The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sad Souls

In what amounts to a recurring theme among many New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof laments economic “inequality” in the United States. Of course, he never looks at the underlying causes, never notes that the top 10 percent of wage earners pay almost 70 percent of all income taxes collected, and has only a single implied solution—income redistribution. But nonetheless, he’s horrified:
John Steinbeck observed that “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”

That insight, now confirmed by epidemiological studies, is worth bearing in mind at a time of such polarizing inequality that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent.

There’s growing evidence that the toll of our stunning inequality is not just economic but also is a melancholy of the soul. The upshot appears to be high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease.

Kristof suggests that “stunning levels of inequality” are “profoundly unhealthy, for us and for our nation’s soul.”

I’d be naïve to suggest that everyone has an “equal” chance at success or that economic inequality doesn’t exist, but what does that matter? Life is not fair, and no matter how much NYT columnists rail against economic inequality, life never will be fair. Like it or not, income distribution follows the hated bell curve—there will always be haves and unfortunately, the harsh reality is there will always be have-nots.

The wonder of this country is that the children of the have-nots have a good chance to better their lives. As a young person in the United States, there is no caste system, nor is there any explicit aristocracy that limits how far you can go. There are millions of children who grew up in multi-family houses in mill towns (or in economically disadvantaged rural communities), whose parents never went to college and worked blue collar jobs, who attended public schools that were over-crowded and underfunded, who had no “connections,” who worked their way through school. These kids unquestionably had a tougher life journey, but they were not excluded from achieving success in their lives. How do I know? Because, like millions of other Americans who have achieved some level of success over the past 50 years, I was one of those kids.

Nicholas Kristof believes that “inequalty” can be solved by redistributing income—increasing taxes (but only on the “rich”) and the size of government programs that purportedly help the have-nots. History indicates that some of these programs do more harm than good, creating a culture of dependency that deadens individual initiative and creates generations of (to use Steinbeck’s phrase ) “Sad souls.”

Kristof’s solution is an insult to the millions of Americans who don’t have the time to obsess about how their lot in life leads to a “sad soul.” They’re too busy doing the hard work required to change their lives for the better, to raise their own families, and on balance, become a whole lot more “equal” in the years ahead.