Friday, June 22, 2012

Podcast Timewarp: A Brainless Defense of Inequality

I have a job that keeps me at a keyboard for most of most of my days, and I've developed the habit of listening to podcasts while I work to help keep me sane through my daily toil¹. There are a number of time-sensitive things I make a point of listening to right away (e.g., The Best of Mike and Mike in the Morning would hardly be worth listening to days or weeks after the fact), but generally I have more stuff in the queue than I can keep up with, so occasionally I find myself listening to the podcast of a radio show weeks after it was broadcast, long after the opportunity to respond on the website comments thread, or by calling in, has passed. That's my Podcast Timewarp, and when the spirit moves me, I'm going to bring my untimely responses here to the Spleen for venting.

Today I listened to an hour of On Point Radio titled "The 1 Percent Speaks," featuring Ed Conard, former Bain Capital executive and author of Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong. I haven't read Conard's book, and much of the back and forth between Conard and fellow guest Timothy Noah of The New Republic was economic wonkery that's beyond my ken... but the gist of Conard's argument seems to be that huge inequality in the distribution of wealth is not only inevitable but actually desirable, because, he says, it's necessary to create the incentives individuals require before they're willing to take risks and generate the innovation that makes our economy so much better than those of other industrialized nations.

Huh, really?

Along the way to this stunning conclusion, he calls out the entrepreneurial darlings of Information Age innovation: Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Google, Facebook... and specifically name-checks Apple founder Steve Jobs several times. Apparently we need historically high levels of wage inequality if we're going to have any more Steve Jobses.

Well, that's bullshit.

It's particular bullshit as regards the actual Steve Jobs. I'm known to my friends as a bit of an Apple fanboy (not that most of them would use that term, since they share my enthusiasm), so it's not surprising that I read Walter Isaacson's massive biography of Jobs (well, listened to it, to be precise) pretty much as soon as I could get my hands on it. The picture that emerges from Jobs' story is one of a complex, strange, somewhat dark, often sad, and remorselessly brilliant man, driven by diverse personal imperatives. What does not emerge is the image of a person who would've become a lawyer or a shoe salesman instead if he'd thought he'd die with only $4 or $5 billion, instead of the $8 billion he actually made. Jobs emphatically did care about money, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, but there seems to be no evidence that he cared about ludicrous wealth for its own sake, nor that he would have cared about the difference between merely ludicrous wealth and stupidly ludicrous wealth.

Keep in mind that Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in the mid 1970s, when tax rates on the highest earners were much higher than anything being suggested by even the most progressive thinkers today, and when the gap between rich and poor was vastly smaller than it is today. If fixing wealth inequality were really going to cost us the next Steve Jobs, we never would've had the first one!

But there's one more problem with Conard's thesis, and it's this:

That's Jobs' parents' house, and that garage is the one in which Apple Computer famously began, rather as Hewlett-Packard had begun a generation earlier. Look familiar? It's a fairly typical modest middle class home. Other pioneers of the computer age — Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce of Intel, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Mark Zuckerberg — came from more or less privileged backgrounds, but all of them were, broadly speaking, of the middle class. None of them started with enormous wealth, and none of them was poor, either.

My hypothesis is that it's not the lure of great wealth that fosters risk-taking and innovation, but instead the key is a broad, flourishing middle class. The very poor can't take these kinds of risks: They don't have the resources to make the ante, and for many of them mere survival takes all their energy. The already-very-wealthy have too much to lose, and no need to take risks. But middle class families —whether blue/pink collar workers like Jobs' (adoptive) parents or professionals and academics like the parents of some of the others — can provide enough support for their kids' dreams to grow, while not presenting wealth (and its attendant responsibilities) that cannot be risked.

Jobs had disposable income to indulge a modestly expensive hobby, access (as a teen) to employment that could support expanding that hobby, and a secure family home in which to turn that hobby into a groundbreaking business. This is fundamentally a tale of middle class success.

The problem, both for Conard's thesis and for our country, is that the increasingly top-heavy distribution of our wealth is destroying our middle class. Conard and his fellow travelers on the right seem to think progressives want to destroy the rich and eliminate any hope of upward mobility for the next generation of Steve Jobses, but that's not what we want: We don't want to pull down the upper class; we just want to throw a lifesaver to the rapidly dwindling middle class, which really is the home of innovative risk-takers.

What do I know, you might ask? How do I know what "we" want? Well, because Rachel Maddow and Mother Jones told me so. One of the serendipitous joys of Podcast Timewarp is that it allows me to marry up a month-old radio show with an infographic Maddow featured on her show just a couple days ago:

It shows that, when asked what they think the wealth distribution ought to be (the bottom row of the graph), Americans are perfectly content to let the rich continue to be rich, with the top 20 percent retaining more than 35 percent of the wealth. In the ought-to-be distribution, the top earners are still at the top and the bottom earners are still at the bottom. And the middle are still in the middle. It's just that there's a fairer, more humane spread between top and bottom, and a lot more people in that creative, productive middle.

I guess Ed Conard thinks this goal would be a bad thing. But that's bullshit.
¹ OK, so what I do hardly counts as toil by any rational standard; allow me a tiny bit of poetic license?

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