Why Care About Inequality
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Over at Ezra Klein's blog, Dylan Matthews
suggests that inequality in the United States isn't as big a deal as we might think. Yes the gap between rich and poor in the US is growing, but even the poor in America are relatively wealthy by international standards. If we take a cosmopolitan perspective, then global inequality is decreasing, not increasing. At the end of his piece, Matthews says the following:
"Humans have an unfortunate tendency to care more about those physically
and/or socially proximate to them and to severely discount the
well-being of those whose pain they don’t see. Milanovic’s data is an
important reminder of just how dangerous a blinder that is."
Matthews data is all very interesting, and entirely besides the point. Many thinkers of the cosmopolitan persuasion disagree with me, but I don't find global inequality terribly relevant. What we should mainly be concerned with is the very "local" inequality - if one can consider a nation-state with 300 million people "local" - Matthews is downplaying. I won't bore you all with an involved analysis, so let me boil it down into two propositions:
1. Empirically speaking, most economic activity happens within a country, and is regulated by the government within that country. Therefore if we are concerned about exploitation and the very distribution of rewards, then the nation-state is the right frame of reference. Any contribution by some middle class citizen in Madison, Wisconsin towards the poverty of somebody Bogata is pretty tenuous. National legal and economic structures are far more salient than global ones.
2. My main interest is in the preservation and extension of democracy, which is permanently menaced by the specter of oligarchy. In every country there is a group of rich people trying to skim off the social surplus and subordinate every economic, social, and political institution. When a democratic nation's wealthy elite grows too powerful, there is a very real risk that the democracy will be overthrown so they can protect (and extend) their privileges. Inequalities in India don't threaten the American republic - it's the home-grown ones you have to worry about.
So from my point of view, whether we are talking about moral questions of social justice or empirical questions of democratic stability, Matthews has it precisely wrong. For Americans, inequality in the United States is a problem second only to climate change.
Is It Better To Be Intensely Ambitious Or Incredibly Lazy?
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
I've always been an incredibly competitive person. Whatever I'm doing - politics, writing, roller derby, hell, even board games - I want to excel. There's a desire, an almost physical compulsion, to be not just good at something, but great at it. Screw having fun, the point is to win.
Like all ambitious people, I've been all about the comparisons: to my peers, to my friends, to myself, to history. When I get involved in something new, if I find that I have a knack for it, the desire to master something for its own sake very quickly gets replaced by the desire to be the best, if possible the best ever.
If you can't be the best, then why bother, right?
Growing up, I thought this was the only way to be. I idolized people like Alexander the Great and was fascinated by the "almosts" of history - the Alexander Hamiltons and Bobby Kennedys. I wanted to match myself against them. It was vainglorious and self-destructive, but I couldn't imagine being any other way.
I could put some of the blame on my upbringing, and some more on living in America, the self-conceived land of Winners!, and okay, I admit it, a healthy dose of good old-fashioned narcissism.
But here's the thing. For all my ambition, and the unpleasantness it created in my life, I never really acted on it. I always wanted
to be totally, earth-shakingly awesome at something, but I never did very much to make it happen. I was like one of those people who only like the beginning of relationships, the ones who bail the second there's any real work or sacrifice involved. I'd find something new, get interested in it, let it take over my life, and finally get to the stage where I'd have to make a real decision. The fact of it is that no matter how talented you are (or aren't) at something, being The Greatest Ever means that you have to devote the whole of your life to it. There are always a million other talented people out there trying to do the same thing you are, and willing to sacrifice every other thing in their life to it. I never was. I've never been willing to do that, to have anything become the only thing.
Politics has been something of a special case. It was always the thing I cared most about, what I kept coming back to. And several times in my life I came very close to making that choice, of truly dedicating my life to it. I used to think I drew back out of laziness. I enjoy my screwing around time, thank you very much. There were a couple of unique circumstances that cropped up to give me an excuse to step back, and lately there's the sheer weariness with what passes for contemporary campaigning - people who don't know what they're doing and Will Not Listen.
There's more to it though. The reality is that I've never loved anything enough - not even politics - to let it swallow up my life. There was a time when I could have chosen public life with a reasonable chance of success, and the main reason I decided otherwise was because it would have cost me my marriage. Does that mean that I have chosen the most important thing, and that's my relationship with DBH? No. I try to be a good husband, and I love my wife very much, but I don't have a burning desire to the Greatest Spouse in History, whatever that is. I'm not that selfless.
In the last couple of years, as I've given up on the ambitions I had as a young man (ouch), I've come to recognize that the whole idea of ambition, of being "great", is just juvenile. It's self-destructive in a very explicit way. To sound like Kant for a second, it makes you a thing rather than a person. To draw on Epictetus, basing your sense of self-worth on worldly success, or how you compare with others, is to divest yourself of any real control of your life. The only thing you can really control is you, and then only sometimes.
However trite this insight might sound to you, for me it's been pretty momentous. My entire life has been oriented around the idea of external success, and approaching 40 I really haven't accomplished anything "important" and am unlikely to do so. This sounds like a recipe for a classic mid-life crisis, right? Instead I find myself struggling to accept that I am not the person that I thought I was, that I don't want the things I thought I wanted. It's not a failure that I haven't devoted myself exclusively to politics, or that I'm "the best" at, well, nothing at all. I'm pretty good at lots of different things, and I've had some very worthwhile experiences, and that's a good thing
. In retrospect my inability to commit to anything saved me. Maybe it wasn't laziness - maybe it was an unconscious recognition that being that dedicated is just crazy. Or if it was laziness, than thank god for laziness.
There's this debate going back at least to the ancient Greeks about whether it's nobler to pursue greatness or goodness, which I interpret as whether we should try to accomplish great things or build a rich, diverse life for ourselves. If you'd asked me twenty years ago, or even five, I would have answered "greatness" without hesitation. To be honest I still fight those yearnings. It's hard to fully escape such well-ingrained patterns of thinking and feeling. Yet in the main, looking at what will hopefully be the second half of my life, I find myself trying to figure out how to be just okay at lots of things. It really is okay to not end up in the history books.