Where You Live (& Are Born) Matters

Raj Chetty, a Harvard researcher, has done some pretty interesting work that shows that the zip code you are born into can have a huge impact on how much money you earn over the course of your life. Down to the neighborhood level, where you live, the people around you, and the connections you happen to make in life can be major determining factors in what job you take, what college your children attend, and how well off you end up financially speaking. We don’t like to address this very often, but we recognize that it is true, and we have seen increased segregation as we try to separate ourselves from living next to undesirable people and places.

 

In his book The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen writes, “in 1970, only about 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods that were unambiguously affluent or poor. By 2007, 31 percent of American families were living in such neighborhoods.” We are moving in directions where we separate ourselves from people who are not like us in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Today, relative to 30 to 50 years ago, we are less likely to interact with someone who is very poor if we are rich. We are less likely to know anyone who does not share a generally similar SES, and we are far less likely to have any meaningful interactions with someone from a different SES. Cowen continues, “for where you live, income matters more than ever before, as can be shown by a simple perusal of the apartment ads for most of America’s leading cities.” 

 

This segregation by home value and SES has some obvious consequences, such as schools becoming more segregated by income and race and skyrocketing home prices in some regions of town coupled with deterioration and disinvestment of other regions. However, as the research from Chetty shows, there are other, less obvious consequences from our SES segregation. Where you live influences the opportunities available to you and your children.

 

We like to think that it is our own effort, talent, and hard work which determines how much money we make and where we end up financially and in terms of the home we are able to buy. Since talent, intelligence, and work ethic are evenly distributed on a genetic level, we would expect that everyone could achieve the same ends regardless of where they happened to be born. Instead, we see huge disparities by zip codes and neighborhoods in terms of ultimate SES. Our segregation is leading to situations where those who are born in wealthy areas are able to make valuable connections, learn the unwritten rules of networking to getting ahead, and receive visible reminders of what can be achieved through hard work and perseverance. Certainly people from the lowest SES background can still network and can still see the benefits of hard work, but research also suggest that when people from the lowest SES don’t have any interactions with people who are economically well off and successful in their careers, they do worse.

 

Cowen argues that our segregation by SES is making us a less robust society. Partially because we are leaving other people out, but also because it narrows the world for all of us (not just those in low SES neighborhoods) and stymies innovation, development, and progress. We are comfortable in neighborhoods with people who have a similar background and SES to our own, but this does not help us better understand the world, does not help us advocate for and support policy which might help us and others, and does not help us identify and encourage the top talent born in our country. Our complacency as we all search for our own individual American dream is crippling the American dream that we share as a nation by segregating us into complacent bubbles.

Problem Solving Locally

“As politics has become nationalized, problem solving has become localized,” write Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz in The New Localism. National politics is all about identity. It is all about the question of whether people like me are favored and socially rewarded on a nationwide scale. People like me might be men, intellectuals, Ford truck drivers, snowboarders, retail workers, stockbrokers, veterans, or evangelicals (note: I am not all of these things). We constantly have debates and shift our discussion of what identities are valuable and best reflect the America we desire to be, and at a national level, there is no real answer to these questions. Political decisions and policies become tied up in these identity questions, and it is hard to avoid having an opinion or becoming consumed with the values questions that these identity debates spark.

 

Meanwhile, daily life continues and human societies rely on systems and structures to guide our interactions and facilitate a peaceful flourishing for all individuals (ideally but maybe not what we always see). We rely on government to avoid tragedies of our commons, to ensure the products we use and depend on for our ways of life are safe, and to protect our individual and group rights from being infringed by others.

 

Problems will always exist in the organization and interaction of human beings, and when our national government is subsumed by questions of identity and debates that can never be fully settled, solving the daily challenges of human existence moves downward toward the locality where life is actually lived. Our states, our metropolitan areas, and especially our individual communities are the places where we can make changes and improve our situation.

 

These localities are innovating and connecting with new groups in unique ways. The interactions between private businesses, charitable foundations, and public agencies are being reinvented based on local situations and opportunities to drive forward new solutions to wicked problems. Challenges that cannot be introduced on a national level, where issues of identity fracture alliances and coordinated effort, are evaded at the local level where we all have a stake and a greater voice in addressing the challenges we face. Communities can produce a groundswell of support for innovative approaches to challenges new and old, and can dynamically adapt by creating new connections and structures between the stakeholders and organizations with the power to enact change. This is one way which governance can adapt in the future, and one way that we can overcome division to continue to make the world a more cohesive and better place.

To See Our Own Face

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is exactly what the title suggests. It is a disquieting look at the world around us, making us think, question the every-day, and second guess what it is we believe and accept. Pessoa dealt with sever depression, and writes about his challenges with depression in stark and honest terms. He pulls apart experience in a way that is unique to him, and makes us question the experiential sums of the filaments of reality that we perceive.

 

Included in the book’s translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is a short piece about seeing ourselves in the mirror: “Man should not be able to see his own face. Nothing is more terrible than that. Nature gave him the gift of being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes. 
    He could only see his own face in the waters of rivers and lakes. Even the posture he had to adopt to do so was symbolic. He had to bend down, to lower himself, in order to suffer the ignominy of seeing his own face.
    The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul.”

 

We easily become self-obsessed in our world today. We can spend hours looking at just pictures of ourselves if we wanted to. We have so many ways to capture our image and post it where we want. We can place mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout our world, to constantly look at ourselves and dress up the outside answer to the question, “Who am I?”

 

In Pessoa’s mind, we were never supposed to look at ourselves from the outside to try to answer and define that question. His quote shows that he believes we ourselves cannot provide an answer to the outside question of who we are, and that it should be publicly shameful to try. To turn inward, to become self-obsessed is a curse. To remain ignorant of the self, to be focused outside oneself and to exist as part of the social group of others to which we belong is where the human mind was supposed to be. The mirror split us and our definition of self from that collection, and poisoned the mind by forcing us to always consider ourselves first. Our ancestors from whom we evolved could not look back at themselves with a clear view of who they were and wanted to be as an individual. It is only with human created technology that we can focus the light back at ourselves, and take control to define ourselves as the outward image that is presented to the rest of the world.

Evaluating What Really Matters

I really wish that the work week was not 40 hours long. I really believe we could be just as productive working 6 hour days rather than 8 hour days, and I think that we could use our extra time to build meaningful social capital in our societies and lives. (As an aside, I do recognize that a shorter work day would really just mean our cities would sprawl more and we would live further from work and spend more time commuting for work). Where we are right now, is in a weird position where we have allowed our work to consume almost all of what we do for reasons we don’t like. We work 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week because we want more and we want things that don’t really matter so that we can impress people we don’t really care about. We are focusing on things that are not that important and giving up large amounts of our lives to pursue these meaningless things.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rearwards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest? Shall I have no slaves at my side? No retinue for my litter? No crowd in my reception room?” It is hard to look at the opportunity for material gain and turn it down in favor of enjoying time. It is hard to draw back when we see an avenue for promotion, a way to work more to earn more, or a chance to gain more status and prestige. Often however, we hate the time we spend working and we put ourselves in situations that are dangerous to our health (even if you are not going into a mine, going into an office that spikes your blood pressure every day is unhealthy).

 

“Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance,” Seneca writes, “they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.”

 

I recognize how important hard work is. I understand that without everyone working together to get stuff done, society does not advance, we don’t grow and prosper, and we don’t have any way to enjoy our leisure time. But I think we may be at a point where we are no longer working to enjoy our leisure time. We are not seeing our levels of work decline as we become more prosperous, we see the opposite. Productivity growth is slow, but the hours we spend working are increasing. This suggests we are putting ourselves in places we don’t want to be, not really working that hard when we are there (because we hate it) and then getting rewards we don’t even have time to be happy with.

 

I think we should step back and reconsider the things that really matter. We should find ways to pull back from work we hate and dislike. We should find ways to give people time and should encourage people to use that new time in a way that brings communities together with shared purposes and prospects. Rather than selfishly working for ourselves, we should spend more time engaged in a community and working together for others.

A Harmful Sentiment

I am fascinated with tribalism. We all have a part of us that looks around at the world and recognizes who is like us, who is different from us, what people are part of our family, and how people in our group behave. Everyone in our in-group stands above the people in our out-groups. Those “others” seem to take on any negative qualities that we want to assign to them. People who are less wealthy than the people in our tribe are less intelligent or lazy, and that is why they are not as well off. People who are doing better than our tribe financially are greedy or privileged elites and don’t really understand what it is like to be a true American. Our tribe, however, is full of hard working, smart, and all around good people.

 

We all seem to share these tribal tendencies, and they can be harmful when we start to pull into our own group and ascribe negative qualities to all the other groups out there. Colin Wright addresses our tribal behaviors in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be by looking at “America First” from a tribal perspective. Wright describes the benefits of a globalized community and population. Using the insights, developments, and tools created around the world to raise the standard of living for everyone, and not just to use discoveries in one part of the world to improve that part of the world. He writes, “People in the US should be taken care of, certainly, but to paint our relationships in those terms [America First] implies that we have to be utterly selfish and introverted in our dealings with others, when in fact, being more open and generous will bear much greater fruit. That sharing our strengths and celebrating the strengths of others is somehow detrimental to our well-being is an ignorant idea easily sold to a mistrustful populace.”

 

Wright argues that America First trumps up some of the worst aspects of our tribal nature. It highlights who is in our tribe and who is outside of our tribe and focuses solely on increasing the status of those in our tribe. The sentiment abandons the idea that improving the lives of everyone will improve our own lives, and seeks only to expand the economy, fortunes, and standards of living within our own tribe. This may work and we may have great prosperity for the few who are part of our tribe, but putting ourselves ahead of others so openly and blatantly while also denigrating those outside our tribe may create extreme mistrust and anger. Stability, fairness, and long-term well-being may be sacrificed in our selfish quest to primarily enrich ourselves.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of our selves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

The problem with pride Holiday explains by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process-when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles, and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we fake-complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality, in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people that don’t really exist. It gives us a reason to believe we are more special than others, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving others.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with all people in our lives.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of ourselves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something  special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

Holiday explains the problem with pride by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the – when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from the right college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people. It gives us a reason to believe we are special, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving “others”.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people in our positive lifestyles and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with everyone who supports us in our lives.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.

The Role of Individual Responsibility

A question that we all answer when we vote and  think about politics is a question about the role of individual responsibility in our lives, communities, and country. How much individual responsibility should we accept in achieving financial success, in taking care of our elderly, and in providing aid to those who need it the most? How much of our current situation is a result of our individual responsibilities and decisions?

We never truly ask these questions out loud, and when we do discuss them, we don’t pull out a piece of paper or a calculator to weigh all the possible decisions and factors that have combined to shape our life. Surely our actions, attitudes, and decisions play a big role in determining our own success, but how much assistance did we receive from family? Did we have a natural disaster destroy our home? Were we the victim of random violence, and did we have a healthy support system around us as we recovered from that violence? There is certainly a role for individual responsibility in our lives, but there are so many variables between along our path to success that measuring the role of personal responsibility is complex and ever shifting, especially since there are different measures of success like financial success, health, and happiness.

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker looks at the question of personal responsibility and asks the difficult questions that I laid out above. As someone who played college football and graduated from Stanford and Yale, Booker certainly understands the importance of personal responsibility, but at the same time he is acutely aware of the support and assistance he received from family members and people in his community along the way. In regards to how we answer the question about personal responsibility as a community he writes,

“Our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures. These American ideals, despite a history that too often exhibits evidence to the contrary, can and must coexist. The idea that each of us has an absolute right to get all we can get has led to the devastation of our commons. It has violated the Justinian ideal as well as the American dream; it has diminished us all and impoverished our children.”

The first two lines from Booker’s quote really strike me. We often hold our own success as our own personal triumph and acceptance of responsibility, and from that vantage point it is easy to say that those who have not found the same level of success have simply failed to accept responsibility in their own lives. When we are succeeding it is easy to favor the free market and act as though government assistance or community involvement is not a necessary ingredient in growth and success. However, as soon as we perceive that someone is cheating us, that the system is somehow not working properly, we demand government intervention and we question why those with more are not doing their part to help those with less. When we look at our reactions to government through this lens we see that there is no inherent ideology favoring more or less government action, there are just differences in where we sit in terms of success, and what we perceive in terms of fairness or whether we are being cheated.
Booker’s quote continues to talk about personal responsibility in terms of how we help or hurt the environment and community in which we live. If our personal responsibility is to simply amass as much as we can and become as financially well off as possible, then those around us and our community will suffer as we put our own needs above others. If however, we decide that a major part of our personal responsibility is to use our advantages, our wealth, and our success to aid those around us, then we can do and be more for ourselves and for our community. Seeing the health of our cities, counties, and country as a reflection of our actions is important, but we often only see the health of ourselves and our families as our responsibility. It is important to see not just personal success and failure as our responsibility, but communal success and failure as our responsibility. In the world today we close ourselves from our community by escaping reality with television and suburban life, and we justify our decision to do so by adopting a narrow view of personal responsibility where our responsibility is primarily on ensuring our own financial success, and not ensuring the health of our community.

Humble Teachers

Senator Corey Booker gives us an insight into the people he sees as mentors and role models in a brief paragraph in his book United. Throughout his book, Booker talks about the people who have made an impact in his life, and almost all of them were citizens trying to make a difference in their local community. These individuals were impactful not because they wanted power, control, or notoriety, but because they truly cared about their community and the people around them. Regarding the people Booker learned the most from, he writes, “you reap what you sow; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect. Humble people teach us this and more. They are great masters, the best of whom I have found are not on television, not at a university, and not elected to any office. They do not preach sermons, give lectures, or dispense orders. They do. Without fanfare, they do the best they can, with what they have, where they are.”

 

Booker’s message is one I think needs to be shared more broadly with people and youth in society. It is often easy to look at problems, think that someone should do something, and then sit back and make excuses for why we are not the people to try to make a difference. We don’t have much time. The problem is not really our responsibility. We don’t know who to talk to about the problem. And we don’t know what our first step would ever be.

 

Instead of focusing on the problems in tackling the problem, if we shared a community wide message of each of us doing the best that we can where we are, we could begin to make a difference. The perspective we usually take is that the issue is too big and our actions are too small to matter. This perspective can be shifted to say that we can start, we can try to do a little bit with what we know, and we can take action based on good intentions. Our efforts may not be perfect, but at least we can begin to move the ball and build momentum. Focusing locally can help us find new directions for improvement and can help us start to tackle the challenges that impact not just us, but everyone. We don’t need to do something with the intent of being noticed and appreciated. We can take action because we know it will make the world a better place.

 

If we look around and try to find people who are already doing this we can learn and find new ways that we can get involved and make a difference. These individuals can lead and mentor through their actions, and their focus and thought process can be absorbed to help us become better people and make positive impacts on our communities. Booker learned this by living with people in low income high rise communities and by working with local people trying to make a difference for the people where they lived. Great knowledge can be gained from professors and lecturers, but a certain wisdom can only be achieved by being active and surrounding oneself with people who truly care about making the world better.