Inequality and More Plain Talk

social-mobility

Last evening, I went to listen to Robert Putnam speak on inequality and its horrific consequences. Putnam, whose work is, perhaps, the most revealing about the state of society in the US of any current American political scientist, was giving a lecture in Lexington’s public lecture series. His earlier book, Bowling Alone, revealed the drastic loss of social capital, the resources that hold any society together. His talk, last evening, focused on his current project, measuring inequality in American culture today. He began with a couple of caveats, he was not talking about income or wealth inequality; he was talking about inequality in opportunity to move upwards in the social ladder. As he and others have simply put it, The American Dream is rapidly disappearing, if not already gone, for a very large segment of the US population, the poor.

He also stressed that the problems he was going to talk about were not issues of race, but problems of [economic] class that poor whites face. So do poor blacks, but he has focused his work only on whites because that is where the new inequality is now hitting harder. Racial inequality has abated over the past decades, while class inequality has dramatically increased. His main message was that the poor segment of the young generation of today is already moving into adult life with little or no real opportunity for success, no matter how you measure it. Certainly not a life that flourishes as I speak about it. They are dispirited, poorly schooled, unhealthy, and far behind their peers, who come from families with parents that have college educations, and in other social measures.

Putnam pointed to critical advantages upper class, not the very rich we hear a lot about this election season, have. Their children get more caring attention from the very beginning, in terms of parental hours spent with them, and later in terms of the enriching resources, such a camps and lessons, provided to them. Many more of these kids have gotten through high school, still living with the same two parents, while only about five percent of the poor have by the same age. Most haven’t even finished high school. Pretty shocking. Most important, Putnam kept stressing, by showing many slides based on his team’s work, that the gap between rich and poor that has always been there, has been widening at an alarming rate in recent years. That was the key message of his talk.

America is becoming increasingly segregated, in the way we live, are educated, choose mates, and so on. His findings are not unique. In his book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray wrote,

It’s not just that college graduates are likely to marry college graduates, but that graduates from elite colleges are likely to marry other graduates from elite colleges. Increased educational homogamy inevitably means increased cognitive homogamy. On average, children are neither as smart nor as dumb as their parents. They are closer to the middle. This tendency is called regression to the mean. In 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in Critical Reading or Mathematics had a parent with a college degree, and 57 percent had a parent with a graduate degree. Those percentages could have been predicted closely just by knowing the facts about the IQs associated with different educational levels and the correlation between parental and child IQ.

The bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.

It’s the old adage, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, on steroids. Murray and Putnam come from opposite ends of the politic spectrum and invoke different causes and solutions but agree on the situation. Murray believes that family values are the primary cause and in some ways the poor get what they deserve. Putnam argues on a different moral ground. These children did not choose their parents. They deserve the same opportunity as any other newborn. I strongly believe this in a moral sense, but must add that opportunity is always constrained by circumstances. Putnam used the metaphor of a ladder. In former timer, there were rungs to grab at every class stratum; now the rungs at the bottom are gone.

As he saw in Bowling Alone, community, a metaphor for solidarity, we-ness, or connections, has shrunk to a vanishing point. He said last night, that when he grew up, “my” family spilled over into the wider community; now “my” family means me and my kids only. The evening could not have been more depressing. His book on this is coming out in a few months. I will buy and read it, but do not look forward to that.

As I walked home, I found myself thinking about the various causes he mentioned, loss of social capital, family deterioration, and so on. I have been thinking and writing about sustainability for more than 20 years now. Having retired from academic research, I haven’t the ability to do research such as Putnam does. I have to rely on his and others’ work. But I can think about it in the context of what concerns me. Risking oversimplifying their work, I can collapse what Putnam, Murray, and others writing about inequality and its cause and consequences say into a single word, care or, better, the lack of it.

Care is a, in my thinking, the, basic quality that makes us human. Care is attending to the well-being of oneself, others, and the world out there. It is the constellation of intentional acts we engage in, reflecting the right of everything in the world to exist on its own terms. Humberto Maturana calls this context for living, love, the basic human emotion, without which individuals eventually become ill. At some level, our culture is ill in these terms. There is a direct relationship between care as the ontological property that constitutes our explanation of why and how we exist, and love as our [ontic] foundation for how we live in fact.

I spoke of plain talk the other day. I think more about it everyday. This election has shown me the folly of making believe, in the bloated, convoluted, and dissembling language we go about dealing with our common issues and problems. It isn’t about leveling the economic playing field by tinkering with the tax code. It isn’t about the size of our government. It isn’t about who should the doctors work for. That’s all bullshit (see my blog of 10/18/2012).

It’s all about care and love. The Founding Fathers knew this. Does this surprise you? This powerful phrase from it has become so familiar that we don’t stop any more to think what it really may mean.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

They spoke of inalienable rights. Is this any different that accepting that everyone has the same right to exist? And if acting on top of this fundamental moral foundation is “love,” let it be. The conceit of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” rested upon his view that human nature was that of empathy, care for the other, not on selfishness as his later works have been interpreted as aaying.

It is absolutely clear to me that, as a collective, we have no clear idea about what to do about this and other big problems facing us. We are just as full of BS when we talk about climate change and what to do about it. And I am just as certain that we cannot find enough clarity to act as if we had finally discovered the truth that would, like an arrow, strike the target dead center and cure the ills facing us. All the so-called debates held by the powerful in charge of our nation are also BS. It’s not compromise that is needed. It’s plain talk. It’s saying in unison: “We haven’t cared about the people we live with and are now suffering the consequences. We haven’t cared about the world out there we inhabit and we are now suffering the consequences.” It’s also saying plainly, “We don’t know how to go forward, but we do finally understand we must act now.”

Obama has been called a pragmatist by others and by himself, but in the use of the word that is inappropriate here. Pragmatism is much more than doing what is expedient for me. This is the corrupted version of William James’s philosophy that has done much to give pragmatism a bad name. Pragmatism is a way of making problematic ideas clearer, and building solutions for them, based on past and present experience. Experience, not ideology is the key. Continuing inquiry, through talk and experiment, by ALL the parties with an interest in the matter is the process by which the chosen solutions (a kind of non-ideological truth) emerge and are applied. All such solutions are always known to be tentative and contingent. Only their successful application reveals their rightness or wrongness.

The problems discussed here, inequality and climate change, matter to everyone whether they admit it or not. The crises are already here. Our political economy is broke and needs fixing. The question to ask people about where and why they stand is not whether they are a Democrat or Republican or any other denomination. The reasons they will give are just more BS. They will say they care about or highly value their reasons. But that is not the kind of care or values I am talking about. The only meaningful questions is, “Do you humanly care?” This kind of care and values built upon it are the only ones that can lead us out of the mess we are in. Some think they have the resources to wall them off from the world and hide from the messes that they are in part responsible for. Even for them, the old saying, “You can run but you can’t hide.” holds.

I am convinced that we have no more time for BS. Plain talk is essential. The world is hurting badly. We are the reason. We have lost our being and, as a result, our way. Our vast storehouse of knowledge is powerless to help us now. If we do not start caring and loving, we will continue to talk and think BS. Caring starts with opening the eyes and accepting the connections that immediately appear. Caring is verbal and active. We may know how to care for ourselves and a few other people, but we do not know how to care for the world. The current mess speaks to us in plain talk and asks us to do something. But what to do? In plain talk, we do not know, but we can act pragmatically. We can gather together (we are connected, after all.) and inquire and try out what emerges. “I” can never have the right answer. So don’t ask me what to do as many try. Only “we” can.

The election in a few days is advertised as an important choice. It is, but not the right one. The choice is between more of the same old BS or plain talk, caring, and pragmatic inquiry and action. Unfortunately elections are not the place for choices like this. We have to begin by making this choice everywhere, in small actions that may grow to a point where we more consciously address this fundamental value and its place in our society. Caring is unfamiliar and sometimes surprisingly difficult, but plain talk is something most already know how to do or can learn quickly. So let’s start there. Right now.

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