Mitt Romney, Celery, And A Whole Bunch Of Monkeys


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

Related Post Roulette

215 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Excellent post and I agree that this is a strong component of liberal thought.

    One can find variants of life as chaos through out human literature and philosophy. From Shakespeare (Hamlet railing against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”) to the Enlightenment (IIRC there was a concept similar in Montisqieu’s The Spirit of Laws) to John Rawls (The Veil of Ignorance) or if we want to get more dark, Beckett.

    I would say that a basic concept of center-left government is that no one can control the circumstances of their birth and that the moral role of civil government is to correct this as much as possible. I.e. we should have welfare the insures a basic standard of dignity and decency and institutions that help promote more mobility. The reactionary is of course against this.

    All of this does bring up the wicked problems of nepotism and how to solve them or whether they are even solvable.

    The art world is a good place to look because there is nothing fair or democratic about the art world. I say this as a former participant. There are a lot of people who can afford to be independently employed in the arts because of being trust fund kids. There is also the cases of Lena Dunham and Zoe Kazan.

    Both are from art families. Lena Dunham’s parents are famous in the NYC contemporary art scene, Zoe Kazan is the granddaughter and daughter of Hollywood royalty. Both are considered very hot actor-writers. How much did their family backgrounds open doors that would not be open for other young artists? Some or a lot but it is hard to quantify. Do they have people who are detractors who ignore their talents because of their backgrounds? Yes. How about fawning admirers who are too uncritical? Also yes.

    The question is how do we solve this problem of nepotism. I think it certainly need solving or some reforms to limit the influence of nepotism but am stumped as to how to say how. This also goes with the abuse of unpaid internships which generally can only go to the wealthy.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Dealer writes: “I would say that a basic concept of center-left government is that no one can control the circumstances of their birth and that the moral role of civil government is to correct this as much as possible.”

      It took me a while to realize that a fundamental difference between the libertarians and the left is that the left wants to manipulate results. Their intuition is that the game needs to be rigged so everyone gets about the same score. Every incidence of inequality is another opportunity for them to strp in and master plan different outcomes.

      I don’t want the referees trying to rig the game. Indeed I am sure they will ruin the game if they try to.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Oh get off it.

        I am not and all liberals are not talking about creating Harrison Bergeuron or getting rid of nepotism or think that there is no such thing as a hierarchy of talent. Yes life is unfair in the fact that there is almost always someone who will be more intelligent, better looking, more charming, more witty, more athletic, more stylish, etc than you.

        You can still provide a basic life of dignity and decency via things like single-payer health insurance and other safety net, welfare state aspects while having a capitalist economy. But libertarians would be aghast at that because of silly notions on rugged individualism and a minimal state.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:

          Dealer, Snarky and Scott,

          Thanks for replying. I totally stand by my comment. For a while I accepted the defenses that the left isn’t really about manipulating outcomes for favored groups, but your behavior and rationale speaks for itself. I believe you are all in denial.

          Let’s take employment. Libertarians want voluntary, honest transactions. The left wants rules and regulations which protect their favored class — the lower wage blue collar earner. They identify a victim class and jump in to fix everything (usually throwing sand in the gears in the process).

          The same thing applies to racial issues. Find a “victim” underdog class and prop them up. To economic issues. Find an underdog class and rig the system to change the results. I could go on for hours.

          By the way, normally when I say something like his the left denies it and defends it in the same comment. Thus proving my case as they pretend it isn’t true. Denial.Report

          • Avatar Don Zeko says:

            I think you’re endowing the pre-intervention market with a moral legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Phrases like “rig the system,” “manipulating,” or “voluntary honest transactions” imply that there’s something right and normal about, say, the fact that a black kid born to illiterate parents in West Baltimore has very limited prospects in the labor market. The fact is that the market is a tremendously powerful tool for producing efficiency and prosperity, but the outcomes it produces don’t have any inherent moral legitimacy. If we can make those outcomes more morally palatable without losing too much of the efficiency that the market provides, why shouldn’t we?Report

          • Avatar Scott Fields says:

            Libertarians want voluntary, honest transactions.

            Bully for libertarians. I’d prefer that, too. I’d also like a pony.

            You say we should have a free market as if just wanting it would make it happen; as if a free market would be what the US would have if we just got government out of the way of it. But as I’m sure you’re aware, you have to use government to get government out of the way – government sets policy even when that policy is intended to limit government. And the powerful elites who have currently captured government will only allow government getting out of the way of the market in a manner that maintains their already entrenched advantages.

            I’m not the one in denial.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:


              I actually agree. No denial here.

              Going back to my accusation, do you then agree that the left is about trying to manipulate results for favored groups or victims? In other words, that libertarians are arguing for rules that are less biased, and that the left is arguing for changing the bias? I really think this is an important distinction.

              I don’t want to bias employment in favor of one party or the other. I want a system that would be chosen behind a veil not knowing which side of the employment contract one is on. I see the left as saying, let’s help the lower skilled employee compared to the employer. I understand that they have many reasons to justify their belief. For example they believe that power disparity favors employers.


              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Allow me to put some words in liberalism’s collective mouth:

                > Libertarians are arguing for rules that are less biased,
                > and that the left is arguing for changing the bias?

                The left is arguing that the existing historical context has introduced all sorts of unjust bias, and using government to attempt to correct that (even if it also occasionally results in capture, as an outcome) is *on net* a justifiable policy.

                The weird thing about this is that you can agree with it even if the occasional “correct” use of government is far outnumbered by the “incorrect” uses of government… if you also accept that other social forces (corporate America, organized religion, unions, whatever) do it worse or only just as bad.

                The government, even if it produces more bad outcomes that good outcomes, does a “better” job of correcting injustice because at least the trampled have a venue – however imperfect – of seeking redress.

                Now, even if you don’t buy all that, you can *still* agree with it if you think that the perception that this is the case provides social utility… that is, without the idea that maybe the government will fix this thing, the unjustness of this thing (whatever it is) would lead to civil unrest or something of that sort.

                There’s an awful big range in there for liberals to plant their stake.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Well I would frame “manipulate results for …victims” as trying to ameloirate the harm done to groups by other powerful groups. I thinks its more of breaking down the barriers to the point where there is no longer a need for the gov to step in. Liberals have done a poor job of saying when gov is no longer needed. You seem to be taking a ahistorical view of human history. Am i correct in seeing that?Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Patrick and Greg,
                Thanks, I think we are all agreeing here on the distinction. It took me a long time to grok this about the left.

                The libertarian path is very different than the left path. We can argue better or worse or which is better in which context some other time, but it sometimes just helps to understand how others think.

                Without getting into the “deficiencies” of the libertarian model, do you guys see what differs about our path?

                By the way, if Kazzy, SW and James H are still reading along, they may take interest in this sub thread based upon past discussions.

                The reason some of us beat our heads against the walls in this forum is the cool opportunity to try to understand how others think.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                I’m doubtful that this is actually a good account of the difference, but how about this: Libertarians are confident that good (free market) processes will lead to good outcomes (fair/equitable), while Liberals don’t think that good processes are very useful if they don’t lead to good outcomes.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Thanks Don, see also my summary rewrite below to SW.Report

              • Avatar Scott Fields says:

                Don –

                I’d actually say if the processes don’t lead to good outcomes (on balance, not in every instance) it is appropriate to question whether the process was all that good to begin with.Report

              • Avatar Scott Fields says:

                Roger –

                Actually, I don’t agree with your argument. I’m no spokesman for the left (I consider myself a “principled pragmatist” of the Tod Kelly school, myself), but I’d say that the left is arguing for rules that are less biased as well.

                As Patrick notes above, the left recognizes that there is unjust bias already cooked into the market as it exists in this country. So in order to get to rules that are less biased, those existing biases have to be dismantled. Now I’d agree that a free market has mechanisms that could prove corrective for these unjust advantages, but I don’t think the markets as they exist now are sufficiently “free” for those mechanisms to work. I’d have more faith in the courts to address fraud in the system, if even one major banker were sitting in jail following the financial debacle in 2008.

                That leaves the government to dismantle the existing unjust bias. Even then, I’m highly skeptical of government’s capacity to correct unjust bias considering the degree both parties are captured today. But to my mind, it is more plausible to demand and expect government to get its own house in order and then work to redress entrenched advantage in our system, then it is to wish for a truly free market to appear out of the ether.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Libertarians want voluntary, honest transactions. The left wants rules and regulations which protect their favored class — the lower wage blue collar earner. They identify a victim class and jump in to fix everything (usually throwing sand in the gears in the process).

            Stunning. Fear and loathing are getting better of you, Roger.Report

      • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

        This is a widespread misunderstanding of the left by the right (and by libertarians).

        Equality of outcome is not something that anyone but Marxists are preaching.
        And yet, I see this hoary accusation–that liberals are proposing to level the incomes of everyone–made over and over again.

        Why is that?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          Equality of outcome is not something that anyone but Marxists are preaching.
          And yet, I see this hoary accusation–that liberals are proposing to level the incomes of everyone–made over and over again.

          Why is that?

          Perhaps it is because when lefties like Elias set out to explain fairness, equality of outcome is typically the very first thing they mention. As in the original post.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer says:

          Did you get the memo?

          We are all secret Jacobins and Marxists to the right-wing and to libertarians. We don’t want the New Deal, we really want the Reign of Terror and Stalinist Show Trials.


        • Avatar Scott Fields says:

          Because “we should try to provide opportunity for everyone to be prepared to take advantage of the upside when it comes along and provide some cushion for everyone on the downside” isn’t scary enough?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        It took me a while to realize that a fundamental difference between the libertarians and the left is that the left wants to manipulate results.

        Wrong (as usual). The left wants to manipulate the conditions which give rise to results.

        Their intuition is that the game needs to be rigged so everyone gets about the same score.

        Wrong. The intuition is that the game – which is rigged in any event – needs to be re-rigged so that everyone starts from the same position (to the greatest extent possible).

        Every incidence of inequality is another opportunity for them to strp in and master plan different outcomes.

        Wrong. Unless you think equality of opportunity = equality of outcomes.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          I think you rewrote my feeble attempt at representing your views much better.

          Let me summarize…

          The left wants to manipulate conditions or rerig an already rigged game to lead to a system which has more equal opportunity and more equal starting position.

          How is that? Others care to editorialize?

          One probe, how does the left account for unequal effort or unequal value creation?Report

          • Avatar Don Zeko says:

            The important concept you’re missing is that Liberals tend to think that many particularly bad outcomes, even if they are the fault of the people suffering them, are unacceptable.Report

          • Avatar Roger says:

            What do you guys think of this as an OP topic?Report

          • Avatar Don Zeko says:

            As to unequal effort or outcomes, of course Liberals accept that both will exist. Nobody is actually calling for literal equality of outcomes, and nobody is disputing that effort is usually a key component of economic success. We just want to order our institutions so as to tighten the correlation between the two while moderating extreme outcomes.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              Again, I’m all in favor of setting up institutions with a view toward moderating extreme outcomes.

              I’m less in favor of direct redistribution, both because it sets up a poor incentive structure and because it serves to mask some other likely defect elsewhere in our institutions. As an emergency measure, fine. Beyond that, no.

              I suspect we agree about these things, or close to it. Why then does your side find the monkey-and-fruit example so compelling, while my side finds it completely beside the point, and maybe even a bad model altogether?Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                I agree (for now). I tend to find the pity-charity model of Neoliberalism unappealing, and would rather that we shape our economic institutions in ways that create less pre-tax inequality than try to shrink those disparities after the underlying economy has created them (although I do still like things like the EITC as an anti-poverty measure). The trouble is that I doubt we agree upon many of the policy particulars of this agenda, which in my mind consists of things like reforming corporate governance, making it easier to unionize, tolerating slightly higher inflation in order to have tighter labor markets, reforming the health care sector along European lines, etc.

                As far as the monkeys are concerned, you’re going to have to ask somebody else. I don’t think they prove much about anything.Report

              • Avatar Scott Fields says:

                Jason –

                I agree that direct redistribution is most appropriate as a short term corrective, but in the long term it jacks incentives. I’d argue short term correctives are warranted. A modestly progressive and abundantly simpler tax code strikes me as a no-brainer.

                As for the monkeys, I mostly ignored that part of the OP. That our species has an innate grasp of fairness is a pretty banal observation to anyone who has at least two kids.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Why then does your side find the monkey-and-fruit example so compelling

                I don’t find the study itself very compelling, just Elias’ use of it in the post. The claim made in the study is that a concept of fairness is a naturally occurring property in social animals. That view runs counter to conservatives claims that fairness is an unnatural liberal construction designed to justify taking from the rich and giving to the poor (otherwise known as envy). From there, we’re only a few short steps away from the conservative rationalization that financial success is evidence of individual worth (the evidence that poor people lack the right stuff is that they’re poor, afterall), which is something liberals by hypothesis reject since they’re all about redistribution and takings. Even the mere suggestion that fairness is a natural property is therefore a real threat to at least this strain of conservative thought. (And TVD proved the point rather nicely.)

                I thought it was an elegant post, actually. I mean, part of the argument devolving from that initial claim was that the New Meme for Obama’s “built that” speech is that Obama was actually suggesting that success comes down to luck, which it turns out is an even more insulting and socially dangerous thing to say about financially successful people than “you had help along the way”. I think the comments to his post rather bear that assessment out, since even tho Elias didn’t actually say what people are attributing to him – and nor did Obama, for that matter – they’re stamping their feet in outrage that he might have implied something so heinous.

                Maybe it has something to do with the persistence and role of the Myth of Rugged Individualism in conservatism. “We’re all alone, baby, and only hard work – like really hard work – like work that’s so hard and difficult that only those who are equally successful will understand what it takes – can make you rich.” Lots of times, it’s just striking oil.Report

  2. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    So these capuchins, they’re just random wild animals who lived a completely solitary existence until they turned up in the lab?

    Or are they a societal creature, and maybe “fairness” is a characteristic of the evolution of society rather than biology?

    “most of us still have that pissed-off capuchin swinging around in our subconscious, ready to chuck some celery at whoever deigns to tell us things are as they should be, that life is fair.”

    Seems to me that we could aspire to a higher level of social development than a tribe of tree-dwelling crap-flinging monkeys.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 says:

      When I survey the world we live in, I would suggest that aspiring to emulate crap-flinging monkeys might be setting the bar too high.Report

  3. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    Not monkey justice. Monkey envy. Egalitarianism-as-fairness is the “moral” reasoning of children. Of animals.

    de Waal:

    “An experiment with capuchin monkeys by Sarah Brosnan, of Georgia State University’s CEBUS Lab, and myself illuminated this emotional basis. These monkeys will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers, and go on strike. A perfectly fine vegetable has become unpalatable! Not all economists, philosophers and anthropologists were happy with our interpretation, because they traditionally consider the “sense of fairness” uniquely human. But by now there are many other experiments, even on dogs, that confirm our initial findings.”

    Fine. But we should not confuse base motives for higher morality. There was nothing unjust about the reward of a cucumber in the first place, hence nothing unjust about giving a better reward to somebody else later.

    When we consider the consequences of inequality, in fact, I’m Better Than You (also known as Fuck You; I Got Mine) is pretty odious, certainly rude.

    Yet this proposition is one of the few GOP dogmas to which I suspect Romney honestly subscribes.


  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If you have a grape, somebody else made that happen.Report

  5. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Well, this does do a fair job of explaining to me why liberals argue that a businessman that uses public roads is not all that different from someone who isn’t working and collecting welfare.

    As they say, luck is where preparation meets opportunity. Preparation is worth little if the opportunity never comes around. It’s a danger to the republic when large numbers of people see little or no chance at opportunity. This can be an argument against talking down the opportunities that Americans have, which is what the “You’re screwed” rhetoric does. It can also be an argument for a more honest assessment at what our opportunities are and mitigation where the opportunities fall short.

    From a political perspective, I suppose it makes sense for the Democrats to point at the super-rich and say that they don’t deserve that and we should get more of that. It’s not hard, though, for that to be an argument that you don’t deserve what you have. The difference between me and some other guy is not just that I was born into more favorable circumstances. Lots of people born into my circumstances have fared much less poorly – and not due to luck.

    It comes across to me as though there is little room in liberal egalitarianism for saying “this person should be rewarded for having taken this gigantic risk” when the risk wouldn’t have even been possible but for his or her background and public roads. But we want people to build things, take chances, and work harder. Pointing out that they are where they are because of luck and circumstance undercuts that to no small degree. As it pertains to large numbers of people, it’s fundamentally true but not productive.

    Also unproductive, of course, is pretending that the system hasn’t failed those with a much narrower path to success than people like myself have enjoyed. I have no delusions that I would be where I am if I had not been born into the circumstances I was born into. And ignoring the fact that a lot of people can work hard and not appreciably get ahead (or remain behind people who do not appear to be working as hard) is impossible, on a grand scale.

    Ultimately, though, liberals and conservatives both want to celebrate some people. That means not celebrating other people. It also means jeering at those perceived to have gotten in the way of those other people. As such, comfortable whites from well-to-do backgrounds can jeer at whites from the nation’s poorest regions and talk about ho the problem is the privilege they enjoy.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I disagree with some of your assertions.

      I don’t know any liberal who would bemoan the success of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, or to go for non-Democratic types: Peter Thiel.

      But even they had an incredible amount of luck. None of them were exactly Horatio Alger stories. Everyone likes to use Gates and Jobs as examples of not needing to go to college to be successful. However, this ignores the fact that they were both smart enough to get into very excellent (but radically different) colleges. They also had the luck of being at the right moment and time for the computer industry. My uncle had similar luck on a smaller scale. He was a grad student at Cal in the 1970s but decided that academia was not for him and we wanted to stay in the area. As a smart guy (PhD in psycho-linguistics) he was able to teach himself computer programming and get hired by PacBell. This was before many universities had serious computer science departments so there was less credentialism in the field.

      There are also a lot of people who do play by the rules, work hard, and then discover that everything is fucked. I think a lot of the OWS anger and 20-something anger is directed at this aspect of the recession. There are a lot of OWS supporters who are not natural radicals and are not calling for a revival of the Paris commune. Rather they are suburban kids who always worked hard at school and ended up having the poor luck of graduating into one of the worst economic situations since the Great Depression. Possibly one that has been thirty or so years in the making if you look at the stagnate wages of most of the country as compared to the top ten or one percent.

      Did these kids make any risks? No. Well possibly taking out a lot of student loans because they were told (and told correctly at the time) that college education is the best way to join the middle class.

      It seems to me that the financial services industries have largely caused the current recession and they have not suffered like the rest of us. They still make massive profits and massive pay and no one really gets punished for things like the London Whale or LIBOR scandals.

      Yes no one there is no guarantee for any job but a lot of people did work hard and did study hard and now are facing long-term unemployment and/or underemployment. And the reaction to this has been underwhelming and in the case of the Tea Party don’t right disgusting. A basic “FU, I’ve got mine”

      Law school is a good example. I graduated in 2011 and am one of the lucky ones because I have a job at good pay that requires bar passage. It is still an independent contractor job though without benefits or vacation. Perhaps this will change or perhaps I am part of a new demographic of people who are basic permanent temp employees.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Well, as I said in paragraph two, luck is preparation meeting opportunity. We can focus on the preparation, or we can focus on the opportunity. When we focus on the opportunity, and disregard the preparation (ie work), we are begrudging people their success. Though it’s not right to equate success with hard work (and hard work alone), it’s also problematic to say that equating it with work is the product of Robin’s grubby privilege-seeking and anti-egalitarianism.

        Where it gets complicated for me is that I believe the American Myth pulls its weight, from a utilitarian point of view. There are limits to the degree that we – particularly policymakers – should buy into it, but I get antsy when we talk about how much we should attribute to luck and the privilege of birth. I completely understand why others disagree with this. I also get antsy when straight lines are drawn between wealth and thievery (even if we admit that it’s not all thievery, we use thieves and cheaters and liars as exemplars of financial success) (that’s less to do with your comment, more to do with Liberty60’s).

        I am largely sympathetic to the aspects of OWS that you are referring to, or to be more specific the part about “We did what you told us to do (went to college), where are the dang jobs?”Report

        • Avatar NewDealer says:

          Rugged Individualism is the American Myth and it is just that, a myth. Maybe it existed when we were a largely an agricultural economy of yeoman farmers but I don’t think Jefferson’s vision held for very long.

          There is unfortunately a lot that can be attributed to birth. Studies show that one the best indicators of what class you end up in is what class you were born in. Horatio Alger stories are largely stories.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            I don’t disagree with the fact it’s a myth, and referred to it as such. But I consider it to be something of a utilitarian myth. Much moreso than the reality of your likelihood of actually becoming particularly wealthy.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              Or, rather, the mythical part is that the sky is the limit. Everyone has different limits regardless of ability and hella luck. However, there is enough truth to the notion of “work hard, get ahead” and the implicit “deserve to” in the latter half of the comment is beneficial to society as a whole. Attributing success to luck undercuts that, which I see as counter-utilitarian.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                Interestingly I see it differently.

                Your idea makes me think of two quotes:

                A few years ago, there was an article about Finland in the NY Times. There was a conservative Finnish politician who was quoted as saying something like “Sure anyone can become a billionaire in America but most people won’t”.

                There is also John Steinbeck’s line explaining that socialism never took on in America because the poor just see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

                My take on the myth of rugged individualism is that it is one of the most pernicious aspects of American culture and one that has truly impeded social welfare and progress from taking hold and always managed to revive a highly reactionary right. Rugged Individualism merely creates Calvinism that damns the poor for being poor. “You don’t have health insurance. Why you lazy bum?”

                As I have mentioned elsewhere, I reject Calvinism absolutely.Report

              • Avatar Scott says:

                Yes, we would be so much better off with something like the English class system instead of the idea that you can advance via education and hard work.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Don’t kid yerself. Neither education nor hard work ever made a man rich. Depositing money in the bank is how you get rich and that means selling goods and/or services, neither of which involve particularly hard work or smarts or even an education.

                Jeebus, I sure wish these people who praise Hard Work were made to do some so they’d have a clue what they were talking about when they boast about it. Slaves did the hard work and the rich owned the slaves. Now, we’re modern and lucky. Jobs which might actually involve hard work are done by Mexicans and they don’t need to be enslaved. And they’re not citizens, either.

                Dude, try to get an American to do some genuinely hard work. They won’t do it anymore. They won’t do it because they don’t have to. They’ve got forklifts and combines and power tools of every sort to do it for them. Genuinely hard work like stoop labour in the strawberry fields, that’s done by our friendly Mexican brethren.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                As mentioned below, I am not advocating for that despite what strawmen you are setting up.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Too many kids got a hundred thousand dollars in debt getting useless feel good degrees at country club colleges along scenic ocean drives (with winning football teams!).

        Let’s take to the streets!

        This isn’t bad luck. It is total stupidity. We should be thankful that reality has reared it’s ugly head so future generations can learn from the follies of these knuckle heads.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          Too many kids got a hundred thousand dollars in debt getting useless feel good degrees at country club colleges along scenic ocean drives (with winning football teams!).

          Assumes facts not in evidence. The first, third, and fourth most common degrees are vocational. There are twice as many “business” majors as anything else. Does business major qualify as a “feel good” degree?Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            Will- fwiw many social science majors lead directly to jobs. My degrees are in psych which directly led to my entire career. Other soc sci degrees like history are stepping stones to various grad degrees. I’m sure there a few English majors who devoted themselves to 17th century Romanian poetry and are pissed they can’t find a job using their knowledge but not most.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              Will and Greg,

              You both know I am referring to the “too many” kids that get fun degrees just to get a degree at the expensive but glitzy school. It is a shame.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                The problem is when you tag kids who went to college and cannot find work as kids who got fun degrees at expensive but glitzy schools.

                I got a vocational degree from a state school. So you won’t mind me having too too much sympathy for the person who got the wrong degree from the expensive school. But I thought the implications of your statement were off-base.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                What are you calling a “fun” degree? I’m genuinely curious.

                When i think of people getting fun degrees or things that won’t do anything for them i think of scholarship athletes in big time sports like football who get degrees in General Studies.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                Usually when people talk smack about fun degrees, they mean anything that is not a STEM, Business related, or otherwise vocational like Physical Therapy. Maybe economics is okay.

                It is the lazy old stereotype of an English major and a $1.50 gets you a cup of coffee.

                These are the people who would reduce universities to being nothing but engineers and are usually very dismissive of scholarship in the arts and humanities.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                I think an enlightening degree in the arts and humanities is a wondrous thing. It is rarely a smart path for getting a job, especially if you have to go into debt to get it.

                I totally respect someone who gets a degree in something that fulfills them. I respect even more those willing to get advanced degrees that then extend the outer limits of their field (admittedly really rare and super risky). I have no respect at all for those that got a hundred grand in debt getting an art history degrees that then take to the parks to complan about the lack of jobs.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                When you narrow it down like that then you are down to a really small club. Of the people i’ve known who went for fullfililing degrees, they have all been happy with the choice.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                This is another strawman.

                Everyone gives practical advice about going to CC and then a local state school but reality does not work this way.

                Kids who went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, the Northeast liberal arts colleges, are largely doing fine probably. Why? Because people see the name of their alma mater and it is impressive to them, rightly or wrongly. Also those schools have very dedicated alumni networks.

                In the long run and possibly even in the short run, a Renaissance studies major from Amherst or Brown is going to have better economic opportunities than the Marketing Major from Southwest North Dakota State.

                This is the same as kids from Harvard Law having an easier time in the legal job market than the kids from local and less prestigious law schools.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:


                Life is not a race unless you choose to make it one. A skill or degree in a field that is in demand is as safe a path as the universe has ever provided to a primate. I could care less that someone else has it even easier. That is the path to the dark side.Report

  6. Avatar Stillwater says:

    You know, Elias, I have to confess something to you. The other day at work my mind wondered around the wide world of politics, and for some reason you popped into my mind. “He’s a damn fine writer who’s gonna make it big someday” I thought to myownself. And this post only adds to that belief. It’s a creatively constructed, tight, very well written and well argued piece. Even someone who rejects to content would agree with that. Unless they’re a rabid partisan. Or a Corey Robin h8tr.

    As for the content … well, I agree.Report

    • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

      “He’s a damn fine writer who’s gonna make it big someday”

      If he’s lucky.

      Mostly kidding, but not entirely. Elias is talented, passionate, and smart, and if I had faith that that always got rewarded as it should be, I’d agree 100%. But, you know, Van Gogh died broke and Walter Keane was a milionarie.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Jokes on you. This was actually written by a capuchin on a typewriter, prodded on with cucumbers and grapesReport

    • Avatar Scott says:

      When will Elias give credit to all those who are responsible for his success?Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Well he did mention the monkeys in the title. Maybe the little x-1 thing on the bottom is one of the co-author’s little monkey signatures.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          This is one of the things that bugs me. It does seem that there is a great deal of room in which one could say that Elias is doing nothing that anyone with his advantages could do. Indeed, it’s entirely unsurprising that Elias writes as well as he does. We should be pushing for everyone to be able to write like Elias rather than thinking it’s so great that Elias used his advantages the way that anybody would.

          Meanwhile, it’s the Libertarians who are left saying “man, he’s good at that to the point where I wish he were on my side.”Report

  7. Avatar TechnoPeasantX says:

    We can’t discuss Mitts foreign policy for fear he has none.
    We can’t discuss Mitts personal finances for fear he’s taken privileged advantage.
    We can’t discuss Mitts governorship for fear he looks like Obama’s best pick for Veep.
    We can’t discuss his business experience for fear he personally pioneered outsourcing for profit.

    Romney isn’t capable of fixing the economy because it’s people just like him that brought us to this point in the first place.
    During the financial crisis, Citigroup hired Bain & Co to determine how to separate its commercial and investment banking operations.
    They concluded “tax considerations” made a breakup “inefficient”.

    “The untroubled self-confidence of the psychopath seems almost like an impossible dream …”

  8. Avatar Glyph says:

    Elias, I hate to pile on, but when the alpha capuchin (the very definition of the 1%!) tries to rip out the throat of a beta challenger that he catches sidling up to one of the females, do you also think that that natural, evolved behavior is one we should endeavor to design our society around? IIRC, this arrangement is a common one amongst primates (bonobos notably excepted) and many other animals besides.

    And from here it looks like the monkeys are saying ‘Eff you, I got mine; but I want *yours* instead.’

    As TVD notes, not unusual, in fact entirely natural; but nothing to elevate to to the lofty plain of ‘justice’ either.

    I really don’t think this cuts the way you want it to.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I don’t think Elias is looking to nature for confirmation of our values (I hope). Rather, he’s responding to the conservative view which does commit the naturalistic fallacy by showing that fairness is at least in this one example a natural phenomenon.

      And it worked! That’s precisely what TVD zoned in on!Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Huh. I guess I missed the point, I too focused on the monkeys (what can I say? I like monkeys.)


        “I’m Better Than You (also known as Fuck You; I Got Mine) is pretty odious, certainly rude.
        Yet this proposition is one of the few GOP dogmas to which I suspect Romney honestly subscribes”.

        I am no special fan of Romney, but…really? The FYIGM stuff again? If I thought he really thought that, I guess I could see the point of this piece. Sort of. Maybe.

        Though ‘People want more than they have, and respond negatively when they see that others have more and are not inclined to share it with them’ strikes me as a trivial observation.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          I am no special fan of Romney, but…really? The FYIGM stuff again? If I thought he really thought that, I guess I could see the point of this piece. Sort of. Maybe.

          The OP is an attempt to establishes that claim. That’s what Elias is arguing, not what he’s presupposing to make the argument go thru.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            I just read the OP for the third time, and I still see no support for that claim. This post is obviously red meat for you Stillwater, but to me it just reads a mess.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill says:

      You bring up a good point. This is not the most pleasant aspect of human nature. A few weeks back I was in my favorite coffeehouse in Redstone. The proprietor was talking to some regulars about the state of our country. Groups of which they had some very negative feelings: Illegal immigrants, “orientals”, and the super-wealthy. Mitt Romney came up, and he was considered the exemplar of the last group. Oh, then they talked about Mormons.

      It was not a very pleasant conversation. I was thankful to be sitting on the other side of their long establishment. Anyhow, the above grouping of thoughts/views is not particularly a coincidence. Rather, it was the expression of very human and natural impulses that we, as a society, try to move beyond.

      Now, having said all that, it’s also not a part of our nature we can simply ignore. If we want people to work, that our lives are so dependent on comparative few people that are there in good part because they were born into it is a problem. If we want people to work, we don’t want them to feel like their accomplishments were luck, but we also don’t want them to feel like they are running a treadmill while others get concrete. These feelings are there, whether it’s politicians voicing them or not, and if you’re going to address it, you do have to voice it.Report

    • Avatar Jason M. says:

      I don’t think you or TVD appreciate how acknowledging a natural basis for fairness undercuts volumes of mockery conservatives had previously laid at the feet of all those hippy-dippy liberals with their crazy, unrealistic, utopian ideas, like this so-called “fairness”. If fairness can claim membership in our kludgy mosaic of instincts, then it deserves more serious consideration than conservatives and libertarians have heretofore given it.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        Anyone who’s had a sibling appreciates envy just fine, bro. As for using it for the basis of a moral system, it’s not mockery so much as despair: you can’t teach Plato to a monkey, and I don’t see this going anywhere either.Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          Strange scientists, sittin’ in labs, distributin’ grapes, is no basis for a system of morality! – Dennis the CapuchinReport

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Help me distinguish this instinct of ‘fairness’ from an instinct of ‘greed’ or ‘envy’.

        Because I really am having a hard time understanding how coveting thy neighbor’s grape is any more noteworthy or righteous than coveting his wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour’s. 🙂Report

        • Avatar Jason M. says:

          Joe watches his kindergarten teach pass out grapes. Joe is excited, since Joe likes grapes. Everyone in class gets a grape, except Joe.

          Joe thinks this is unfair, but clearly, Joe is just envious.


          Joe watches his kindergarten teach pass out grapes. Joe is excited, since Joe likes grapes. Everyone in class gets a grape, except Billy.

          Joe thinks this is unfair, but clearly, Joe is just envious by proxy.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            Well, we’ve graduated from being capuchins to being kindergartners, so I suppose that is an improvement.

            Hopefully there will always be a nice scientist or teacher to provide grapes for us.Report

            • Avatar Jason M. says:

              Joe watches his kindergarten teacher pass out grapes. Joe is excited, since Joe likes grapes. Everyone in class gets a grape, except Joe.

              Joe thinks this is unfair, but clearly, Joe is just envious.


              Joe watches his kindergarten teacher pass out grapes. Joe is excited, since Joe likes grapes. Everyone in class gets a grape, except Billy.

              Joe thinks this is unfair, but clearly, Joe is just a figment of Jason M.’s imagination, but who would believe anyone would give a flying fish if Billy got a grape or not?Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Jason M., in the experiment the capuchin got cukes, and were seemingly perfectly happy with same – until their neighbor got grapes. The urge to keep up with the Jonesuchins is natural, but I fail to see why it is incumbent upon anyone but the Smithuchins to take action to try to close that gap.

                If Joe got cukes in his lunch, and Billy got grapes in his – neither made their own lunch – why exactly should I care? Let ’em trade, if they are both agreeable. (Actually, I suspect both are enviously eyeing Carl’s lunch, which contains Cheetos, but no WAY is Cheeto Carl giving THOSE up).

                But neither one is going hungry, which is the point at which others may reasonably be expected to step in, in the name of mercy.Report

              • Avatar Jason M. says:

                “I fail to see why it is incumbent upon anyone but the Smithuchins to take action to try to close that gap.”

                This is where we hit a wall, since I can’t communicate the difference between fairness expressed as mere self interest, and fairness expressed as empathy toward others if you only recognize the former, and not the latter.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Empathy does not significantly change the equation until someone is going without. Cukes to grapes don’t cut it.

                Say my son Billy comes home and complains ‘Carl got Cheetos in his lunch, dad, EVERYONE gets Cheetos in their lunch, why do I always get stupid grapes?’

                I am not unsympathetic to Billy’s pain.

                But grapes it is, until he starts making his own lunches.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck says:

            “Everyone in class gets a grape, except Joe.”

            And this happens because…?

            (“because the essence of capitalism is being a dick to people for no apparent reason and no personal benefit!”, cries the strawman leftist.)Report

  9. Avatar MFarmer says:

    If the coalition grew so that a powerful majority rigged the redistributive system so as to provide luxury to the PartyMembers, we’d see how much fairness matters to the monkeys in control when the minority which is screwed fights back for what they see as an unfair theft of private property.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 says:

      You are singing the Occupy tune.

      They are way ahead of you in protesting unfair mortgage evictions by banksters who have rigged the system to provide luxury to party members.


      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        Seeing as how I’ve protested such rigging of the game since the late 60s, I doubt Occupy is ahead of me.You are so cute and funny when you try to diss, then trip ignorantly over your tactics. It’s Chaplinesque almost. You are stuck in partisan bias — I protest both parties, any party that attempts to rig the game and steal private property.Report

      • Avatar scott says:

        Which unfair mortgage evictions are you speaking of? Seems to me OWS doesn’t like any eviction.Report

  10. Avatar Shelley says:

    God help the corporations if we ever start throwing food.Report

  11. Avatar Roger says:

    So, Elias has decided that our lot in life is pretty much all a matter of luck. Hard work, creativity and good institutions are just irrelevant, I suppose. No need to get an education. No need to get a job in a field demanded/desired by consumers. No need to avoid getting pregnant before finding a reliable husband. No need to plan and prepare for the future.

    Do you guys not see what a sick fished up bunch of crap liberals are buying into? Yeah, these are great ideas!*

    But the real surprise is that Elias “assumes a grape” and wonders why we can’t all just distribute them fairly. If you all find some grapes lying around, I encourage you to spread them around evenly. If you ask the little monkeys to actually work, plan, take risks, delay gratification and so on to RAISE grapes, I suggest you not try the even distribution route. Human primates will view that as unfair and the result is North Korea.

    *this post is so absolutely wacky that I suspect it is a joke actually to see what he can get other mindless liberals to agree to.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 says:

      Why yes, we liberals do believe that!
      We believe that no one should ever work, ever for anything!

      And yes, we are wildly envious of your obvious hard work, your brawny courage and near-magical skill which allowed you to outrun all the other cheetahs and bring down that gazelle!

      Seriously, man. Do you guys really think that you alone work, that you, and only you, are smart and skilled and educated?

      Yeah of course hard work and skill matters; but what we are saying is that:

      1. Luck- blind, dumb, stupid, struck-by-lightning luck, accounts for a very great of success, especially in the financial casino where the greatest wealth is concentrated. Who is begrudging a brillian surgeon his income? But plenty of people question whether a silver spoon hedge fund manager needs to really make a windfall of billions of dollars when:

      2 He doesn’t earn it from skill, but from fucking cheating, rentseeking and insider trading and tilting the roulette wheel.

      Is there anyone alive in America who is such a fool as to try and say with a straight face that the Wall Street investment bankers actually deserve their wealth? After all we have seen over the past decade, can anyone dare to make that claim?Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Nice way to reframe the issue, Lib. Elias states he and Obama see success as a matter of luck. I point out that this is the absolutely nucking futtiest idea I have ever heard and your defense is to shift the argument to cheating hedge fund managers and crony capitalists.

        I assure you I am fine with using electric shocks to discourage rent seeking monkeys. Let them eat cucumber.

        Let me be real clear. A successful life has never been as good or as easy to achieve as for the last few generations of Americans. Get an education. Get married before having kids. Work hard and respectfully in a field which adds value to the human race (an honest job people voluntarily pay you well to perform). Plan for the future, prepare for emergencies and teach your kids the same. Nothing in life is a sure thing, but this is the recipe for all the grape pie we will ever need.

        If you want to ruin your kids, instead tell them that life is all a matter of luck, favoritism and cheating. In other words raise them as progressives.Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 says:

          What makes you think that the millions of working class people who are seeing their wages and living standards collapse haven’t done exactly as you suggest?

          Again, you cling to this myth that the targets of our anger are those who are genuinely successful.
          It isn’t.
          You insist that the status quo is fair.
          It isn’t.

          There are as many lazy, parasitic Wall Street billonaires as there are lazy shiftless welfare recipients.

          One group is well connected and gets handouts measured by billions.
          The other gets hundreds, and has to pee in a cup to get it.Report

        • Avatar Rod says:

          Except no one is saying what you’re accusing libs of saying. Apparently reading comprehension wasn’t part of your education to prepare you for your success.

          What libs are saying shouldn’t really be so controversial; luck is a component of success. Not all, but undeniably a part. Did Mitt acquire his hundreds of millions entirely on his own talent and hard work? Or did maybe the cash he inherited from his father, George, along with the obvious political and business connections that go with that play a part as well? Did he “earn” his parents?Report

          • Avatar Roger says:

            Let’s grade my reading comprehension, then.

            ” If it’s not brains or work that account for success, what is it? The answer must be … luck. Not maybe entirely luck, but luck to a great degree.”

            “… to the extend that success is undeserved, the successful have no very strong claim to the proceeds of their success.”

            “Obama is indicating a possibility that the wealthy should be taxed … because their wealth is to a great extent an accident of fate.”

            “… it rings true to me. I certainly operate under a generally unconscious assumption that life is, by and large, chaos (or, if you prefer, luck). I don’t think I’m much different from any other over-educated left-of-center individual with an antennae for the prevailing social norms; so it’s a fair jump to say that if I’ve reached this conclusion, the President likely has too. Anyone who has experienced a liberal arts education has at the very least encountered this strain of thought.”

            You and Stillwater and Kazzy keep trying to rewrite Elias’ post as a defense of luck as a component of success. Clearly, indisputably, Elias is saying that “to a great degree” and “a great extent”, “by and large” the success of the wealthy is due to luck and that they therefore have little or no claim to the proceeds of their actions.

            Do you guys really agree with what Elias wrote, or are you just projecting what you wish he had wrote and giving your projection a thumbs up?Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Elias never said that the wealthy don’t have a legitimate claim to their income. His point, as I understand it, was this: given that luck is a large determiner of success, the conservative belief that financial success is an indicator of individual effort (hard work and bootstraps and all that) – and further, that people who aren’t financially successful are therefore lazy or incompetent – is plain old false. If you want to draw some conclusions about anti-capitalistic fever dreams about that claim, feel free. But those conclusions – it seems to me – are fever dreams of their own, where even the mere suggestion that wealthy people may have achieved financial success due to anything less than their own genius, acumen and individual efforts is taken as an insult and a call for socialistic restructuring of society.

              So your reaction to his post confirms his thesis.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                “Elias never said that the wealthy don’t have a legitimate claim to their income.”

                The second quote above says exactly what you say he didn’t say. Maybe you meant to argue that he didn’t really mean it. Or that you don’t want to believe it.

                They say the mark of a great philosopher is that they are so confusing that people will argue for centuries on what the hell they meant, and they can never be proven wrong, because someone can always argue they are actually just misunderstood. The controversy becomes eternal. Elias should consider philosophy.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                FWIW, that quote was not Elias’s, but an article he quoted.

                As for the quote itself, I think you are misreading it.

                The phrase, “The extent to which…” matters quite a bit. It is not saying that the wealthy/successful are wholly undeserving of a legitimate claim to their income. It is saying that they are not entitled to the amount of their income that is a result of luck. How much of their income is a result of luck is up for debate. If you believe that that the entirety of their income is wholly determined by luck, then, yes, it would follow that you believe they have no legitimate claim to their income. If you believe that it is partially attributable to luck, then they are entitled to that which is not attributable to luck. So on and so forth. And that is if you accept the initial premise that we are only entitled to that which is not attributable to luck (which I personally don’t).

                But I don’t think Elias quoting another author’s piece that includes a modifier such as “To the extent that” is equivalent to Elias saying the wealthy can’t lay claim to their income.

                Me? I think folks can fairly make legitimate claim to their income regardless of how much luck was a factor in them acquiring it. What bothers me is when we start attaching moral and value judgements to those claims. Folks quickly go from “He’s more successful” to “He worked harder” to “He’s a better person”. No no, I say.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                My problem is (once again) moving from “they are not entitled to the amount of their income that is a result of luck” to “it’s my job to act as I imagine God would, in my place, and make things *RIGHT* again.”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I concur. I’m not arguing for some sort of luck intervention. Just an acknowledgement of what really happened.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                The second quote above says exactly what you say he didn’t say.

                That’s funny. Here’s the quote from Elias:

                “… to the extend that success is undeserved, the successful have no very strong claim to the proceeds of their success.”

                Here’s what I wrote:

                “Elias never said that the wealthy don’t have a legitimate claim to their income.”

                You think one refutes the other? I think you need to re-read them to tease out the distinction.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                You really need to help me tease out the distinction. He said three times that it’s largely, to a great extent and a great degree based on luck and to the extent it is based upon luck they don’t have a very strong claim to the proceeds of their success. Did I flunk logic or something?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                …and to the extent it is based upon luck they don’t have a very strong claim to the proceeds of their success.

                That’s it!!!Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Actually, that’s not quite it (I got overly excited that you’ve taken the first step to figuring out the puzzle). It’s better to say (on my understanding of Elias’ post) that the degree to which financial success derives from luck is the degree to which the conservative claim that wealth is measure of merit is undermined.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Thumbwrestling in jello. Mostly, it’s been “Obama didn’t say it, and I agree with him.”Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Elias should consider philosophy.

                And you should lay off.

                Roger, if you don’t understand Elias, I can hardly blame him since you’ve demonstrated yet again (and again and again) in this thread that you don’t understand anything liberals say, even after they’ve told you explicitly what they mean by the words they use. The biggest stumbling block you have, it seems to me, is to processing everything a liberal says thru a filter which changes interprets everything a liberal says into horrific unqualified advocacy of Stalinism.

                You’ve admitted as much, tho maybe not in those exact words.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic says:

      Can I point out to you that luck egalitarianism isn’t such a wild idea. From day one we don’t get to choose our parentage. And furthermore, arbitrary things happen, I’d think in a country where some ridiculous amount of bankruptcies are linked to health care costs this would be a point worth considering. Social insurance in part is an attempt to respond to this matter of luck knocking perfectly well thought through lives into tailspins – even lives of people who considered themselves middle class can be knocked sideways, if not a notch or two down the socioeconomic spectrum due to recessions. And what’s more, the prescription you outline sounds very well and good on paper, but you know, sh*t happens in peoples’ lives that doesn’t fit into that absolutely perfect scheme. Ill parents, children, siblings, marital breakdown, abuse, ill health… the list goes on and on of sh*t can seriously hamper the well charted course. All that said, you have an inkling of a point buried in your viscous strawmanning of luck egalitarianism, but I’d point out that liberals by and large aren’t advocating a fatalistic perspective of birth equals destiny. I’d point to one of the founding texts of the liberal/social insurance/welfare state architecture as explicitly recognizes some of what you identify liberals as being so thoroughly in ignorance of. Principles number 2 and 3 of the Beveridge Report:

      Social insurance is only one part of a “comprehensive policy of social progress”. The five giants on the road to reconstruction were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

      Policies of social security “must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual”, with the state securing the service and contributions. The state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family”.


      • Avatar Roger says:

        My vicious straw-manning was an honest take at what Elias wrote. I am not suggesting there is no such thing as bad luck. I’d recommend we plan on it. Thus the need for insurance, not putting all our eggs in one basket, and safety nets. Most importantly, when you fail once, try something else. Hard work, time and prudence can counteract 99.9% of luck.

        If Elias was arguing we prepare for bad luck I would agree. He isn’t.

        This world view is totally bankrupt, both morally and intellectually.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      re: ‘this post is so absolutely wacky that I suspect it is a joke’

      I have read the OP and the assorted links multiple times and I still can’t make it gel in any way that makes sense to me.

      So yeah, ever get the feeling you’ve been trolled?

      Maybe I am just really sleepy. I will try to re-read the OP once more again tomorrow to see if there is anything I can salvage from it.Report

  12. Avatar Scott Fields says:

    Elias –
    I think Frum’s got it all wrong on the role of luck. It’s true nobody deserves luck, but it is luck combined with merit that leads to substantial success. Missy Franklin was born with the ideal swimmer’s body, but it’s the hours in the pool that will win her all the medals this month. And while it’s true that no number of hours in the pool was likely to overcome my physique to the point of Olympic glory, I don’t spend any time thinking that is unfair.
    So, thanks for the link to Digby, because I think she really is much more on track here:

    The central idea of our modern society was just that we would try to provide opportunity for everyone to be prepared to take advantage of the upside when it comes along and provide some cushion for everyone on the downside. That’s it. The whole thing was just an attempt to even out the odds a little bit. And frankly, as Chris Hayes so smartly shows in his book, our current problems can be boiled down to the simple fact that lucky people who have everything are determined to make sure that it’s all upside for them — and all downside for everyone else.

    There is no factoring luck out of life. Some measure of inequality, partly due to luck and partly due to merit, is inevitable and even necessary. But, we’ve come to a place where the lucky/meritorious have taken the advantages they’ve earned or won and used that advantage to rig the game so that bad luck and failing performance can no longer touch them. It is less about the fairness than the cheating.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I have seen a lot of articles touch on this point.

      The Meritocracy might have made the old-WASP rule more democratic and inclusive but it has largely stopped being a meritocracy. Now we have a possibly more horrible system: Something that has all the worst elements of the old-WASP system (rigged, did you attend the right schools? Do they right activities? etc) but with enough actual work thrown in* that the meritocracy can convince itself that it is all hard work.

      This is not to say we should return to the old-WASP system though.

      *The day of the Gentlemen C is over. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc still matter but you have to do well.Report

      • Avatar Mr. Blue says:

        Here’s what throws me for a loop: Why would we ever expect the government to overthrow or even help us with the pseudo-meritocracy? I don’t even mean rent-seeking. I mean, what colleges do you think the people who reach the upper rungs of power went to? What kind of families?Report

        • Avatar NewDealer says:

          I went to one of those colleges for undergrad. While I will never reach the upper-rungs of power, I have known more than my fair share of people to reach the wedding pages of the NYTimes. Also known as the merger and acquisitions page.

          IIRC, meritocracy was not meant to be a good term. The original sociologist who coined the term imagined something like the present state happening. However, society ignored that.

          So is there anything that can break a pseudo-meritocracy? Probably not completely. This is a wicked problem in that there are no full solutions. Only reforms that can make things better or worse.

          As I said before, nepotism is a tricky issue. It is natural for people to want to help their off-spring in as many ways as possible. Though what counts as help differs wildly through culture or culture. A lot of cultures and people think you help your children by unceremoniously kicking them out at 18. When I lived in Japan, a lot of my UK housemates told me that they were required by their parents to pay “rent” while in high school. The sum was not high but it was not low either. I thought this was madness but I grew up in an area where parents could and did pay their children healthy allowances (again not too low or too high) because said parents wanted their children to concentrate on school and not be distracted by after-school jobs. This would continue until the grad school level for a sizable chunk of my classmates.

          Both sides will go in circles about which helps children more and never reach a consensus.

          Nepotism is also something that goes across socio-economic cultures in many ways. I know many people who would decry someone who went to work for their parent’s law firm or financial firm as being a “little rich kid”. They might even argue that if your dad was a lawyer, you should not become a lawyer and forge your own path. However, the same people would also be accepting of someone whose dad or mom got them a spot in the police or fire department because said kid “has been bred to be a policeman or a fireman”

          I find it odd that it is acceptable to breed kids into some family professions but not others. As far as I can tell, the dividing line is on profitability. If the business needs to employ family members to survive, hiring your son and daughter is okay especially if it is a non-educated type of job like being a waitress or manning the front desk. If the job requires a degree or training, hiring your son and daughter is dirty, dirty nepotism. Same if it is a desirable career like art and media.

          All of this adds to my belief that most human discourse is resentment and counter-resentment.Report

  13. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    There is a sense in which everything is luck. Were it not for the exact parameters of the Big Bang, nothing would be quite as it is right now: I might have been born a liberal, and Elias might have been born without his superior writing talent.

    Which means everything is arbitrary and we can grab whatever we think we like.

    The problem with this argument is not that today’s American liberals are making it. It’s that they are blithely making congruent arguments, arguments that in exactly the same fashion prove far too much: Because monkeys are capable of perceiving a blatant unfairness, well, obviously, vote Democratic. Or something.

    Other than that, I can’t improve on Roger’s third paragraph of 7:26PM. If rewards fell like manna from heaven, then we would be justified in distributing them equally. But they don’t. They have to be manufactured first, and it’s not necessarily the case that equal shares are always best.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Fair enough. And I don’t think Obama or even Elias would disagree with Roger’s take on things. I mean, one of the fundamental premises that liberals adhere to is that individual effort is required for personal success. What they reject is that success is evidence of effort. The claim in play is that success is comprised of many things: effort, luck, that other people “built that”.

      I think this one of those areas where anti-liberals are foisting a strawman on us: they think we think there are no just deserts. I don’t think Elias or Obama would agree to that. (I mean, even Elias said that the world is “largely” determined by luck – he didn’t say “entirely”.) So the liberal suggestion on the table is that deserts don’t map 1:1 onto individual merit. They are often more than what’s deserved. And that claim – that rewards aren’t entirely justified by effort – is something that conservatives go nuts about.Report

      • Avatar Terrence Fischer says:

        This statement defies logic:
        “I mean, one of the fundamental premises that liberals adhere to is that individual effort is required for personal success. What they reject is that success is evidence of effort.”

        If effort is a requirement for success then any time success has occured, effort has been applied. Therefore, when you see success you know effort has been put in and you thus have evidence that effort occured.

        Perhaps you meant to say the liberals don’t believe effort will always result in success??? The “anti-liberals” would agree with you on that.

        You say “the anti-liberals are foisting a strawman”. It is the liberals that are foisting a supposed strawman up as a “anti-liberal” belief, and then attacking it. Republicans and Conservatives do not espouse the idea of a 1:1 map. No one believes every person that puts in the exact same effort will get the exact same result. The author’s tactic (and one you are repeating in your post) is to infer Republicans believe in a 1:1 relationship, show it’s not true, then conclude that no one should vote for Mitt Romney.

        The author goes a step farther than the usual. He makes the bold leap that because he tells you Republicans believe there is a 1:1 relationship (even though no republican does believe that), Romney believes he is better than you specifically. Like the author says, that isn’t a winning campaign slogan, so he is trying to create it as a banner for the Romney campaign.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          I think you might be confusing “personal success” with “financial success”. I wasn’t confusing the two.

          The author’s tactic (and one you are repeating in your post) is to infer Republicans believe in a 1:1 relationship, show it’s not true, then conclude that no one should vote for Mitt Romney.

          The author’s tactic, which I agree with, is to undermine the prevailing conservative idea that financial success is evidence of merit or just desert. That’s about it, really.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        You may be right, Stillwater. I hope you are. But why is this study with the monkeys a “favorite”? It seems utterly uninteresting to me.Report

    • Avatar Mr. Blue says:

      So… I’ve gotta ask the question: If we all agree that distributing everything equally is not the way to go, how big should the discrepancy be between two people who are working 50 hours a week before we should be worried? Some people work their way up and others don’t, and that’s all understandable, but how high should one ladder go compared to the next? Especially when the ladders that go higher are also more pleasant ladders to be on? More pleasant jobs, I mean.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:


        I assume you are familiar with the benefits of allowing supply and demand to establish price signals to inform us of the most efficient use of our labor? A worthless job doing nothing of any value to anyone should earn zero if the market functions properly. There is no limit to the upper end. Restrictions to open markets will distort market signals and throw sand in the gains in prosperity. Those benefitting most by free markets have been those on the bottom.Report

        • Avatar Mr. Blue says:

          Relying on supply and demand is awesome, just as long as you happen to have access to the skills and training to get you on one of the higher ladders. Connections don’t hurt, either. Some people are born in short-ladder neighborhoods. It’s not about an unwillingness to climb, but lacking access to higher ladders. At some point, you’re working every bit as hard, at a less pleasant job, for lower wages than the next guy. That’s fair, cause we can’t expect everyone to get the same, but is there no discrepancy you’d consider cause for alarm?

          I don’t know why I’m getting on this particular soapbox today. I hit my low several years ago and worked my way back with long hours and some risk. But something about “Hey, we get the important jobs and so we make more. Deal with it!” that would kind of piss me off if I didn’t have any access to the good jobs.Report

          • Avatar Roger says:

            The supply and demand signals are the message and the feedback mechanism that ensures people listen. The lower the wage goes relative to another the more they are signaling that someone can make a lot of money by adjusting their behavior to try to fill the gap.

            The market is saying “switch careers!” louder and louder. I recommend we listen to it and that we do not try to muffle it. In a free market the wealthy don’t get rich by taking from others but by adding value to others. Their rewards are proportionate to how much they cooperate with others.

            I would not limit free market wages on either end. Do note though that I am a big fan of productive social safety nets for the poor and that I suspect CEOs and some other professions are not playing fair. I could be wrong though.Report

        • Avatar b-psycho says:

          Yes, price signals communicating supply and demand are quite excellent, I agree. However, it is questionable how much they have to do with compensation at the top in some cases. Executive pay, for example: CEO-to-average-employee ratio varies wildly among the advanced nations of the global economy with no real correlation to result. When it comes to within the U.S. specifically, the correlation emerges…and it’s a negative-skewing one.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            However, it is questionable how much they have to do with compensation at the top in some cases.

            There’s that. But also, to bring things back to the underlying topic here, the issue isn’t compensation perse, it’s the effective tax rate imposed on the highest earners, which requires a different type of answer.Report

          • Avatar Roger says:

            I suspect you are right on this point. My experience with boards is that there is way too much intermarriage and privilege.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          Tell it to the farm workers and the guys who pluck the chickens. Without them, we wouldn’t eat. The market is functioning perfectly for them. They get paid crap wages.

          Oh, but then again, they’re not Americans. They’re Mexicans. They don’t have workers’ rights or recourse to justice when their wages aren’t paid. I guess that’s part of the price signalling circuit, too. Only that switch is open and their signal shunts to ground. Same with the waitresses and all the other scut workers out there who do the work we don’t want to do. That’s efficiency for you. Their work doesn’t generate a back-propagating signal.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

            Their work doesn’t generate a back-propagating signal.

            Their work? I think you mean their lives in their entirety, biological life itself being a great source of market inefficiency.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

            come to think of it life in all sense of the term – animal life, social life, spiritual life… life is a great problem for markets.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              A problem and a solution, both. Without someone or some poor animal to exploit, civilisation would grind to a standstill. But as you say, if there was only some way of just telling the poor to STFU and be properly grateful for not being ground to hamburger…. gosh, the world would be a much nicer place, don’t you think? All that weeping and bellowing. You’d think the poor would have the decency to suffer in silence, but they don’t.Report

          • Avatar Roger says:

            Why don’t you and all the other “dummies in charge” wave your magic wand and establish the proper wage rates for chicken pluckers and waitresses? If the market says a job is worth little, it is a signal and incentive to switch to something else somewhere else.

            And this is not about poverty. If you are arguing for living standards there are great ways to supplement their living expenses in ways that don’t distort market signals.

            But really, your comment was even more absurd than usual even for you. Waitressing is a great source of middle class wages. Sorry if it beneath you. And you need to ask why these Mexicans are willingly fleeing here to get these jobs inAmerica as opposed to Central America. The reaon is because hard work still pays here. Not LUCK. They don’t come here because the liberals will bless them with more luck.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              A magic wand? For this task, naught but a knobbly old shillelagh will do. Those chickens will require plucking in any event and it’s dirty, nasty work. I recommend the employer find Americans who will do that work or be shut down on the spot. It’s not the kind of work you can offshore, chicken plucking.

              Clearly you’ve never worked as a waiter, Roger. Middle class wages, my ass. A server doesn’t even make minimum wage. Jeebus, what planet are you from, Roger?Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                The big lesson I learned from my days waiting tables was that I was damn happy that I wasn’t raising a kid on that wage.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Their reported earnings average $10 an hour. If you really waited tables though my guess is you will question what is reported.


                My guess is that this puts a family of two american waiters in the top 90% of income worldwide.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                tell me, sir, do you boycott those places that refuse to pay overtime to their employees?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Guess again. Clearly you’ve never actually been a waiter. Let me tell you how this works. You have to report your gross, which starts with an hourly wage of about $2.50 and add tips. Then you have to tip the busboys and the bartender. The restaurant can and often does put its hand in the tip jar as well.

                So let’s say you earned 21,000 a year, rounding up. Then subtract tip outs, that works out to ten percent for the bartender and about the same for the busboy, the busboy is working for $2.50 an hour and he’s utterly dependent on waitress tips to make a living. So that’s 20% right off the top, let’s add on five percent from the owner’s hand in the tip jar, you’re already at a 25% bite.

                So much for your BLS data. The waitress is subsidising the restaurant from the tip jar. She doesn’t get to deduct that 25% from her taxes. Now re-run your numbers and guess again how much she actually makes. Factor in slow nights, skips, hot plate burns, bad tippers and the like. As I said, you really don’t understand what you’re talking about here.

                I ran a restaurant for many years. I ran my operation with open books. My cooks and wait staff were acutely aware they were being paid a percentage of the day’s take. My problem was this: Quetzaltenango is both a tourist town and a university town. I needed to retain competent wait staff for three shifts, bakery and breakfast in the early morning, lunch and then a jazz bar at night. Three complete shifts with three complete setups. Might as well have been three separate businesses. It’s still going after 25 years, on the same basis, many of the same staff.

                I paid those people a percentage, not out of the goodness of my heart but from sound business principles: I needed to eliminate theft and retain staff and avoid a constant payroll expense. It worked. Any restaurant could do the same if they wanted to retain their staff.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                I worked as a waiter and made good money, had a blast. We’d close up, then I, the owner and his wife would sit at the bar and drink scotch. He set me up to do a cruise gig out of Miami, but I got sidetracked on the way through Florida. Shit, I loved waiting. I lived in a trailer, ate good, slept late and partied my ass off.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                A couple of things that I learned from the waitpeople at my restaurant (I was the assistant floor something or other):

                They love cash tips and hate credit card tips. Credit card tips are officially on the books while cash tips aren’t. So you are forced to declare credit card tips while cash tips require the waitperson to say what they did and didn’t make. I overheard experienced waitstaff explaining to young waitstaff how to best balance how you declare credit card tips vs. cash tips. (General rule: never never never never declare cash, are you crazy, etc) (Of course, this was in the 90’s when you were equally likely to have cash transactions as credit card ones… Lord knows, they’re probably 95% credit card transactions today)

                A good busser is worth his/her weight in gold. The best waitpeople fought over the best bussers. A good busser got tipped by waitstaff well, pulled aside, and promises of even better tips were made if they spent more time in their own section. Bussers with gumption fought to work for the good servers… until they became servers themselves. At which point they fought for the good bussers.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                Additional fun fact about servers: management can’t admit it, but they also love it when servers underreport income (and don’t get caught). A reduction in payroll tax obligation for the waiter is also a reduction in payroll tax obligation for the employer.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Re: Jaybird’s comment on waits and bussers. I spent several summers working in Yellowstone. I was in a cafeteria (no tips), but on the other side of the building was a service restaurant. I knew of a server who never shared tips with bussers, then complained because he could never get his tables bussed quickly, so he wasn’t getting as many customers. He was told pretty bluntly why the bussers wouldn’t work for him, but he was too shortsighted to ever really grasp it.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                So you are playing both roles? You are like a Nike Board member taking to the streets and protesting sweat shop wages?

                “oh no, we aren’t talking about our sweatshop laborers, just the ones Adidas hires!”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I’d just like to say that I am delighted that we haven’t had That Guy show up to explain how much he hates tipping and how much better things are back in whatever culture he was raised in.

                I hate That Guy.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                A server’s base rate is below minimum wage. But a server who doesn’t make even minimum wage is a really lousy server.

                Of course how much you actually make varies by establishment. The customers at Denny’s don’t tip like the folks at Le Chic Patisserie.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                Note that the reason servers don’t make minimum wage is because of laws saying they don’t have to.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                A better way of putting that would be that Servers are paid an hourly rate below minimum wage because they are primarily paid in tips. The market absolutely would not clear if servers were taking home the $2.13 that most of them make per hour.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Yes, tips, that’s what I was saying. You want servers to get the same minimum wage as burger flippers? Fine by me, but don’t expect me to tip them 15-20% anymore.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                If waiters were primarily paid hourly, I wouldn’t expect you to. But since they aren’t, Mr. Pink is a dick.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                But tips came first, not minimum wage laws. The exemption in the minimum wage laws is a response to the custom of tipping, the custom of tipping is not a response to minimum wage laws.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                That’s all true. Honestly, I’ve lost track of what we’re disagreeing about.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Umm, I’m a morally superior human being and you’re a satanic demon, or vice versa? That’s what most blog debates boil down to, right? 😉Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                “That’s all true. Honestly, I’ve lost track of what we’re disagreeing about.”

                When in doubt, just say something snarky that sounds authoritative.Report

  14. Avatar greginak says:

    Is it really to much to acknoledge that succsess is a product of luck and skill and effort. Because that seems pretty obvious to me. If you have two of those that is not bad as the kids say nowadays. Just one and you’re boned unless that one is you happen to be lucky enough to be born really rich.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      If by “boned” you mean better off than 99.9% of the humans that have ever lived or better than 90% of the humans alive today, then yeah, you are right. If “boned” means something else you are totally wrong.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Roger you make many thoughtful passionate defences of your beliefs. This is absolutely not one of them. That life is sweet here in the 21 st US of A doesn’t mean problems we have aren’t real. Its great if you have fast Internet but if you can’t get access to modern health care then you aren’t all that much better then someone a few decades ago. If you only have one of the three then life is likely to be rough. If i said life is great now so just pipe down about regulatory capture then i can’t imagine you agreeing.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          life is great now so just pipe down about regulatory capture


          • Avatar Roger says:


            Life is tough. Entropy is a bitch. Agreed.

            Humans have collectively learned how to paddle against the stream of entropy. How to prosper for at least a while before sickness or old age pulls us back down. One of the great breakthroughs of cultural progress is our institutions. Free enterprise is an institution which incentivizes everyone to serve everyone else. As in any system there is an element of luck. But the way to optimize ones likelihood of success is to use creativity, planning and focus to optimize rewards aka wages and profits. You don’t win the game by sitting down and talking about luck. You play the game and listen to the signals.

            Elias is recommending that do focus on luck. Further he is recommending that we change the rules of the game in such a way that the institution is destroyed. Regulatory capture and socialism both destroy the system that allows our poor to lead better lives than prior eras rich.Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              Roger- That wasn’t the point you were trying to make by saying how great everything is now. Just because life is good now it is still reasonable to want to make things better, whether that is through getting rid of reg capture or trying to make capitalism work better. Free enterprise is good, we just need to get the laws right, improve our institutions and make our social safety net better. As i said in another comment luck is certainly part of life, is it everything no of course not. But saying it is nothing is silly.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        And doesn’t that support greginak’s point? How hard did you work to be born American? Me? I mailed it in.Report

        • Avatar Scott says:

          So b/c I was born an American means that I didn’t accomplish anything on my own?Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Pretty much, yeah. You didn’t drive the Injuns off the land you live on nor did you fight in WW2 which established the USA as the pre-eminent nation in the world nor did you fight for civil rights for anyone or build the interstates or invent the Internet. Maybe you can explain your vast accomplishments to the rest of us. This ought to be good.Report

            • Avatar Scott says:

              I won’t try b/c they pale in comparison to all of your accomplishments. I know that anything that I’ve done, you have done more of and better around the world, blah blah bah.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I’m not the one who’s saying he did it on his own. Me, I had a whole lot of help along the way. I was lucky enough to be born an American. I know how lucky I was. You, brave man, have no clue just how good you’ve got it as an American. And when anyone tries to tell you how much you inherited from people who did accomplish something on your behalf, strut around like a little banty rooster, crowing and kicking.

                Now you did ask the question. I’m telling you straight up, you have no goddamn idea how good you’ve got it and furthermore, based on your response, how little you deserve it.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “I’m not the one who’s saying he did it on his own. ”

                So all those posts from you where you claimed that we ought to respect your wisdom and intelligence and experience, that was all BS because you actually just got lucky?Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            No, but you were born on second with a post-‘clear’ Barry Bonds up next to hit.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            Fail. Why is greginak better off than 90% of humans alive? Did he work harder than all of them? Every last one? Or was at least some of that due in part to his having been born an American in the mid- to late-20th century? If the latter, now much credit can he take for that?

            Please do try to follow along. Or at least let adults like Roger weigh in.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          That is such a set up for a your momma joke.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          Please re read the OP. The argument isn’t that Americans are lucky and thus need to pay higher taxes; it is that the successful are. And I don’t even disagree that the wealthy will need to pay higher taxes. They will since nobody will cut waste.

          Yes, we are unimaginably lucky to be born when we are where we are. All of us are. The wealthy and the poor. Those with drive and those without.

          The reason we are so lucky is that we have institutions and norms which allow people to convert hard work and initiative and creativity into value for fellow humans. The greatest threat to this is to dismiss investment, risk, ingenuity and hard work to a dismissive “luck.”

          Elias is suggesting a truly repulsive notion. Like Blaise, he probably envisions himself in the role of the fruit dispenser. Join my team… Guaranteed grapes every day!Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:


            I don’t disagree with that. But you criticized greginak’s point by saying he was better off than 90% of people alive. That is by and large a function of him being born American.

            If we can acknowledge that, in a global scale, a certain percentage of success is related to luck (such as the likelihood of being born American), why can’t we ackowledge the same basic fact looking at a national scale. Luck probably plays less of a role in “success disparity” nationally than it does globally, but it still plays a role, along with a host of other factors. Investment, risk, ingenuity, and hard work also matter and, combined, likely moreso than luck.

            I can imagine telling twin brothers, both given equal opportunities, that one succeeded because of hard work if one busted ass and one was pit farting on a snare drum.
            Two kids from different households but same neighborhood? Maybe a bit of luck.
            Two kids, same citiy, one from the wealthy district, one from the poor, the former going to an elite private, the latter to a failing public? Equal parts of hard work likely don’t yield the same results. To what do we attribute that?
            Two kids, one in a wealthy suburb, one in rural Appalachia.
            Two kids, one able-bodied, one born paralyzed from the neck down.

            It seems as if some are arguing that luck is a verbotten, four-letter word, the mere utterance of will cause the downfall of American industriousness. That seems a bit much. And we are just as likely to destroy the industriousness of the unlucky by telling the, that they have earned their lot in life because they didn’t work hard in life as we are to destroy the industriousness of the lucky by saying they might not be fully entitled and deserving of their own success.

            Life isn’t a lottery. If anyone is indeed arguing that (and I don’t see anyone saying that), they are wrong. It is also not an absolute meritrocracy. I tend to view it as a game of Settlers of Cattan, something much easier to win via collaboration, largely decided by strategy (hard work), but still dependent upon the roll of dice (luck). If I bust by ass, employ anideal strategy, still lose, and am told, “You should have tried harder,” I likely don’t play again.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              “It seems as if some are arguing that luck is a verbotten, four-letter word”

              Ah-heh. “You had luck” is a true statement. “You got lucky” is the kind of thing that an eight-year-old says when the other team wins at kickball.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:


              There you go being all reasonable again!

              I basically agree. Life is a series of successes and failures, good luck and bad. Let’s focus on how we can make the most of the cards we are dealt, not just for one hand, but for every hand. If conservatives really do believe it is all about just desserts than they are full of it.Report

      • Avatar Scott Fields says:

        Smile, you’re better off than most Bangladeshis is a much better campaign slogan than I’m Better Than You. I can’t figure why libertarians can’t get elected to federal office.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          How about “be careful about screwing up the system that made your life better than 99.9% of the humans that ever lived?” Good intentions when combined with ignorance can be a bad combination. Anyone that thinks even distribution of grapes is a good idea pretty much slept through the last two hundred years of history and economics.

          The reason libertarians don’t tend to run for office is that we think it is wrong to tell others what to do. A libertarian politician is an oxymoron.Report

          • Avatar Scott Fields says:

            Roger –

            That’s not one I’ve heard before: libertarians don’t want to set policy, because it goes against their nature. I’m sorry to tell you, but I don’t think that approach is going to bring about the results you say you want. If libertarians aren’t going to lead us toward your ideals, who the hell do you think will?

            And, no one’s calling for even distribution of grapes here, not Elias, not Obama and certainly not me. As I state above, some measure of inequality, partly due to luck and partly due to merit, is inevitable and even necessary.

            But, I’m a believer that good intentions plus empiricism can be a good combination. And that the history and the economics of the last 30 years show a trend in the US where inequality has greatly increased while mobility has greatly decreased and where consistent growth in productivity has coincided with wage stagnation for the middle class. Since the explanations I’ve heard for these trends don’t begin to justify the extent of the rising disparities, I find these trends to be evidence that the rules have been changed to disproportionately advantage the oligarchs that are now setting the rules.

            As for my comment above, rest assured the oligarchs are grateful for Panglossians like you who will tell everyone to STFU and be grateful that they’re better off than others in the world or in the past. It is easier to hide the puppet strings being pulled when there is some distraction.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              Good morning, Scott,

              According to the inequality forum, the evidence is that mobility is normal in the US (compared to our past and other nations) in all categories except a subclass of the dysfunctional poor. The rich have gotten richer, but they are not a static class. Many of the richer rich came from lower classes in prior eras. Furthermore, in free enterprise the rich get richer by enriching others in a positive sum way. They do good as they get rich.

              Economists are almost unanimous in agreeing that the wage stagnation has occurred because of technological breakthroughs that have led to an oversupply of lower skilled labor. And for what it is worth, when looking at separate demographics every group has progressed economically over the past generation.


              Your comment on the puppeteers is especially inappropriate. I would agree that top down interference is wrong. I read Elias and you as wanting to create better puppeteers to hand out the grapes with more fairness. Let me be clear. I am on the side of no strings. You are the one trying to control the strings. You want to be the puppet master.Report

              • Avatar Scott Fields says:

                Good morning to you, too, Roger –

                I think you misread me. I have no interest in creating better puppeteers to hand out grapes with more fairness. (I don’t think that is what Elias is saying, either, but he can speak for himself.)

                I am saying that increasing unfairness to the degree we’ve seen in the last 40 years* should be taken as evidence of manipulation of the system by puppet masters you seem unwilling to acknowledge. It is a collusion between the state and the powerful few who have captured it. To dismiss unfairness as an issue is to give cover to that collusion.

                *I didn’t spend a ton of time in the inequality forum (I have a job, you know), but what I did read there and have read elsewhere does not support your claim that class mobility in the US is normal compared to history or other nations. (The first paragraph of your link makes clear the numbers presented are meant to counter the consensus. Once I saw they came from Conard, the agenda was clear.)Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                thanks for the reply Scott,

                I am retired, and I have absolutely no idea how some of these working commenters manage to spend so much time on this forum.

                Here was my guest post on mobility and inequality. Interestingly it also deals head on with the issue of bad luck. In this case of being born with shorter time horizons.


                The links in the OP by Winship hit on the issue of class mobility. By the way, I am not familiar with Conard’s background or agenda. Is the data wrong or misleading? If so, I apologize for linking it. I just read it yesterday and it came to mind.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            How about “be careful about screwing up the system that made your life better than 99.9% of the humans that ever lived?”

            If you reallytruly accept this, Roger, then you must also believe we ought to be careful about eliminating rent-seeking, tariffs, crony-capitalism, barriers to entry, unions, minimum wage laws, 40 hour work weeks, employer-provided health insurance, medicare and medicaid, SS, public education, pubic-sector unions, etc etc.


            Somehow, in the above comment, I don’t think you mean what you said.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:


              I am trying to separate the part of the system that appears to work from the part that is not working. In my reading of history, the last ten thousand years has been a period where people exploited each other and where incumbents did everything in their power to suppress change where it interfered with their privilege. The net result was ten thousand societies failed to progress for ten thousand years. They all started with average living standards of about $2 a day, and they all ended with the same. That comes to a hundred thousand data points with the exact same results.

              A few hundred years ago liberal philosophers and economists started to perceive a different path. It stressed freedom, equal opportunity, an absence of privilege, open constructive competition, and cooperative mutually voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships. This path has led to unprecedented prosperity. Everywhere it is tried, people live longer,get better educated, gain freedom, benefit from science and lose all body odor.

              I view exploitation (undue coercion or deception), privilege, limits on constructive competition, and such as the problem and I view the classical liberal recipe as the solution.

              That said, I agree that complex systems are not easily tampered with. Sometimes things that seem like problems actually work as unintended supports for other parts of the system. Baby steps.Report

  15. Avatar Antoine Freeman says:

    If I really believed most Obama supporters believed way this author claims to, I’d go immediately to Romney’s site and donate to him. While not in total agreement with Roger 7:26, I do also suspect this is a joke article.Report

    • Avatar Antoine Freeman says:

      that is…I’d donate to Romney unless I thought his supporters believed the way the author claims they do. Again this has to be a joke article…Report

  16. Avatar Scott says:

    Did the study also discuss if the monkeys take credit for others accomplishments as well?Report

  17. Avatar Terrence Fischer says:

    The real issue is whether a person has the right to take something that belongs to one person and give it to another person. If a person doesn’t have that then there is no way the government can have that power, since the power of the government is derived from the people. We can’t give the government power we don’t have.

    I didn’t see a sound logical argument of any substance in this entire article. Let me give you an example of what I mean…
    “The argument that the successful are almost by definition deserving and that the unsuccessful are correspondingly undeserving has exploded into noisy public controversy.”
    Mainstream conservatism is not based on this issue, and any explosion into public controversy is generated by Liberals suppositing this is what Conservatives think and then arguing vigorously against it. As many posts have already stated very clearly… no one believes there is not an uncertainty involved in the outcomes of our choices. No one is impervious to the risk of an unknown future.
    Apparently, the author has a view that success is measured by money. I don’t. I don’t automatically describe a lottery winner as successful. I don’t think gambling is good for society as a whole. However, if they didn’t break the lottery rules in the process of winning, the money is theirs. They own it and I have no right to take it from them and give it to someone else. Trying to take it from them would not be fair. Did the person deserve it more than the other lottery players? I don’t know. Did the person earn it? I don’t know. Was it fair for the person to get the money? If you define fair as following the rules, then it was fair. Is the money theirs? Certainly. Do I have the right to take it from them and give it to someone else because they have less? Certainly not. Since I don’t have that right, I can’t give the government the right to do it for me.

    Likewise, if my mother treats me to a restaurant dinner some evening and the waiter brings back the change, I have no claim to that money. We don’t split it half and half. The money is hers and she can do what she wants with it.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      Unless the busboy kept two dollars, because he figured it was hard to split five dollars three ways, and then you have an argument about where the missing dollar went.Report

  18. Avatar greginak says:

    I’ll drop this sweet link to a piece by John Scalzi entitled A Self Made Man Looks at How He Made It. Very apropos to this convo.

    You’re welcome.

    Its also a wonderful piece. Read, compare and contrast.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      Yup, if I ever become successful beyond my wildest dreams, I’ll happily admit that no, it wasn’t just my natural charm, wit, and ingenuity that did it. It was public education, food stamps, low-interest college loans, grants, and luck that helped along the way.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      “I’ll drop this sweet link to a piece by John Scalzi ”

      So you’re seriously going to hold up a writer as an example of somebody who made it totally by luck without putting in any work or effort?Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      Oh hey, so I read that link and whoooooooa nellie.

      “…Steve Patterson said that day to the Webb admissions people that if there were only one child who was admitted to Webb that year, it should be me.”

      “University of Chicago Admissions dean Ted O’Neill called Marilyn Blum, Webb’s college counselor, and asked her for her opinion on whether I would be a good fit for Chicago. [Blum] told O’Neill that I was exactly the sort of student who would benefit from Chicago, and that he would never regret admitting me.”

      “When one of my expected payment sources for school disappeared, my grandfather told me he would replace it — if I sent him a letter a month. I did.”

      “I mentioned to a friend that I was looking around for an internship and he said, well, my dad is a friend with the editor of the Trib, why don’t I ask him to make a call? This was my first but not last experience with the value of connections.”

      Whoyaknow, nepotism, and family money. This is the guy you’re holding up as an example?Report

  19. Avatar we says:

    Mitt can conqueror iran let hem be a moron ayatollah.
    In Poland to become a tzar.
    We need that in the USA, play the war drumReport

  20. Avatar Murali says:

    The problem is that “I’m better than you” does not really translate into “fish you I’ve got mine”.

    “I’m better than you” at best translates into “fish you you’ve already got yours let me have mine”, which is different. I’m better than you forms the basis of a claim that different people are deserving of different things. In this particular case, it is that your purported claim to my wealth is illegitimate because you don’t deserve it and I do*

    Whereas FYIGM is all about naked self interest, FYYAGYLMHM is a moral counterclaim. Even if the latter claim is currently false, there is some possible world in which it could be true. In a genuinely fair system, the inequalities that obtain will be justified (because they are to the benefit to the worst off). In such a situation, if someone worse off tried to lay a moral claim on the property of the better off, the better off could legitmately say FYYAGYLMHM. But even in the genuinely fair system, FYIGM is not a moral reply. The person who says that is not trying to propose and abide by rules that are in principle mutually acceptable. The person who says FYYAGYLMHM in fact is. So even in our current unfair world where the latter claim just doesn’t happen to be right because the rules are broken, I’m better than you does not reduce to FYIGM. The kind of logic that says that every attempt of a rich person to justify him keeping his wealth is just an instance of him saying FYIGM is, frankly, insane. i.e. they are entirely different kinds of justification.

    And while I’m better than you is kind of rude, why else would I elect someone to power? Should I vote for someone whom I thought was worse than the average guy in the relevant sense? Maybe only if he is the lesser of two evils, but then a system that seems to select worse than average people for positions of power starts looking problematic.

    I don’t get this notion of fairness which seems to care more about inequality than the absolute welfare of the worst off. I’m not sure why we should call this impulse fairness and why we cannot just write it off as one of the more pathological and self destructive impulses. To a certain extent, the political system we come up with must be able to withstand or mitigate such impulses if they are a permanent feature of our motivational set. But that doesnt mean that we make a virtue out of it.

    *Let us leave aside the question as to whether wealth should accrue to people only to the extent that they deserve it. Both the “I deserve this wealth” and the “No you don’t” reply implicitly presuppose that desert claims are sufficiently strong as to over-ride other kinds of claims on wealth distribution.Report

  21. Avatar Matty says:

    The problem is that “I’m better than you” does not really translate into “fish you I’ve got mine”.

    “I’m better than you” at best translates into “fish you you’ve already got yours let me have mine”, which is different.

    It doesn’t translate directly into either, where it is offensive is that “I’m better than you” can easily be translated into “You are a terrible human being”, every claim that success is down to hard work is seen as telling others they are lazy, every claim it is down to intelligence is seen as telling people they are stupid. It is this equation of success with moral worth that I object to, it doesn’t tell people they can rise if they try harder it tells them they deserve to be at the bottom.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      it tells them they deserve to be at the bottom.

      Which is what Fish You You’ve already got yours means. To say that these people who are already at the bottom deserve to be there is to claim that they have already gotten what is theirs by right, and that they do not deserve any more.

      To be clear, I am not saying whether this is ever true in actual societies. For example, luck egalitarians envisage a society where effort and ingenuity are the predominant factors affecting one’s station in life. They are not opposed to all inequalities, just those that are due to being born in poor families or with congenital defects or being crippled in an accident when young. But they do not car so much about people who face difficulties because people take risks like sky diving and then injure themselves. Not to say that luck egalitarians have taken care of everything, but presumably, if a society instantiates luck egalitarianism even approximately, it would in general (though there certainly would be eceptions) be the case (at least luck egalitarians would like to claim) that those who were less successful deserve their place in society.

      Of course, Im not a luck egalitarian, but then, I’m not really any kind of egalitarian either. (at least not in any substantive sense)Report

      • Avatar Matty says:

        I think the word ‘deserve’ may be our sticking point here, I keep mishearing it as “it would be a bad thing if your wealth went up no matter how that happens because your sort ought not to be successful”. However I realise that what you probably mean is “I am not obligated to give you more”, which is a very different claim.

        My egalitarianism is a moral stance more than an economic one. It is an objection to the view that being poor (or black or gay etc) is evidence of being a bad person and that allowing a bad person to succeed or even personally treating them well is itself an immoral act. I don’t think many people actually think that way but I can’t help seeing it as an implication when I hear cheers for inequality.Report

        • Avatar Matty says:

          Let me put it another way, it is the difference between saying “you can’t have a medal because you were last in the race” and saying “because you were last in this race next time we tie your legs together and make you start 10m further back”Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            If life were really a race, then the fact that you can pass on an inheritance to your child or for that matter, money can purchace benefits like education, training and fallback will always give the scions of the rich an advantage over the scions of the poor.

            However, life is not a race. The fact that other people have more resources at the very least ought not to diminish my own well-being. That said, this does not necessarily absolve existing institutions. Existing social institutions can still be criticised for not sufficiently promoting the well-being of the worst off. The reason why I don’t get worked up over inequality is because I think that the institutions that are likely to benefit the worst off the most are also likely to generate immense inequalities.*

            *The reverse is not true. Institutions which generate inequality are not necessarily the ones likely to promote the wellbeing of the worst off.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              “The reason why I don’t get worked up over inequality is because I think that the institutions that are likely to benefit the worst off the most are also likely to generate immense inequalities.”

              Can you give some examples?Report

            • Avatar Matty says:

              The fact that other people have more resources at the very least ought not to diminish my own well-being.

              And to the extent that it doesn’t I don’t think I have much of an argument with you. My problem is with those who would cut funding for social safety nets and similar (diminishing the well being of the worst off), while refusing to impose any such costs on those better off and justify this by insinuating that anyone who claims benefits is at best lazy and at worst downright evil.Report

  22. Avatar James Hanley says:

    The research is interesting, as is everything Fran’s de Wasl does. I’m a bit irritated that the only purpose for mentioning it here was to make yet another partisan political argument. There is more to life than politics, and the apparent inability to see anything in non-political terms, and even worse the apparent inability to see anything in non-partisan terms, really is rather sad.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:


      Back when I was still a productive member of society I used to order multiple copies of De Wahl’s Chimpanzee Politics and give it as gifts to other executives. In three decades of reading crappy business books, it was the only good management book I ever read.

      I would always be careful to warn that the book was not a “how to manual”. It reveals how politics does work, not how humans should work.Report

  23. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    “The new finding suggests evolution may have something to do with it.”

    It makes me cringe every time I read this sentence in every press release related to every single biological scientific study ever.

    “The new finding suggests quantum mechanics may have something to do with it.”

    Does this sentence not deserve a place in CERN-related press releases?Report