Friday, January 3, 2014

Identity politics

This is the introduction to a nice article on the perils of Social Darwinism:
That’s a satisfying worldview for someone who is successful and considers himself unusually bright. But a quick look at the data shows the limitations of raw smarts and stick-to-itiveness as an explanation for inequality. The income distribution in the United States provides a good example. In 2012 the top 0.01 percent of households earned an average of $10.25 million, while the mean household income for the country overall was $51,000. Are top earners 200 times as smart as the rest of the field? Doubtful. Do they have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week? Even more doubtful. Many forces out of their control, including sheer luck, are at play.

But say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.
It's rather a complex problem.  I look at it as being the case that luck, hard work, and ability are each likely to be necessary conditions for being in a top income bracket (conditional on not being there entirely due to wealth alone), but that none of them (alone or together) are sufficient. 

Under these circumstances it can be hard to really ask hard questions like "what is fair".  It even attacks approaches like the "veil of ignorance", because hard work is seen as a decision that you can make.  But coal miners also work hard and rarely become exceedingly well off.  It can be hard to realize that some people work hard and succeed while other work hard and do not. 

But I think it is a needed realization to moving forward on really handling inequality. 

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