Another Take on Income Inequality

Sometime around 7500 B.C., people began building clustered mud-brick houses at Catalhoyuk, Turkey. According to detailed archeological studies, for roughly the next thousand years, the same patterns of life persisted, apparently with all families living in the same fashion and with approximately the same level of goods and the same size houses. Analyses of the human remains show that men and women received the same level and type of food as well.

By around 6500 B.C., however, income and status inequality began to develop, and as it did, more violence also began to appear, including a significant number of individuals with healed head injuries, wounds that suggest to the archaeologists who have studied the site for more than forty years that such injuries were inflicted as a means of social control, but that such control was not necessary until pronounced income/resource inequality began to develop. This is, of course, a conclusion drawn by those studying Catalhoyuk, but it does appear without doubt that the society appeared more stable when the income levels were similar and that more violence occurred once income inequality began to develop.

I have to say that this scarcely surprises me. Historically, countries with high levels of income inequality have often had violent uprisings and/or revolutions, such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban revolution, the more recent violence in the Sudan, and the troubles in Colombia and Venezuela.

In looking at income inequality by country across the world, I was struck by several facts. First, among industrialized/technological nations, the United States has the greatest income inequality. Among all nations, there is a pronounced tendency for countries with high income inequality also to have high levels of societal violence, and that includes the United States.

All of which suggests that pushing for tax cuts on the wealthy and opposing increases in the minimum wage may well have costs beyond the merely monetary.

Retention

This year, the buzzword at the local university is “retention.” What it amounts to for faculty and staff is, essentially, to do anything possible to keep students in school. Act as their friend or their counselor. Give them any way you can to pass courses. Ensure that they get instant positive feedback.

Along with this comes a blizzard of brand-new acronyms, a program to train faculty as emergency counselors and psychologists [because the three new counselors the administration hired are so far behind that they’ll never get through the caseload of students], and the very clear message that university faculty members are responsible for getting students through in five years or less, faculty and no one else.

Since most entering students have never really had to work hard to learn and study, they’re not really prepared for college-level work, and it often seems like they can’t wait to get out of class and return to their smart-phones and ear-buds.

And that doesn’t include the facts that the local university is located in a culture where more than half the students take off two years for a Church mission, where women are pressured to marry and have children young, and where the majority of students feel “crushed,” if they get a grade below an “A” even when they don’t do the work. That doesn’t take into account that roughly half of the students are working part-time or full-time because families averaging five children spaced close together can almost never provide anywhere close to the funds necessary for college.

Then add to that the fact that many classes are taught by underpaid adjuncts who are juggling other jobs and commitments, and that the administrative loads dumped on full-time teaching faculty continue to increase and result in longer and longer hours providing information and reports to administrators that have very little to do with teaching.

And, of course, it’s absolutely taboo for a faculty member to even hint at asking whether some of these students should even be in college or whether the university is doing those students any favors by trying to keep them in classes as long as possible.

The truly miraculous aspect of it all is that so many faculty members struggle to do their best for students who are seldom grateful and an administration that’s preoccupied with numbers and thinks that excellence can be quantified by retention numbers.

Analyzing to the Death

I’ve always wanted to understand, and worked at developing my own abilities to do that whether the subject happened to be technological, historical, political, or otherwise in nature. One of the many things I’ve learned through these exercises is that while I may think I understand something, there’s always more to be learned… but there comes a point where additional knowledge adds little to understanding. Likewise, understanding is only the first step in resolving problems, and far too many individuals seem to believe that if they just “understand” the situation or problem, it can be solved or resolved.

Years and years ago, A.E. van Vogt wrote about non-Aristotlian [Null-A] thinking, presenting it as rejection of “single-valued” or straight-line logic or thinking and suggesting that a multi-valued/perspective logic structure was better for dealing with problems. That kind of approach sounded good on paper – as a good author can often make something sound – but I had a feeling that there was something inherently flawed with the idea.

Recent interactions have brought to mind that feeling, and I realized exactly what van Vogt had missed. While his proposed Null-A thinking may well work better in solving technological and physical problems, it’s limited, and often useless, in dealing with people problems, because the overwhelming majority of people don’t think that way… and don’t want to. Every individual has his or her own value system, in most cases differing slightly from that of others in his or her society, but those systems are essentially based on “either-or” assumptions. Either something is “good” or it’s not, and when something goes wrong, or is not to their liking, their default feeling is that someone else or something else is wrong or the problem.

Sometimes, that may be largely the problem, but usually, from what I’ve observed, most problems, especially human problems, have multiple causes and contributing factors, and most people reject their own contributing factors and insist that the problem is caused by other people or other factors.

Now… you can analyze this to death and come up with and list all the factors. You can point out all the psychological impediments those involved with or concerned with the problem have. But all that analysis does nothing to solve the problem – because those involved have emotional anchors to their point of view, and a number of studies, some of them quite recent, have indicated, those emotional anchors are far more powerful than either facts or logic. Only an emotional impact of some sort will change those views.

And all the analyses and data don’t seem able to change that. Likewise, bashing those who observe that this is in fact an accurate observation of current human nature doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of human beings are governed by emotionally-based, either-or feelings and decision-making.

Caught in the Middle

You might say that I’m an idealistic romantic, tempered by time and experience into a somewhat cynical pragmatist, who’s been caught more times than I can count between extremists on both sides who insist that their view is the only “true” one, and that their interpretation of events and facts is the only accurate one. I’ve also self-classified myself as a moderate, dangerous as that has become in a culture that has become more and more self-oriented and more and more polarized. Why do I say dangerous? Because attempting to point out that there are truths and lies on both sides can subject one to attacks from the true believers on each side. And, unhappily, there are “sides,” whether they’re called that or not, because people do have differing beliefs, based on their environment and their heritage, and, yes, even their genetics. I’ve seen this in my own extended family where, at times, siblings of the same parents have very different views of fundamental issues.

I’ve also observed that today there are fewer and fewer people who want to steer a middle course, and more and more who believe that moderation, or an understanding that one can’t remedy evils just with the enactment of a law or a proclamation, is a sin of the first order and who believe that a simple and extreme “solution” is the answer, ignoring the fact that virtually all such extreme solutions can’t be implemented, either practically or legally.

Both the extreme “Trumpists” and the extreme “Sandernistas” also seem to have the feeling that, if they don’t get all of what they want immediately, the system is rigged. And, in a way, they’re right. The Founding Fathers designed our government so that immediate and radical change in government was close to impossible. That doesn’t mean change can’t occur; it just means that you have to work at it for much longer. But some of these people turn their backs on what has been accomplished because they didn’t get everything they wanted immediately, which is another expression of the current situation, because not only is the electorate polarized, but the extremes on both ends want their polarized goals and ideology implemented instantly.

The current presidential election highlights this cultural disaster, because surveys indicate that the factor motivating most voters is not support FOR a candidate, but opposition to that candidate’s opponent. And how did this all come about?

In a single word – dissatisfaction.

Despite the fact that the United States and a number of other industrialized nations enjoy historically the highest standard of living overall, and certainly the best level of health, all too many people are unhappy. The have-nots are unhappy because they feel that too much of the recent economic gains go to the top one tenth of one percent, a feeling not unjustified by the fact that over eighty percent of American families have seen either flat or falling incomes (in real dollars) over the last ten years and that in the recovery since 2008, 85% of the income gains have gone to the top one percent of earners. Add to that the fact that somewhere between sixty and eighty percent (depending on the study) of new jobs have wages that pay less than $17.00 per hour, and roughly half pay below $13.50 [which amounts to annual wages barely above the poverty line for a family of four.

Much of the middle class and former middle class is unhappy, simply because, at best, their incomes have remained flat while costs of everything, especially education and medical care, have climbed.

Those who make more aren’t exactly happy either, because they’re working longer hours for minimal increases in income, at a time when U.S. non-hourly employees and professionals already work the longest hours in the world.

Only the top one tenth of one percent are doing really well income-wise, and they’re spending billions on the elections because there’s really only one place that there’s a large pool of taxable income necessary to cut the federal deficit or to pay for new programs – and that’s in their bank accounts and securities portfolios.

And that’s just the income dissatisfaction, without getting into education, the struggle over environmental issues, crumbling infrastructure, foreign trade, and a host of other problems.

But the bottom line is, no matter which side you’re on, or even if you have no side, problems that have been building for a generation can’t be solved as the result of one election, or simple one-time solutions, particularly if no one wants to recognize the problems that others have.

Glory and Gruntwork

One of my guilty pleasures is watching certain sports in the Olympics, especially swimming, but also at least a little bit of volleyball, either indoor or beach. What struck me after watching parts of several matches was that what decided the outcome of those matches wasn’t which team had the most powerful serves or the best strikers or blockers, but who had the best diggers and setters, the men or women who got in there and did the hard and dirty and largely unnoticed work that took the edge off the power serves and set up the thundering spikes.

Metaphorically and practically speaking, the same is true in most human endeavors. It’s the effective gruntwork, the unseen set-ups, the unnoticed research, the careful checking and cross-checking that lead to success.

In writing, for the most part, it’s not the brilliant phrases, the basic plot, or the non-stop action that defines a really good book, but rather the expertise in all the other aspects of writing, such as the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the subplots, and the tiny details that link everything into a seamless unity.

In politics, it’s not the brilliant speech-making or the lofty rhetoric that defines an effective lawmaker, but the skills in crafting a measure so that it will pass all the tests of legality and Constitutionality, of building effective support among both members of one’s own party and of the opposition, of doing enough research to be able to answer every possible objection to the proposal, of knowing the subject well enough to be able to explain the issue and the solution to everyone from grade-schoolers to those with doctorates, and to do so without being condescending or arrogant, and then having the perseverance to do it all again and again in order to get the job done, all the while not alienating the voters and raising enough money for the next campaign.

In business, success isn’t measured just by having the lowest prices, the best profit margin, the most efficient production process or the most productive workers. Long-term success also requires continual innovation; understanding of not only where markets are, but where they will be; an ability to discover and assess outside factors that will affect society and thus industry; and mastery of all the little details behind each of these.

My wife, the opera and voice professor, also has a listing of the details that most young singers either ignore or shortchange, including: improper posture, because that makes effective breathing almost impossible; poor everyday speaking and pronunciation, because that carries over into singing; failure to learn the musical rhythms of a song before memorizing the lyrics; lack of adequate keyboard skills; and a whole host more.

In short, all those unsexy, grubby, painstaking, unglorious tasks that are seldom, if ever, recognized are what lie behind success… and that’s something that fewer and fewer young people are taught and shown every passing year, as well as something that far too many voters fail to take into account when casting their ballots.