Thursday, September 27, 2012

The value of struggle

I share with Julián Castro a story about immigrant grandparents.

Both his grandmother Victoria and my father's grandfather Nicholas Muhlestein came to this country, learned the language, found work, and struggled and sacrificed so that their children and grandchildren could have a better life.

Mayor Castro wrote, "In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don't always cross the finish line in the span of one generation."

In both cases, the grandchildren of the immigrant honor their grandparent, and honor the struggle that led to a better life for them and their children.

The difference between our stories is a couple of generations. But if the grandchildren of Nicholas had been inclined to provide everything for the poor of their generation, then Victoria wouldn't have had to struggle. And Julián might not have even come into being, and certainly wouldn't be honoring his grandmother's struggle as such.

Ought we not to allow those who are entering America in this generation the right to struggle? So that their grandchildren can honor them for the better life provided in the third span of the relay race?

This concerns not only immigrants from other countries, but also those whose families have been in America for generations who are now awakening to the possibilities of the American dream. The first span of the relay race is struggle. The second is consolidation of gains from the first. The third can be full success in the American middle class, perhaps even political success, like Julián and his twin brother, Joaquín.

As Julián says of the middle class, "With hard work, everybody ought to be able to get there. And with hard work, everybody ought to be able to stay there—and go beyond."

The only question is, where is the starting point? And should it still involve a relay race span of struggle? Or can we afford to let everyone start the relay race in the second or even the third span?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


There is another aspect of fair. And that is equal pay for equal work. It is unacceptable when one category of worker is paid less than another.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What is fair?

Fair sounds like a good idea. We learn as children how to share, say, a piece of cake, equally.

That works well for cake. What about the world's wealth?

Should that be shared equally too? Should every man, woman, and child have and control an equal amount of the world's money?

Here's an interesting thought experiment, proposed to me by my uncle when I was a youth. Suppose somehow, that all the money in the world could be brought together in one place and then distributed equally (fairly?) to every person in the world.

The question then, is what would the world look like two, three, or five years later? He convinced me that the distribution of wealth would look much the same as it did before the redistribution, with the majority of the wealth in the hands of relatively few, those who are lucky/smart/clever/ruthless enough*.

If your idea of fairness exactly matches equality, then what is the fair share of taxes which the wealthy should pay? Probably pretty close to the 100% or more of income that has been suggested by some thinkers.

Others believe that fairness means equal opportunities, with the outcome being success for those who are lucky/smart/clever/ruthless enough.

Everyone starts out being able to take advantage of the various opportunities provided by the community. These include various kinds of infrastructure. Some are provided by private interests (e.x. railroads). Others are provided by government and paid for by taxes from a previous generation of successful business people (e.x. Interstate highway system).

Starting from that foundation, the contestants begin. Perhaps one in a hundred will start a business. The rest of us will work for someone else and watch television. Perhaps one in a hundred of the startups will survive the first few years. Perhaps one in a thousand of those will go on to become very successful businesses and build a great deal of wealth for their owners.

Of course, as to the infrastructure, our contestants did not build that. However, as to the business itself, they did build that.

The accumulated wealth of the lucky/smart/clever/ruthless belong to them, and since taxes are inevitable, they ought to pay their fair share. Equality might get involved in the definition of "fair" by asking them to pay the same percentage of their income as do the rest of us.

This post started with "fair" meaning equal share of GDP, and ends with an opposing view meaning equal percentage of earnings/income.

What is your view?

*choose your description, knowing that your choice will say as much about you as it does about them