He turned out to be right.  We were generations away from running out of oil.  The press was completely wrong.  The media had malfunctioned.

You’d think some intrepid reporters might have actually done their frigging jobs and spoken with people in the oil industry to find out what was going on.  But most of the press at that time leaned left, and to the left, the oil industry was a pariah, not to be engaged with in a civil conversation.

So the media followed fashion rather than fact, and society was completely misinformed about what was considered one of the most pressing issues of the time.  We should all remember that.  There’s no reason it can’t happen again, or that it’s not happening now.

It wasn’t just oil.  Pessimism was everywhere.  Post-Watergate, Americans tended to believe that everything was corrupt.  Movies about the future tended to be dystopias like “Soylent Green” or “Planet of the Apes”.  The popular movie “Capricorn One” speculated that the whole space program had been a fraud.

I remember an interesting intellectual at that time pointed out that the late seventies was a time when public debate was much more interested in problems than solutions.

2019 is an extremely pessimistic time in the United States, to put it mildly.

It is important to remember that the media currently has a very pessimistic bias.  Reporters nowadays are absolutely miserable.  The Internet has broken the business model of most publications, which are laying off reporters left and right.  The ones who can find work at all are barely hanging on.  So we’re all being informed by miserable people whose prospects are turning out to be much worse than they had been expecting a few years ago.

Cable TV, the Internet, and social media have provided diverse forums for a variety of conversations to take place.  Different forums have different, wildly conflicting ideas about what the boundaries of acceptable discourse are, which ideas are reasonable, and which one are beyond the pale.  People have coalesced into tribes talking in different forums.

A huge amount of social media content is outrage of one tribe at what the craziest people in the other tribe are saying or doing, which is all very negative.  Very, very little constructive communication between tribes is going on.  Both tribes believe very deeply that the prospects for American society are dismal and it’s all the other tribe’s fault.  So the only consensus is that everything’s going to hell.

I have mixed feelings about Democratic Socialists.  On the one hand, they are proposing a lot of ideas that they think will improve things, so at least they’re being positive in that way.  At the same time, most of what they are proposing is completely politically infeasible, and in an attempt to motivate the public to accept their ideas, they try very hard to convince everybody that the status quo is horrible and unsustainable, so they, too, feed into the atmosphere of negativity.

Things are, in many ways, much better than they used to be.

  • As the human race has learned from a wide variety of social experiments around the globe, including the discrediting of the Marxist economic model, we’ve gotten better at running countries, and this has led to prosperity in the third world increasing faster than nearly anyone was hoping for.
  • Violent crime in the United States, which was a terrible problem in the 1970’s, has been reaching new lows.
  • Today, we’re concerned about left-wingers in the Antifa beating up very small numbers of people with their fists, while in 1971 we had radical leftists exploding more than a bomb per day in this country.
  • 50 years ago it was widely believed that within a few decades, every country in the world would be struggling terribly with overpopulation, and governments were going to have to forcibly prevent people from reproducing too much.  The problem just went away by itself in most places with only China, and to a much more limited extent, India resorting to that draconian measure.
  • When I was in college 40 years ago, checking facts meant a time-consuming trip the library, and even then it wasn’t clear that they were going to be easy to find.  My peer group believed, and passed around, a lot of highly inaccurate “facts” that they got from each other by word of mouth.  That still goes on, but, now, we all have access to the Internet and with it, access to highly reliable sources of information for very little effort if we’re at all interested in them.

What is the most constructive response?

  • Make sure that you are sampling information from both tribes.
  • Be skeptical of whether stories that are just one tribe getting mad at the other are worth your time.
  • Try to avoid getting angry.  Anger can be addicting and it’s counter productive to really understanding what’s going on.  Social media seems to be designed to get everybody angry.  Don’t fall for it.
  • Don’t focus on the dumbest or craziest voices.  Focus on the smartest, calmest, most reasonable and constructive speakers.
  • The presence of problems is not necessarily a reason to be pessimistic or depressed. Try to get excited about solving them.