Friday, January 10, 2014

Sincerely deluded by social class essentialism

Slate has a very interesting article on a topic new to me: social class essentialism. It's a fascinating exploration of assumptions made by the wealthy classes. The summary? The wealthy think that they're better than the rest of us. Genes, upbringing, sheer intelligence and even drive are all factors believed to contribute to the success of the wealthy. Luck, connections and being born in the right place have nothing to do with it.

After reading this article one event came to mind. The event happened on September 30th, 2008. I can recall listening to This American Life recount that bit of history where all the biggest bank stocks were worthless due to their asset to liability ratio - the bottom line was negative. The biggest banks in the US are run by some of the wealthiest people in the US. If these very wealthy people truly believe that they are better than the rest of us, what were they thinking on September 30th as every financial network (CNBC, Fox News, etc.) reviews the value of their stocks? Did they still feel superior to the rest of us, even then?

President Bush was only too happy to bail out the bankers, but not the people. I guess he's a member of that club, the Social Essentialists Club, too. Yet, at least one economist was able to to see through the fog produced by the bankers in the hopes that we would all be so willing to forgive and forget, if we could just get through this crisis. One economist saw what it was all about the day after September 30th. What were they thinking at the Federal Reserve?

There is a converse perspective to social class essentialism, too. It's the notion that, "Hey, if I'm better than you because of my genes and smarts, you're hopeless. Why should I help you?" That is a key point that is utterly lost in the debate on inequality. With a few exceptions, the wealthy are unwilling to admit that they got help from the rest of us. They are unwilling to give any ground on the notion that what they earned, they earned from their own efforts.

The only exceptions that I see on any public venue are the awards. You know, the Emmys, the Oscars, the Golden Globes. The winners of those awards slavish praise on all the people who helped them succeed. But you will never hear that from our beloved billionaires. They did it all by themselves.

Jeremiah Johnson. That's the name that comes to mind when I read the article on social class essentialism. Jeremiah Johnson was a mountain man movie from the 70s. I went to see it when I was a kid. It was a movie that just oozed with rugged individualism from every pore. Man vs mountain covered in snow. Man doesn't win, but he lives to see another day. Is he a success? For himself, yes. But in today's lucre-obsessed culture, no.

Jeremiah Johnson comes to mind to make a point. Success is not something you do alone. You need culture, a society to have success. In the movie, even Jeremiah Johnson gets help from someone else. For success, you need family, friends and mentors. You need help at every step of your development, and you need guidance. When mentors share their mistakes, we all benefit.

A society that gives the wealthy every opportunity to fail and fail again, without accountability - while leaving the poor and the middle class to fend for themselves - is not really a society. As we saw in the bailouts, the wealthy investors were given every opportunity to fail with other people's money and were rewarded for failure. For everyone else, they lost their homes, their retirement, their day job. Can we call this civilized?

Any businessman or businesswoman knows that in order to succeed in business, you need cooperation from others. You need employees, vendors and customers. If you cannot secure cooperation from all of these, you're doomed to fail. Oh yeah, there is one other factor in their success that the wealthy are loathe to admit: the government.

The government provides the basic standards we use to make commerce possible. The pound, the ounce, the kilo, the meter, the second and the dollar. It's all there, in the standards. Then there are laws to enforce contracts, some of which are inequitable. There is the police to keep people from stealing your inventory. There are hospitals to attend to people injured in your factories.

"But we pay taxes for the government!" Indeed you do. But how much time do you spend at work? Your business was hard to start, and you spent many hours getting it going. But then the business took a life of its own and it makes money when you're on vacation and when you're sick. Everyone else is still working for your business but you. Once you got it going, many other people saw a common interest in your success. Did you notice that?

But don't worry, dear reader. The wealthy among us did it all by themselves and they earned every penny by their own labor. They made it because they're better than the rest of us.
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