The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Kevin Drum comments on a New York Times survey article on income mobility [the online version is surprisingly link-rich]. He points out a highly plausible cause:
Ever since World War II, the United States has done a phenomenal job of sorting people by talent. Not a perfect job, but an astonishingly good one nonetheless... But there's only a moderate amount of sorting left to be done. Random chance, both in nature and nurture, will always play a role in life outcomes, but that role has gotten smaller and smaller as the sorting has progressed. The result is that life roles have become more hardened. While incomes of the well-off have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, working and middle class incomes have stagnated.

Mr. Drum seems to have discovered what the right wing would call the "Marching Morons problem", after the infamous C.M. Kornbluth story. [In fact, since he does not discuss growth rates, it is not really the problem of marching morons, but of Hanging-Out Morons or some such.] I fear that his conjecture is largely correct: the tremendous increase in individual mobility since World War II has indeed "sorted" society, leading to stratification by intellectual capacity (or, at least, by the capacity to perform the intellectual tasks posed in society).

Let me make clear that I do not believe that this sorting has a significant geographic element. The smartest people in the country are not being collected together in New York (or out of New York, either). But within New York, or Houston, or Wichita, they form different societies that do not mingle, do not offer mutual support, and most assuredly do not intermarry.

Suppose we have truly almost finished creating a genetic intellectual underclass. Mr. Drum [who matriculated at Caltech] is manifestly not a member thereof. He is concerned with providing for them:

And yet, we're supposed to believe that an increase in Social Security costs from 4% of GDP to 6% over the next 50 years is cause for panic. We're supposed to believe national healthcare would bankrupt us — never mind that our current dysfunctional system is the most expensive and most unfair on the planet. We're supposed to believe that broader unionization would ruin American industry, home of the highest profits and most highly paid executives in the world. We're supposed to believe that the nation's millionaires, having already had their tax rates slashed by a third over the past two decades, are still being bled to the bone by federal taxes.

Mr. Drum, a writer, would not be significantly affected by broader unionization. He is a more likely millionaire than those whom he seeks to protect. Nowhere is there any hint that his advocacy is based on self-interest; so let us accept, in good faith, that it is not. He sincerely seeks to protect the less fortunate masses, but their problems are not his problems.

I do not intend, here, to undertake a pragmatic critique of Mr. Drum's proposals. Suppose, instead, that the poor and unfortunate fully appreciate their position; they have read the studies on declining income mobility, and so on. The Democratic Party offers them help from above; for those who are not going to succeed, it says, we will make sure you get health care and housing. But the would-be beneficiaries of this largesse tend to spurn it. Improbable does not mean impossible; poverty is not preterition; and they cling to the perhaps illusory ideal of being able to improve their own lot.

Finally, we are in a position to say what is the matter with Kansas. Two small things, like ghostly leeches clinging to the human heart: dignity, and hope.