Working Hard Means You Move Hard - Not Move Up
The system needs to be fixed, not the people in it
I woke up this morning with thoughts about whether I should buy more Christmas gifts. I never feel I bought enough for my loved ones. As I made my breakfast, thoughts of whether I should clean my home before or after my trip to South Carolina rattled around my head. Sitting down with my coffee and cashew yogurt (my doctor tells me to avoid dairy), I logged on to Twitter and saw this in my feed from conservative activist Kenny Xu:
Urging your friends and family to put in extra time at work, school, or on their personal projects is excellent advice. I would certainly tell people that ask me for advice that the two things that matter most are persistence and, yes, working hard.
But in a political context, it burns me up each time I see it. We need changes in social and economic policies favoring the working class and poor people. They need to be told to work harder. They do that. Probably harder than the people who jab them with this “advice.”
We have high levels of income and wealth inequality in this country. The economic differences between richer and poorer families lead to inequality of opportunity and political representation. The system needs to be fixed, not the people in it.
Working Hard Means You Move Hard - Not Move Up
Family wealth equals educational success. Here are some data points taken from Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit illustrating this point:
“More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.”
At the most prestigious schools, “there are more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country.”
“If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent).”
Today's highest-paying jobs require a great deal of investment in skill development. Wealthier American parents - already in these jobs - have the wherewithal and resources to ensure their children acquire those skills. We are reproducing our class structure every generation.
You can definitely say that Harvard Law students worked hard to get there - and you would be correct. They indeed studied hard. But it was done in a context where they could avoid many circumstances and conditions hindering skill development.
Consider this timeline from grade school to career reproduced from an earlier piece I wrote on income inequality:
A child attends a school district with well-paid teachers, new technologies, various course offerings, small class sizes, and strong support staff.
A child has a tutor if and when they have difficulty with a subject.
A child participates in extracurricular activities and summer programs that aid in their development or present possible career opportunities as adults.
Now enrolled in a top college, the student can leverage all the technology society has available - from the best computers to even something as small as paying for a Grammarly subscription.
The student can choose the best possible living conditions (commute, off-campus, or on-campus housing).
The student can avoid working part-time as they move through their degree program. There is little external pressure from their family to focus less on the quality of their education and more on gaining employment.
While at the top college, the student builds a network with other privileged students, where they share ideas and will as adults share job and business opportunities.
The student now graduates from college with little or no debt. If they so wish, they can attend graduate school, delaying entry into the labor market and further developing their skills.
The college graduate can ask their parents for start-up funds to begin a business or as a downpayment on a home.
The college graduate can now leverage the connections they made in undergrad for jobs or business opportunities.
This ideal path has never been open to the poor and working class in the United States. They can make it, but they do so through adversity, and they rarely attain the educational and economic heights of their more affluent peers.
Daniel Markovits wrote convincingly about how, since the late 1970s, the same families have stayed in the upper tier of American society because of the massive amount of time and investment required to gain high-end law, medicine, and finance jobs.
Markovits’ book is not a dense academic read, but it still may be a heavy lift. Here is a brief interview he did with Christiane Amanpour explaining the book’s main ideas:
How economic inequality can lead to inequality of opportunity is something I believe most folks intuitively understand and probably talk about at the kitchen table. But an equally distressing problem, one that is less discussed, is how economic inequality leads to inequality of political representation.
In that same earlier piece on income inequality, I also described the money being invested by PACS in Katie Britt of Alabama's campaign. The campaign was bought by wealthy people pooling their resources:
“According to OpenSecrets.org, the Super PAC the Alabama Conservatives Fund has spent 1.8 million dollars in support of Katie Britt’s 2022 Senate bid. Britt is one of several republican contenders to replace the outgoing senator Richard Shelby. The Alabama Conservatives Fund has released several campaign spots touting Britt’s conservative principles. Harbert Management, an investment management firm, is the super PACs biggest investor, donating $250,000. The company’s CEO is Raymond J. Harbert, one of the richest people in Alabama.
So what do you think your direct donation of $50 does? To be sure, small donations do add up. But when a candidate gets a $250,000 boost from a local, well-known millionaire, that has to play into the political calculus of that candidate.”
And so, the mechanism allowing working-class people to put representatives in place to address income inequality has been hijacked. And, of course, it has been hijacked by those who have no interest in reducing that inequality. I highlight Britt because I am a progressive and most of my interest lies in promoting liberal causes. But make no mistake, this is a sociological phenomenon, not a political one. Wealthy people on both the Left and the Right have little interest in addressing economic inequality in our society.
In that thread by Xu, I saw a reply that is pretty commonplace. It is the “I came from nothing, worked hard, and made it” comment. An example is below:
I applaud these individual success stories. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I tell people that hard work pays off. But we cannot take this approach when it comes to social policy. We cannot expect every person to have the ability to invest 60 hours each week in work. Maybe they have a family, or they are physically unable. We cannot expect them to find a job that will allow them to make that much money. Many people work 60 hours weekly in a series of minimum-wage jobs.
We have to look at broader group patterns. And according to what I believe is a reputable measure from a non-partisan organization, The World Economic Forum, America is 27th in social mobility out of 82 countries measured. Just below the former member of the Soviet Union state, Lithuania.
America is rapidly becoming a rigid caste system with pockets of mobility, similar to Victorian England. Working hard means you move hard - not move up.
Between higher real GDP growth or lower income inequality, which would you prioritize?
Most poor people benefit from more rapid GDP growth and more inequality.
Let us define the top 10% of the population as "upper middle class" in 2021 and that the 90 percentile inflation adjusted income in 2021 is the cut off income to be "upper middle class."
Let's say that you could choose a path to increase the size of the "upper middle class" from 10% of the population to 33% of the population within a short period of time; and that this path would result in higher measured income inequality.
Wouldn't you choose the path of higher measured income inequality almost every time?
In this hypothetical more unequal world the number of [poor + lower middle class] people would be much smaller. And the number of poor people would be moderately smaller.
If there were less upper middle class and rich people, there would likely be vastly more poor people and poor people would have lower real incomes.
What is an example of a policy that would likely increase US inequality but sharply increase real per capita income? Aggressively recruiting more talented and skilled foreigners to study in the USA, visit the USA, work in the USA, move to the USA and conduct business with Americans. Poor Americans would greatly benefit from such a policy, which would also likely increase measured US income inequality.
A majority of millionaires in Canada are first generation immigrants. A rapidly growing majority of rich and upper middle class Canadians are market dominant minorities, people of color, ethnics and immigrants.
The USA is also going down this path. Shouldn't the USA triple down on this path, and welcome a world where the vast majority of US resident income is earned by market dominant immigrants, ethnics, people of color and minorities?
The USA use to have over half of global income. The economist Laurence Kotlikoff projects that the USA will likely have 8% of global GNP in the future. And that the large majority of the US capital stock will be owned by foreigners.
A policy of aggressively recruiting foreigners to visit, stay in and do business with America would likely slow this rapid relative decline of US income compared to the rest of the world. (North West Europe is economically relatively faster than the USA.)
Can you interview economist Garett Jones about his book "The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left". This is the third in his trilogy of books on Singapore.
Garett makes a strong empirical and theoretical case that immigrants bring their origin culture to the country they move to and transform the culture of the country they move to. Much of the conventional wisdom about immigrants assimilating the culture they move to is only slightly true. In reality, the country they move to assimilates the culture of immigrants and is culturally and politically transformed by immigrants. Ergo, a great way to transform and improve the deep culture, surface culture and long term policies of a country is to bring in quality immigrants.
I hope the USA follows this path.
Kenny Xu is expressing ancient asian deep culture. Deep asian culture celebrates perfection, excellence, knowledge, mental health, deep intelligence, self actualization for their own sake. This shared deep culture has been common across most of the asian continent for thousands of years.
There are collateral effects of this ancient deep culture expressing itself, even if the collateral effects are not the goal. For example the asian economic miracle in recent decades.
Wouldn't the USA greatly benefit by studying the greatness and exceptionalism of foreign cultures, policies and imbibing them? The US once celebrated and embodied excellence and exceptionalism. In 2022, Americans celebrate and encourage mediocrity.
What is wrong with striving for perfection, excellence and exceptionalism again?
FYI, math SAT test scores are not very correlated with income. And far less correlated with income than they use to be. However, if asians are removed from SAT test score datasets, then SAT math test scores are significantly correlated with income again.
Why do you think this is? How do you explain the paradox of poor and lower middle class asian diaspora (in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, other parts of Asia) doing well on standardized STEM tests?