Why We Don’t Talk Honestly About Mobility

A hidden conversation is constantly taking place in the United States. It is a conversation about who is deserving, who is successful, and who has done better for themselves than other people. The measuring stick for these conversations is financial wealth, and we don’t have this conversation out in the open. Instead, we have this conversation covertly, by expressing who we are with the things we have and the places we go. Having the most stuff, the most expensive car, the biggest house, and taking the best trips is a sign of success, and all these factors allow us to compare ourselves to those who have and do not have as much as we do. Our country tells us that material wealth is what we should desire, and we tell ourselves that anyone can achieve great wealth as long as they try hard. Those who don’t achieve great wealth, in this conversation, obviously are not hard working, and didn’t get the memo that bettering themselves and working hard is the way to be successful in our country.

Michelle Alexander would like to change the way this conversation takes place. Specifically, Alexander wants to address caste systems in America and highlight the lack of mobility in our country. In The New Jim Crow she writes,

“Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief—despite all evidence to the contrary—that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.”

By anchoring success around financial wealth, we create a zero sum system where more wealth for one person means less wealth for another. This is a broad overstatement to be sure, but it is the way that many people feel, and it is accurate when comparing success defined by material wealth with success defined by many religious ideals, or success defined by service and impact within the community. We avoid talking honestly about mobility challenges, because to remedy the problem means to give up some level of material success so that others may join in. This reduces our measuring stick of success and gives others an unfair leap up the ladder of financial success, at least as we understand it.

Our nation will never see racial equity if we continue to think of success purely in financial terms and if we ignore the ways that our society has embraced racial and economic castes. We must be honest about the lack of mobility within our society and recognize that a drive toward material wealth is a drive toward a goal that we cannot control on our own. Individuals and groups may be hard workers, but not all hard work is rewarded with wealth. The impact of our effort is not always reflected by our salaries, and the total of our bank account is often impacted by factors beyond our control. In a nation that in its history has implemented policies to minimize the wealth accumulation of black people while enhancing the wealth accumulation of white people, we should be honest about our caste system and about the ways in which economic mobility has been denied to certain people. Our current system ignores the reality of financial wealth, encourages sometimes dangerous competition in a zero-sum world, and pretends that everyone can be upwardly mobile as long as they have the right character traits.

A Common View

Michael Tesler and David Sears pull together a lot of research about race and politics in  their book Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. The authors look at the role that race has played in elections in the history of the United States and compare historical racial attitudes to contemporary politics and observations. When reading the book I came across a short line that stood out to me because it directly voiced concerns and thoughts that I had not fully articulated. “Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O’Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006) and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.”

The common view is that modern conservatives are not truly conservative in the sense that they prefer limited government as much as they are conservative in the identity politics that motivate them. This is a broad generalization of about half our country, but it is a view that is very common among Democrats. On the Republican side of the isle in the United States, the key foundations of most ideology hinges on personal responsibility, which creates a lot of gray space in which identity politics can operate. Through a personal responsibility framework, ideas of limited government can exist out of the idea that government should be limited to aid only those who are self reliant and can take personal responsibility for their given situation, be it economic, political (read as power position), familial, or social. These views of the Republican party are not really about a fear of the power of government or philosophical questions of the proper scope of government, but about whether we help those who are deserving and personally responsible. Who we determine is acting personally responsible and how we define who is truly deserving of government aid, however, is unclear in such a system, and identity politics is the simplest way to cut through the unending questions, hypothetical considerations, and nuanced details of life that make it impossible for us to decide who should receive what, when they should receive it, and why they should receive it.

This operation of identity politics in the name of personal responsibility is what those on the Democrat side of the isle have recognized, and this is where the common view of conservatism acting as a stand in for racism originates for many Democrats. Tesler’s book does not simply make observations regarding racial splits and racial attitudes on both sides of the isle, but instead incorporates research and data to support the ideas presented. I chose to include in the quote above the original citations from Tesler, to show that the common view of conservatism acting as little more than racial apologetics is backed by research and that the view is supported by academic studies evaluating people’s identities and general thought patterns.

I do not know how we cut through the apologetic euphemisms with which we communicate our political preferences, but I think it is crucial that we be able to dissect  political arguments to see what is operating in the background. Developing the ability to understand what we are arguing about and debating is crucial if we want to develop good policy and push back against identity politics. We must at the same time recognize that because so much of politics is about identity and race, significant policies aimed at more universal and egalitarian sharing of resources among races will face significant backlash without any backing that can be supported by empirical evidence. Because this backlash is motivated almost purely by obscured racial preference, tensions will be heightened and greater political division can ensue when lines are drawn in the sand.

Pointing Out What is Wrong

America has laws to protect whistleblowers within corporations and within government because we understand how important it is to shine a light on the negativity and unfair practices of those with impure motives. When we turn this idea toward society, however, we suddenly become quite disdainful of those who acknowledge and speak out against the lack of racial progress, equality, and fairness within our nation. In a system of capitalism there are winners and losers, and the American system of capitalism has a history of creating winners at the absolute expense of other people. This is what happened with slavery and was maintained through legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination with Jim Crow laws. The protections we offer corporate and government whistleblowers disappear completely when the light is pointed toward market failures that advantage one group over another or when that light is pointed toward things that we associate with positive parts of our individual identities. My belief is that this relates back to our tribal nature as human beings. Pointing out the flaws of corporations and government is an attack against the other team and against someone else with more power, but observing the inequities in social systems that benefit us is a direct attack against our tribe and against who we are. Criticizing the system that has helped us be successful individually is criticizing us and taking away from what we did to become successful.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book, Between the World and Me, observes this phenomenon from the side of an African American living in a society that is in some ways divorced from reality in terms of opportunity, justice, and equity. He writes, “But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going and you find yourself inveighing against yourself.” The idea that Coats shares in this quote is that any observation of racial injustice is frowned upon in our society, and that the only approach to racial observation that is allowed is a criticism of black culture.

 

Arguments suggesting that society is not established or operating in a way that extends equity and justice toward minorities are forbidden by a pervasive sense that they are wrong or that they are simply an excuse for failure. Many of the arguments and tensions in society today are related to this idea. Most people are not outwardly racist but instead unintentionally discriminate against minorities by failing to see where inequities exist, and then by challenging observations of inequities and labeling them as excuses meant to protect lazy people who fail to overcome obstacles and make smart decisions. Moreover, if we accept that black and brown people have faced greater obstacles than we have, we admit that we have had advantages that were not extended to others. This puts our idea of personal responsibility at risk because it becomes clear that our success is not completely dependent on our own greatness, hard work, and smart decision-making, but was helped along by simply having the right skin color and benefitting from a society that discretely favors white people at the expense of minorities. Not only does this take away from our success, but it questions the level of success we have achieved, forcing us to ask if we should have become even more than we are given the advantages we have experienced. The threat that white people face when asking whether society has truly been just and equal for minorities is a threat against them, against their responsibility for their own success, and against their achievements.

 

Our country fails to give any legitimacy to those who call out our injustices or to the claims they make, and punishes individuals who make such claims. We offer protections for those who shine the light on corruption in business (if it is a business we dislike or are afraid of) and government, but those who call out the injustices of society are scorned. They are pushed back and told the problem is not with society, but with the individuals who are being discriminated against or who have failed to become successful in the eyes of society because this response is easier and preserves the image that white people want to have about themselves. If we want to move forward and reach a place where we are more equitable, white people need to be able to drop their ideas of personal responsibility and success. White people must drop  their ego and accept that their success, or image of success, is not truly connected with who they are as a person or individual. Only if we change our relationship with personal responsibility and success can we begin to see the importance and value of extending equity to minority groups and the value of honesty in our reflections on racial equality within our country.

The Scope of Human Rights

Frank Hutchins, a housing and tenant leader in New Jersey, greatly shaped Cory Booker as he entered politics. Booker recalls several stories of Mr. Hutchins in his book United and offers several quotes from Frank that shaped the way that Booker’s came to understand and approach the world. Regarding human rights, Booker shares the following thoughts, shaped by Hutchins, in United,

 

“Frank asserted that civil rights — indeed, human rights— were not just about equal access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunity. Human dignity, security, freedom from fear, environmental toxins, and physical deprivation were also rights that should be defended and fought for. It was then that he said to me, looking at me with his kind eyes, ‘Cory, housing is a human right.'”

 

We often think of civil rights in the context of the Civil Rights Movement which frames our thoughts through black and white television footage of marches to end segregation. The black and white tv and fuzzy audio recordings make the Civil Rights movement seem so far behind us, but the reality that Frank expressed to Booker is that civil rights issues continue to this day and continue beyond racial categories. Civil rights was never just about segregation as we mistakenly think about it today, but rather it was about everything Frank expressed to Booker, about sharing with everyone on the planet a life that we would find acceptable.

 

When we think about human dignity, security, freedom from fear, toxins, and physical deprivation we are thinking about the things that make us human. We have our differences and we are not born equal in terms of our biological abilities and economic opportunities. We will have different material advantages, different social advantages, and different genetic advantages, but despite our inequities we deserve to all be treated as human and not somehow be treated as less than human because of our differences and starting points. We all understand this, yet it is hard to recognize our inequities, see our advantages, and understand that the reality we experience is not shaped wholly by our own doing, but often by acts and circumstances over which we have no control.

 

The reason we have trouble viewing the expanded idea of human rights that Frank shared is the same reason that road cycling is hard. Even when we are biking with a tailwind, we still feel air against our face, and still feel resistance from the air ahead of us, even though we receive a push from behind. Recognizing our own advantages, accepting that others lack those advantages, and seeing that though we still struggle we are greatly helped by our circumstances is challenging and humbling. But it is necessary if we are to update our views of human rights and share our humanity with those across the world.

 

Tackling human rights issues require that we expand our visions of equality. We must also recognize how much we are impacted by the social world around us and how much our society influences the opportunities we have. It is easier, and often encouraged in the United States, to turn away from the true human rights shortcomings in our country and assume that everyone can overcome any obstacle on their path. It is much harder, but incredibly necessary, to recognize the ways in which environmental hazards or the lack of adequate housing impact the lives of millions of people living in our society and how that reflects back on those of us who have adequate housing and advantages within our system.

Respecting the Well-Being of Others

Peter Singer focuses on the ideas regarding our interactions with others throughout his book The Most Good You Can Do, and he continually returns to the idea of how we value our life relative to the lives of our family members and the lives of those beyond our family.  Singer argues that the effective altruist movement would not be able to spread if people did not have the ability to empathize with others, and if people could not find ways in which they recognized that all human life holds the same value.

 

Singer references Richard Keshen, a Canadian philosopher, to explain the ways that effective altruists may view other people in the world. “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and  their well-being matter as much as our own.” Prior to this quote Signer quotes Keshen to explain that a reasonable person is someone who makes decisions and develops beliefs that are backed by evidence which can be defended. Their evidence may still be criticized and challenged by others, but the evidence can be used in a rational way to reach a real conclusion.  The base mindset of a reasonable person is that their thinking is unbiased, and the unbiased nature of their thought means that it is not influenced by personal factors and takes a more objective view of the world.

 

As I write this I am absolutely able to understand the importance of viewing the lives of others as equal in value to our own, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s views of reason and do not feel as though they completely add toward the point he is making.  I question whether or not we are able to take a truly objective view of the world regardless of the reason behind our thinking and regardless of how well we try to live without biases.  While I agree that living with the principal that the lives of all members of society are equal in value, I feel as though there are personal biases that have pushed me in this direction. I have been guided by more than just  rational thought, and I know that I am affected by my biases even if I don’t notice them.
I also wonder if the same argument presented by Keshen in support of effective altruism can be used to demonstrate the differences between the lives of those in society and ultimately used to show the importance of keeping wealth and resources within a close family unit.  I do not argue with Singer’s main point, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s view of a rational person, and I am not sure that his definition helps us truly understand the thought process and identity of an effective altruist.

Loving Your Child and Others

Peter Singer address some of the criticism of the philosophy surrounding effective altruism in his book, The Most Good You Can Do. He writes that effective altruists are criticized from a parenting standpoint when they focus on the importance of the lives of every child and not just their own.  This point of view for effective altruists expands beyond valuing all children within a neighborhood, community, or state as being truly equal, and looks at all children across the globe as being equal. It is a challenging idea because of the bias we accept in providing as much as possible for our children to ensure that they have every advantage possible in life. Part of our culture values the idea of being able to provide everything our children want, and we see being unable to meet their desires as a lack of success.  This has created a mindset for many individuals where we should not sacrifice our children’s desires, even if that means we are going to try and bring the quality of life for other children to an equal level. However, for an effective altruist, all lives are equally important because all lives can face the same suffering and can also potentially produce the same good for the world. When it comes to the love an effective altruist would show his of her child, Singer writes,

 

“Critics of effective altruism often suggest … that there is something odd or unnatural about being moved by the “strictly intellectual” understanding that a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child.  But … Loving your own child does not mean you have to be so dazzled by your love that you are unable to see that there is a point of view from which other children matter just as much as your own or that this perspective is unable to have an impact on the way you live.”

 

What Singer seems to be arguing is not that all effective altruists focus more on other children than they do their own children, or that they love their own children less than other parents love their children. Singer is suggesting that effective altruists have access to perspectives that many others never consider.  Being able to see the world from additional perspectives may not change the way they feel toward their own child, but it may help to change the way they feel about children across the world who they will never see.

The Value of All Lives

Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do quotes Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University, who responds to the idea of a global society in which all people extend empathy toward all others. Bloom writes and is quoted by Singer, “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as a family — that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” What Bloom and Singer would argue is that we need to be able to look at the world as a whole and our position in the world to understand that no matter what, our life holds the same value as those around us and those in distant countries.

 

It is challenging, and something I have struggled with overtime, to recognize that all human beings are equal in terms of the value of our their lives. It is written into the United States Constitution and something we seem to carry with us wherever we go, but actually diving into the meaning of equality and following through on that meaning is quite difficult.  It is hard to see someone asking for money on the street and remember that their life is just as important as our life.  I think that part of the challenge lies in the ways we count success.  Looking at the monetary value of someones life, their status as a leader or policy maker, or even the influence of another’s life distracts us from the idea that everyone’s life is of equal value.  We are not equal in terms of our talents, desires, opportunities, or in the value we return to the world, but we should all be equal politically, in the eyes of the law, and when we truly stop to reflect, in the respect we garner from every individual.

 

I think one of the reasons we struggle with equality is because we are not willing to see the inequalities in our lives.  We like to say that everyone is equal to us and assert that we are good people who treat everyone the same because we don’t notice the inequalities. The truth is that we do recognize inequalities and they factor into our decisions. If we can be honest with ourselves about the way that our inequalities impact our decisions then we can begin to better recognize what equality means between human beings, and we can better respond and act equally towards others.

 

Singer and Bloom would argue that we need to build a level of self-awareness in our lives to recognize the way we treat ourselves, those we love, those who are close to us and belong to the same tribe, and those who are distant, look differently, and come from underserved backgrounds.  If we do not recognize how we are treating not just those close to us, but everyone in the world, then we are not able to take steps to improve the way we act toward others.  By understanding that those in other parts of the world should be treated with the same respect and value as those in our community, we can meaningfully incorporate everyone into the progress of the world. We can use our resources to better the entire planet and we can decide to use our resources in the places where they will have the greatest impact.

How Effective Altruists Capitalize on Capitalism

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains the way he thinks about economic objectives, equality, and how capitalism affects the American public.  Singer is globally focused on reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty and what he explains in his book is that the levels of extreme poverty seen in the united states are far lower than levels seen in other countries. He also explores the idea that to be poor in the United States is better than to be poor in developing countries where there is not a structure of assistance and where there are not wealthy people who are able to make donations to help others.
Singer focuses on the idea of the wealthy helping those who are not as fortunate in his book, but his ideas of wealthy might not align with ours. With his global focus he sees ways in which the average American is vastly more wealthy than most people living throughout the world. Even though we may not consider ourselves wealthy, we are often much better off in the United States, and we often have a much greater opportunity to help others through doing good.
Capitalism in The Most Good You Can Do is explored as the source for both the great wealth in the United States even though it is also a source for great inequality within the our country and the global community. Interestingly, Singer views equality as a secondary goal or a useful byproduct of a society focused on doing good. He writes, “effective altruists typically value equality not for its own sake but only because of its consequences.” I would argue that Singer greatly values political equality and social equality since somewhere at the base of effective altruism one must believe that those who they are helping are equals because we are all human. However, the idea of everyone being on equal footing socially and economically is not a key aspect of effective altruism.  Effective altruists are not driving for more wealth and more things, but may drive toward greater salaries because it means they will have a chance to do more and provide more for those who are in the most unfortunate of situations.
“No doubt capitalism does drive some people into extreme poverty — it is such a vast system that it would be surprising if it did not — but it has also lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty.  It would not be easy to demonstrate that capitalism has driven more people into extreme poverty than it has lifted out of it; indeed there are good grounds for thinking that the opposite is the case.”
Singer’s quote shows that our economic system cannot be blamed for the greatness of our society nor for its shortfalls. People within the same system experience greatly different pressures and outcomes, but what determines the overall health of our society is how we use the system in place. In capitalism the very wealthy have taken advantage of the system to benefit themselves, which is a side effect of the system that does deserve criticism.  I would argue that on the other end of the system, thinking of a socialist or communist society, we would fear that those who are the most disadvantaged would find ways to take advantage of the system as opposed to those who are the most wealthy.
The argument that I believe Singer would make, in regards to capitalism, is that those who do become super wealthy, or even moderately wealthy (which may mean the average American when we adopt a global perspective), can do the most good by choosing to redirect their resources to causes that they can meaningfully impact and that will meaningfully impact the lives of those who suffer the most.  Without a capitalistic system that allows us all to obtain the most wealth possible, we lose the opportunity to do the most good possible. A focus on social responsibility within a capitalistic society, Singer would argue, is the greatest change and source of positivity the world can provide.