"Lottery Winners"

A question asked by a writer at Forbes:
Winning a lottery doesn’t make a person worthy of respect. A lottery winner wins despite engaging in an impulsive act. A lottery winner wins only because others lose. A lottery winner who won’t give back, therefore, is a lucky bastard....

Was it an unintentional slip to call successful Americans “lottery winners,” or was it a window into the President’s worldview on wealth, poverty and injustice? If it’s the latter, we’re in new territory. I don’t recall another American President who had such a sarcastic view of success. President Franklin Roosevelt thought and said that big business and bankers opposing his New Deal were “malefactors of great wealth,” but he stopped short of making snarky comments about successful people being lucky.
The answer to that question, I believe, is that the President said what he meant. This is a widely-shared worldview on the subject of "wealth, poverty, and injustice."

It's not wholly ridiculous, either.

There ought to be a way to synthesize those views that is useful. Both of them have a part of the truth.


Gringo said...

Deep down the POTUS realizes that he didn't get where he did on his great inner abilities.

Grim said...

That's definitely part of the truth.

Cass said...

I wonder whether Obama actually does think of his own success is attributable to luck (that he "won" a game of random chance that anyone else could have just as easily won?)

I'd pay real money to see a reporter ask him that.

FWIW, I doubt too many conservatives really believe their success is entirely attributable to their own efforts. If they believed that, they wouldn't be arguing for marriage, two parent families, learning to delay gratification, strong moral standards, staying in school, etc.

The reason I believe so strongly in those things is that they act as a hedge against bad luck, misfortune, and the vagaries of human nature (our tendency to screw things up).

What I'm trying to say is that the comic, which was very thought provoking, is also simplistic: it presents a spectrum of beliefs as some sort of binary in which you either believe you did it all yourself and totally discount the value of the vary structural advantages you're trying to pass along to your kids (doesn't make much sense, does it?) or you can't get ahead no matter how hard you try because you lack those structural advantages.

The world ain't that simple: structural advantages don't guarantee success, and the lack of structural advantages doesn't preclude it (and may, in fact, act as the spur to push people to exert themselves more than someone might who had it easier).

I think most people, when they're not actively arguing a point, recognize this.

Great post :)

Cass said...

Sorry for the typos - was having trouble with the verification (my browser won't let me scroll about half the time, so couldn't get back up to proof the comment.

Cass said...

One more point: "success" often takes generations of people doing the things that increase the chances of succeeding.

The expectation that individuals should be able to succeed all on their own in a single generation is relatively recent (and is, IMNSHO, pretty unrealistic).

Certainly not a view my parents, grandparents, or we held when raising our kids.

Even Michelle Obama touched on this when talking about how hard her parents worked... before she implied that working hard to provide a better chance for the next generation was somehow uniquely oppressive or unjust: something that needed to be "fixed" rather than a simple reality that underlies the unprecedented prosperity our generation has experienced.

Not that we appreciate it, mind you.

Texan99 said...

I know lots of successful people, but not a single one who's even remotely like the cartoon character on the left.

Texan99 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cass said...

I know lots of successful people, but not a single one who's even remotely like the cartoon character on the left.

I'm sure they exist, but I don't know anyone like that either. In fact, one of the qualities that distinguishes the successful people I know is gratitude for the many people (parents, spouses, mentors, teachers) who helped them along the way.

I'm not quite sure how a generic belief that when individuals do certain things that makes it more likely that they will succeed gets transmogrified into an implied guarantee, much less an assertion that it's not helpful to be born into a family that can help their children succeed?

Reminds me of that whackadoodle who was lamenting the fact that some kids have parents who read to them ... and that's "unfair".


Anonymous said...

The cartoon is fine, but it stops 'way too soon, apparently in very early adulthood, and certainly without giving the girl enough credit for adult capability.

The wealthiest branch of my mother's family had an eighth grade education, and moved to Baton Rouge with their kids and what they could carry in their car. There, they started a dirt-moving business, and made a hell of a lot of money.

I have a cousin who was a firefighter that had an accident where he was thrown from a pickup truck, and broke his back. He was treated by a chiropractor, and later became a chiropractor, himself.

My brother sold plumbing supplies. The two owners of the business got divorced and turned into an alcoholic respectively, drove the business into the ground and left their salesmen unpaid. My bother and his friends bid for the territories, and they are doing just fine, now.

I was married to a strong, healthy, college-educated, good-looking white man with the mentality of a welfare queen. I had a surprise pregnancy, and divorced him because I knew that I could not raise both him and our child. I took out loans, I checked myself into graduate school at night, worked during the day, got a doctorate, and replaced his entire salary in 5 years. I truly appreciate the education loan, and the gift from my parents of 3K to pay for my son's Montessori school.

My family has a tradition that believes that disaster and desperation can lead to success.

Obama has long had an attitude ("You didn't build that") that discounts individual initiative and effort, and focuses on making up for the hard knocks that can come into any life. Too many of his social policies have had perverse results, because they have discouraged individual effort (whether they were intended to, or not).

I submit that the better social policy is to assure, to the extent possible, that a single, healthy adult can make enough money to support a family. We need to review our laws and regulations, so that they effectively support this policy.


Cass said...


What an inspiring group of stories! (not being snarky).

I've been very fortunate throughout my life, both in my husband and my parents. But marrying and having children young definitely spurred me to try much harder to finish college and - when I finally began working in my current field - to do well. After so many years of frustration, I definitely felt I had something to prove, both to myself and to my long-suffering parents :p

... the better social policy is to assure, to the extent possible, that a single, healthy adult can make enough money to support a family.

I think this is already possible, if the definition of "support" is "feed, house, and clothe", not "give them everything your wealthy neighbor's kids have", or "assure equal income for all".

My own family have made different choices - based on different goals and values - that have led to very different income levels. And it's not just income: it's also how you budget and spend that income. I've seen people fritter away large salaries and prosper on far smaller ones.

My Mom - a housewife with no college education - turned my Dad's Navy retirement into a small fortune by investing in stocks. She never worked, yet she provided for their old age by economizing and living below their means.

One of the things I was proudest of as a young military wife was managing my husband's paycheck so that we lived as well as possible. I used to hear other wives (same rank, same or fewer kids, same paycheck) claim that they "had to" work to make ends meet. What that really meant was that their husband's income was "X" and they were spending "X-plus". That's not a need - that's a want, and it drove me nuts. If they'd said, "I want to live a certain way, so I choose to work to fill the gap between my needs and wants", I'd not have quibbled but few of them were honest about it.

We lived in a bigger, nicer house and sent 2 children to private school on one income without ever going into debt. I credit my upbringing (partly), my husband (partly) and frankly myself (partly).

One of my DILs didn't come from a family that helped her, yet she has displayed initiative and drive in her own right.

What I hate most about Obama's inequality rhetoric is that it encourages people to feel victimized and unfairly treated instead of encouraging them to do what they need to reach their own goals....which, since people *aren't* all the same, will necessarily create "inequality" :p

E Hines said...

Too many of his social policies have had perverse results, because they have discouraged individual effort (whether they were intended to, or not).

In truth, that's not all Obama's doing; he's only potentiated it. Our current welfare system does that, and has done for decades.

We need to review our laws and regulations, so that they effectively support this policy.

We need to decimate the one--through multiple rounds--and largely eliminate the other. Then individual initiative can have more effect.

Obama has long had an attitude ("You didn't build that")....

What really chapped my behind about that slur was how few folks--including Conservatives--couldn't answer it. Yeah, we did build that. The Seabees, the Corps of Engineers, or the Civil Engineers didn't build that, private enterprise did. The Internet was developed and made commercially viable by private enterprise. And so on. Government didn't even pay for any of that. Private citizens and our private enterprise companies did with the monies we allocated to government as tax payments. All government did (and it's no small thing) was broker the deals. That's how badly embedded this mindset has gotten.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

This kind of agitprop is just a way to make people feel better about confiscation. If the rich guy was just lucky, we can play Robin Hood with a clear conscience.

E Hines said...

It's essentially the same excuse as one I heard a lot growing up in Iowa and Illinois: "I'd-a done better if I'd tried."

Or, more insidiously, the kid was too timid to try, couldn't admit that he wasn't trying, and so he was failing.

Eric Hines

Grim said...


Thank you for that. I don't ask people to share their personal history and experience unless they want to do, but sometimes it's instructive.


I wonder whether Obama actually does think of his own success is attributable to luck (that he "won" a game of random chance that anyone else could have just as easily won?)

I'd pay real money to see a reporter ask him that.

That would be a good question. There's a chance, at this point in his presidency, that you might even get a real answer.

Cass said...

Valerie's comment and Grim's response reminds me of an argument Grim has made several times over the years that I thought was really first-rate.

It was about the role of art in shaping values and morals, but also in inspiring readers by example and giving them hope.

So much of Obama's rhetoric lies in telling people they are helpless and at the mercy of various oppressors, or that life's not fair (as though it had ever been so) or that everything's just too haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard (in an age when true poverty is at its nadir in this country). But stories are immensely powerful.

I keep thinking of some modern version of the Horatio Alger stories.

Texan99 said...

The funny thing is, I wouldn't have to engage in too much Hollywood trickery to make a Horatio Alger story out of the lives of many wildly successful people I've known--people making millions of dollars a year--but to write a story like that cartoon, I'd have to engage in pure-D fantasy, uninformed by any real human being I've ever encountered. (And the "failure" cartoon doesn't exactly ring true, either.)

I think people aren't completely comfortable complaining directly about the fact that some people are born smarter; that Kim Basinger or Brad Pitt is more attractive than they are (not that both didn't work at it a lot harder than most of us would), or that a star basketball player is taller and has better reflexes. That's a kind of luck that actually plays a role in life, though I've never known it to be enough all by itself. But in any case, it's more satisfying to imagine that in-born ability has nothing to do with success, and it's all a question of some mysterious tribe we're not part of, who can raise their children in magically competent schools ("more resources!") and can call a relative or family friend to get them that secret internship that enables them to start earning a million dollars a year in their 20s doing something vaguely easy. Anyone who's ever worked in or near a business where that kind of money is made knows that success there is not friends and relatives; those are some of the most cutthroat root-hog-er-die organizations on the planet. A pampered young thing would get eaten alive in six weeks, and a business that would pamper the young thing would be out of business in a heartbeat.

raven said...

this is worth repeating- Robert Heinlein-

"Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty."

This is known as “bad luck.”

I feel grateful for what this country has allowed me to become- and sad, because as a child of the 60's, I do not think it could be dome today.
All my successes are due to my parents instilling a sense of responsibility and good work ethic.

Grim said...

Anyone who's ever worked in or near a business where that kind of money is made knows that success there is not friends and relatives; those are some of the most cutthroat root-hog-er-die organizations on the planet. A pampered young thing would get eaten alive in six weeks, and a business that would pamper the young thing would be out of business in a heartbeat.

And then there's Chelsea Clinton as a clear and shining counter-example.

Texan99 said...

Solitary clear and shining counter-examples aren't very much to the point--particularly ones perpetrated by the very people who advocate subjecting the rest of us to public policy reform to eliminate excessive luck or privilege. I know of no evidence that Chelsea's strategy of inheriting the fruits of a lifetime of influence-peddling explains most rich people; it's worlds away from the many rich people I know. Chelsea's situation, if offensive, would be better addressed by ceasing to elect her family to positions of public responsibility.

Cassandra put her finger on the point: No matter what else is going on, if people live within their means they'll do OK. If they don't, no level of income (or even luck or privilege) is likely to save them. The trick is to stop thinking of any particular lifestyle in terms of what we deserve, especially if what we deserve is influenced by what other people have. How did that become relevant, anyway? Do I deserve a private jet because Bill Clinton has one? Should he give me his?

Grim said...

I myself know no rich people, so I'm hard pressed to offer statistical evidence of what they are like. I just know that your dismissal of the theory rings false to me, given the obvious clear example. My guess is that there are plenty of characters like Chelsea -- probably a perfect example of the left side of the cartoon, very much thinking she's earned and deserves every bit of her fortune.

That there might also be other kinds of rich folk is very possible. I have no idea how anyone becomes rich. The people I know who have worked hardest and done everything right manage to leave something decent to their children, but no more than that. Something else is going on with the ones who come in for vast fortunes, the Paris Hiltons of the world.

Texan99 said...

I leave it to you to decide whether your guess is likely to be more on target than mine, given my greater experience with wealthy people.

Grim said...

I don't have any trouble estimating that the class of wealthy people you know are as you describe them, since I'm sure you are an honest observer. However, we seem to disagree about whether the Paris Hiltons (and, for that matter, John Kerrys and Ted Kennedys and Chelsea Clintons and... etc...) are more or less significant among the overall population of the rich. They certainly aren't explained by mere hard work (though some of them worked harder than others), as opposed to being born into connected families.

There are overlap cases that are mysterious. David Perdue, for example: very well connected family in Georgia politics, so much so that he could become the US Senate nominee without any political experience at all. But he is also extremely rich, and (from the outside) looks to have worked very hard at getting that way. The money bought some of his relatives' political connections, which was repaid by hooking him up when he decided he wanted to write the laws for a while.

Is that more connection, or more work, or both in roughly equal parts? I'm not sure.

Texan99 said...

Wouldn't it be nice if we could implement public policy to prevent the accumulation of wealth by graft or influence-peddling, instead of resenting and punishing people who make their money honestly? I resist the idea of redistributing everyone's wealth just because of some dishonest politicians got their grubby mitts on too much of it the wrong way. It's kind of like punishing all people who withdraw money from the bank instead of going only after the bank robbers: it's not the money that's wrongful, it's the theft. (But by all means, let's take a good first step and refuse to nominate Hillary Clinton for President.)

We'd be miles ahead if we could shake the idea that rich people all get that way by demonstrating some kind of secret handshake at the door, upon which they're issued a silk tie and a bunch of stock options in exchange for doing nothing much for the next 40 years or so. I believe that scenario--which is basically the scenario of the cartoon--can't survive contact with any actual rich people; among other things, if they were that feckless and passive they'd be highly unlikely to stay rich long. The image you get from the popular press is misleading; the press isn't much interested unless you're a corrupt politician or the sleazier variety of heir: the Ted Kennedy/Paris Hilton stereotype.

The rich people I'm familiar with aren't particularly my friends; they weren't selected on the basis of their personal attractions for me, and they weren't from a pool of unusually honest people. They're just people I did business with or lived fairly close to, about as honest as one's average acquaintances. Some were nice people; some were not, again as usual. What they had in common was that they didn't inhabit a mythical world in which rich people get to pick golden apples off of special trees that only they have access to. They came from unexceptional backgrounds, some cushier than others. Lots of them escaped the Holocaust with the clothes on their backs. Others came from comfortable middle-class homes. Their educational background was diverse, certainly no Ivy League enclave. Financial success was a priority, often at the expense of what I would consider quality of life, and they generally accumulated a surplus and began investing it very early in life. They were often very tolerant of risk and were prepared to put their own capital to work rather than live on a paycheck. In business, they paid a disciplined attention to what their customers wanted rather than what they personally preferred.

Grim said...

I didn't think the cartoon portrayed them as feckless -- if he does as his parents did, he'll have worked very hard to help his children become rich too. A lot of investment is paid forward, presumably.

There's another possibility, of course, which is that these kinds of cartoons seem plausible to progressives because they are thinking of cases rather like Chelsea Clinton -- i.e., they're reflecting more honestly than we give them credit for on their own privilege. Insofar as they are trying to call themselves and their own to account for all the things people did for them coming up, and all the chances they got that others didn't get, I'd say it was a healthy rather than a vicious story.

The author, by the way, appears to be from New Zealand. Probably the cases in the front of his mind aren't the ones we're thinking of at all.

Texan99 said...

By "feckless" I mean to contrast our privileged young cartoon character with the kind of competition he's likely to run into at some place like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Google, or Cravath as he searches for his easy-peasy get-rich-quick job. His competition won't be guys who were coming home with B+'s until Mom and Dad hired a tutor to push him painfully and expensively into A- territory. They won't be guys who coasted into the job because some family friend landed them an internship at Mom and Dad's instigation. The whole picture of Mr. Rich-Cartoon-Man-To-Be is that he sat around and let success get handed to him like hors-d'oeuvres on a plate, the ungrateful wretch. Again, not an accurate portrait of an actual rich person, but I can see how appealing it is to a progressive who knows nothing about to create wealth but is really good at dreaming up cargo-cult explanations for it: someone got a free gift out of the clear blue sky, and in a fair world it might as well have been him.

(Who says Cartoon Rich Guy's parents worked hard to give him advantages? Presumably their own riches were handed to them as a door prize, too, or else we'll have to confront the idea that wealth comes from valuable work instead of unfair privilege.)

If there are progressives who are feeling guilty about acquiring their own riches unfairly via privilege, it would be very nice if they would fix the problem by giving away their own ill-gotten riches to whoever they think got the short end of the stick. That's what honestly calling themselves to account would look like, and I'll give one of them credit for that kind of honesty the instant I see him try it.

I admit doubt whether the special NZ perspective has explanatory power here.

Grim said...

Again, though, Chelsea Clinton. She went with a BA in History (Stanford) and a MPhil in International Relations (Oxford), and then a Master of Public Health (Columbia) into quantitative analysis at a major New York firm (that happened to be linked to a huge insider trading scandal...). From there she joined Avenue Capital Group as an associate. Which degree prepared her for quantitative analysis and hedge fund management? I don't know what her grades were like, but my bet is that the magic handshake helped a lot.

So the question isn't whether it happens, but how prominent it is. Probably it's not the same for everyone: it depends on how useful your parents/family/friends are to the organization. Probably the guy whose dad just knew somebody has to scramble pretty hard, whereas the girl whose dad knows everybody probably didn't have to do much of anything she didn't want to do.

But, you know, it turned out it didn't keep her interest. She decided she didn't care about money, so she fell into a job at NBC, managing to completely change careers with breathless ease. And also earn thousands of dollars per minute of airtime! I imagine others at NBC were pretty jealous, but I also imagine that they got at least some kind of useful introduction along the way somewhere too. Doesn't mean they didn't have to work hard once they got it, but it does mean they got a chance to work hard that someone without the connections didn't get.

Grim said...

And, you know, I'm not mad at Chelsea Clinton. I don't want her stuff. I'm happier with my life than I imagine I would be with a life of hedge funds and TV journalism and helping Mom navigate a presidential race. I'm not complaining about it or suggesting she pay some tax.

I'm just noting that the complaint the cartoon raises is proven out in at least her case. It's not a wholly unfair or ridiculous description of what sometimes happens. It's a perfectly apt description at least in this case, and probably to a greater or lesser degree to very many cases.

Texan99 said...

Yes, if you're the sole heir to a family that accumulated a great huge pile of money by graft and influence peddling, you may find that the whole thing gets handed to you on a silver platter. So let's definitely do something about families that accumulate wealth by graft and influence peddling; we can start by not handing them the nomination of their party for President. And meanwhile let's leave people alone who made money honestly, because Chelsea Clinton is no kind of poster child to illustrate their situations.

It's as if we caught a bank robber who'd stolen $100,000. He suggests that he's feeling very guilty about hurting the bank, and he'd like us to round up the nearest 100 citizens and take $1,000 from each of them, so the bank can be made whole. And if the citizens complain, we can say, but look at the bank robber. His situation is terribly unfair. Pay up.

Texan99 said...

But that's exactly what it is: an unfair and ridiculous description of what sometimes happens. Notice that the cartoon did not feature Rich Young Guy who gets a great start in life when the Democratic Party connives to hand him many millions of dollars via influence peddling. In other words, the cartoon draws a picture of something that never happens, and then dishonestly implies that it explains why some people get rich, while steadfastly ignoring the fact that the ways people actually get rich include honest means, which need not be "cured," and dishonest means, for which we already have the laws to stop it, if only we didn't give a pass to people just because they're the best hope of the Democratic Party in 2016.

Grim said...

What's dishonest or underhanded in the cartoon? You have two kids. Both of them have parents who love them. They both try to do right by their children. The cartoon suggests, at least, absolutely nothing wrong except Richard's attitude (and a general aversion by rich people to providing "handouts" to the poor).

It's clearly an attack on the assumption that rich people are more moral or harder working than poor people, but it's not an attack on rich people. It's an attack on the attitudes some rich people might field, should they field them, but not on anyone in particular.

So what I said in the OP was, I think this is not wholly ridiculous. The truth lies somewhere in between this, and the propositions of the article I linked. It's not just luck that Ben Franklin accomplished more than most men of his generation. It's not just unearned privileges or lotteries.

But, you know, some of it is luck. Maybe more than we like to admit.

Texan99 said...

If it's not already clear from my many comments on this post exactly what I find unfair, ridiculous, dishonest, and underhanded about the straw-man tactics of this cartoon, there can't be much point in my repeating myself. It's not a message you can hear.

Cass said...

Of course the truth lies somewhere in between! Some poor kids DO succeed, despite their disadvantages. Some don't. I know (slightly - family friend but not a contemporary) a billionaire who made his own fortune ... twice! He is rated 10 of 10 on Forbes' self-made riches scale. And he is constantly helping others. He's famous for that.

Some rich kids DO fail, despite their unearned privileges. I know a few of those, too, and don't envy them. Their "advantages" actually proved to be a handicap to them. Other rich kids manage to put their advantages to good use.

Some middle class people fall into poverty. Some poor kids rise to the middle class.

I don't think it's hard to synthesize a middle position: the middle position is the one that isn't simplistic or extreme: that recognizes that people move in and out of the top and bottom income brackets all the time:

Most Americans in the top fifth, the bottom fifth, or any of the fifths in between, do not stay there for a whole decade, much less for life. And most certainly do not remain permanently in the top one percent or the top one-hundredth of one percent.

...Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service show that more than half the people who were in the top one percent in 1996 were no longer there in 2005. Among the top one-hundredth of one percent, three-quarters of them were no longer there at the end of the decade.

Sure, luck matters. But it's hard to tease out "luck" from "good instincts", "paying attention", "a lifetime of smart choices that finally paid off", "self-discipline" or "simple determination". Maybe, as with the rich family friend, the person failed scores or even hundreds of times before he got "lucky" (no one sees that because few people brag about their failures).

Who assumes all rich people - no matter how they got rich - are more moral or harder working? Sounds like an awful big straw man to me :p

Who assumes all poor people - no matter how they came to be poor - are less moral or more lazy? Again, a straw man argument.

It is possible (and quite helpful) to point out common factors that contribute to either wealth or poverty without slavishly assuming they fit 100% of either case.

Eric Blair said...

I'm not buying that dead state cartoon--because there is an implicit class-warfare meme in it, and is the kid trying to better himself? no, he's watching TV. Glass teat and all that.

Is there luck in the world? Hell yeah. but as EH pointed out, there's way too many people that aren't even trying.

Grim said...


What I hear you saying is that it is pure fantasy to think that successful people are like this. That's why I keep returning to clear examples of successful people who are like this. It's clear that it's not moonshine. It's also clear to me that there's a huge difference between a guy like Steve Jobs and someone else with great ideas but lacking the drive and virtues that Jobs happened to have.

I met one, recently. He was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Clearly he had vision, great ideas, but he was also homeless and a little bit mad. He was never going to realize those ideas. There were too many of them, running in too many directions, and he didn't have the practical virtues to make even one of them real -- nor even to seize on one of them among them.

I don't know how much of that was his fault. Madness can be congenital, and if so you could call that bad luck (though of a different type than the cartoon considers). Still, the delta between his practical success and Jobs' is explicable in terms of drive and focus.

All I'm trying to say is that I don't think the cartoon is completely detached from reality -- 'pure fantasy.' I think it speaks to something important, just as the article speaks to something else important. I don't outright reject the message as agitprop or slander. Indeed, it doesn't seem to say much of anything insulting at all.

Texan99 said...

When you say "successful people are like this," you have in mind Chelsea Clinton and her ilk? That's kind of mean to Cartoon Rich Boy, isn't it? But if you take the message that way, and it's supposed to support laws to divest criminals of their loot and pay it out to the poor and/or the unlucky, I withdraw my objection. I just wish Rich Boy had been more clearly identified as Criminal Enterprise Crown Prince, so we could avoid tarring all successful people with that particular brush.

Re the fellow you met who might have been rich if he'd been luckier: if you include in the category of "luck" the fact that someone possesses the drive and virtues that "he happens to have" that explain his success, then you could say that getting rich is just luck. On the other hand, by that standard almost every outcome in life is luck.

douglas said...

A couple of things jump out at me here-
-What is "rich"? Making $100k/yr in Arkansas means you're doing great, real one-percenter stuff. In L.A. it's upper middle class comfortable and maybe you can buy a house in a decent neighborhood. Or are we talking about net worth, which is something else entirely. Cass' link about the transitory nature of income brackets is on this point exactly- you might not be that rich even though this year you made a million, if that was the culmination of a long career that built up to that point, and next year you retire.

I'm certainly not rich, but I live amongst many quite comfortable folks here in L.A.- and many of them in entertainment- where many people work very hard to get rich, many get very lucky to get rich, and many are both. It's harder to be lucky in many other industries, so luck is a much bigger factor in Hollywood, and I'd think Politics.

I'd also not discount the work involved in 'being lucky' and making good connections. I'm doing sub-contracting for another architect because he's just a much better rain maker than I'll ever be. I know it's not easy to do the required networking and schmoozing- and I'd hate most of it- so I have a great deal of respect for him and the prosperity he's achieved allowing him to create jobs he provides his employees. It would be easy for someone who doesn't have the connections to dismiss him as 'lucky', but those connections didn't happen by accident.

MikeD said...

What's dishonest or underhanded in the cartoon?

What is dishonest is the intent. The implication is that even if you THINK you worked hard to get where you are, you really didn't. You had an unfair advantage to start with. Look at the example of the rich person. His parents could afford to get him tutors, and had good health and were able to get him into a job, but he thinks he earned what he had. But in contrast, we have the poor girl. Look at her struggle and deal with dying parents and crushing educational debt! She works very hard, but she is poor. And yet, the rich boy has the GALL to claim that the secret to his success is hard work! He doesn't understand that the game is rigged and that in order to succeed, you must be rich.

And this implication is hogwash. It's a lie, because it tries to imply that if you do succeed in the world, it MUST be because of your unearned privilege. That's WHY they titled it "This comic will change the way you look at privilege forever." It's not meant to imply that "yes there are some cases where someone gets ahead through unearned privilege" (the Chelsea Clinton model). It's meant to imply that ALL rich people got there that way. And that no matter how hard or virtuous a poor person is, that hard work alone will NEVER let them succeed. See the virtuous poor girl in the comic? Are you saying she didn't work hard? What kind of monster ARE you?

Want to know why I reject that story? Because my grandfather was a poor farmer in New Hampshire. How poor? When my father was five, his older brother drown on his own blood following a routine tonsillectomy. My grandfather took my dad into town and there they saw a stuffed toy elephant, and knowing my father would be comforted by the toy, asked him if he wanted it. My father, at five years old asked my grandfather, "but can we afford it." At FIVE. They were poor.

But my father worked hard. He was the first kid on either side of the family to go to college. To pay for it, it joined ROTC. To pay for his housing, he joined a fraternity to stay in the house. But since he couldn't afford to pay the dues, he washed dishes and cleaned the frat house. There he met my mother. They married in 1962, he just graduating and being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, she as a senior in college. Their combined savings was $400. I am the fourth of four kids. We didn't have a LOT of money when I was growing up, but I never knew that (unlike my father). I've since found out that there were times that my parents were worried that they wouldn't have enough money to put shoes on all four kids. And yet, they worked hard. They managed to put us all through college, and retired with more money than their parents could have dreamed of.

And yet, by this comic, there's no way my father could have done this without some form of unearned privilege. Because being virtuous and hard working means NOTHING without that privilege. So says the comic. And thus, I reject it as sloppy propaganda.

Grim said...

On the other hand, by that standard almost every outcome in life is luck.

So, the right way to say this for an Aristotelian is that virtue is an excellence brought about by forming the right kinds of habits. However, like everything else, an actual virtue that you have must have existed in you first as a potential. It's that potential that your habits shape and bring into fuller being.

If I am an excellent weightlifter, I may have the actual capacity to bench press 500 pounds. I won't get there unless I make it a habit to go to the gym and work the muscles to a very fine degree. That's not luck: that's discipline. To become that guy, though, I also need to have had the potential in terms of the right muscle structure, etc. If I was in a car wreck that tore up my shoulders, it may simply be that the potential isn't there no much I habituate myself to practicing at the gym.

What I don't know about the guy on the trail is how much potential was ever there, and that to some degree can be luck. I don't know if it was luck or not in his case. Maybe he got there by smoking a lot of dope, which isn't luck. Maybe he got there by being born a little off, which could be. Either way, there wasn't much potential drive or potential focus for habit to shape into excellence.

Texan99 said...

Yes, luck is a factor in everything. A Medal of Honor winner had a Y chromosome by luck; he wasn't born paralyzed by luck; he survived to be old enough to go to war by luck. What then? Award his medal to a noncombatant girl instead, to be fair? It's also true that when you encounter someone who has or has not accomplished something, you're unlikely to have a total knowledge of precisely what role luck has played in his success or failure. Again, why do you need to know? Envy is still envy, whether it's spurred by a disparity in luck or any other disparity.

I asked above, if some guy is lucky, does that entitle us to his stuff? It's not an irrelevant question, because the entire premise and thrust of the cartoon is that the answer to that question is "yes." It's also the platform of progressivism, not by coincidence: everyone who has more than you is lucky=is privileged=owes you something. And that's how you get to the breathlessly clever ironic turn at the end: why, all the good things in Rich Guy's life are just like a "handout"! Wow, even his canape is being handed to him by Poor Girl, who was practically fated to live in the underclass. Rich Guy has absolutely no business resenting a demand for a "handout" from someone like her! Gee, I never thought of privilege like that! Fork it over, Rich Guy!

The problem is, the reader who "never thought of it like that" also never has troubled to think through where good things come from, and how to make sure more of them get made. Hint: luck isn't the entire answer, and it isn't the part we can control, either. In Cartoon World, the good things fall from the sky, and might as easily have been caught by Poor Girl as Rich Guy, but for pure-D luck. We could arrange our affairs on that assumption, but in the real world that doesn't get you Utopia, it gets you North Korea.

Grim said...

Yes, luck is a factor in everything.

So that's part of the middle-way between the two extreme views that I think we should recognize. Another part is that the virtue-forming habits don't come to be by accident. This is Cass's point, and it's also reflected by the cartoon: the parents who happen to have more resources use those resources to buy leisure time to spend with the child, tutors to help the child develop better habits of study, internships that will help them develop the right habits of work, and so forth.

There's a degree to which the person involved did the work, of course: the tutor can't take your tests, and won't do you any good if you don't work at developing the habits they are teaching you. The internship won't do you any good if you don't work honestly at it. Church won't do you good in helping you form better moral habits if you sleep through the sermons.

Where I think the truth lies is in recognizing that some part of the potential is luck; some part of the actualization comes from having good institutions, especially the family and the church; and some part of it comes from your own work at developing the habits and putting in the effort.

You are inclined to read the cartoon as suggesting that it's all luck and we should steal from people and give to other people to make it right. But I think the point about institutions is very conservative, at least as Cass formulates it. We should recognize that a two-parent family that is able to earn a living so they they can afford to spend time with their children is a powerful force for the success of the child. We should work at trying to encourage and develop such families. Some of that work is personal -- our own family -- but not all of it. The way our laws work can support the stability of the family or undermine it. Welfare programs of the kind you viscerally hate are a powerful undermining force.

So, the logic of the cartoon doesn't necessarily lead you to conclude that redistribution is the way to go (even if the cartoonist himself believes that). It does help us see that solid families have advantages that poorer ones do not -- and, actually, the cartoon doesn't even cherry pick this very much, because the girl has a two-parent family that loves her and who both work full-time jobs to try to support her. You could very easily pick worse cases.

I argue harder in favor of the cartoon here because you are all very much right-leaning; when I discuss this with liberals, I have to defend the article and not the cartoon at all. There's really a point that hard work and innovation are what is behind much of the drive of the economy. It's hard for them not to reject that as thoroughly as you (and several of you) want to reject the cartoon.

Neither has the whole answer, but neither is wholly wrong, either.

Texan99 said...

"It does help us see that solid families have advantages that poorer ones do not." No: Rich families (by definition) have money that poorer ones do not. Solid families are in a better path to accumulate riches than shaky families, on average. To slide from those two fair points over to "solid families have advantages over poor ones" is to obscure the cause and effect relationship. It's not just that such an argument is unfair--though it is--but that it encourages us to focus our policy on effects instead of causes, which guarantees policy failure. The riches are the effect: the cause we can (possibly) influence is the solid family practices. Not at gunpoint, perhaps, by but example, by social approbation, and by resolutely declining to penalize the behavior (by, for instance, taxing the rich people extra, because who do they think they are, getting ahead like that?).

People can't control the luck that happens to them, but they can control what they do. We can't get troubled people out of trouble by encouraging them to believe that the important factor in poverty is luck rather than behavior, so that if something needs to change, it should be their "luck," preferably in the form of subsidies from the lucky. You can get reliable progressive voters that way, but you'll never get solid or prosperous families.

As for the conservative treasures hidden in the cartoon, whether or not intended by the cartoonist, I'm struggling to identify them. Two-parent families are a Good Thing? But both families in this parable have two parents. They should be able to earn a living? Both sets of parents are gainfully employed. They should have more time to spend with their child? I can't formulate a conservative point that guarantees people enough income to spend fewer hours at work; the best I can do is encourage them not to procreate if they're too busy to raise a child, and then not to blame anyone else for their predicament. Maybe it's not their fault they can't make ends meet without working too many hours to keep their kid from frying her brain in front of a TV (she'll never get a good job now!)--but if so, it's at least no one else's fault, either. We don't always get everything we want. There's always time for whatever has the highest priority, but no one can set our priorities for us. I wonder how my grandmother found time to raise four kids during the Depression? I think we can be sure she didn't stick them in front of a TV. I'm also certain she didn't dwell much on "luck" in teaching them how to live, though they had more bad luck than most people I've met in recent decades, rich or poor.

I agree that it's rare for anyone to be wholly right or wholly wrong about anything. That doesn't change a stinker argument into a good one. Otherwise the response to every stinker argument would be, "Well, it's not WHOLLY wrong; the truth always lies somewhere in the middle." True, but amazingly unhelpful in choosing a public policy. I doubt there's a disastrous public policy in history that could be said to be wholly wrong, but dangerously wrong is close enough for rejection purposes.

The approach reminds me of the Curate's Egg: "Oh, no, Your Grace. Parts of it are excellent."

Grim said...

Clearly, it reads differently to me. I think there's something to be said for the perspective.

It's no wonder Americans don't get anywhere in political discourse, though. I get the same response in reverse when I talk with my left-leaning friends. "I'm happy to discuss the valid parts of that perspective, but only after we as a pre-condition agree that it is a perspective we completely reject as immoral and wrong."

Texan99 said...

What were the valid parts of this perspective, again? I'll be happy to agree with them.

Do you always find yourself the only reasonable man in the middle, surrounded by partisans on either extreme? Is there something about the middle that seems particularly defensible, especially when a policy is ruinous by your own standards?

Grim said...

If you're genuinely curious, I've said several times what I think is valuable.

The 'only reasonable man in the middle' posture you're describing is a rhetorical ploy we often see from the President. In my case, it's not a position I often encounter. I'm committed to religious positions, philosophical positions, and so forth.

Once in a while, though, I do find that it happens. I came out of a very conservative part of north Georgia, but many of my best teachers have been left-leaning (even quite far left). I've had to learn to consider their perspectives, and I can at least see why they believe it -- and some value in some of it.

Likewise, while I have a strong native sense of patriotism (or tribalism, if you like), I can also see dispassionately enough that 'my side' hasn't always been right historically. We came down hard on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle in the generation before mine, for example.

Economics is one of the areas where conservatives are right about part of it, but only part of it. Liberals are right about part of it, but only part of it. We ought to be able to come to a useful synthesis, because neither side has but about half the answer. Unfortunately, I gather that both sides are convinced that their side is completely right, while their opponents are immoral (either because they are greedy or because they are thieves wanting to justify their robbery) as well as dishonest (because they won't admit to their real, hidden motives).

Texan99 said...

I did explain how differently I viewed the parts you thought were valuable. So we've established that we see them differently, and I guess that means we're both sort of saying the same thing.

Cass said...

Unfortunately, I gather that both sides are convinced that their side is completely right, while their opponents are immoral (either because they are greedy or because they are thieves wanting to justify their robbery) as well as dishonest (because they won't admit to their real, hidden motives).

I have never thought the Left was wrong about a great many things when it comes to people being unfortunate/unhappy. I do disagree very much on what constitutes "fairness"/an effective remedy.

Don't care for the "I know the REAL reason the other side disagree with me, and it's because (unlike me) they're deeply immoral/stupid/homicidal/whatever" one bit - spent a lot of years trying to rebut that way of looking at things. Generally speaking, any broad brush statement that lumps all people who share a position into the same basket and then attempts to ascribe a single motivation for disagreement always strikes me as poorly thought out (or not thought out at all).

I have many friends and some family who disagree with me on any number of issues, but none of them want to feed conservatives into plastic shredders, feet first. Typically, when they support some redistribution, it's because they see the moral issue as, "we're all in this together and we should all pitch in". Given that's basically the argument for taxing even conscientious objectors for the DoD, I can see where they're coming from. They see inequality as a threat to civilization, just as I see whackjob terrorists that way.

Same holds for guns - they weigh all the stories of kids shooting themselves with guns their parents haven't locked up, and drive by shootings as a serious problem AND they believe we'd have fewer shootings/murders/fatal accidents if there were fewer guns (as indeed there are if you compare murder rates in industrialized nations, though I think one has to factpr in the homo/heterogeneity of the populace there too).

Them homogeniuses are DANGEROUS, especially when you give 'em firearms!!!

That's a debatable position, as is the liberty tradeoff involved. It's not a totally unreasonable position to think the 2nd A referred to militias, not private gun ownership "just because".

Economics is one of the areas where conservatives are right about part of it, but only part of it.

Which part are they wrong about? I don't think most conservatives believe in a pure meritocracy. I know I don't. But most don't believe you can legislate economic equality, nor should one try because the cure is worse than the disease. That's not the same as denying there's misery in the world - it's more akin to disagreeing about the best course of treatment for an illness both doctors agree exists, even if they disagree about how serious the illness is or what caused it.

Texan99 said...

I've always advocated something like selfless socialism under my own roof, and I fervently believe that societies are happiest when one's "roof" can be extended as far as possible to include a larger group. I believe that progressives understand and agree that a selfless sharing society, where everyone is as motivated by the welfare of others as by his own welfare, makes for the greatest good.

Where we seem to part ways is in the idea that such a society can extend much beyond the people we know well and are in personal contact with. Unfortunately, the theoretical extension of this "in-group" to the entire country (or world) brings people up against a hard truth: they may be able to imagine how nice it would be if all strangers dealt with them as if they were beloved relatives in a spot of economic trouble, but they're in no way prepared to reciprocate for such a large group. Suddenly, instead of according distant strangers at least the cold bargain of fairness, they're seeing strangers as convenient sources from which to extract endless benefits, while they, naturally, have long since run out of bounty they could or would distribute to strangers. There's always someone out there who's doing well and should fund it all instead.

It would be much better if we all acknowledged our limitations, confined our socialism to genuine loved ones, and agreed to treat distant strangers with the minimum of fair-exchange standards. That would mean declining to vote to force distant strangers to contribute to our support, whether that was through outright welfare or more disguised methods.

But as things stand, progressives inevitably devolve into proponents of the other guy paying for their pet programs. I acknowledge their good intentions, but I can't take them seriously as long as they always end up, as a practical matter, expecting to be on the receiving end. If they're involved in personal charitable work, that's great. If they're constantly painting pictures of fine life would be if we extracted enough goodies from wealthy people, they lose most of my attention and all of my respect.

Grim said...

It's not a totally unreasonable position to think the 2nd A referred to militias, not private gun ownership "just because".

Wow, and explosive new issue 46 comments into the thread. It's like old times! :)

I don't think either side is guilty of coming to its position on the militia 'just because.' There's a very solid originalist reading in favor of the conservative position, as well as a grammatical reading, as well as the fact that almost nothing in the Bill of Rights refers to anything other than rights that individuals have (the 10th Amendment is the only, or only other, exception).

On the other hand, clearly the Founders did intend for militias to exist, and for them to be regulated by the states. They clearly expected us to all be out practicing in formation one Sunday a month after church, or more often as necessary, with appointed officers and discipline governing what arms we would provide ourselves and so forth. They also bore arms privately, but they did assume that this structure and institution would exist and be an important part of American life.

Which, frankly, would be great. I'd love to introduce militia service to American life along those lines. It would really tie the community together, and give everyone a sense of belonging as well as a sense of having a duty to defend the country (from crime as well as from invaders).

But that isn't the way we went with it. I find it most plausible to believe that there is both an individual right and a militia power. The lack of exercise of the other doesn't obviate the one.

Which part are they wrong about? I don't think most conservatives believe in a pure meritocracy.

Usually I think conservatives are wrong to analogize the market to laws of nature. All market activity is human activity for human ends, and therefore we ought to judge the success or failure of a given approach to market systems by how well they satisfy the many ends people bring to them.

It's thus important whether they satisfy only a few people's ends while others are badly harmed. To take a clear example, consider colonial systems of enforcing agricultural monocultures. The colonial government insists on a single cash crop (tea, cotton, rice, sugar), and uses various powers to make sure everyone is growing it. Since everyone is growing it, the price of it drops because the supply rises. So this year the growers get X, and next year X minus Y, and next year X minus Y minus Z -- but they can't escape the system because powers are fielded to force them to keep growing the cash crop.

That's a bad economic system. It grinds up most of the people involved in the system for the benefit of the few at the top. The majority of the human ends go unsatisfied. At the far end of this approach we get Maoism's Great Leap Forward. But you don't have to go all the way to Maoism to see the problem. Nor do you need command economies: we had a similar system imposed on the American South by banks during Reconstruction.

Economic conservatives tend to respond to that by saying, "Free markets are best for everyone!" Yet we can look at ways in which we've made changes that have helped or harmed people. It seems pretty clear to me that our free trade policies of the last 20 years have been baleful for most Americans. On the other hand, it's clear that welfare reform did a great deal of good. We should be seeking to change the system or adjust it accordingly, taking as our standard the measure of how successful Americans are at pursuing the ends that bring them to the market in the first place. Changes that tend to improve that are good; changes that tend to reduce it are harmful.

Texan99 said...

Always the same, isn't it? Looking for a system where there won't be winners and losers, even if that means that overall even the worst off miss their chance at something better. It's an odd view of human ends.

Grim said...

I'm not looking for a system without losers, let alone a system without winners. I don't understand where that comes from.

I do think that we all come to the market because we need things, and thus a reasonable standard for measuring the success of the market is how well it satisfies those needs. Some systems do it very badly. Others do all right, more or less, but better with this approach than that one. Welfare reform was a very good idea, even though it seemingly exposed people to more risk of loss. Other ideas have not been as good. But to say they are good or bad you need a standard, and this strikes me as the right one.

Texan99 said...

It's what I thought you must mean by your belief that the free market "grinds people up." It leaves some people worse off than others, but if being ground up means not being able to get access to material goods via work, I don't know how you propose to improve on the free market's record--even though we've been discussing this for years. The fact that a system isn't perfect isn't a good reason to replace it with one that serves people even worse. It would be different if we had an alternative to the free market that serves people better, but no one's ever figured one out. All the others increase poverty rather than alleviate it, and it's the people most likely to be "ground up" who suffer the most under the alternatives. It's a continuing mystery to me why that's supposed to be the compassionate option. It's as if free-market critics believed the prosperity was out there for the taking, but some bad people simply were obstructing them from picking it up off the ground. Pure fantasy economics.

Grim said...

I'm also not sure why you think I'm proposing to replace the system. I have often spoken about regulations or deregulations that I thought were harmful or beneficial. I don't think I've ever suggested we endorse a totally different economic system. Certainly I've never said anything remotely kind about command economies. The examples I've given have been attempts at modifying our system, with good examples including welfare reform, and bad examples including NAFTA. Presumably our system wasn't totally different before NAFTA (e.g., as it existed under Ronald Reagan); presumably it isn't endorsing a system like socialism to suggest NAFTA's repeal.

Texan99 said...

It doesn't matter to me whether you want to tweak in big or small ways, if you can't explain how your changes will do more good than harm. It also doesn't matter whether you apply the label socialism to undermining free trade, unless you can explain how undermining free trade does more good than harm. It's not enough for there to be an intent to help, or an intent to avoid whatever "grinding up" means to you, if the help or protection just means less to go around and fewer jobs in the long run. Heaven knows if I thought any of your proposals really would mean more to go around and more jobs, I'd be thrilled to support your ideas. It's just that I know of no evidence that they will. They're not new; they were in fact the S.O.P. for long centuries, during which the purely economic type of misery was worse than today, not better.

We have no options in which all economic misery can be eliminated, so all there is to think about is whether a new idea will increase or decrease it. There's no guarantee a change will help just because we're not satisfied with the status quo.

Cass said...

It seems pretty clear to me that our free trade policies of the last 20 years have been baleful for most Americans.

You say this fairly often, but it's not clear to me at all that they have. On what do you base this?

Who are "most Americans"? Most families these days have far more than I did when starting out, more than my parents or grandparents had. OTOH, they save for the future less and seem downright reckless and irresponsible in handling money. If they feel economically insecure, they're sure not acting like it (in the aggregate)!

Is this the fault of the free market, or perhaps of increasing affluence and the growth of the social safety net?

Grim said...

We had this conversation recently. I think your approach here is an odd one for you, because it's anecdotal. Normally you're the first to dismiss anecdotal experience in treating broad problems. It's worse because you live in the DC area, which is the richest area in America. As I tried to point out, anecdotally around here there are a number of communities that were obviously of greater wealth a generation ago, but which have dried up. The closest local town used to have a main street and even a car dealership, and now barely has a functioning business at all (they do have one barber shop that seems to be stable, but the other storefronts go in and out of business, and the businesses tend to be junk stores billing themselves as "antique" stores).

Statistically, NAFTA seems to have been bad for us and for Mexico's ordinary citizens, but very good for investment bankers and industrial capitalists. It's a pretty clear example of where the standard I suggest points toward repeal.

As for why people don't save anymore, inflation (of food and energy prices, which the government doesn't count in its official rates) may have something to do with that. The government certainly doesn't set a good example, treating deficit spending as a permanent option. The average American may or may not understand interest rates or know the size of the national debt (even the official one of $13T, let alone the real one in excess of $200T). They do know that the government has a deficit and a massive debt, and never pays it off. If they can get away with the same thing, why shouldn't they?

And of course there are the government programs that send more and more people money. Transfer payments make up the majority of the US Federal government's spending. Why save, when I've got a guaranteed source of income from Uncle Sam?

Well, for very good reasons, as you know. Still, it's hardly surprising that people are in the mode of eating their seed corn.

Texan99 said...

Hmm--NAFTA was bad for us? I followed your link to the Guardian, and then I followed the Guardian's link to nowhere.

This is the buggy-whip argument: identifiable jobs were lost, so moving to an automobile economy was bad for the country. (And that's an anecdotal approach if there ever was one.) Meanwhile, the standard of living of the poorest American steadily increases, leaving only "inequality" as the bugbear, or cherry-picking that focuses on a decline in one area while ignoring an improvement in another. But when has our economy, or any economy, guaranteed a smooth ramp to improvement for every person in every area in every field year after year? Things grow, things contract, and people adapt. It's rocky, but it doesn't get less rocky if we try to freeze change. In fact, we know what happens to economies that freeze change; it's been tried, and it has never worked.

As for people not saving, it's hard to get anywhere with the argument that they don't save because times are too hard. You'd have to ignore savings rates in other times and places that were a lot harder. Nor can I get anywhere with the idea that people aren't saving because the government is not setting a good example; since when was the government an example? Has anyone ever lived who genuinely thought that way, when his own safety and affluence were at stake?

Grim said...

Great, let's not try to freeze change. Let's change, by undoing an older change that hasn't worked. If more links would be convincing, they aren't hard to find.

The US trade deficit with Canada and Mexico has climbed almost three hundred percent since the introduction of NAFTA, which is 45% higher than deficit growth with nations without a free trade agreement with us. That might be acceptable if you believe that it's important to transfer wealth to the third world, but again, the ordinary Mexican citizen has seen little benefit.

Texan99 said...

The NPR article hedges, says it's hard to say what the net effect was, acknowledges that there were winners and losers, and quotes union bosses who think it was awful. Well, unions are not famous for embracing the net benefits of competition. The EPI article--oh, man, do we have to go there? NAFTA was a terrible union buster, NAFTA apparently is solely responsible for the collapse of our border that permitted illegal workers to flood the country and bust unions, NAFTA strengthened the hand of capital against labor, which busts unions. HuffPost article: jobs lost, no mention of any new jobs created, and more focus on income inequality. None of that is how I analyze an economy.

But look, I hear you, you believe NAFTA was a detriment and that repealing it would be an improvement. The factors are very complex, and it's very hard to separate out all the effects and causes. If I say I think the contraction in employment is a result of completely different factors like overregulation and Fed policy and tax burdens and other policies that result in malallocation of resources, it's not likely to seem plausible to someone who believes contraction can be explained by increased competition with other countries, and can be remedied by outlawing the competition. We've established over the last few years that we share practically no assumptions about how an economy works or what jobs mean or what businesses are up to or where prosperity comes from. It's not surprising that we see this differently. If we can't even agree on the likely impact of a corrective measure, it doesn't do us any good to keep tossing back and forth the grenade of "but people are hurting, something has to be done." That always seems to devolve into "But don't you care about the suffering?" It's like upbraiding a doctor with "But don't you care that people are mortal?" when he's trying to sort out whether a proposed treatment will extend or shorten life, especially when two people share no basic assumptions about how the human body works and what health means.

Cass said...

People aren't eating their seed corn because they're worse off.

They're prioritizing today over tomorrow and short term gratification over long term security. I've made this argument (supported with tons of data) over at VC for years but don't have time to look all that up right now and you shouldn't have to either :p

On change to local economies, we don't have the right to expect things to remain static. For every community that was once better off and is now languishing, there's one that was once poor and is now thriving.

I don't have time today to make the longer argument, but will do so when I can get to it.

Cass said...

As for people not saving, it's hard to get anywhere with the argument that they don't save because times are too hard. You'd have to ignore savings rates in other times and places that were a lot harder.


I'm likewise unconvinced by the, "THIS (NAFTA) happened, then THAT (job losses) happened, therefore THIS caused THAT and if we undid THIS, THAT would be reversed" line of reasoning.

As you pointed out (Tex), there's a LOT more going on than just NAFTA in our economy over the last however many years.

Texan99 said...

It seems fair enough to trace the loss of particular jobs to free trade, such as when barriers to outsourcing come down. The question is whether other jobs open up, the problem being that they don't always open up in the immediate vicinity, or right away. If you lose your job processing whale oil in New England the new jobs in O&G may be initially in Pennsylvania or Texas, and only after a while will whole new boom areas spring up so that you needn't either process whale oil or drill O&G.

It's horrible to be the whale-oil guy whose job just evaporated, but worse to be the population that misses the boom because they couldn't see past the whale oil. Just look at neighboring Marcellus shale counties on either side of the Pa.-NY border. It's not just the oil rigs on the fracking side of the border, it's construction, pizza parlors, accounting firms, and everything else. The Pa. side has hope and choices. The NY side looks like Detroit: a lot of people waiting for something to come back, and trying to figure out who took it away, and trying to pump in resources from outside to keep it afloat artificially.

douglas said...

"NAFTA’s central purpose was to free American corporations from U.S. laws protecting workers and the environment. Moreover, it paved the way for the rest of the neoliberal agenda in the US—the privatization of public services, the regulation of finance, and the destruction of the independent trade union movement."

Well, I'm not much against hurting the Unions. I've seen them do too much damage for too long. And, by the way, those lucky enough to be in union labor, they are the haves.

As for 'freeing corporations from U.S. laws protecting workers and the environment', it's a real shame that we can't do that at home by cutting back or eliminaating the EPA and about a million other regulations that choke growth and prosperity here. It's no wonder the corporations lobbied for free trade. If NAFTA helps to force us to compete by slashing regulation here, consider me a fan.

I think the thing we need most is humility to realize that we think in far too static terms to fully understand economies and cultures that change profoundly over large time frames. That's why central economies fail, and why the free market succeeds- every decision in central planning tries to achieve stasis- the free market allows for the natural fluid change things like this will have one way or another. In that respect, it is rather like a law of nature, I think.