Sunday, May 16, 2004

Why I’m not rich
For better or worse, this is my inaugural post over at From the Trenches. If you haven't checked out Mick's work there, I encourage you to do so.

Mick has a pair of linked posts that talk about attitudes toward the poor toward and attitudes of the poor about being poor (here and here). In both, he hits on that unpleasant question that smart poor people occasionally run into (and hate), “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” For most of us (I include myself in the smart but not rich category) our first impulse is to bellow, “if you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart, you stupid bag of phlegm?” Though only the Scottish among us would actually call someone a “stupid bag of phlegm” the impulse to shout something similar is part of the explanation.

Before I explain why I’m not rich, let’s look at the question. This is one of those rude questions that is offensive because it contains so many other ugly and hidden questions. Social scientists call those hidden questions a subtext. The name isn’t important, but since I’m an underemployed historian, I’ll use subtext because these words are about all I have to show for my education.

The three most obvious subtexts to “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” are the implication that there must be something wrong with someone who uses a talent to do anything except become rich, the questioner’s open hostility to the non-rich, and the idea that talent automatically leads to wealth.

The first two subtexts are really two sides of the same coin: there is something wrong with you and I hate you because there is something wrong with you. This, Mick discussed as the Myth of Meritocracy. All cultures regard success and other desirable conditions as somehow divinely ordained. If the universe is orderly and just, it’s a short step from success being divinely ordained to success being a divine reward for superior attributes, usually morality. The successful are morally better than the non-successful. The two best-known forms of this idea are Calvinism and the Victorian concept of a criminal class. In Calvinism, God recognized moral superiority with earthly success. Thus, riches were a sign of God’s favor and the rich were to be adored, while poverty was a sign of God’s disfavor and the poor were to be despised. The Victorians used nineteenth century scientific concepts to modify Calvinism into the idea of a criminal class: the lower classes were predisposed to criminality because of their inferior moral evolution. This line of logic leads directly to eugenics and final solutions.

The reason this ugly line of thought has survived is that it is much deeper ingrained than these two well-known examples. Think of science fiction, fairy tales, and folk wisdom. The good are always beautiful and the evil always misshapen and ugly. Cinderella’s stepsisters were as ugly as a mad scientist. This goes against our own experience, but the myth is so deeply ingrained that we ignore experience to stick with what we know is true. In high school were the most beautiful and successful (according to high school standards) the kindest and most pure? How many cheerleaders were self-involved princesses? How many jocks were violent bullies? We all knew exceptions, but if success is a sign of heavenly favor, doesn’t high school suggest that heaven favors jerks?

The third subtext, talent automatically leads to wealth, is less of a philosophical position than a plain old fallacy. Why do we assume that all talents lead to wealth? Why don’t we assume that wealth is the result of pure dumb luck or that the ability to accumulate wealth is a singular talent unrelated to intelligence or any other talent? This is a continuation of the previous mythology; the successful want to claim that their accomplishment is not just a result of their superior moral status; they want to claim all virtues. How secure can the top be if you admit that your “inferiors” are superior in any way? The Myth of Meritocracy is necessary for segmented societies—classes—to exist.

What does this have to do with stupid bags of phlegm and my lack of wealth? If wealth is not the result of superiority in all things, what is it a result of? As is usually the case in real life, there is no single simple answer. Sometimes wealth is the result of superior talent or intelligence. Sometimes it is the result of being in the right place at the right time—luck. Sometimes it is the result of birth and social connections. No one thing guarantees wealth and success. But some things help.

Wealth begats wealth and wealth likes wealth. The people who control wealth and, frankly, control most of the opportunity for the next generation of wealth, are, like all of us, most comfortable around people like themselves. Rich people will give opportunity to people who speak their cultural language. There is no conspiracy of race or class here, it’s simple human nature at its lowest. Some smart people speak, or can fake, the language of wealth and get the opportunities. Other smart people lack even basic social skills and can only hope for a miracle of economic demand to open opportunity to them, as happened to computer nerds in the late 90’s. Lots of smart people are in between.

That’s where I come in. I’m a history nerd, I’m smart, but I’m not rich.

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