Sunday, March 22, 2020

Letter to the Editor - New Yorker


Reading the New Yorker these days is disorienting.  But some of the readers provide the best writing.

A recent article in the New Yorker argues that outcomes should be equalized to make everything "fair" in life.   The author used, as an example, that when leaving money to your kids, you should "adjust" the amount to each child based on their needs:  
They have four children, who range in age from their late teens to their late twenties. Chloe, the oldest, is a math wiz with a coding job at Google; she hopes to start her own company soon. Will, who has a degree in social work, is paying off his student debt while working at a halfway house for recovering addicts. The twins, James and Alexis, are both in college. James, a perpetually stoned underachiever, is convinced that he can make it as a YouTuber. (He’s already been suspended twice, for on-campus pranks.) Alexis, who hopes to become a poet, has a congenital condition that could leave her blind by middle age.
How odd, as this sort of describes my family.  My sister wasn't blind, but she did end up dying prematurely from cancer.   My older brother is an artist who is making a living, but hardly getting rich.   I am not a coder at Google, but managed to do OK in the Patent business.  And my other brother... well, if the shoe fits.

Parents often divert more money to children they perceive as being "in need" and this does prompt some children to learn that being "in need" can be a profitable venture.   In the book The Millionaire Next Door, the author notes that many of these self-made millionaires view their daughters as damaged goods who will require monetary support well into adulthood.

In my case, my Father would write checks to my sister every month - long before she was diagnosed with cancer.  She did not marry well, and with children, she was always strapped for cash.  Of course, her "needs" included cable television - and they had a nice house, cars, and food on the table.  They were hardly destitute, and perhaps if her husband didn't cash his paycheck in bars..... but I digress.   But it does make one wonder - would her life have been different without the financial support of my Dad?  Would she have learned to be more self-sufficient and perhaps kicked her husband in the ass to stop blowing payday money on beer?  Perhaps.

But of course, it got more complicated than that, and once she was diagnosed with cancer, well, you can't blame Dad for trying to help her out financially.   My Mother used to say, "Well, we want to treat each of you the same - no favorites!" and for a while, whenever my sister would get a monthly check for $500, my Mother would write checks to the rest of us as well, to be "fair".    Unfortunately, they realized quite quickly that on their limited income, they could afford to support my Sister to the tune of $500 a month, but not all four of us for $2000 a month.   So the checks lasted a month or two and nothing more was heard about it.

When my Father died, he wrote me out of his will - not that he had a substantial amount of money to leave behind.   My Mother, as I noted before, left her money in a trust which was distributed equally to all four of us (or in my sister's case, her surviving children).    Was I bitter or angry about any of this?  Hell, no, and let me tell you why.

First of all, it ain't my money   Sob stories abound online, on forums and "Dear Help Me" columns about children who think they have a "right" to an inheritance, and end up getting screwed.   Parents can do as they please with their money - just as you can with yours.  They can spend it, give it away to an odious Pentecostal church, or favor one child over the other, based solely on eye color.   They can be rational, arbitrary, fair, or biased.  It is their choice, and their choice alone.

In my situation, I certainly have no qualms - my sister's story is a tragic one, and my Father rightly wanted to make sure her children were provided for.   But overall, it is better, in the example from the New Yorker above, to be the wealthy "coder" with their own money, than to be the slacker ne'er-do-well, the social worker, or the girl tragically going blind.

But that was not the point of the article. The author posited that we need to equalize outcomes in society by providing more money to those who don't succeed.  This seems to be a mantra among liberals these days, who seem to have forgotten what "Equal Opportunity" was all about.

The response to this article, however, was interesting.  From the Letters to the Editor, February 3, 2020:
Joshua Rothman examines many perspectives on what it means to create an equal society (“Same Difference,” January 13th). I wonder whether, for those seeking progress, equality of opportunity should be the focal point. The concept implicitly acknowledges that although we are not all created equal, we should all have the chance to attain satisfaction in life. Rothman considers whether a child who is going blind should receive a larger share of an inheritance than her siblings. I lost my vision at the age of thirteen. The special instruction I received in the years that followed enabled me to attend college and law school. I may not be equal in a physical sense, but Connecticut’s public-education system enabled me to pursue my career. Of course, one person’s opportunity could be another’s closed door, for any number of reasons. Still, equality of opportunity is a good place to start.
Adrian SprattBrooklyn, N.Y.

Handicapped people don't want special treatment, but rather the chance to succeed on their merits.  They do not want equalized outcomes, but merely equalized opportunities.

I digress, but let's get this out of the way - the term "Handicapped" is not a slur, insult, or demeaning in any way, but merely a descriptive adjective.  This whole nonsense of people being "differently abled" is just that.  As one comedian noted, being handicapped is not being "differently abled" but rather having one less ability than others.

And no, the term "handicapped" was not derived from people begging "cap-in-hand" - that is a false etymology - read your Snopes!

Sadly, a lot of "non-disabled" people believe that the purpose of things like handicapped bathroom stalls and handicapped parking isn't to allow for equal participation in everyday life but rather as a special "treat" to compensate for disability - to try to make the outcome equal, rather than level the playing field.  People have written to Dear Abby complaining that "normal people" shouldn't used the handicapped-accessible stall in the restroom, as it is reserved for handicapped people.   This is, of course, bullshit.

I had a blind friend in college, and he vehemently wanted to live an independent life, dependent on no one, or as few people as possible.   No one wants to be coddled or supported by others.  No one wants to be a burden to society (except Bernie Bros. - and they are not handicapped!).   People want independence and dignity and a chance to succeed on their merits as the letter-writer above illustrates.

In the not-so-distant past, handicapped people were shunted off to institutions or forced to stay at home, living on the largess (and at the whim) of able-bodied relatives.  It was sort of like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - and yes, abuse of the disabled did occur (and sadly, still does).

The folks who want equal outcomes are well-meaning, but again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.   It is sort of like those events where someone decides to let Benny, the retarded boy, "win" at a game, by having the other players not oppose him.   I suspect that Benny knows what is going on - that he is being pandered to.  And perhaps he goes along with this because it makes the "abled" people fell better about themselves for helping a disadvantaged person.  But what Benny really wants is to be part of society - contributing to it and working like any other person - not to be some sideshow act and patronized and pandered to, to appease the guilt feelings of others.

Today there are better opportunities than ever before, for handicapped people.   Almost all businesses are wheelchair accessible (by law) and it is far easier to get around, if you can't walk.   For the blind, computers allow them to translate text-to-speech and access volumes of data online.  No longer the need to read braille, or try to find publications in braille!  For the deaf, the same is true, and there is talk of curing deafness with electronic medical devices - something some deaf people don't think they need to be cured of.  Experiments in curing blindness electronically are proceeding as well.  And for the retarded, "mainstreaming" is much more common and institutionalization, far less.

These are all good things - allowing people to fully participate in life.  We have made incredible advances in the last 50 years.  Oh, right, the world is a rotten place.  What am I thinking?  I need to toe the party line of the TeeVee and Facebook.  Heretic!

So what's the harm in equalized outcomes versus equalized opportunities?  Some people can't even tell the difference between the two!  Equal opportunity means eliminating arbitrary barriers to success in the world - barriers such as denying jobs based on race or ethnicity or religion or whatnot.  It also means eliminating physical barriers, particularly for handicapped people - something as simple as a street curb can be as daunting as a ten-foot wall to someone in a wheelchair (although some more athletically inclined can jump a curb in a wheelchair - I've seen it done!).

Once they have the opportunity they can determine their own outcome based on their abilities, not their disabilities.  And yes, outcomes are partially determined by luck and circumstance as well.  My blind friend worked at his father's bank, something that sort of stuck in his craw, as he felt it was something of a handout - or that others would perceive it as such.  It also meant he was beholden to his father - and couldn't piss him off (as I did with mine).   Freedom means the freedom to tell people to fuck off, if they deserve it.   I don't know what became of my blind friend  (I checked online, it seems he, too, has passed away.  Getting old sucks - everyone you know, dies!).

Today, it seems the conversation has morphed from equal opportunity to equal outcomes.   Programs like Affirmative Action, set aside places in college and the employment based on race, not ability - effectively changing outcomes.  Some argue that such extreme measures are needed, as even with equal opportunities, it could take generations for true equality to take place in the marketplace.   It is an argument - whether one agrees with it or not.  My only take is that if Affirmative Action is a band-aid to fix past discrimination, at what point does the band-aid get removed?   Either the wound heals or it never will.

Similarly, all this talk about "income inequality" falls along the same lines.  Some today posit that income inequality or wealth inequality (and the two are far different things!) is "unfair" and the only way to fix this problem is to take away income or even wealth from the few and give it to the many, to equalize outcomes, which over time will equalize opportunities.

The progressive tax system is an acknowledgment that to some extent, even earned income can be a windfall in the upper brackets.   For example, Jeff Bezos started out selling used books, borrowing money from his parents to establish Amazon, literally in a garage.   He has done pretty well since then, but of course, we all like to take a piss on him now that he has so much money and perhaps too much influence.  But he is an example of the "self-made man" that is still possible in America, and one reason we should encourage equal opportunities but not equal outcomes - the incentive of wealth is what drives people to succeed.   Some succeed more than others.

But to some extent, we do attempt to equalize outcomes - and we used to do it more.  The graduated or "progressive" income tax increases tax rates on individuals for amounts made over certain thresholds.  In the past, these marginal rates could be as high as 75% or more, but today they have been dropped to about 35% or so.  The problem with the progressive tax is that for the super-wealthy, they have ways around such onerous taxes - moving other countries, moving assets offshore, paying themselves in capital gains instead of ordinary income, and so on and so forth

Not only that, but studies have shown that over-taxing individuals can dampen an economy.  And it was no less than Jack Kennedy who instituted one of the early tax rate cuts, in response to the recession of 1958-1960, to bolster the economy.  Progressive taxes are fine and all, but there is a point where they do more harm than good - and revenue from such taxes actually decreases.

In recent years, cutting taxes has been a mantra for Republicans, and perhaps we have cut taxes too far.  The Bush era tax cuts started the problem - it has only gotten worse.  Sadly, some politicians (such as Bernie) not only propose rolling back those tax cuts, but instituting draconian tax rates and even wealth taxes - neither of which have a chance of passing Congress anytime in our lifetimes.

The inheritance tax, or "Gifts and Estate Tax" as it is correctly known, also tries to level the playing field, but preventing people from passing huge sums of money from parent to child, thus creating family dynasties of wealth that can never be extinguished.   In countries like Mexico or South Korea, a small number of wealthy families end up controlling vast amounts of wealth, and as a result, opportunities for others are limited.   Again, in recent years, Republicans have slashed the "death tax" as they call it, even offering a one-year holiday (for those planning their deaths that year).   And perhaps we need to revisit this tax, although it is fraught with problems, too.

The Gifts and Estate tax has a lot of "loopholes" you can drive a bus through.  You can leave money to your grandkids in a "Crummy" generation-skipping trust and avoid the tax.  You can give money to your kids during your lifetime, annually, and avoid the tax (up to a certain dollar amount).  You can work around this tax - and the lower cutoff limits are pretty high to begin with.   If you tax people enough, they find ways around taxes - particularly the wealthy.   If you tell a rich person they can avoid $5 million in taxes if they spend $2.5 million, they will do so, even if it is ultimately wasteful spending.   They end up saving money - that's the point.

What the "income inequality" people fail to realize, is that if you take away all incentive to succeed and instead mandate equal outcomes for everyone, not many will succeed at all.  The Jeff Bezos of the world will not be encouraged to quit their jobs and risk it all to start a company in their garage.  Rather, they will hunker down and try to get "a good job" or pick their way through the hierarchy of the government to accumulate power.  Such is the fate of Communist countries, or even totalitarian countries (same difference) like Russia.

It is sad that a blind man can "see" this, but able-bodied people cannot.    Equal opportunities - yes.  Equal outcomes - no.