Economic Success Is Not a Matter of Character

Lucky Ducky PanelI spend more time than a sane man would thinking about bloodletting and leeches. You may be aware that Mozart was likely killed by his doctors who bled him to death in the name of curing what was probably a minor problem. We look back on this and think, “How could they be so stupid?!” I don’t do that. I look around the world and wonder what it is we are doing today that future generations will look back on and think, “How could they be so stupid?!” Although in our case I don’t think it will be as much “stupid” as “cruel.” Take, for example, the way we treat drug users — although there is a whole lot of stupid in that too.

The main thing that I think about in this regard is free will — or rather the lack of it. We humans are a smug lot. And the more successful we are, the smugger we are. The CEO with a high paying and interesting job is eager to go to work each day. He sees himself as having a strong work ethic. But this is like a king thinking he has a good work ethic because he wakes up each day. Most people would consider the most wonderful vacation ever to be fawned over and asked their opinions about the work that other people would do. It is just icing on the cake that they would know that no matter how badly they performed, they would be given tens of millions of dollars when they were fired.

Paul KrugmanI was thinking about this because Paul Krugman wrote, The Show-Off Society. He started it with this well known observation, “Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.” Here’s the thing: conservatives are simply wrong. And in a hundred or two hundred years of intellectual development, people will think about our economic policies the way they think of Medieval doctors and their collections of leeches.

But there is a difference. Most of the time that people were being bled to death, no one knew any better. When it comes to economic and social policy, we do know better. And it isn’t mysterious. It doesn’t require a PhD in sociology to see children raised with every possible advantage will do better than other children. But to the conservative mind, that isn’t it at all. It is about “character.” And how do they know? Because Daymond John is a multimillionaire! You see, he is black and he wasn’t born rich. Of course, he wasn’t exactly poor. He managed to start FUBU with a $100,000 mortgage on his mother’s house.

This explains all the “cultural dysfunction” talk among conservatives when talking about African Americans. They have to, or otherwise they have to come right out and say that white men have more character than anyone else. But that isn’t real argumentation; it is just apologetics. The “cultural dysfunction” argument is just a way to say the current racist and sexist make up of power in the country is right and proper. (There is much more than racism and sexism, but we don’t have handy names for them.)

There are differences in people’s abilities, of course. But there are various problems with this. First is that intelligence has basically no correlation to financial success in this country. When I talk to rich people, I am as shocked by their stupidity and ignorance as I am when I talk to poor people. I’m sure if I took a collection of rich and poor people and taught them vector calculus, they would both do as well. (That is: they would both do very well because I’m a brilliant and inspiring teacher.)

Second, is that we have monetized certain skills to the exclusion of other skills that are as important or more so. I think humans are fundamentally decent. When living in small groups, they tend to get along rather well. But the structures we have created to allow large groups to live together have brought out many of our worst characteristics. I still think most people are decent. But what we value as a culture is mostly terrible.

The fact that we all have different intelligence and skills allows those who want to (conservatives mostly) to justify the status quo. Regardless of how we oppress one group and pamper another, there will always be a few people who crawl out of poverty and a few who fall into it (although this latter case is becoming unheard of). And it is on the basis of this that people claim it is all about “character.”

Lucky Ducky

Now, I said above that in a couple hundred years, people will look back at the cruelty and stupidity of our current situation with horror. But that doesn’t mean that I think things will have much changed. Today, roughly three million children starve to death every year. We think it is outrageous. We don’t think it is the children’s fault. But we don’t do anything about it. In the case of our nation’s shocking lack of equality and, most of all, “equality of opportunity,” it is very much in the interests of the power elite to ignore the problem. And so they will. Although I suspect by then, we will at least have some kind of guaranteed minimum income. And hopefully, it will be worldwide so that three million children aren’t starving to death each year.

We humans spend a good deal too much of our time patting ourselves on the back about how much better we are now than we used to be. In many ways, we are better. But it doesn’t help us to become better to tell ourselves we have arrived. I hear this kind of stuff all the time. The US Constitution is the greatest constitution in the world! No it isn’t. We have the best healthcare system in the world! No we don’t. We may not be equal but we have equality of opportunity and live in a meritocracy! No we don’t — not even close.

The whole “character” canard is just a way of making the power elite feel even better about themselves. They aren’t just rich and powerful; they are noble! This is the same nonsense we’ve gotten from hereditary kings for millennia. And we still haven’t gotten over it.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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