Saturday, November 12, 2016

Making Our Society Less Vertical - Without Making It Dumber

As Facebook is wont to do, earlier this morning a status update from 3 years ago popped up in my news feed (only my friends can access the link).  In turn, my piece was about about a Frank Bruni Op-Ed entitled The Extra Legroom Society.   It is what prompts this post. The first class versus coach distinction serves for an apt metaphor for changes in the way we do things quite apart from the airlines setting, though the airlines setting is a good place to begin because flying coach these days is a pretty miserable experience, at least for a big guy like me.  It is good to keep that in mind.

The question I want to get at here is whether the people who live in a riding-first-class world understand that about flying coach.  Or is out of sight out of mind?  The recent election has to be a wake up call for everyone.   So I am going to assert that the elites do have some awareness of the rest of the population now.  What might be done to maintain that awareness for the indefinite future rather than to have folks revert to business as usual?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it is a good one to pose.  My sense is that awareness needs to be coupled with something actionable and if that happens then it is more likely to sustain.  What that actionable thing or set of things should be I also don't know, but I would like to articulate a principle based on a joke we all learned when we were kids.  (It can be found near the bottom of the page.)

Q: What do you know when you see three elephants walking down the street wearing pink sweatshirts?
A: They're all on the same team. 

If somebody else came at me with this joke my initial reaction might be - I'm not crazy about pink; I'd prefer a different color.   Everybody is a critic.  I'm no exception.   So I really don't want to try to design those actionable items here because we need to negotiate through to what might work and get past the stumbling blocks.  Those need to be identified first.  All I want to maintain here is that the punchline should be our aspiration - being on the same team.

A week ago I had an odd experience.  Leslie was in Texas and we were out of treats for the dog, so I went to Walmart, which stocks the brand Leslie prefers.  As I was returning to my car somebody made eye contact with me in the parking lot and then came over.  He said something like that they had been stranded there for two days and wondered if I had any work for him so he could earn some money.  He put it in such an odd way and I'm instinctively wary of strangers.  So I didn't unpack what he was asking and simply responded, truthfully, that I didn't have any such work.  If he had asked directly for some cash, I might have given him a few bucks.  I'm really not sure how I would have reacted.  It's not the sort of situation that you plan in advance.  But after the fact I thought about it some and I concluded that I flubbed it, badly.

This doesn't work if it is only isolated individuals who think this through.  Schindler's List is a hard movie to watch.  It's been airing repeatedly on the movie channels we get, but I haven't tried to watch it as of late.  Maybe I should make the effort as an emotional reminder of what can happen when things get out of hand.  I do recall from having seen it many years ago that near the end Schindler breaks down with feelings of guilt and remorse.  He could have saved so many more Jews or so he thought.  Yet he remains a historical figure because of the ones he did save, a microscopic number if compared to the numbers who died, yet a real achievement when considered from the perspective of what one individual might do to make a difference.

In thinking about this in aggregate, I will point out two previous posts I've written that consider possible ways at getting the issue.  This one called Ask What You Can Do For Your Country looks at Federal income tax rates in a historical context, from the end of the Carter Administration to the present.  It notes that since the start of 2011, the Bush Tax Cuts have become permanent for all brackets except at the very top.  This was done during the lame duck session after the November 2010 elections.  There might have been a case to extend the Bush cuts for some years because the economy was still struggling then, though the recovery had started.  But there is little reason why they should still exist, particularly for people with income like my household - not in the top 1% but in the top 10%.

These tax cuts amount to a windfall.  In normal times, people tend to vote their pocketbook.  So I should be happy with that.  But I'm not.  We live in abnormal times.  So people in my income situation should be taking one for the team by paying more in taxes.  The awareness I talked about above would amount to accepting such a conclusion, should our politics enable this sort of change in the tax rates.  I'm sure it won't happen right now.  The Republicans are in control and their sentiments are anti-tax.  But the midterm elections are less than two years off.  The mood of the electorate can change.  We've experienced that repeatedly in the recent past.

The other post is called The Euphemism We Call Globalization and the Real though Non-Proximate Causes of Weak Wages.  It presents some numbers that don't get talked about all that much even after Piketty instructed us that it is what we should look at.  These are numbers about the wealth distribution.  Mean household wealth is around $650K, which is astoundingly high or so it seems to me.  Median household wealth, in contrast, is around $81K, dramatically lower.  There is substantial capacity to redistribute wealth downwards and still leave the rich with many riches.  The issue is whether there is the will and the desire to do so.

Let me close with this observation.  The lead article in the Times today is entitled, Can Trump Save Their Jobs?  They're Counting on It.   The premise is that tariffs can do the trick and that protectionism is the way to attain wealth redistribution.  Maybe tariffs can work, at least near term.  Longer term there is apt to be retaliation, which lessens trade overall and then the tariffs may be self-defeating.  If that's right, maybe tariffs aren't the right way to go.  But that doesn't obviate the need for good jobs available to ordinary working people.  What alternative to tariffs might provide a better approach?  Who is asking that question?

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