How To Fix Inequality
You should never ask someone like me what they think about inequality. I’m a rags-to-riches story. Horatio Alger and all that. Pulled myself up with my bootstraps. Can I come up with another cliché?
Seriously, though, I am not terribly sympathetic with regards to poverty. We have sort of developed this myth in the last 15 years that there is no longer any class mobility in America. But there truly is, and I am an example of it. I think the one difference between the America of the past and the America of the present is that we live in a more classist society than we used to. Attention Walmart shoppers, the rest of the country thinks that you’re pieces of shit. I live in Myrtle Beach. There are Walmarts in Myrtle Beach. You should go in one sometime. There should be no stigma associated with shopping at Walmart. It’s what you do if you’re of limited means. And Walmart has done a lot of good for a lot of people.
But there is a wide-open highway if you want to get ahead in this country. I disagree with J.D. Vance on a lot, but his story is worth studying—from bare feet in a Kentucky hill cabin to being a venture capitalist and studying at Yale Law school under Amy Chua. Anything is possible. And the reason it is possible is because our whole educational system is set up as a giant sorting machine. Take the kids with the highest test scores and the highest grades and send them to the best schools—for free. The interesting thing about eliminating test scores is that it will likely have a big negative impact on our meritocracy, because grades, activities and essays are more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than test scores are. An SAT score above 1400 used to be a ticket to get you into a good school, regardless of what the rest of your application looked like. Trust me, I know from personal experience. J.D. Vance admitted as much in Hillbilly Elegy. Growing up in poverty, he had crappy habits and crappy values—but he was smart enough to pick the right answer out of a lineup on a standardized test. Without the SATs, Vance would be sitting in jail after busting some guy over the jaw with a beer bottle down at the local bar.
Now a lot of people think that the solution to inequality is to tax the rich and give to the poor. Sigh. This has been tried. It has been tried for 100 years, and it never works. The rich keep finding ways to make more money, and the poor keep finding ways to piss it away. I mean, the communists tried to make everyone have the same amount of money, and you can do it by brute force, but the bodies will be stacked high like cordwood. People just aren’t equal. They have varying levels of intelligence, but as you probably know, there is a weak correlation with intelligence and income. What it’s really about is entrepreneurial ability, perseverance, and the ability to finish what you start. Not only are we not equal, but we are exponentially unequal.
Having said all that, if you really wanted to solve inequality in this country—if you really wanted to solve it—there is a way to do it: fix public education.
One thing I’ve never understood about the right is its hostility to public education. Right-wingers like to homeschool their kids, so their kids don’t pick up lefty values from the public schools. Fair enough. But it’s incredibly inefficient. In order to homeschool your kids, you need one person at home doing education full-time, so you only have one income. Not an easy task. Makes a lot more economic sense to have one person teach a bunch of kids at the same time. What an innovation. And you tend to have mixed results with homeschooling—some parents are exceptional at it, and other times, you have kids that grow up completely uneducated.
But that’s not why public schools are good. Public schools are good because they are the great equalizer—everyone gets a baseline level of education, and whatever you do after that is up to you. But the problem is that it is an open secret that our schools are not great, and a lot of kids are not even getting the baseline education. I’m not sure how well you know South Carolina, but there is a part of South Carolina called the “Corridor of Shame”—it’s the area surrounding I-95 that has some of the worst poverty in the country. And the education there is about as bad as it gets. I know, because I know someone who taught there.
Now the interesting thing about teaching in rural South Carolina is that it doesn’t pay very well—my data is stale, but as of about 10 years ago, teachers were making $29,000 a year. Now, keep in mind that they were making $29,000 a year in towns where the per capita income was less than $10,000, but that is still not a lot of money. If you are offering $29,000 a year to teachers, what kind of talent do you think that is going to attract?
Teachers are mostly underpaid, with the possible exception of New Jersey and Connecticut. And interestingly, the results in New Jersey and Connecticut are very good. I grew up in Connecticut, and got an outstanding public education, which continues to pay dividends to this day. And the interesting thing about education is that it is a problem that you can literally just throw money at and it gets better. There is no other problem in the world that you can fix by simply throwing money at it. I’m a finance guy, so it’s all about incentives. If teacher pay was raised by 30-50% nationwide, imagine the types of people you’d get at the margin.
I don’t know the whole history of education reform—I followed it for a while when Michelle Rhee was doing her thing—and there are issues with the teachers’ unions and stuff, but as a percentage of GDP, we really don’t spend a lot on education relative to other countries. And it shows. And the reason this is important is because if you fix education, you put a dent in inequality over time, which does a lot to alleviate class tensions in this country, which reduces the likelihood we’ll all end up in the guillotine.
Keep in mind that I am part of the vast right-wing conspiracy, and I am proposing that we spend more on education. Sound paradoxical? I really mean it. Think of it this way—say you were born in Bennettsvile, South Carolina. You lost the geographic lottery. You’re stuck going to the school in Bennettsville, one of the worst schools in the country, and your life is over before it even started. How is that fair? Our educational system is entirely determined by geography, which explains why people strive to live in good school districts, driving up property values, which implicitly means that you can only get a good education if you have money. That sounds like shit, and I am shocked that we have tolerated it for this long. And for the people who think that we have lost class mobility in this country, maybe we have, and that is the primary reason.
None of this is a priority for anybody. Everyone is satisfied with the status quo. I have nothing against inequality of results—if some people try hard and get rich and other people don’t, I don’t give a rat’s ass. But when people are doomed to poverty because they were born in poverty and didn’t have access to a decent education, then that violates the fairness principle. Maybe the people who claim to care so much about fairness would fucking knock it off with the income taxes and the wealth taxes and focus on what really matters: education. It is a lot easier to address inequality before it starts, and a lot harder after the fact.
Go fuck yourself,
Music Recommendation: The The - August and September. My favorite song of all time.
P.S. We’re Gonna Get Those Bastards will always be free. Please forward to whoever you like.