Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Thoughts around social class: Part I

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Preamble: Recently, I have contemplated differences in outcome and the changes to the lives of different “classes” over time. The below is the first of several texts on related topics.

Once, as a child, I saw a pedagogical demonstration on TV: Of a large group of children, half were put at a table with good food, half on the floor with bread and water. After a few minutes, the second group was also brought to the table and a short speech was given on how this illustrated the need for “social justice” (or something of the kind—this was a long time ago).

The idea is obvious: The children should see that it is unfair that wealth and whatnot is distributed by a one-time random event, and be brought to conclude that wealth should be distributed equally within and between societies.

This repeats a common flaw in Leftist thinking of assuming an either–or situation: Either we have equality of outcome or we have outcomes decided by the circumstances of our birth (e.g. as children of nobility or peasants, Swedes or Ugandans). Indeed, I have since seen similar scenarios posed to adults, with the same flawed either–or: If your own status in life is random, would you rather live in a society where money is unequally divided between the rich and the poor or in one where money is distributed equally?

Even as a child, I was turned off by this demonstration and this either–or thinking: What if someone is simply more successful than someone else? What if someone is smarter, works harder, takes greater risks*, prioritizes material success higher, …?** Differences in outcome do not automatically imply differences in opportunity, that our fate is determined by who our parents were, or other reasons similar to those implied by the random division of the children into a “table group” and a “floor group”. By all means, where inequality of opportunity exists, remedies might be needed—but why throw the baby out with the bath-water? Indeed, even approximate equality of outcome is only possible by grossly violating one or both of equality of opportunity and personal freedom.

*Risk-takers do not necessarily fair better in life on average; however, the chance of finding them among the unusually successful (and the unusually unsuccessful) is increased. Notably, such effects are not limited to e.g. gambling, speculation, or even investments and founding businesses—they also include who asks for a higher salary at the risk of not getting the job, who holds out for a better employment offer, who trades unpaid over-time for a better shot at a promotion, …

**To which might be added some negatives, e.g. a greater willingness to break the law. I have no objections to suppression of such factors and/or the differences in outcome caused by them.

Exactly this type of baby mistreatment is very common in Leftist thinking and some parts of the Western world, however. For instance, if I work an additional hour, the German state earns more additional money than I do, after all direct and indirect taxes are considered. Some of this money is then spent in a sensible manner, some is wasted on government bureaucracy or otherwise abused—and a significant portion is given to other people in the form of direct or indirect transfer payments. And, no, this is not just payments intended to help those in temporary need to get back on their feet*—it also includes massive systematic attempts at redistribution of wealth.

*To which I have no objection: There is no shame in being temporarily in need of help. (I have been myself, as was my mother as a single, unemployed parent.) Not getting back on one’s feet over time, that is a different matter—as is e.g., without a temporary crisis, (a) living a life permanently based on government help, (b) fattening one’s pockets with unneeded government money, and, at the extreme end, (c) well-fare parasitism. (The (b) case is quite common in Germany, where politicians often try to use money to govern life-choices, e.g. in that married couples are taxed in a more favorable manner than singles—even when the married couples would have lived well without such favoritism.)

**In Sweden’s past this was sometimes extremely blatant. For instance, my first major push towards political interest, likely in the mid or late 1980s, came from a news piece on Swedish taxes: The post-taxes income of a high and a low earner were compared, showing a much smaller difference than before taxes. I was puzzled and dissatisfied by this. An equally dissatisfied reporter then criticized the situation—because the difference were still too large for his taste.

The typical fiction of the Leftist world-view is that these people are in a worse position than others for reasons that they cannot help—they are the victims of circumstance, most notably having had too poor parents, which prevented them from getting the right education and opportunities. Looking at countries like Sweden and Germany, this is only rarely the case.* The main determinants of success (or lack thereof) in life lie with the individual, how intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, …, he is and what decisions he has made in life—and most of these people are where they are because they did not use their opportunities. (As opposed to not having had sufficient opportunities.) Every once in a while, someone has a genuine piece of bad luck,** and these should be given proper concern, but own actions is the much more common explanation.

*The situation in other countries, and in the aforementioned countries in the past, might be different. However, in Western countries, including the much more “economically diverse” U.S., own abilities and efforts are more important than e.g. what socio-economic group the parents belonged to.

**Consider e.g. a recent colleague of mine: Intelligent, educated, hard-working, and presumably earning well (I am not privy to the details). His wife developed severe, unexpected, and long-term health-issues that (a) racked up medical bills beyond insurance coverage, (b) prevented her from working, (c) forced him to take time off to take care of her and the children. This is a type of situation where a government intervention would be easy to justify. (Whether one took place, I do not know.)

Did someone prefer partying to studying? Take every second Monday off to extend the weekend? Have children while unemployed or on minimum wage? If someone makes decisions with no eye on the future, behaves unprofessionally, follows the “pleasure principle”, … it is his business—but he has to live with the consequences.

Did someone study English instead of Medicine? Go into academics instead of the private sector? There is more to life than wealth, and I can greatly sympathize with the choice—but the trade-off, less money, is his responsibility.

Did someone start a business that ultimately failed? Taking risks for a shot at greater success is perfectly legitimate—but if the dice come up the wrong way, the failure is his to bear.

Did someone lack the brains to get through college? The manual skills to learn carpentry? The writing skills to succeed as an author? We are what we are—but we cannot blame others for such problems, nor demand that they pay for an unearned improvement of our standard of living.

My own family provides several interesting illustrations. Consider the socio-economic status of the parents and its purported effect on the children: I and my sister (unsurprisingly) have the same parents,* yet I am extremely well-educated and have supported myself for almost all of my post-college days, while my sister is a high-school drop-out and spent most of her life supported by my mother. My parents ended up at comparable levels of success in life, yet my father had two formally educated and intellectually interested parents with (to the degree that I can judge it) an above-average family income, while my mother’s mother had six years of school and was definitely below average in IQ, my mother’s father lacked higher formal** education, and the family income likely was below average. Of course, I did considerably better than many others with a similar childhood (cf. below)—at least until my early teens, I was one of those that the Swedish Left considers so disadvantaged that a failure in life is society’s fault…

*Looking deeper, she (as the younger) likely had a small net-advantage in socio-economic status, through a higher average income and education level during our respective childhoods, but might have had disadvantages in other areas, e.g. time spent with our father post-divorce.

**From what I have heard and seen after the fact (he died when I was six or seven), I suspect that he was quite intelligent and reasonably well-read outside of formal education—someone who would have done well in college, had he gone. However, typical measures of socio-economic status, especially in the context of the-world-would-be-much-better-if-everyone-went-to-college propaganda, only consider formal education. (How many years of school he had, I do not know.)

Or consider long-term handling of a temporary crisis: Post-divorce, both my parents (my mother with two troublesome children) did their best to find new* jobs, both eventually went to college, and both ultimately built a good life. Especially my mother, had she had less drive and intelligence, could have gone down the path of the perennially unemployed well-fare seekers. She did not. Neither was she satisfied with temping or dead-end/entry-level jobs, like so many others in her situation, but she actually rose to education and a middle-class income.

*They were officers of the Salvation Army prior to the divorce, and staying on was problematic.

Then again, it can be argued that my parents made disputable* choices prior to the divorce, and could have done a lot better* with other choices. As officers in the Salvation Army, they earned very poorly compared to the average, received no education truly useful outside the Salvation Army, and having two children (even absent a divorce) might have been on the optimistic side. If they had skipped the Salvation Army, they could have taken steps in their lives at twenty that they only actually took when around thirty.

*In terms of material and whatnot success: The general career choice was obviously dictated by other reasons, and cannot be compared to someone who has a poor career e.g. through lack of brains or willingness to work hard. Even as things played out, it is conceivable that they considered the time in the Salvation Army a worthwhile investment. (I certainly do—owing my existence to these choices, the Salvation Army included.)

Excursion on the anecdotal:
Much of the above is obviously anecdotal, special cases that could underlie a lot of chance, whatnot. However, (a) it is born out by what I have seen among others, (b) it is similar to findings in e.g. twin studies and psychometrics, and (c) the “evidence” provided by the Left that e.g. socio-economic status of the parents would be all-important is equally consist with my preferred explanation—that children tend to inherit various traits from their parents, and that these traits cause the greater part of the difference in outcome. For instance, if fewer from the lower class do not get a higher education, is this really because they are deprived of the chance by their family environment*—or because their parents were members of the lower class due to lack of intelligence, drive, whatnot, and that the children inherited these characteristics? (Note that back-breaking tuition fees is not an issue in either of Sweden and Germany.)

*Indeed, to the degree that the family environment is important, I suspect that the common anti-education, anti-intellectual attitude of many in the lower class is more important than the actual education levels and amount of money available. This, in turn, is hard to correct through “social justice”, but is something that school would be well placed to improve. (Unfortunately, school is more likely to kill the interest than to grow it…)

Excursion on children:
The question of children is tricky, because they have to live with the consequences of their parents actions. On the one hand, they have to be protected from at least the worst situations. On the other, giving them too much help would end up giving the parents a better life that they have earned. Ensuring a reasonable minimum of living conditions, food* quality/quantity, and clothing is justifiable, but going much beyond this will likely do little good. I took no harm from hand-me-downs when I was a child—nor from the absence of brand products and vacations abroad.** What help is given should preferably be in a more direct form than money, so that it cannot be abused for other purposes.

*Here there can be greater issues involved than affordability, e.g. that the children are given candy and junk-food instead of proper meals.

**And should this be an issue today, which is sometimes claimed by the proponents of the misnomer “relative poverty”, it is the attitudes of society that need to change—not the wealth distribution.

Excursion on forms of help:
Most well-fare and whatnot programs seem to be directed at giving money. This is the easy way out for the government, and likely what brings the politicians the more votes, but I cannot see it as a good way: Apart from giving e.g. food-stamps* the preference over money, the better general approach is to “teach a man to fish”. Give people the means and incentives to earn more. Help them to avoid unnecessary debt and move existing high-interest debt somewhere with lower interest. Help them to make a budget. Help them to avoid unnecessary expenditures. Etc. There are people who already have optimized what they can and still lack money, but most are far from that point.

*But then some on the Left will complain that using food-stamps might be humiliating and, therefore, unacceptable.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 9, 2018 at 11:55 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Thoughts around social class: Part I, I notice two (or three) points that benefit from […]

  2. […] A number of points-to-be-expanded have been removed. The previous installments include at least [1], [2], [3]. Further texts might or might not be added (“Hornblower”, probably; the removed […]


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