Liberalism and inequality

Here’s Victor David Hanson:

Strip away the veneer of Silicon Valley, and it is mostly a paradox. Almost nothing is what it is professed to be. Ostensibly, communities like Menlo Park and Palo Alto are elite enclaves, where power couples can easily make $300,000 to $700,000 a year as mid-level managers.

But often these 1 percenter communities are façades of sorts. Beneath veneers of high-end living, there are lives of quiet 1-percent desperation. With new federal and California tax hikes, aggregate income-tax rates on dot.commers can easily exceed 50 percent of their gross income. And hip California 1 percenters do not enjoy superb roads and schools or a low-crime state in exchange for forking over half their income.

Housing gobbles much of the rest of their pay. A 1,300-square-foot cottage in Mountain View or Atherton can easily sell for $1.5 million, leaving the owners paying $5,000 to $6,000 on their mortgage and another $1,500 to $2,000 in property taxes each month. Add in the de rigueur Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus and the private-school tuition, and the apparently affluent turn out to have not all that much disposable income. A visitor from Mars might look at their relatively tiny houses, frenzied go-getter lifestyle, and leased BMWs, and deem them no better off materially than middle-class state employees three hours away in supposedly dismal Merced, who earn 20 percent as much, but live in a home twice as large, with only 10 percent of the monthly mortgage and tax costs.

.  .  .

In the South Bay counties, Democratic registration outnumbers Republican often 2 to 1. If liberals like Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi did not represent the Bay Area, others like them would have to be invented. Yet, most Northern California liberal politics are abstractions that apparently provide some sort of psychological compensation for otherwise living lives that are illiberal to the core.

Take K–12 schools. Currently, there is a stampede to enroll students in upscale private academies — often at $30,000 a year. That seems strange, when local public high schools like Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, and Palo Alto were traditionally among the highest-ranked campuses in an otherwise dismal state public-school system.

But things have changed — or at least are perceived to have changed. About 25 percent of the Silicon Valley population is now Hispanic, representing a huge influx of service employees — to work in hotels and restaurants, as nannies and housecleaners, in landscaping and construction — and their presence has expanded beyond the old barrios of San Jose and Redwood City.

The result is that Silicon Valley liberals are apparently worried about the public schools, given that second-generation Hispanics are perceived to be disproportionately represented in statistics on gang activity, illegitimacy, and high-school dropout rates. In crude terms, would a Google executive really wish his child’s hard-driving college-prep curriculum or enlightened social calendar altered somewhat to accommodate second-language teenagers whose parents recently arrived illegally from Oaxaca?

Something similar happened in the Deep South in the 1960s, when court-mandated integration brought black students into formerly all-white enclaves, spurring a white flight to private academies. Upscale hip whites and Asians in Northern California, of course, do not have southern twangs and in theory are multiculturalists to the core. But they are no more invested in a truly diverse public-school experience for their children than southern separatists of the past.

When I suggest to my Silicon Valley friends that their fixation on academic achievement is misplaced and that the academic peer and institutional pressure that my own children might have lost out on by going to the almost exclusively Mexican and Mexican-American public schools of southern Fresno County was balanced by the “life experiences” of dealing with those of all classes, races, and attitudes, they think I am unhinged. Diversity, in other words, is a cosmic ideal of voting for Barack Obama, not a cross that a Stanford-bound kindergartener must bear in the here and now.

I see exactly the same thing in my town (Newton MA), which is very wealthy and very liberal.  But I don’t see the contradiction that Hanson seems to see.  Suppose you loved your children, and also thought inequality was a huge problem.  Then it would make sense to do everything possible to get your kids into elite schools.  After all, if inequality is a huge problem then your kids will suffer greatly if they end up with a lower than average income.

I don’t think inequality is a big problem (although I do think it is a problem.)  As a result I don’t share the obsession of most of my neighbors in getting my child into an elite university.  In my view happiness depends on your personality, not whether you make $70,000 or $700,000 per year.  There are happy people and grouchy people.  Getting a better job isn’t going to change that.

So the real problem with liberals is not that they are hypocrites, it’s that they are too materialistic.  But that’s also the real problem with moderates and conservatives.

By the way, the same thing occurs in higher education.  The people who run our universities are overwhelmingly left-of-center.  And yet they are engaged in the process of corporatizing universities, into a sort of mirror image of the highly inegalitarian set-up of the corporate sector.  More elite professors with outrageous pay packages, and more adjuncts making low pay.  Less in the middle.  They aren’t forced to do this; they are choosing to remake the American university system.

This is why progressives will fail to make a significant dent in inequality.  Because they (wrongly) think inequality is so important, they will (as individuals) fight hard against any truly egalitarian policies, as it would hurt their kids or their career, even as they vote egalitarian.  If we could somehow convince liberals that inequality isn’t as important as they think it is, if we could convince them to share Hanson and my attitude toward inequality, then we might finally be able to make some headway against the problem.  And it is a problem.  We need to convince parents that it’s not important that their kids get into the best schools. We need to convince administrators that it’s not important that their university moves up in the “rankings.”

PS.  The example in the third paragraph is just one more example of why the “inequality” data used by progressives is so worthless.  We already know that they use income, whereas they should be using consumption.  But even when we use consumption data it’s distorted by huge differences in the cost of living.  And these differences are both time-varying, and biased against the rich.  Someone from a 100 years ago who arrived here in a time machine and who drove past a lower middle class Hispanic home in Merced, and then a $1.5 million 1300 sq. foot home in Palo Alto, would be flabbergasted by the claim that there are huge inequalities in modern America.

PS.  I realize that rich people are happier, on average, but correlation doesn’t . . .

Look at the sad fate of lottery winners.

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