Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reaganomics punches me in the face

So I got beat up by a biker gang last night. Granted, the "beat up" was limited to two punches to the face, and the "biker gang" was really just two guys on motorcycles. Hell, one of them was just standing there ready to back his friend up. But I'm tired, my jaw hurts, and I feel I'm entitled to a bit of artistic license here.

The facts were these: I was on my bike, when two guys came the opposite direction, zipping down the Jordan River Parkway on motorcycles (illegal) with their headlights off (illegal and stupid). I yelled at them. They turned around and came back after me. One rolled up next to me as I pedaled. A conversation ensued, the most eloquent snippets being, "What the hell are you doing?" and "You don't know me!" The conversation concluded with him sideswiping my bike, me grabbing onto him, and both of us tumbling to the ground.

I got up, ready for a fight. He punched me in the face, and I no longer wanted to fight. He punched me again, and I no longer wanted to stand up. He asked me if I wanted any more. I did not. Satisfied that his point had been made, he and his friend took off, leaving me to limp home.

Like I said, my jaw still hurts, and my lower teeth feel a bit wrong. But my pride is more wounded than anything. I've always wondered how I'd do in a fight. This may be the Universe trying to tell me to embrace pacifism.

I joke now. I've got the safety of distance, and the big picture realization that I was facing a couple of kids trying to blow off steam, not hardened, merciless slayers of men. But I remember the thought that went through my head right after the second punch landed. "So, this is how I die. God, I'm an idiot." That was some scary, scary stuff, and while I'm still a bit angry, I'm grateful as hell to them for not taking it further than they did.

They say a conservative is just a liberal who got mugged. I'll admit that, comparatively puny as this experience was, I can feel the urge to rescind my trust in the general goodwill of humankind. Part of me wants to embrace the idea that there are people like me and there are people who are not like me, and that the proper role of society is to protect the former from the latter. But I'm not giving up on society. I'm not even giving up on the guy who attacked me. He's right: I don't know him.

Why do I blame Reaganomics? If you remember my post on The Spirit Level, societies with greater income inequality have higher murder rates. That correlation is clear and powerful. Less extreme forms of violence are more difficult to compare, simply because there is more variation in reporting and measurement. But I strongly suspect that if those things could be properly controlled, a correlation would pop out there as well.

So, Reaganomics basically says that people are on their own. Government won't protect them from the hard times, or help you when you're down. It won't tell your employer that they have to pay you more.

If you're rich, though, Reaganomics will do whatever it can to help you. It will keep taxes low and regulations light. You owe nothing to society beyond that which you freely choose to give back.

Reaganomics isn't heartless. It's distrustful of government, and it believes that huge income gaps are both a natural result of a free market and an incentive for hard work and innovation. It's also deaf to pleas of class envy, because hey, it's only your own sorry ass keeping you from achieving whatever level of success you covet. Right?

But the downsides of this plan are enormous. People struggle more. They fear losing what they've won. People feel alienated, hopeless, dissatisfied, and angry. The marks of societal rank become more apparent, and worse they begin serving as a mark of personal worth. The social cohesion that allows members of society to accept and trust one another begins to fray.

The Spirit Level mentioned a plausible mechanism, a sort of evolutionary context that links violence and alienation. When a person -- especially a young male -- is on the outskirts of society, with little hope of getting back in, reckless behavior can create reproductive opportunities that quiet resignation never would.

It rings true. If you have a lot to lose, you don't go picking fights with anyone who cusses you out. In fact, you don't go speeding down a pedestrian/bike path in the dead of night.

Shame and humiliation are powerful social emotions. The Reagonomics people make a huge mistake by pretending that their economic shaming plan can drive only one response: a redoubling of the person's efforts in pursuit of legal, socially responsible economic increase.

I honestly believe that, if America's wealth distribution were as narrow as, say, Finland's, my jaw would feel just fine right now thankyouverymuch. So, soak the rich, raise the minimum wage, and smile at a stranger.

P.S.: Happy Read a Qu'ran Day.


mostlyapples said...

I am in awe of you. You now wield hefty credibility regarding ev. psych. and income inequality, and you've managed to retain the objectivity to use it. This should be published somewhere.

williamleehampton said...

What she said.