Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘redistribution

Thoughts around social class: Part II (prices etc.)

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As I have often remarked, the best way to create a society with a higher degree of wealth for those* with relatively little wealth and income, is not to redistribute the existing wealth (often at the risk of reducing it)—but to increase the overall wealth (even should it result in larger differences in distribution).

*I am troubled to find a good phrasing, with “poor” often being highly misleading, “disadvantaged” simultaneously a euphemism and (potentially) interpretable as a statement about opportunity (where the intended meaning relates to outcome), “lower class” too fixed in perspective, “less well off” either a euphemism or covering too large a group (depending on interpretation), …

The most obvious sub-topic is economic growth (e.g. in the rough GNP sense); however, for my current purposes, the area of prices and purchasing power is more relevant.* Trivially: If earnings rise faster than inflation** then every major group will (in real terms) earn more.*** This is, in turn, closely connected to factors that, directly or indirectly, relate to economic growth, including government policies, introduction of new or improvements to old technologies, energy prices, wastefulness or efficiency of business planning, …

*However, I have a text planned on some other aspects relating to growth.

**But note that inflation also has an effect on e.g. bank balances, which implies that not everyone will automatically grow wealthier in a stricter sense. These effects, however, will naturally hit people harder the more money they have—and might even be beneficial to those in debt.

***With a number of caveats and reservations when we look at the gritty details, e.g. that the distribution of increases is sufficiently reasonable, that there are no upsetting changes in (un-)employment patterns, and similar. Discussing such complications would lead to a far longer text.

A few observations relating to this sub-topic:

  1. The current “economic power” of e.g. a well-todo (but not outright rich) German is quite great in some areas, e.g. relating to food; however, it is quite poor in others, notably where the government or major businesses tend to be involved. For instance, laying a single meter of Autobahn costs roughly six thousand Euro—under ideal circumstance. In extreme cases, it can be more than twenty times as much. (Cf. [1], in German.) A clear majority of all Germans could not afford to build a single meter of Autobahn out of their monthly income—even taxes and living expenses aside… Looking at “discretionary income”, most would need to work for several months for this single meter—and real low-earners might need years.

    Through such examples, we can see a clear difference between living in a wealthy/well-fare/whatnot state and actually being wealthy. Indeed, as will be argued in a later installment, the vast majority of people are still (and might permanently remain) second- or third-class citizens in a bigger picture. (While, I stress, having far less to complain about than their grand-parents.) This includes very many who typically consider themselves successes in life, e.g. middle managers, most upper managers, professionals in good employment or running small businesses, …

    The Autobahn example also raises some questions on the effective use of tax-payer’s money: Chances are that these costs could be a lot lower with a greater efficiency—but when the politicians pay with someone else’s money, there is little need for efficiency.

  2. A particularly troublesome issue is rent, prices of apartments/houses/land, and building costs: Looking at the vast improvements in most other areas (in terms of better products and lower prices) we might expect even relatively poor earners to affordably live in their own houses or large apartments. The reality, excepting some unattractive areas, is very different. In booming areas, prices can even be preventative for many. Even in non-booming areas, the monthly rent or mortgage payment is often the single largest expense. To further increase the economic well-being of the people, reducing these prices should be a priority.

    To some part, these prices are caused by high localized population growth that is hard to work around in a timely manner—and lack of land can be a long-term issue for the duration. (Someone happy with an apartment can be accommodated e.g. by building higher; someone looking for a large garden either has to be loaded or live somewhere else.) However, there are other issues, including too long delays in building new apartments, building* costs, taxes**, luxury renovations***, “unnecessary”**** and temporary***** rentals, and undue realtor fees (see also several older texts, e.g. [2]).

    *For one thing, these are generally quite high in Germany, for reasons that include great demand, personnel costs (taxes and the employment construct; cf. a later installment), VAT, and a mentality with a disconnect between the value delivered and the price. For another, building methods, materials, “pre-fabrication”, …, have not advanced at the rate that they should have—possibly, because the building industry has little incentive for progress.

    **If a landlord makes a profit, he must pay taxes. Even if he does not make a profit, VAT will often be an issue. (Generally, note that taxes do not just hit an employee when he earns his money—they also hit him when he spends it, although usually in less obvious manners than income tax etc.)

    ***German law allows landlords to make many renovations, with a corresponding rent increase, even against the will of the tenant and in alteration of the terms of the contract. This is often used to artificially increase the rents considerably, and often with the side-effect that old tenants are forced to move out to be replaced by better earners.

    ****A common investment strategy in Germany is to buy a single apartment for the purpose of letting it for rent. This does increase the number of available rentals, but it also decreases the number of apartments available to those purchasing for own living, which (a) drives the prices up unnecessarily, (b) forces some people to rent who otherwise would buy.

    *****In times of project work, temporary assignments, and whatnot, increasing numbers work in cities for so short times that it does not pay to rent or buy a regular apartment, but still long enough that living in a hotel is unnecessarily expensive. This has led to a market of furnished apartments that are rented for weeks or months at a considerably higher than ordinary rent—and each of these apartments is removed from the regular market, increasing the deficit.

  3. A drop in prices is increasingly countered by product alternatives, product improvements, and product “improvements”, that partially or wholly move inexpensive products of the market in favor of more expensive ones. Consider e.g. the boom around various coffee machines, like Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Senseo, which allows the sale of coffee grounds with an immense increase in markup.* Another good example is the continual replacement of computer models with more powerful and pricey versions. This is to some degree good, however, the simple truth is that, for most people, a modern computer already is more powerful than it needs to be, and that the average customer would be better off if technological advancements were directed at lowering costs. A particularly perfidious** example is toilet paper, which becomes more and more expensive the more plies it has, even at the same overall quantity***—and where even two-ply paper has been artificially removed from the B2C market.

    *This is an example where the customer still has the option to use the older and cheaper versions—and often are better off doing so. For instance, I have repeatedly had a Nespresso in temporary (furnished) apartments, but actually grew tired of the taste and tended to prefer drip brews. In my own apartment, I have a Dolce Gusto, which I used on a daily basis for a while, enjoying the greater variety, but I ultimately returned to drinking drip brews almost exclusively—I have not used the Dolce Gusto in months, despite having a dozen capsules still lying around. A Senseo that I owned some ten or fifteen years ago produced outright poor coffee, having a shorter preparation time as the sole benefit compared to a drip brew.

    **In the other discussed cases, I pass no moral judgment: That businesses try to gear customers towards more profitable products is only natural, while the customer does gets something in return and often still has a choice. The result might or not might not be unfortunate for the customer, but at least there is only rarely an ethical wrong-doing. With examples like toilet paper, the customer is left with no improvement and no choice—and is forced to pay the additional and unnecessary cost.

    ***One segment of four-ply is more expensive than two segments of two-ply, etc., even though the overall weight and volume is virtually the same, and even though the customer could just fold the two two-ply segments over another for what amounts to four-ply.

    Without such artificial market alterations, life could be a whole lot cheaper.

  4. A partially overlapping area is convenience products that reduce the work-load for the customer at an increase in monetary costs. This is most notable when it comes to food, where e.g. very few people bake their own breads and whatnots today, because the convenience of store-bought alternatives almost always outweighs the additional* costs—and despite own baking once being almost a given.** Indeed, most bread loaves appear to be sold even pre-sliced today—unlike just a few decades ago.*** Coffee was regularly ground by hand in earlier days; today, it is mostly**** bought pre-ground. “TV dinners” can reduce effort considerably, but are a lot more expensive than own cooking. Etc.

    *In this specific area, we might have reached a point where even the monetary cost of own baking exceeds the price of ready-made products; however, if so, this is not generally true and it was not originally true in this area either.

    **Indeed, further back, even more elementary steps (e.g. grinding flour) might have taken place at home; while subsistence farmers might even have provided most of the ingredients.

    ***Here the additional cost in the process is likely to be very small; however, the customers are potentially hit from another angle: Pre-slicing reduces the expected “best before” date.

    ****And the exceptions are likely almost exclusively for use in coffee machines that automatically grind beans.

    As an aside, these convenience products do not only bring a money–effort trade-off, but often result in less choice and/or suboptimal products. Consider e.g. the German pre-sliced cheese vs. the block cheese for manual slicing that is common in Sweden—to me, the former slices are too thick, simultaneously reducing how long a given quantity of cheese lasts and making sandwiches less healthy. Or consider the often quite poor nutritional profiles of TV dinners compared to own cooking.

  5. Luxury and brand products is an area bordering on the perfidious: Often these come with a value added; often they do not; and only very rarely is the value added comparable to the price hike. For the rich, this is not much of an issue; however, even the “middle class” is often well-advised to stay away from brand products without a plausible real* value added. Unfortunately, a liking for brand, or even luxury, products is quite common even among those who earn little—and here the effects can be outright dire, e.g. when a low-earner spends most off a small yearly surplus on shoes** instead of putting it in the bank for a rainy day.

    *As opposed to e.g. one that is explicitly or implicitly claimed in advertising, or one that only applies to other groups than the actual buyer: If, hypothetically, Nike brings a value-added to an Olympic runner, it is not a given that a junior-high student taking physical education also benefits.

    **To take an extreme fictional example, the infamous Carrie Bradshaw once discovered that she (a) could not afford her apartment, (b) had spent forty-or-so thousand USD on shoes over the years. Generally, she might be a good example in that she likely was not that low-earning, instead creating her recurring economic problems through wasteful living.

    In particular, it is a very great fallacy to assume that “more expensive” also implies “better”.

  6. Attempts to gain through large scale salary/wage increases, as attempted by unions, will not be overly successful without a simultaneous and independent trend towards lower prices (relative earnings). Not only will people with more money have a tendency to spend more,* which drives prices upwards, but the additional cost of work will also have an effect on product prices. Notably, there are often chain effects, e.g. that a wage hike in the mining industry increases metal prices, which increases costs in e.g. the machine industry, both metal prices and machine prices affect the tin-can industry, etc. If we, hypothetically, were to increase wages and salaries with a blanket ten percent, the individual businesses would not just see a ten-percent increase of cost of work—they would also see an increase of almost all other costs. While these other increases might fall well short of the full ten percent, they can still be sizable—and they will lead to a greater price increase on a business’ products than would a similar cost-of-work increase limited to only that business. (Also note e.g. that a three percent wage increase at two percent inflation is slightly better than a ten percent increase at nine percent inflation.)

    *Or e.g. work less to keep income roughly constant with an increase in spare time. Similarly, an employer who must pay his workers more might opt to employ fewer of them, e.g. through use of more automation. Such aspects will be largely left out, for the sake of simplicity.

    To some part, such increases can even amount to a competition between different unions and their members, in that any increase drives prices upwards, and that those with smaller increases will see a larger part killed by the resulting increase in prices. At least in theory, there could even be a net decrease in purchasing power for one union/member connected to the net increase seen by another.

  7. For similar reasons, naive sometime suggestions from the radical Left that everyone should earn the same, that the fortunes of Billy Gates et al. should be confiscated and divided among the people, and similar, will work poorly (even questions like ethics aside): Give people more money and they will (a) buy more, which drives prices up, and/or (b) work less, which forces businesses to page higher wages/salaries, which drives prices up. After a period of fluctuation, the lower earning/less wealthy would be back at roughly* the same purchasing power as before, and little would be gained. At the same time, the incentives to start businesses, come up with inventions, earn money, whatnot would be reduced, which would harm economic growth…

    *It would probably be a bit higher, but by nowhere near as much as expected in a naive calculation. Indeed, in some scenarios, the prices of lower-priced goods are likely to see unusually large increases, which would be particularly harmful. Consider e.g. a simplistic world of poor peasants and rich noblemen, of which the former live on bread and the latter on cake. Turn the noblemen into peasants and divide their money in equal shares among the population—and watch cake prices drop while bread prices increase. Either cake has to grow cheaper, or no-one will now be able to afford it. Bread, meanwhile, will be eaten by more people than before (unless the price decline for cake is very sharp) and the increased competition for this traditionally scarce resource will drive prices up.

As an aside, some of these items allow the customers a degree of own choice and prioritization, and quite a lot of money can be saved by making the more frugal choice.

Excursion on myself and brand products, etc.:
While I do not take frugality to an extreme, I have almost always tried to avoid expenses without a corresponding practical value to me. This includes avoiding brands that are “famous for being famous”, buying lamps* at hardware stores instead of department and pure lamp stores, having no qualms** about going into a “one euro” store, usually preferring the cheaper hotel to the hotel with more stars, and having never owned a car***. Outright luxury items have been quite rare and restricted to times of high income.

*For instance, when new in Wuppertal, I wanted to buy an uplight (?). Asking around, I was directed to a lamp store where prices started around three hundred Euro. I spent the extra time to find a hardware store and bought a perfectly satisfactory specimen at (possibly) sixty Euro. To boot, I found the visual design of the latter to be superior…

**These days, I suspect, few people are hesitant, but in earlier days I have heard strong negative opinions expressed towards these and similar stores, both in terms of perceived product quality and the risk of being seen as a pauper for visiting them. (Quality can be a legitimate concern for some products, but mostly the products are fine enough.)

***I have mostly lived in major cities with decent public transportation, and I prefer to walk when it is reasonably possible. Having a car would rarely have been worth the cost.

This, however, does not mean that I am skimpy when I see a benefit. Most notably, I have repeatedly taken sabbaticals to spend time on studies/writing and to enjoy life—while a year-or-so off work is very expensive, it really brings me something. (I strongly recommend it to those fortunate enough to have the opportunity.) However, I have also had no qualms about living in hotels or temporary apartments when working in other cities, even at distances where most others commute. If I can afford to cut out that extra one-to-two hours a day, with all that extra stress, having to go up earlier in the morning, having to wait longer before I can relax in the evening, etc., then I have a very real benefit. At the same time, I have always adapted to my income, e.g. in that I spend considerably less money on food, eating out, clothes, whatnot today (on a sabbatical) than I did a year ago (working full-time).

Written by michaeleriksson

November 12, 2018 at 1:15 am

Thoughts around social class: Addendum Part I

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Re-reading Thoughts around social class: Part I, I notice two (or three) points that benefit from expansion:

Firstly, I discussed socio-economic status just in terms of income and education, forgetting that profession/job/whatnot is normally a separate third leg.* I suspect that this third leg is not that important to my discussion, having less practical potential effects and, indeed, being more a matter of status for most people (after adjusting for income and education as separate factors). However, for the sake of completeness, this third leg goes the same way as the other two in my anecdotal examples: Contrasting me and my sister, I worked in various qualified positions in software development, including several variations of developer** (often as “senior”), architect, business analyst, and consultant, while she has spent a significant part of her life unemployed and (if I understood my step-father correctly) has finally found work as a personal-care assistant—with the same parents, we differ considerably on all three legs. My father’s mother was a nurse***, while my mother’s mother was some type of hospital orderly, which puts them in the approximate same area of work, but at different levels of competence, of status, and in the hierarchy; my father’s father was a teacher**** and even substitute principal, while my mother’s father was an ambulance driver*****—with parents differing on all three legs, my parents landed on roughly the same level.

*Which is not to say that these three legs are necessarily a universal definition. The concept is inherently ambiguous.

**There is a lot of title confusion in the world of IT, so take the title with a grain of salt. For instance, I once, switching employers, went from being a “software engineer” to being a “software developer”, with virtually no change in my actual work.

***Due to the difference in country and time, I am uncertain how her role compared in detail to that of a modern nurse with a certain qualification, e.g. a U.S. “registered nurse”. However, she had the title (“sjuksköterska”) and the formal education of the day to go with it. Also: Bear in mind that the career paths available to women of her (born 1914) generation were more restricted than today, implying that being a nurse was close to the ceiling for a woman in medicine. (Whereas a nurse of either sex, today, is implicitly someone short of being a physician.)

****Here too, the profession was more prestigious than today, albeit for other reasons than with women and nursing.

*****Had he been working today, he would probably have been qualified and classified as some type of EMT; however, in my understanding, these roles were not very developed at the time and the actual “loading” of patients and driving of the ambulance were the core tasks. It should be added, however, that he was active both with the Salvation Army and some type of union work (I am unaware of the details), appears to have been highly regarded in both roles, and might have scored well on a “fourth leg”.

Secondly, in my excursion on children, I discuss the degree of assistance that is appropriate. The topic of education is not relevant to that discussion; however, without mentioning education, the text is potentially misleading: An important overall theme is a reasonable degree of equality of opportunity and a high degree of social mobility. A wide availability of reasonably priced and reasonably high-quality education is vital to this—anyone with the right brain* should be able to get whatever level of education he desires. This could require additional measures, e.g. free or cheap state** schools of various kind, subsidized student loans, encouragement of scholarships, and similar.***

*This is an important restriction: Common ideas like that everyone needs more education, that anyone with the right degree can do the job well, that it is college that creates the great mind, whatnot are highly misguided. It would be in the best interest of both society and the individual to reduce the college-going proportion of the population, restore the quality of the education, and make a diploma the type of proof of ability that it should be. Similarly, chances are that e.g. the “no child left behind” attitude has done more harm than good to the overall school system, trying to force an impossible improvement on the untalented and reducing opportunities for the talented in the process.

**Private institutions must be allowed to set their own prices and admission criteria. This will cause some remaining inequality of opportunity, e.g. in that the rich can afford to pay for Harvard and the poor cannot. Still, this is far less negative than a situation in which only the rich can afford college at all. (And must be put in relation to the rights of the private colleges and the people behind it.) Further, without the right brain, money is not enough. (Of course, a high-reputation college that admits and graduates students mostly based on money is not inconceivable—but how long would its reputation remain high?)

***Assuming that we work within something resembling the current system. I am very open to changes, and like to note that education already is available at a low cost even in the U.S.—the diploma is the expensive part… Some restriction on type of education might be sensible, e.g. in that studies for professional qualification are subsidized, whereas other studies are not, seeing that the former (a) are more important for equality of opportunity, (b) bring more value to society; while the latter is more of a personal satisfaction/development/whatnot issue. The latter does not require a diploma and can be taken care of outside of college. Indeed, my own “extra-mural” studies would easily cover a (sufficiently tailored) B.A. in “liberal arts”/“general studies”. (However, more detailed thought on the restrictions might be necessary, both with an eye on those who target an academic career and the difficulty of judging what education has what benefit. For instance, I have heard claimed that English is a better major than journalism for those who want to be journalists, despite the difference in professional orientation.)

Thirdly, parenthetically, a more explicit comparison between my parents might be beneficial. However, due to the great differences in choices and developments, going beyond “roughly the same level” is tricky. The one is an orange and the other an apple—but neither one is a grape or a melon.

Excursion on the changing status of professions:
Re-reading the early footnotes, I am struck with the change of status of professions (over-lapping with one sub-topic I intend to include later). My aforementioned move from “software engineer” to “software developer” is coincidental in this regard, but it does illustrate an on-going devaluation of software development: With the great need for developers, too many incompetents have been let in, and the idea of a software engineer seems to have gone down the drain, be it with regard to status, qualifications, or approach. Following current trends, I would not be surprised to see the profession move to a similarly low status position as teaching within one or two decades—this especially as teaching still tends to be a regulated profession, while software development is not. (The other way around would have been better…)

Remark on the rest of this series:
I suspect that there will be some delay with the remaining parts, because I have problems finding a reasonable structure for what I want to say—to the point that I cannot even tell whether there will be two, three, or four parts in all…

Written by michaeleriksson

October 23, 2018 at 5:14 am

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