Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Upward Mobility Followup

This is a follow-up to yesterday's message about Time's cover article on upward mobility. It discusses in a little more detail 3 of the issues I raised.

Issue #1: America is awash in material wealth. That's what I said yesterday, but simply saying so doesn't really underline just how dramatically it's true, so here's a visual to go with it. And here, if the internet gods are smiling upon us today, is the image it leads you to:

It shows that each American state (yes, each one individually) has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on a par with some entire nation elsewhere in the world. We think of Saudi Arabia as being oil-rich; ordinary old Tennessee matches it. The single state of California, for all its fiscal woes, cranks out as many goods and services in one year as France, with the 2nd largest economy in Europe. Even lowly Mississippi* matches Chile, one of the most successful nations in South America.

So when I said that America is awash in material wealth, I was vastly understating the case.

Issue #2: Much of our prosperity came from exploiting the resources of a virgin continent. That’s true, but the free ride is coming to an end. Half of Iowa’s rich topsoil has eroded away down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Ogallala Aquifer, whose irrigational capabilities prompted us to relabel the Great American Desert as America’s Breadbasket, is being steadily drained. The Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in the world, are lowering and becoming more and more polluted and infested with invasive species. The Colorado River, mighty enuf to have carved out the Grand Canyon, has been sucked dry before it can flow into the Gulf of California. Wisconsin has lost half of its biodiverse wetlands.

And then there’s oil. As an astute high-school classmate of mine pointed out, “… cheap energy [is] a resource now becoming more expensive. The Texas gushers of the 1920s returned 100 units of energy for every unit expended. The US is now somewhere in the 10:1 range. The deeper drilling has to go, the more energy is required to get the oil out.”

These problems will not be resolved by the money guys. If somebody shows up with a bushel basket fulla benjamins, it’s not gonna water your corn crop. No, these problems will be resolved by science, technological innovation, and, yes, entrepreneurial ability, which should be justly rewarded.

As to what constitutes a just reward, I point to 3 sterling examples:
 • George Washington Carver, who invented a hundred different uses for the common peanut and gave birth to an entire branch of agriculture.
 • Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
 • Dean Kamen, best known for his Segway scooter, but whose latest device, the Slingshot, will bring cheap water purification to the parts of the world which most desperately need it.

These creators received far more reward in the form of respect and admiration than they did in the form of money. The proceeds from their discoveries and inventions made them comfortably well off, but none of them were what we’d call filthy rich.

Of those who are filthy rich, the oil zillionaire H. L. Hunt admitted that “It’s not about the money, it’s about the power. Money is just a way of keeping score.”

What we need is a different way of keeping score, and Bill Gates** has proposed one: How much money can you give away? John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Andrew Mellon, Joseph Pulitzer, Alfred Nobel, Alfred P. Sloan, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, and Annie E. Casey all created foundations to use their personal fortunes for good. So has Gates, and he’s been joined by America’s 2nd richest person, investor Warren Buffett.***

So all praise to those who share, and a burning bag of dog poop for the greedy bastards who just want more, more, more all for themselves.

Issue #3: The rich did not create most of their wealth, society did. The nation's foremost advocate of consumer protection from the depredations of the big banks and money moguls is Elizabeth Warren. She came up with the idea of the newly created federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency and advocate for the common person. She would have been the logical person to head it up, too, except that her nomination was stone-walled by the bought-and-paid-for Republican senators who would have filibustered her confirmation.

So instead she's running for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat from Massachusetts. As part of her campaign, she appeared at a house party to talk to early supporters, and in an off-the-cuff address she made many of the same points I did about who really built America. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own", she correctly observes. While she didn't overtly connect this observation to the next dot, I will cheerfully do so: It's the people who really do the work who really deserve the rewards.

Here's the 2-minute clip of Elizabeth's take on things:

And, if the embedded link doesn't work, try clicking on this one.

*Unofficial state motto of Alabama: "At least we're not Mississippi"
**Actually, since he didn’t adopt this approach until after he’d married Melinda French, I may be misattributing the source of the idea.
***Buffett famously testified before Congress that he wants his taxes raised, wondering publicly why his secretary should have to pay a higher effective tax rate than he does.

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"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., US Supreme Court justice


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