In my last post, I mentioned seven ways people on the right and left hinder progress on income inequality. Here are the seven more ways that I mentioned would follow in another post.
1. We can keep growing out of our problems
Expectations of constant growth are the usual solution you hear from the right and left. The logical conclusion is increased demand for power, food, housing, transportation, raw materials, and education, to mention a few areas, that go hand in hand with greater consumption and larger populations.
Constant growth is not sustainable. A society eventually runs out of what it needs or pushes complex systems into disarray (think climate change). To assume someone will solve the problem before it becomes too dangerous is wishful thinking. It might have happened in the past, but eventually you’re likely to run out of luck and room. This is a case where old-fashioned conservative thought, not the throw-the-dice variations of the last few decades, has wisdom to offer. Risk management that doesn’t push off mistakes to some future generation should be part of any policy.
2. Nothing has ever improved in the lot of the poor
If you read history at all, you can see that things are better. For example, extreme poverty in the world has decreased significantly, according to the World Bank, finally dropping below 10% of the population. (That said, the level means people living on $1.90 a day in 2005 prices.)
Poverty has dropped in the U.S. at times. For a few decades, it’s cycled between roughly 12% and 15% of the population. But before poverty programs started in the 1960s, levels well over 20% — during those “magical” 1950s that so many look back on with nostalgia —were the norm. Given the post-World War II economic boom and all the accompanying growth, it seems likely that it was efforts made in the 60s to reduce poverty did. We can take actions that won’t run the economy into a ditch while achieving a moral and ethical end.
3. There is a single solution like universal income
Part of the simplicity we seek is the existence of solutions that fix problems, preferably without significant effort on our parts. Proposals of a universal income strike me, at least, as another attempt at an easy solution. Give everyone a minimum amount of money and things should be find. It was a suggestion of Milton Friedman, through a negative income tax, as a way to provide benefits while cutting much of the cost of social welfare program infrastructures.
It’s an interesting thought, but, as with all things, you have to pay for it. When Friedman made the suggestion back in the late 1960s, corporations and individuals paid a much higher amount in taxes than they do today. Defense budgets were much smaller. Money paid into Social Security and Medicare was lower. There was more available for such a concept (remembering that the last two programs aside, social welfare programs are a relatively small part of the budget).
Beyond where the money would come from, you also have to ask whether you could trust governments to continue payments or raise them to keep pace with inflation. History has shown that too often elected officials are ready to ignore the duties toward some groups to better indulge others.
4. Urban areas need physical renewal
Some hold the belief that dealing with poverty means vast changes in urban landscapes. Whether you’re talking of Chicago under Mayor Richard Daley, Robert Moses and New York City, or the destruction of the old West End in Boston during the tenure of Mayor John Hynes, metropolitan areas have repeatedly been happy to use “urban renewal” as the rationale to push the poor out of the sight of the wealthy and to enable developers and others to make bundles. It’s the coup de grace of gentrification, wiping out neighborhoods and history. Instead, build up the lower-income and middle neighborhoods of cities.
5. Everyone can get an equal shot right now
One of the myths I previously mentioned is an absolutist attitude toward political theory. One I’ve seen often, generally provided by those who are comfortable, is that everyone has an equal shot at improving their lot. This is simply untrue.
Unless you have particular talents, an unusually resilient attitude from upbringing, high intelligence, or some other lucky break, you are statistically unlikely to work your way out of poverty, no matter how determined you think yourself. Poverty grinds people down on an hourly basis in thousands of ways. There are no trust funds, legacy admissions to college — or money to pay all the bills, let alone things like tutoring to take the SATs for a higher score and chance to attend a better college.
I remember a discussion I had with a lawyer who runs poverty simulations for those who don’t realize what the condition is like in real life. She went into her first as a participant certain that she’d be able to handle anything. By the end, she got a sense of how, without resources, anything that goes wrong becomes another hurdle. She even said that she could see that, in real life, she might have resorted to drink. That recognition totally shocked her. If you’ve never wrestled with how to keep food on the table and shelter over it for a family, and when any automobile breakdown, unexpectedly large bill, or other event derails all your plans, when you’re so tired from dragging yourself through yet another day that even reading to your kids is tantamount to climbing an emotional mountain, then you have no idea. And, no, you probably aren’t the exception that would do better than most.
6. Unions are either absolutely good or bad
I happen to think that unions are necessary to help establish at least some degree of economic parity. Those who cheer when public employees are told they can benefit from collective bargaining without paying their share for its upkeep fool themselves. Union bargaining helped drive improved conditions for most workers, with even non-union employees benefiting because their employers had to accept some degree of improvement in conditions to avoid having their business become a union shop. Unions become an economic force to help balance those of employers.
That said, unions can be greedy, corrupt, and push for levels of compensation that are dangerous for the health of a company. I remember once sitting on a trucking dock for two hours so I could drop off a couple of items to a convention center. The union people were on break and wouldn’t even sign a piece of paper. I’ve seen people on the public payroll receive credit for long hours of overtime they had to work, largely because of union rules. I know others who have had unpleasant run-ins with unions, including allegations of threats from some groups that didn’t want a whistleblower to bring a beneficial but questionable practice to light.
Unions can do good. They can do bad. We need them but shouldn’t assume that all is well.
7. Everything is already fine
In an election year, all sorts of people will decry one thing or another. In 2016, you even had Republicans talking about income inequality because it was a popular topic.
Looking again at history over the last few decades, whatever the talk, politicians and their backers in both parties often are nonchalant about issues of poverty discrimination, unnecessary war, and other things when their people are in power. Whether Democrats or Republicans, the income and wealth gaps have grown wider, even as each side tries to find ways to blame the other.
If you’re not willing to keep on eye on your team, pointing to the other will do no good. The issues are what matter, not who gets to claim credit or face the blame. There’s blame enough for all and, likely, more than enough credit should things improve.