For anyone who wants a greater understanding of the current context, here and around the world, you need to do at least two things: (1) Read anything that Kevin Williamson writes, and (2) read this particular essay by Williamson.
Some remarks about the piece, operating from the assumption that you’ll read it. (or that you have already! 🙂 )
- I love the word problems! Williamson walks you through the theories, and realities, of economics with some simple word problems about elementary school kids and their teachers. They’re hilarious, and instructive.
- The essay’s title is: “Welcome to the Paradise of the Real.” In the column, Williamson demonstrates conclusively that the whining and complaining that many of our fellow Americans do is … kind of pathetic. He provides that absolutely vital thing that so many need so desperately: perspective. The poorest among us live like kings compared to (1) most others in the world, and (2) our own country just 30 years ago. Did you know that?
- Here’s a fun passage. It contains the answers to Williamson’s opening word problems:
Forty is forty is forty, 10 times 4, 8 times 5, 6.32455532034 squared, 23 plus 17. You can set the trading ratio of apples to oranges however you like, but if you have 20 of each, you have 40 pieces of fruit at any price — and the only way to bring more of it into the world is to plant trees, cultivate them, and pick the fruit.
Which is to say: Reality is not optional. [Emphasis added]
- If you read and assimilate the following two paragraphs, you will have gone a very, very long way to understanding why the Democrat rhetoric about “income inequality” is nothing more than flapdoodle. And why you should want more income inequality in society.
Measured by money, things look relatively grim for the American middle class and the poor. Men’s inflation-adjusted average wages peaked in 1973, and inflation-adjusted household incomes for much of the middle class have shown little or no growth in some time. The incomes of those at the top of the distribution (which is not composed of a stable group of individuals, political rhetoric notwithstanding) continue to pull away from those in the middle and those at the bottom. The difference between a CEO’s compensation and the average worker’s compensation continues to grow.
But much of that is written into the code. If, for example, you measure inequality by comparing the number of dollars it takes to land at a certain income percentile, with a hard floor on the low end (that being $0.00 per year in wages) but no ceiling on the top end, and if you have growth in the economy, then it is a mathematical inevitability that incomes at the top will continue to pull away from incomes at the bottom, for the same reason that any point on the surface of a balloon will get farther and farther away from the imaginary fixed point at its center as the balloon is inflated. [Emphasis added] This will be the case whether you have the public policies of Singapore or Sweden, and indeed it is the case in both Singapore and Sweden.
So, why would you want more income inequality? Simple: that means there’s more income in society itself… and more opportunity for you to earn more of it.
- Here’s yet another paragraph in Williamson’s extremely readable tour-de-force that you should read, in order to obtain much-needed perspective on the world around you:
The physical economy — the world of actual goods and services — looks radically different from the symbolic economy. Measured by practically any physical metric, from the quality of the food we eat to the health care we receive to the cars we drive and the houses we live in, Americans are not only wildly rich, but radically richer than we were 30 years ago, to say nothing of 50 or 75 years ago. And so is much of the rest of the world. That such progress is largely invisible to us is part of the genius of capitalism — and it is intricately bound up with why, under the system based on selfishness, avarice, and greed, we do such a remarkably good job taking care of one another, while systems based on sharing and common property turn into miserable, hungry prison camps. [Emphasis added]
None of this should be taken as minimizing the problems faced by the poor, in this or any other country. But let’s stay in the realm of the real for a little while: What is it, in terms of physical goods and services, that we wish to provide for the poor that they do not already have? Their lives often may not be very happy or stable, but the poor do have a great deal of stuff. Conservatives can be a little yahoo-ish on the subject, but do consider for a moment the inventory of the typical poor household in the United States: at least one car, often two or more, air conditioning, a couple of televisions with cable, DVD player, clothes washer and dryer, cellphones, etc. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield report: “The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. The typical poor American family was also able to obtain medical care when needed. By its own report, the typical family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs. Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable-TV bill as well as to put food on the table.” They also point out that there’s a strong correlation between having boys in the home and having an Xbox or another gaming system. In terms of physical goods, what is it that we want the poor to have that they do not? A third or fourth television? [Emphasis added]
- Guess what: the problems of the poor are political, not economic. Did you know that? Williamson explains how that is, here:
What is it the poor actually need? In general, they do not have access to very good education. But our problem with education is not that we spend insufficiently on it. Rather, the problem is that our K–12 system is organized as something between a monopoly and a cartel. Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, is designed similarly, and, no surprise, the poor receive inferior health care. If they are not often materially deprived, they are very often materially insecure, with little in the way of savings or assets. Even after a lifetime of full-time work, many poor people have retirement options far inferior to those enjoyed by wealthier people, despite having their paychecks garnished to the tune of 12 percent or so for — this should start seeming familiar — participation in a government-monopoly retirement program. None of those problems facing the poor — and they are the key problems — is an economic problem. All of them are political problems. For progressives, the obvious solution to that is less economics and more politics. The possibilities of economic division will always be limited by what there is to divide — so many houses, so many cars, so many apples and oranges, so many SweeTarts. Progressives don’t care what’s in the bag, so long as they get to be in charge of it. It is no accident that they talk about the “distribution” of wealth and income as though those things were literally distributed, like candy out of an Easter basket, by the distribution fairy.
- Here’s possibly the most important passage in a column overstuffed with important passages:
For the conservative, people are an asset — in the coldest economic terms, a potentially productive unit of labor. For the progressive, people are a liability — a mouth to be fed, a problem in need of a solution.(1)[Emphases added] Understanding that difference of perspective renders understandable the sometimes wildly different views that conservatives and progressives have about things like employment policy. For the conservative, the value of a job is what the worker produces; for the progressive, the value of a job is what the worker is paid. Politicians on both sides frequently talk about jobs as though they were economic products rather than contributors to economic output, as though they were ends rather than means. The phrase “there aren’t enough jobs” is almost completely meaningless, but it is a common refrain.
- Ditto the previous intro for this paragraph:
The farther away we move from the physical economy into the manipulation of symbols through public policy, the more progressive ideas make apparent sense. And symbolism is more comfortable for progressives in general, owing to a disinclination to literally get their hands dirty. There is, for example, no environmentally clean way to produce energy, and the really productive ways of producing energy — like fracking for gas in Pennsylvania — give them the fantods. There is no environmentally clean way to build a man a house, either, or provide him with clean drinking water, or to heat that house, or to grow a crop of wheat, or to make that wheat into bread. If you think you can have health care and electric cars without steel mills and oil refineries, you are mistaken. But actually expanding physical production within our own political boundaries, for instance by building more pipelines to connect petroleum producers with petroleum refiners, scandalizes the progressives. Every smokestack is another Barad-dûr to them — even as they bemoan the loss of “good factory jobs,” the largely mythical former prevalence of which provided their political forebears with a deep bucket of solutions to throw at the problem of potentially bumptious poor people. They detest the economic use of undeveloped lands, whether for energy or timber or grazing cattle — as though beef comes from Trader Joe’s. They refuse to understand that if you want more oranges and apples, you have to plant some trees — maybe even cutting down some other trees to make room for them, or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, harassing a tortoise in the process. [Emphasis added]
- Williamson concludes with a one-two-three … ninety-two flurry of punches that ram home the central theme: government is not a help to people’s prosperity and happiness, but rather a generally malign obstacle. The more government, the greater the difficulty in procuring either prosperity or happiness:
Though there are many exceptions, the closer a man’s occupation takes him to the physical economy, the more skeptical he is of progressive central-planning ambitions. You do not meet a great many left-wing corn farmers, copper-mine operators, oil drillers, or house builders. You do meet a fair number of progressives on Wall Street and Silicon Valley and on the campus of Harvard utterly failing to teach the likes of Mr. Carrillo the fundamentals of economics, prose composition, or anything else. Follow that road to its terminus and you end up at the place in which the secret to national prosperity appears, self-evidently, to be stimulating demand, as though the nation could grow wealthier by wanting more rather than by making more, as though we could consume that which has not been produced.
As though Bobby and Jenny could shuffle around their 40 pieces of candy until they became 50 pieces of candy. Politics is parasitic. Even at its best, it produces no goods of its own; it has only that which it takes from what others produce. For about 200,000 years, human beings produced almost nothing — the per capita economic-output curve is nearly flat from the appearance of the first homo sap. until the appearance of Jethro Tull and Eli Whitney. We’ve had politicians since before Hammurabi, but we didn’t escape the shadow of famine until a few thousand years later when somebody discovered that the wars fought over dividing up the harvest could be prevented by making that harvest bigger — and then figuring out how to get that done. Politics is a footnote — the inventory in your local Walmart is the headline.
As I might have mentioned before, it’s worth it to read this, and to re-read it, until you’re familiar with it. It is economic reality explained.
(1) – If you didn’t know all this before, and you finish reading this by understanding only this last bolded passage, then you will have improved immeasurably your understanding of America and her politics today and through the last two centuries.