Author Topic: Is the individual obsolete?  (Read 405 times)

Mackin USA

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Is the individual obsolete?
« on: June 01, 2019, 09:42:10 AM »
“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. . . . If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” [BHO]

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/opinions/george-will-is-the-individual-obsolete/?utm_term=.39326bf1f9c5
Mr. Mackin

ergophobe

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Re: Is the individual obsolete?
« Reply #1 on: June 01, 2019, 05:50:48 PM »
It's been a while since I've done this... but here is the latest installment of Ergophobe Unchained.

George Will has perfected punditry by being usually interesting and rarely right.

So here he panders to conservatives, provokes progressives, sets up a straw man with a typical caricture of the progressive point of view, and then halfway down, concedes that the actual progressive point of view is, in fact, correct. Then, finally, at the end, he does get back to a more important and worthwhile "conservative" argument (that I think few people disagree with anyway).

Let's back up.

First, I went back to read what Obama actually said in the address Will is so bothered by.
https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/07/13/remarks-president-campaign-event-roanoke-virginia

Note that the general context is that much of the wealth of this country was built because people stepped up. They went to work when they didn't want to. They served in WWII. They served the country, and the country served them.

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Our goal isn’t just to put people back to work -- although that’s priority number one -- it is to build an economy where that work pays off.

Then he goes on to note all the ways in which work no longer pays off and the ways in which a cadre of powerful have pushed the system further and further towards favoring the wealthy under the belief that will eventually favor everyone:

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So their basic theory is, if wealthy investors are doing well then everybody does well.  So if we spend trillions of dollars on more tax cuts mostly for the wealthy, that that’s somehow going to create jobs

That is the Reagan promise. But a 2015 paper from the International Monetary Fund and several other studies have shown it didn't work.
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If the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. In contrast, an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickle-down_economics

Obama then makes his pitch, which is where Will starts to get uneasy:
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I’ve got a different view.  I believe that the way you grow the economy is from the middle out.  (Applause.)  I believe that you grow the economy from the bottom up.  I believe that when working people are doing well, the country does well.

And then we get to how Obama gets to the quote that Will finds so objectionable.

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But you know what, I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney or folks who don’t need them... There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

I bolded the last part, because it is really the crux of this discussion.

Will says America is becoming anti-individualistic. Most sociologist say it has become more individualistic. What Will is seeing is not a break from American tradition, but a backlash against a break from American tradition.

This is a fundamental argument that center right journalist David Brooks makes in his new book The Second Mountain. In brief, there was a time when a corporate sense of belonging in American society provided a break on the excesses of extreme individualism. Things like churches, broad military service, and so forth. But now, there is no sense of the need of the individual to belong to something larger and see something higher and broader. There is just the unbridled pursuit of money and power.

Brooks gives a good interview with Ezra Klein on this
https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/60424805

So we have become hyper-individual at both the high end (bribing your kids into elite schools) and the low end (gig economy).

What most people see in America today is a system that is basically rigged. The haves use their power to set rules that benefit the haves and entrench the current social order. Sometimes it's big, egregious things, but usually it's things that seem small: mortgage tax deduction, 529 tax-deductible tuition accounts. Those are small tax rules that are effectively subsidies for the haves.

But what Obama is pointing out is that haves often don't recognize that they didn't do it on their own. This is a simple statement of fact, but it is a deep problem in American society. The haves believe in their hard work and intelligence, points Will comes back to again and again. But they often do not believe in their luck, which is typically the more important factor.

The Monopoly Experiment

Researcher Paul Piff did an experiment where they took college students and had them play Monopoly. One group played by the normal rules. The other group started with twice the normal starting cash and collected twice as much whenever they passed Go and they got to roll two dice instead of one. When they asked the students in the second group why they won (as they almost always did), almost none of them attributed their success to the unfair rules of the game, but they tend to attribute their success their strategy and personal action.
http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/

Piff is also the guy who studied whether people stop in crosswalks and found that almost none of those driving cheap cars violated the law, but 50% of those driving expensive cars did.

Piff notes:

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“The more money you have, the higher in status you are, the less threatening the world is to you,” Piff explains. “You can pay rent or own a home, you can be late to work without losing your month’s income, and your neighborhood’s safer.” Having all of these things means that you can rely far less on other people, which ultimately leads to a reduced feeling that you owe anyone anything.
https://matrix.berkeley.edu/research/are-wealthy-more-narcissistic

Again, hyper-individualism, which is an utter break from American tradition.

As inequality increases and as the students at top colleges come from wealthier and wealthier families, there has been a substantial increase in narcicism among college students.
http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/4330/npitimeupdatespps.pdf

Why does this matter?

Will says that, counter to American tradition, progressives are trying to destroy the tradition of American indvidualism. But as I said earlier, what he is seeing is a hyper-individual society that is increasingly stratified. So if you're an individual in one of the upper strata, it's working for you and, of course, like Will and the Monopoly players, you think individualism is great and the government should stay out of other people's business.

What they tend not to see is that it is precisely the government messing in people's business in the form of countless subsidies to the haves that has allowed your family to accumulate and keep wealth.

Meanwhile, in the age of hyper-individualism, the only thing you are asked to do for your country is go out and make a ton of cash and keep it and don't pay taxes on it.

Think about during the opening of the Iraq War when the president told Americans that the way they could help the war effort was to go out and shop! That is hyper-individualism utterly at odds with every American tradition of sacrifice in times of national need (setting aside opinions on the "need" for that war, of course).

And now we get back to Will's argument.

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Warren and Obama asserted something unremarkable — that the individual depends on cooperative behavior by others.

Right, but we're George Will, so we will inflate this into some grandiose plot for Big Government.

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Many contemporary ethicists, however, believe that inequalities of wealth that are produced by exceptional individual productivity rising from exceptional natural aptitudes do not deserve society’s deference or protection.

Hard swerve here to set up our straw man. No, that is precisely the point. These inequalities of wealth are NOT the product of exceptional individual productivity and exceptional natural aptitudes.

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What is unfortunate is when the transmission of cognitive aptitudes and skills becomes so much a matter of the transmission of family advantages that a child’s prospects can be largely predicted by information about his or her parents.

And now, Will becomes a progressive, since this is the heart of the progressive argument. Then he brings it home in language that sounds like Bernie Sanders

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After more than half a century of attempts at ameliorative social policies, it is undeniable that there exists an underclass trapped by the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Furthermore, the middle class believes, and is not mistaken, that as society becomes more technocratic and complex, and more given to rewarding cognitive elites, those elites become more adept at entrenching themselves by passing their advantages on to their children.

Now we make the conservative pitch
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Government should not impede or discourage parents in their conscientious accumulation, husbanding and investment of those assets for their children’s education, broadly construed

But here we have turned everything on its head and the basic progressive argument on this echoes not Bernie, but Ronnie: government is the problem. Specifically, government that has been taken hostage by a class that bends the rules to its advantage. Obviously, there is an entitlement problem too. But many of the entitlements are going to the wealthy (Social Security and Medicare). And meanwhile, the rules are set up to
 - allow for credit default swaps, and then the government bails out the investors when it collapses
 - it costs nothing to pollute the air and get wealthy doing so, but it can bankrupt a family whose child goes to the ER with asthma
 - allow mega profits to petroleum companies and they spread the military cost of maintaining access across the entire population.

And so on. Subsidies to the wealthy, but hidden and visible.

George W. Bush asked a panel to come up with economic ideas that left, right and center economists could agree on. His plan was to implement these sensible, non-controversial policies. One was eliminating the mortgage tax deduction. Bush proposed, but Congress did not dispose. A massive lobby killed that to retain a system gamed in favor of the haves.

I could go on with a huge number of examples, but I'll just refer to (conservative, WSJ) journalist David Kay Johnston's book Free Lunch if you want to read more.

Finally, at the end, we get to one comment that is worthy of a free-market conservative (a "liberal" everywhere outside of the US, as here we have no tradition of monarchical conservatism).

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The wealthier the citizens become, the more they pay in taxes, and the more benefits they expect from government. So, although prosperity makes people confident and assertive, and gives them the means to be self-sufficient, it is not conducive to small government or to self-sufficiency. So perhaps democratic life undermines the prerequisites of democracy. It produces first a toleration of dependency, then a hunger for it, and finally an insistence that dependency is a fundamental right.

That is a problem.

To me, the purpose of government should be a free, stable and prosperous society, in that order. The Chinese would argue that it should be stable, prosperous and free, in that order, and thus, it is not very free.

The problem with inequality and a rigged system is that it undercuts the stability of the society. It leads to unrest and unrest leads to curtailing freedom and diminishing prosperity.

So there is a threat to democracy from both sides. Yes, Will is right, a government that encourages dependency becomes a patronage system that becomes difficult to unseat or dislodge through democratic processes. But what he utterly misses in the first 3/4 of his essay is that a system that is highly stratified, that seems unfair, that is gamed and corrupt, is also a threat to democracy and, I would say, the threat that looms largest right now.
« Last Edit: June 01, 2019, 06:08:31 PM by ergophobe »

buckworks

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Re: Is the individual obsolete?
« Reply #2 on: June 01, 2019, 08:15:16 PM »
>> Ergophobe Unchained

Ergo, this is one of the reasons I love you!!! :-*  :-*

ergophobe

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Re: Is the individual obsolete?
« Reply #3 on: June 02, 2019, 04:04:44 AM »
Ha ha! Thanks. A little embarrassing, but sometimes I'm just in a typing mood.