Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Uselessness of Political Argument

These two articles present different points of view on the question of wealth disparity, both from members of the "1%":

The Purpose of Spectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy
-An article about multimillionaire Edward Conard's new book, which advocates lower taxes on the rich to promote investment.

Stephen King: Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!
-Multimillionaire Steven King's argument for increased taxes on the rich.

High tech capital feeds billions
Before cursing the good fortune of others, take a moment to consider the egotistical motivations for such criticism. Some popular resentment of the rich just stems from immature jealousy--"why does that person have more than me?"--and it ignores the fact that the services provided by the rich have greatly empowered us--bringing food, health, energy, transportation, and information to more and more people. The fact that those elite few have become very powerful themselves is to be expected: you get what you give. That's awesome. Why begrudge their success?

However, a successful person such as Conard can have a blind spot that pokes holes in his best intentions to understand and improve the world: survivorship bias. The article doesn't mention whether he accounts for his good health, opportunity, and luck. In his model, it seems that we just have to choose whether to be art history majors or successful executives. I wonder what his plan is for people who are too sick or too ignorant to become global innovators, or for those who take big risks and fail. If he hasn't considered that, then his grand economic theory may amount to nothing more than an egotistical rant about why he's better than everyone else.

But he has good reason to be tuned into the reality that we have to do a lot of work as a society just to keep everyone alive. There are harsh realities in the world. One is that some people--through chance and skill--are better able to handle responsibility than others, and in our society that responsibility is tied to money, so it's only natural that some people would have more than others. I'm not worried about financial inequality if everyone's standard of living is improving. The fact that it is improving is amazing. Who cares if that process requires the use of ever bigger ranges of numbers in finance? We're never going to run out of numbers.

On the other hand, Steven King's article was also compelling and made an excellent case for supporting social programs that stabilize society, but I don't think the articles are contradictory. The most important point King brought up was that the US economy is suffering, at least for the "99%," because so much investing is happening abroad. But that makes sense--there's a lot of work that can be done abroad. What we have, though, is a double-edged sword: people living in extreme poverty overseas are being used for cheap labor that undercuts a lot of manufacturing labor in the US.

This is a direct problem for those people abroad who are suffering in poverty and for Americans who are not well educated, but we--lucky kids and adults privileged with intelligence, opportunity, and education--are largely shielded from the worst of it. The question is then--what is our role, as smart, well-educated citizens? Well, we can hide from the world, keep ourselves down, repress our feelings, experience life through a television, avoid wealth, vilify people who are different from us, and watch passively as tremendous suffering happens all around us, or we can get creative, get our hands dirty, and maybe improve the world around us a little bit as we improve our own lives and organize our little corner of reality to facilitate peace and happiness.

Does this image really have
anything to do with your life?
Whether you side with King's "tax the rich" plan or Conard's "let the rich invest" idea, it falls on somebody--like us--to find ways to provide meaningful, valuable goods and services that sustain life and also generate income that can either be taxed or invested. Creation of wealth is necessary to make either plan work. Without our success as individuals, there is nothing to share. Vilifying money, resenting the rich, or fighting over the mode of wealth sharing only distracts us from the task at hand. Perhaps the worst thing we can do is let fear and guilt motivate a retreat from the world in a delusional attempt to distance ourselves from the suffering and greed of others. There is actually no escape. But there are countless opportunities to do something beneficial with it.

Our role in improving the world is 100% a matter of how we live our own lives. The political hubris on TV has very little to do with what we will actually leave behind when our lives end. The dichotomies between rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, taxing and investing, greed and charity, personal success and the greater good... these are useless ideas and not worth a moment of our consideration. They distract us from figuring out whether it's actually possible to improve our own lives as we improve the world around us. The question is--do you know, from your own experience, whether that's possible?

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