Megan McArdle wrote a great column the other day that touches on why so many people think the American experiment has gone awry. You should click over and read the whole thing.
As Megan points out, it’s not enough to just keep repeating the same old mantras: “Every system has winners and losers. Start everybody at zero tomorrow and in ten years, a lot of the people who are on top now will be on top again. There will be bumps and scrapes along the way, but ultimately we’ll all be better off.”
No shit, Sherlock — nobody disputes any of that. Yes, any competitive economy will create some losers — we all get that. Only dreamy-eyed commies think otherwise. But you can’t run a functioning society when more and more of the benefits are captured by a tinier and tinier sliver of people at the top, while “the losers” constitute a bigger and bigger chunk of the population. As Megan acidly notes, “even the Soviet economy worked well — for the commissars.”
I’m sorry if I sound like some Bernie Sanders loving hippie here — I’m really not; I swear. But you’d think smart people would understand such simple stuff: People who have no stake in your success will have no real incentive to protect it, and may in fact decide to work against it, even if it might cause a little bit of pain for themselves. Maybe they’re motivated by greed, envy or hatred — or maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re just like bored, aimless teens blowing up toilets with cherry bombs. Maybe they think it’s worth it to fuck you over for nothing more than shits and giggles. If the outcome looks like it’s going to be the same for them either way, why not go with the most entertaining option? (I’m convinced this goes a long way to explaining the success of Donald Trump.)
I thought it was arch-capitalist Adam Smith who pointed out that people don’t bust their asses at work every day out of some larger, abstract commitment to the capitalist order: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
I get my ass out of bed every day for money, not for “capitalism.” I can’t pay my monthly electric bill with a copy of the Wall Street Journal, no matter how damn high the S&P 500 goes.
As if on cue, two days after Megan posted her article we got yet another tone-deaf piece over at National Review which is again telling us that, hey, in a capitalist economy, some folks lose, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Too bad, so sad.
The money quote from that article: “Do American parents really aspire to have their children sitting at a sewing machine making shirts? Or do they want their children to become doctors, computer programmers, or technology specialists — good jobs with good futures.”
I have to wonder how often the author of that sentence, Michael Tanner, gets out of his office at the Cato Institute. Has he even met any real people?
Back to Megan: “The implicit assumption of elites in both parties,” she observes, “is that the solution for the rest of the country is to become more like us, either through education or entrepreneurship. Rarely does anyone discuss how we might build an economy that works for people who aren’t like us and don’t want to turn into us.”
Here’s a statistic which an amazingly large number of smart people can never remember: Exactly half of any given population — 50 percent! — is below average. There is no known educational method or government policy which can turn all of America into Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Smart people often have difficulty understanding what the world is like for people who are not very smart. Part of the problem is how rigidly stratified our society has become on the basis of cognitive ability. If you are a smart person, chances are that you rarely have any extended interaction with people who are not very smart. Even the “dumb” people you regularly interact with are likely to be quite smart.
In his book Real Education, Charles Murray at one point gives a sample of the kinds of questions that below-average people struggle with. It’s quite sobering. A person with an IQ of below 100 — again, that’s 50 percent of the population — probably cannot handle anything much more complicated than 8th-grade level math. They can usually learn to read, but it takes enough effort that few of them ever read for pleasure.
None of these people will ever be “doctors, computer programmers, or technology specialists,” yet Michael Tanner writes as if these people just do not matter at all. Fifty percent of adults will be unable to find decent jobs, but somehow it’ll all just work out, because gosh, we can’t just “climb into a time machine and return to the 1950s.” Somehow a society where 50 percent of citizens have no use and no hope is supposed to be a recipe for a “vibrant new economic future,” and not a violent revolution.
I don’t know how to fix the economy, but I think I DO know how to fix the callous disregard so many of our elites seem to have developed towards their fellow countrymen: Bring back the draft. It would have to be done right, though — opportunities for deferments or string-pulling by well-connected elites would have to be severely limited. The idea would be to force people from all backgrounds to mix, in order to give people a better understanding of their fellow citizens. I’m convinced that spending some time in the trenches with a representative cross-section of society would disabuse our future leaders of a lot of the frankly dumb ideas they seem to have about the way the real world works. “Stick to the theory and hope for the best” doesn’t cut it on the battlefield.