Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

I started simply to ignore Nicholas Kristof’s An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, but I was pulled back into it by Russ Walsh’s Hope, Poverty, and Grit.

First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.

But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.

A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.

And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.

So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.

In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.

Insurance and the Common Good

A few weeks ago, a hail storm battered my neighborhood:

hail yard copy

VW1 copy

Within the hour after the storm, signs appeared around my neighborhood for miles advertising hail damage repair for cars and homes.

And while I have two badly damaged cars, my home suffered only a few dings to the siding and some ripped window screens (none of which will result in my filing insurance claims). But the insurance vultures continue to circle my house, leaving cards and flyers along with coming to my door and soliciting their services.

On more than one occasion, as well, friends have stated directly to me that they regret the storm missed their homes because they need new shingles.

This micro-disaster capitalism occurring in my neighborhood is a stark example of the feeding frenzy around the promise of a large and robust pool of insurance money there for the taking. Yes, many of us actually did sustain property loss in the hail storm, but the swarm of insurance adjusters, paintless dent repair businesses, and roofing contractors is also basking in the glow of work and profit that will come from wink-wink, nudge-nudge property loss.

Something important about this phenomenon is the outright glee of everyone involved after a natural disaster, one that spawns commerce of course. The glee is over the veneer of new stuff, work opportunities, and making money.

I think we should contrast this glee over micro-disaster capitalism with the popular and persistent antagonism in the U.S. about publicly funded institutions and programs. And in that comparison, let’s also consider just what insurance is: The pooling of funds by a collective of people for the occasional benefit of a few (and those few can and do benefit even when the loss is their fault).

Public institutions and public policy are pooling resources for the good of a few that in fact benefits everyone. I have made this case about taking steps to treat each children as our child and the converse of making narrow decisions for “my” child actually hurts that child.

That the public appears eager to participate in the micro-disaster capitalism of the  insurance game (and even to break through certain ethical boundaries) but unwilling to embrace the actual individual and social advantages of public funding is a disturbing message about allegiances: As long as the process appears bound to material gain, increased “work,” and “making money,” that veneer of capitalism makes the essential nature of insurance (pooled resources for the benefit of the few) somehow tolerable.

The real grounding of the American character may well be, not democracy, not capitalism even, but disaster capitalism—the generating of market dynamics, by any means necessary and as the ends themselves.

In 2014, the greatest of fortunes, it seems, is to hit the insurance jackpot that appears to bring you the new roof you have been hoping you could attain. (Who cares that 22+% of children in the U.S. live in poverty—especially if they have a new roof?)

Consumed by Manufactured Demons: The “-ism’s” that Blind

Science fiction and horror are two genres that often find themselves intersecting where some form of power reduces humans to mere cogs in the machine. Technology, the future, aliens, and the like, it seems, can be terribly frightening.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four stands as one of the most comprehensive and enduring examinations of when that power abuse is in the hands of a totalitarian government. Dystopian SF that explores the dangers of “big government” resonates with the Libertarian thread running through the American public, but SF also aims its detailed satire and allegory at the nuances of just how governments become totalitarian.

Ridley Scotts’ Alien and more recent Prometheus share more than a director and some sort of lineage in their narratives: Both SF films are horrifying tales of oppressive corporations. [Scott’s Blade Runner can be included here are these films also include the dangers of megalomaniacs, especially corporatists and industrialists who use their ill-got billions for something other than the common good.]

While the mid-1950s spawned SF/horror films as thinly disguised propaganda matching the public hysteria about the Red Scare—the immediate and insidious threat of Communism (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a tour de force of such)—the Cold War eventually proved that the creeping cancer of Communism wasn’t as powerful as political leadership and pop culture claimed.

What, then, does SF say about more credible fears facing humanity?

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut (1963) introduces into his fictional world Bokononism, a religion in which its messiah through the sacred text, The Books of Bokonon, confesses: “‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies'” (p. 5).

The government of San Lorenzo finds its stability built on a fabricated conflict between General McCabe and the founder of Bokononism, Bokonon:

“‘Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.'” (p. 172)

The charade driven by McCabe outlawing Bokononism and declaring Bokonon a fugitive continues at the expense of McCabe and Bokonon as men until their manufactured war between the righteous McCabe and renegade holy man Bokonon becomes essential itself:

“‘McCabe was always sane enough to realize that without the holy man to war against, he himself would become meaningless.'” (p. 175)

Cat’s Cradle examines the power of creating a demon for the public in order to keep that public distracted while the privileged remain privileged. Yet, Vonnegut’s often slapstick and always raucous narrative could just as easily be about the U.S. at almost any point in the past century.

What should be feared about the U.S. government and society is better captured, in fact, by Cat’s Cradle, Alien, and Prometheus than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In other words, Communism and Socialism remain much invoked demons, but the dangers lie somewhere else entirely.

In 2013, two ideologies are intersecting—not unlike SF and horror—the progressive and often liberal education community and the libertarian and populist rightwing commentators and public. The common demon?

Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

While the progressive education community tends to reject CCSS as yet more of the failed accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing paradigm (the insanity of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results) as well as a distraction from the need to address poverty and inequity, the libertarian/populist rejections of CCSS tend toward a fear of an Orwellian Big Brother or subversive curriculum as pods placed beside the beds of our children; thus, all over Facebook, CCSS are being linked to the Great Evils—Communism and Socialism.

While there is much to be feared about CCSS, that fear need not be grounded on its use to instill communism and/or socialism in America’s youth.

“Communism” and “Socialism” are terms tossed about without much regard for what they mean, but like Bokononism in San Lorenzo, the terms are “ism’s” that blind; they are manufactured demons that allow genuine threats to exist and prosper.

In both Alien and Prometheus, main characters and the audience soon discover that under the guise of science and exploration, the evils of corporate greed—controlling government and its military—are far more horrifying and real than any Red Scare or any form of government, in fact.

Ironically, while I contend we don’t need CCSS, the ability of corporate America to so easily and persistently manipulate the public’s lack of understanding of “-ism’s” seems to beg for a close inspection of just what is being taught in our schools. And if I were going to implement a core curriculum in the U.S., it would include a careful and extensive consideration of some foundational terms:

  • Communism
  • Socialism
  • Capitalism
  • Fascism
  • Oligarchy
  • Indoctrination
  • Consumerism

Condemning CCSS as a government plot to brainwash America’s children with Communism or Socialism ignores some basic points of fact:

  1. Socialists and communists have no power and almost no voice in the U.S.; for at least sixty years, both terms have been used in public discourse to demonize and marginalize (even as both terms are almost always misused in that discourse).
  2. The CCSS were created by and are overwhelming endorsed by the power and corporate elite—who benefit from a consumer culture, not a communist or socialist society.

For those who fear the CCSS, I want to remind you once again: Look carefully at this entire cover of Education Week exposing that CCSS is consumerism and commodification—not communism and socialism:

EW.CCSS

The crass commercialism covering a major education publication reads like an infomercial:

“Catch At-Risk Kindergarteners Before They Fail…in 20 Minutes a Day!”

“Help At-Risk Kindergarteners…20 minutes a day gets them back on track!”

But a letter from the company vice president doesn’t inspire much confidence about high standards: “Kindervention is the most unique program in our history…,” it opens.

Most unique? Maybe words that can’t be qualified aren’t in the CCSS.

Ultimately, CCSS are a distraction.

And cries that CCSS are a communist, socialist, or government plot are distractions.

So the odd intersection of progressives and libertarians rejecting the CCSS fails ultimately since the reasons are deeply divided, but there is a reason that we all—every citizen of the U.S. regardless of ideology—should unite against CCSS and most other corporate manipulations of our Commons:

Being consumed by manufactured demons is a self-defeating American tradition that needs to be set aside.

Like the crews in both Alien and Prometheus, Americans are blinded, and often asking the wrong questions (“Why is Common Core not requiring cursive writing instruction?”)—or worse yet, not asking any questions at all about the power of corporate America over the government we fail to see as “we the people.”