Tuesday, September 4, 2012
The 5 Best Sentences? Um, no.
So, not long ago the following facebook meme crossed my newsfeed (not sure of the original source):
The 5 best sentences I'll ever read?
I think not.
The best sentences I've ever read probably include "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." I think this one is pretty challenging: "Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.'" I like this one from Aristotle: "Now virtue is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on deficiency." And I like this one from Mahatma Gandhi: "Democracy disciplined and enlightened is the finest thing in the world. A democracy prejudiced, ignorant, superstitious will land itself in chaos and may be self-destroying." (Okay, so technically that's two sentences.)
But these five? They'd hardly be worth my attention, except that yesterday was Labor Day, and taking the time to explain why I don't find these sentences...impressive...actually gives me the chance to say some things about labor. So here goes:
Number 1: "You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity, by legislating the wealth out of prosperity."
Although that's all the response this sentence really deserves, let me generously expound a bit: The claim here seems to be that you can't make the life prospects of the poor better through legislation that taxes the wealthy (although I could be wrong about that...who the #$%@! really knows what this sentence is saying?).
But let's assume my translation is on track. If that's what's being said here, then, to put the point as plainly as I can: Bull.
Here's the thing. There are people who have found ways to leverage small advantages in our economy into progressively large ones by exploiting the power they gain over others. Doing so takes work--I'm not talking about lazy bums here. I'm talking about hard-working opportunists who are ruthless about maximizing their own wealth, even if it undermines the life prospects of others.
How does this work? The answer isn't simple, but here is one way: In any large business, the profits made are the result of collective effort. But the distribution of those profits is often in the hands of a few decision-makers. And those decision-makers have an incentive to reward themselves more highly. Some will act on this incentive. Some won't. Some will act on it to an extent. And some will be ruthless about it--perhaps by exploiting the desperate circumstances of the poorest in society, leveraging their desperation into labor agreements which basically have them contributing far more to the collective entrerprise than they're getting out of it. And the decision-makers pocket the difference.
The more widespread such opportunistic practices are, the greater the poverty. Social, political, and economic realities can influence how widespread these practices are. One way to fight such practices is through labor unions. Collective bargaining can help prevent exploitation, since workers who are united are harder to exploit--but only if there isn't a sufficiently large pool of laborers outside the unions (perhaps waiting in Bangladesh) that can be turned to without much trouble.
A lot has been accomplished over the years by the efforts of workers' unions. Lives have improved. More people in the developed world have more hope of making a decent living by working hard. But beyond what laborers can do for themselves, there are things governments can do. Minimum wage laws, for example.
That's right. Taxes. To put it simply, if those inclined to exploit desperate workers for personal gain would have the gains of exploitation taken away in taxes, they'd lose the incentive to exploit. Why circumvent the labor unions in the US and build a factory in Bangladesh if the tax penalty is so high it will take decades to recover the moving and building costs? Why, for the sake of lining your own pocket, would you be grossly unfair in the distribution of wages in your company if, beyond a certain very healthy income of the sort you'd have to work hard to achieve, the taxes become so high that you'd just be handing money to the government that could better be spent making your workers happier with their jobs and with you?
This is part of what a progressive tax structure can do--not by itself of course, but as part of an overall government strategy aimed at erasing the incentives which lead to opportunistic exploitation and the poverty it can produce.
Taxation used in this way isn't about taking money from the rich people who earned it and giving it to the lazy bums who didn't. Rather, it's a piece of an overall plan for discouraging the inequitable distribution of wealth within a business, when that wealth was made through collective effort but decision-makers are inclined to disproportionately reward themselves.
Number 2: "What one person receives without working for, another person works for without receiving."
Well, in many cases I suppose this is true. My children receive food without working for it. I worked for it. I didn't receive it, since it went in my kids' bellies.
This, of course, is as it should be.
And I suppose that if you have hunter-gatherers living in an area of bountiful natural resources, they're "working" for what they receive in the minimal sense of reaching out and pulling the fruit from the trees. But then you compare them with another tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in a desert working far more than the first tribe has ever dreamed of working...and for their labors end up with far less. When you make that comparison, it begins to look like the first tribe has received something neither they nor anyone else worked for. And it looks like the second tribe is working hard without receiving much--but not because some other tribe is living off their labors.
Sometimes, one person receives something by good luck rather than anyone's work. Sometimes, another person's work has nothing to show for it because of bad luck, not because someone else ended up receiving the benefits.
So, what is this sentence getting at? I have a job. I get paid. The rickshaw puller in Calcutta has a job and gets paid. I work hard, but the rickshaw puller works orders of magnitude harder than I have ever dreamed of working. And the rickshaw puller gets a fraction of a fraction of what I make. There are probably investment bankers who spend as many hours at work, raising their blood pressure and shortening their life expentancy, as the rickshaw puller spends at work hauling more privileged people from one part of Calcutta to another. But the rickshaw puller, for that same amount of labor, is making a million times less.
The difference is a matter of luck, an accident of birth. Some people can't pull themselves up by their bootstraps, no matter how hard they struggle, because they have no boots. Others have closets full of boots they don't know what to do with--bought with their own money, to be sure, money they earned by working; but their work was rewarded 100,000 times more highly than the poor rickshaw puller's work. Do they deserve all those boots in a way that the rickshaw puller doesn't?
So: Who is working without receiving, and who is receiving without working? If two are working just as hard but one is getting a lot more, is the excess enjoyed by the one something that he or she is receiving without working for? Is the point that we should always receive an income in proportion to how hard we work? I suppose we could pull that off by having a world government taking income from those in the richest countries and giving it to the struggling poor laborers in the impoverished regions of the world...but I doubt that's what the fans of this sentence have in mind.
So what do they have in mind? Unless I miss my guess, it's supposed to be about government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for the poorest among us. You know, the programs that make sure the children of the unemployed single mother don't go to bed too hungry. True enough, that food those kids eat wasn't food they grew themselves. Their mother didn't grow it, either. Farmers did that.
Of course, most of the profits didn't go to the farmers--or to the poor kids. It went to Monsanto stockholders. And maybe to the lawyers Monsanto hires to sue the pants off farmers who inadvertently grew some genetically modified Monsanto crops because seeds drifted over from a neighboring farm.
Those making the big profits here probably worked hard, too--maybe as hard or harder than the farmers. Who knows? And I suspect that the mother of the hungry kids might be willing to work hard, too--assuming she could find a job, and assuming the cost of child care didn't all but erase her income ( maybe a job that earned her 3% of what that Monsanto lawyer makes in a year), and assuming she got to keep the job after the second time she missed work to tend to a sick child.
One single mother might be able to pull it off because she has an aunt or mother in town who can watch the kids so she can work three jobs to pay for rent and put food on the table for the children she never gets to see. But another single mother might be in a city far from relatives--because she ran away from the home in which she was being sexually molested and beaten, and became a prostitute to survive, and got pregnant. And now she has next to nothing and a baby to boot, and doesn't want to go back to prostitution on account of the child, but has no skills, no support network. No bootstraps.
We live in a world where opportunity and talent are not fairly distributed, where effort does not always translate into prosperity, and where there are no simple solutions. Some people are handed opportunity on a plate, and with a little bit of effort can turn it into a cornucopia. Others are handed a turd.
In such a world sentence 2 is staggeringly naive.
Number 3: "The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else."
First of all, I should point out that we left the gold standard for currency a few years ago--by which I mean in the 19th Century--and the economic realities of today aren't adequately represented by a statement as naive as #3 (for more details on the complexities of the issues in play, see here).
Second, the government is able to provide goods through organized collective action that a bunch of individuals, acting on their own, couldn't provide for themselves. The members of society benefit from the fruits of such collective action: national security, domestic peace, transportation and energy infrastructure, a basic social safety net (to help make sure that, even when catastrophic illnesses or natural disasters or financially devastating layoffs occur, we'll still have bootstraps we can pull ourselves up by).
I enjoy a relatively secure daily life in part because of a criminal justice system provided me by the government. I get to work driving on roads and over bridges built by the government. My children are being educated by the public schools. I help pay for these things through taxes. Others help pay for them too. But since we'd all be poorer without the opportunities these public goods provide, should I think of the taxes I pay as the government taking something away from me? Or is it better to think of it as being part of a society that, through collective effort, is providing me and those around me with someting none of us could have produced acting on our own?
My paying taxes, in that case, is the difference between me actually being a part of that collective action and me being a freeloader.
Number 4: "You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it."
Number 5: "When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them; and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work, because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation."
Yeah, and if half the people in a nation fly to the moon in order to get away from the other half, and the other half fly to the moon to get away from the first half, then everyone in the nation will asphyxiate together on the moon.
Here's the thing: This statement is true enough, but so what? The statement matters--is something we should care about--if it's about something that's in danger of really happening.
I think those who find this sentence to be one of the best ones they've heard think of it as a warning about what will happen if we allow too much "socialism" into our society. But if so it's based on an Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian fantasy, not on any kind of socialism that has even the remotest chance of being vaguely approximated by the American government, regardless of which political party is in power.
I don't mean to say that there aren't serious problems with how we deal with poverty in America. While it is clearly false that half of Americans do not think they need to work because the other half is going to take care of them (and false that any policy proposals on the horizon would move us towards such a situation), it is true that there are some Americans who do not think that they have much hope of crawling out of poverty by working hard. They see living on welfare as the fairly miserable existence that it is, but don't believe that their effort and struggle will lead them to anything better. What results isn't laziness but hopelessness--not the optimistic idea that others will take care of them if they kick back, but the pessimistic idea that the social system won't reward them if they work hard.
If you want to change that, you have to change the way wealth is distributed. Somehow a higher proportion of the wealth generated by labor has to get into the pockets of the lowest level laborers, which in turn will likely mean that someone who is currently raking in the big bucks will have to see a smaller share of that wealth than they do now. There may be different ways to achieve this result, but one thing is clear: We can't rely on business decision-makers to fix the problem, since they tend to be beneficiaries of the current system. Chances are, if it's left to them, the problems will remain or only get worse.
Policies in Norway--a socialist country--have helped to ensure that the unemployment rate is among the lowest in the world--this despite having an ample social safety net. What's happened here? How dare the Norwegians be gainfully employed, in defiance of the Ayn-Randian narrative that socialism leads to a nation of people waiting for handouts? Maybe the answer is this: What encourages people to get to work is the presence of job options that promise a decent life, not the absence of a basic social safety net.
Is it foolish for a government to say, "If you don't bother to work we'll take care of you, and if you do bother to work we'll take your earnings away to take care of those who don't"? Absolutely. Has any presidential contender for either major political party in the US States ever seriously proposed such blasted idiocy? No. Have some people caricatured and distorted more left-leaning American politicians as if they were saying such a fool thing? Yes. Is a sentence that gestures to such a caricature one of the "best sentences I'll ever read"?