Book Review: The Upside of Inequality by Edward Conard

upside_of_inequality

Can we talk about wealth inequality? I think it’s a top three problem within the United States.

Obviously, many disagree with me.  In The Upside of Inequality, Edward Conard effectively makes the capitalist’s case for the importance of unequal results in household wealth. At the risk of my simplifying a book-length argument, I’d say Conard justifies his view on the upside of inequality in two main ways.

First, we need unequal incentives to push innovation and risk-taking, the engine of a capitalist economy. Without the promise of outsized rewards, where would the urge for improvement come from? Take away the outsized rewards through taxation and redistribution and we remove the innovative engine of the economy, writes Conard. Ok, I’ll admit, I’m sympathetic to that idea.

Second, Conard argues, we need concentrations of wealth in the hands of risk-taking capitalists, to fund the innovative ideas of entrepreneurs who have more talent than money. Take away the piles of money in the hands of capitalists, and you remove the fuel from the engine. Ok, I find this argument of Conard’s plausible as well.

I don’t say I celebrate Conard’s view because of any ideological attachment to capitalism. I say it because practically speaking the miracle of lifting billions of people out of poverty in recent decades happened under market-based economies that innovated and encouraged hard work and risk-taking. Countries that squash markets and enforce a state-driven equality – Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe come to mind – tend towards horrific poverty.

But I still worry about inequality.

upside_of_inequalityIn households with children under age 18, a recent New York Times piece explained, the bottom 50 percent of households actually have negative net worth. They have more debt than savings or assets.

That New York Times piece also describes a straight-line 3-step mechanism of inter-generational poverty:

  1. Wealth correlates strongly with the likelihood of attending and graduating from college.
  2. A college degree correlates strongly with higher lifetime earnings.
  3. No higher degree means a much harder path to attaining or maintaining a middle class life.

Those steps alone suggest that at the bottom rung of society, poverty begets poverty, and inequality tends to beget more inequality.

Meanwhile, at the upper end of the economic ladder, the power of compound investment returns, reduced taxes on intergeneration wealth transfers and favorable tax rates on dividends and capital gains, tend to maintain the status quo among wealthy households. Wealth begets wealth. I don’t like the idea of stagnation at the top and bottom.

Further into The Upside of Inequality, Conard challenges deeply held beliefs. Traditional measurements of the lack of wealth for the bottom 50 percent of American households miss a key factor. Namely, measuring consumption at the bottom half – due to social safety net programs including government transfers Medicare and Social Security – shows a strong reduction in poverty over the last 20 years. If we measure consumption instead of wealth our society looks far less unequal.

Conard also makes some disturbing counter-arguments about the usefulness of investing in education to overcome economic immobility. His skeptical arguments will make people on both the left and right of the political spectrum uncomfortable.

My fondest wish on this topic is not to bash capitalism – or socialism for that matter – but to ask: Can we talk about a middle ground?

Conard worries about killing – through redistribution and taxation – the golden goose that has raised billions out of poverty. I worry about the fact that negative median net worth of the bottom 50 percent of households in America. A hollowed-out middle class has both economic effects and effects on social cohesion.

I’m worried that the concentration of wealth in the United States at the very top is too high and getting higher. In developing that view, I look to Thomas Piketty’s 2014 masterpiece Capital, in which he shows we’re on trend to return to 19thCentury Gilded Age levels of wealth-concentration in the US. I don’t love the idea of an entrenched aristocracy in America.

While Conard celebrates the positive economic effects of that inequality – more pools of wealth encourage more innovation, which leads to economic growth – I’m worried about the moral problem of an entrenched aristocracy permanently separated from the other 99 percent of society.

My view: I’m ok with some inequality. I’m a capitalist. To the extent more hard work and more talent leads to more money for some people than others, I’m fine with that. That’s great.

I’m not ok with permanent inequality, or inter-generational inequality, or inequality that suggests a fixed, rigged, game. If being born into poverty is a life-sentence to an underclass, then inequality is something I’m less ok with.

What do I want in terms of a conversation? I want people on my side of the debate – people who think inequality is a top problem – to read more smart people on the other side of the debate, like Edward Conard. Because if you don’t know where your own assumptions are weak or wrong, it’s hard to enact change.

Of course I also want folks worried about “creeping Socialism” in America to consider the moral consequences of a system in which children don’t get enough to eat, and the next generation’s children might not either. You can talk all you want about “bootstraps,” but are kids still in elementary school responsible for yanking on their own straps?

I really don’t have an answer. While I disagree with Conard – more on moral grounds than economic grounds – he’s also done far more reading than me on the subject.

Before you write to tell me that I’m either a greedy capitalist or a lefty socialist (I admit, I’m giving evidence of both here), can you instead just read Conard’s book? And then Piketty’s Capital?

Sometimes I think the only solution to these arguments, at the individual level, is to consciously set out to read the things we’ll probably disagree with.

 

Please see related posts

Book Review: Capital by Thomas Piketty

Book Review: Unintended Consequences by Edward Conard

 

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UBI – That Radical Right-Wing Idea?

basic_incomeLast week’s post — on a poverty eradication experiment in Africa of giving no-strings-attached cash — was a bit of a Trojan horse for this week: UBI is the idea of granting all adults a small amount of income, for life.

UBI is having a moment right now. Finland launched an experiment in 2017 to address joblessness with basic income, and the Netherlands is also attempting small-scale trials. Swiss voters rejected it in a referendum in 2016, but Swiss UBI supporters rejoice that it at least came up for a vote. A Silicon Valley startup Y-Combinator plans to launch a basic income experiment in Oakland, California, this year.

Futurists see UBI as the solution to the automation problem, when robots eliminate all of the human jobs. 1


The best advocate in the United States for UBI that I’ve read is Charles Murray, in his 2016 version of his book “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State,” in which he calls for a universal basic income of $13,000 for every adult in the United States. Somewhat to my surprise, I found his book, and the ideas, very compelling.

Is Charles Murray a fellow traveler of Bernie Sanders, attempting to socialize America with his plan for free money? No. Actually, he’s just the opposite. He is a hard-core Libertarian, opposed to big government. In his version, UBI is meant to replace the welfare state built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s.

Murray’s unexpected advocacy is what got me intrigued enough to read his book.

Charles Murray first came to wide academic prominence in the 1990s with his controversial book “The Bell Curve,” which placed him somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun on the political spectrum. Why, I wondered, would a right-wing guy propose UBI?

Murray’s idea, briefly, is this:

charles_murrayEvery American 21 years or older would receive a $13,000 annual stipend, of which the first $3,000 must be dedicated to catastrophic health insurance.

As a Libertarian, Murray believes that giving recipients a choice of how to spend their money, rather than relying on a massive federal bureaucracy to control choices and incentives over housing, nutrition and work will improve the lives of people in poverty.

Although the UBI would cost $2.58 trillion per year (in 2014 dollars), Murray points out that our welfare infrastructure, as currently constituted, costs $2.77 trillion per year (also in 2014 dollars.), offering the federal government — and therefore, U.S. taxpayers — savings from UBI from the start.

Murray makes the interesting point that for people in poverty — in particular unwed mothers or unemployed young men of working age — a guaranteed income suddenly changes certain incentives. Those incentives, he argues, could address the roots of endemic poverty.

Murray speculates that UBI could directly benefit single mothers, for example, by providing a guaranteed source of income even if they cannot join the workforce while caring for a child. In addition, the fact that a child’s father receives a guaranteed income — easily tracked through a known bank account — would greatly aid collection of mandatory alimony payments. Murray further speculates that unemployed working-age men who might have previously lived for free with a relative or girlfriend may suddenly find themselves forced to pay rent, as they have known sources of cash.

A UBI could increase labor mobility for people who would like to move to where jobs are more plentiful, but do not have enough financial cushion to take the risk of relocation. Although $10,000 in available annual income is not very much money for any individual, when pooled by cooperative adults it could also serve as a boost to solve collective housing needs.

The long-term benefits of UBI remain speculative because only short-term and small-scale experiments have ever been tried in the United States — the largest being a 1970-1980  experiment in Seattle and Denver, with 4,800 participants. It produced data and policy directions thatresearchers found inconclusive.

Look, I know that it’s incredibly easy to criticize UBI. Just twenty seconds of thought gets me the following word salad:

  1. Politically untenable
  2. Disincentive to work hard, or work at all
  3. You might snort money-for-nothing straight up your nose
  4. Without necessity, where is the invention?
  5. Higher taxes
  6. Now we’ll REALLY need a wall
  7. Replacing some or all our social safety net programs at once sounds scary
  8. Is $13,000 the right amount?

I’m sure you will be able to come up with additional objections in another twenty seconds, and we’d probably agree on those as well.

robots_for_basic_incomeInterestingly, in the United States UBI receives the harshest criticism from the left.

Robert Greenstein, an advocate for traditional Democratic Party-sponsored programs to reduce poverty, came out strongly against UBI last year, calling it both politically unrealistic and a distraction from programs such as subsidized housing and minimum wage increases. Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal has argued that Libertarian claims of a bloated welfare state obscure the important work that social programs accomplish. Bernie Sanders has been asked repeatedly about UBI but always expresses a preference for “basic standard of living” policies rather than “basic income.”

Personally, I find the idea that people in poverty could be trusted with no-strings cash highly compelling, when compared with the complex alphabet soup of federal programs, including SNAP, Section 8, TANF and EITC. We should pay attention to poverty-relief experiments with direct cash payments in Africa, as they may do better than targeted programs that attempt to control the behavior of people in poverty.

In the face of financial dysfunction and the persistence of poverty — despite our great national wealth — we ought to be able to have a conversation about speculative and interesting ideas to address poverty.

 

A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

 

See related posts:

Cash Transfers in Africa

Inequality in America – the Washington Post Map

Video: Inequality in America

 

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  1. Except finance blogging, obviously, which can never be automated. It is too essential and too creative to ever fall prey to Skynet.

Cash Rather Than Good Intentions

give_directlyHere’s a radical thesis about the best way to eliminate poverty:

Give money. Don’t give stuff. Also, don’t give conditional money, either, expecting the recipient to do something you want them to do.

I’m intrigued by an international charity called GiveDirectly which puts this radical thesis to the test. I understand this “just money, no stuff, no strings attached” approach runs contrary to our most cherished charitable instincts. It also goes against our typical “Don’t give a man a fish, teach a man to fish” plans, delightful as that cliché may be.

International groups addressing poverty usually focus on building infrastructure capacity in poor areas – stuff like digging wells for clean water, or building housing. Other groups might provide a family with a goat, enroll a girl in school, or teach sustainable farming techniques. These are all super-nice, well-intentioned plans. One teensy problem, however, is that international development like this might not really work very well for eradicating poverty.

I named “give only cash, no strings” above just a “thesis,” because I don’t actually know if it’s better than traditional poverty-relief or traditional development projects. But a series of well-conceived experiments are going on right now to test the thesis. And they are on the cusp of launching an even bigger test.

A group of economists who believe in the thesis of “cash only, no strings” founded GiveDirectly, an organization that I think of as a radical critique of both traditional development organizations and traditional poverty-reduction schemes. Here’s what they do: They just give cash, unconditionally, to poor adults in Africa. Right now they mostly operate in Kenya and Uganda, but are also expanding into Rwanda.

good_intentionsGiveDirectly doesn’t demand recipients raise a specific protein-rich crop, get sober, or build a type of fuel-efficient oven out of local mud.

They simply transfer money to households in extreme poverty, accessible through a mobile payments system. And then they let the poor recipients themselves figure out what they need. In that way it’s the simplest poverty-eradication plan imaginable.

Governments around the world have experimented – even before GiveDirectly – with programs like this, known in policy wonk circles as “unconditional cash transfers.”

Unlike most development or poverty-relief charities, however, GiveDirectly measures the results of their programs using the gold standard of data analysis, a series of randomized control trials. That means picking cash recipients randomly selected according to a set of criteria (poverty being one criteria, obviously) and then comparing their outcomes with people under the same conditions who did not receive the cash. Then they try to improve their program design, based on the evidence.

Max Chapnick, Communications Director for GiveDirectly, told me that last year they raised and earmarked close to $45 million for direct cash transfers. That’s not as big as legacy international development organizations like Save The Children or Oxfam or international governmental aid, but it ain’t chicken feed either.

If radical disruption of an industry, evidence-based practices, randomized-control trials and continuous design improvement all sounds very “Silicon Valley” to you (it does to me) then you will not be surprised to learn that Facebook co-founder Dustin Moscovitz, and Google.org are early and aggressive backers of GiveDirectly.

Objections to Cash

It’s very easy to list objections to this program.

Let’s start with: What if poor people quickly spend their unearned money on vices?

And that’s where data can be very interesting for testing that risk, and for testing the original thesis itself.

A research paper published in April 2016, based on cash transfer payments made by GiveDirectly from 2011 to 2013, found no increase in alcohol and tobacco consumption among recipients.

Not only that, but other research on unconditional cash transfers suggests this fear about cash transfers may be overblown. A December 2016 study from the University of Chicago of 19 cash transfer programs worldwide also found no increase in alcohol or tobacco use among recipients.

mobile_paymentsOr another big objection: What if “free money” discourages people from working?

An MIT study from 2015 of 7 randomized controlled trials found no evidence that cash transfers discouraged work.

You can choose to believe these researchers, or your own lying eyes.

GiveDirectly’s next experiment, for which they’ve targeted a $30 million fundraising campaign, will be their biggest cash transfer program yet.

They have $23 million raised so far, but if they reach their $30 million goal, their next experiment will be in something known as Universal Basic Income (which wonks call UBI), which is closely related – but distinct from – unconditional cash transfers.

With their new plan, GiveDirectly will transfer cash to Kenyan households in three different ways, to compare the effects on poverty:

  1. 12 years of 75 cents per day (in US Dollars) to every adult in 40 villages, paid monthly,
  2. 2 years of 75 cents per day to every adult in 80 villages, paid monthly; and
  3. 2 years’ worth of 75 cents per day to every adult in 80 villages but paid in a single lump sum.

Researchers will compare effects on the health, well-being, poverty, education, stress and local economy of households and villages between these groups, as well as compare results to a control group of 100 villages that does not receive payments.

This program is “Universal” because every adult in a chosen village will receive income. GiveDirectly chose 75 cents per day because it approximates the poverty level in Kenya, and therefore is “Basic.” With their 2-year and 12-year commitment to incomes, they will have a way to measure both short-term and long-term effects of the Universal Basic Income theory on poverty.

I know this all may sound a bit kooky and maybe too radical and hard to take. It goes against our charitable instincts. We naturally want to bequeath tangible goods instead of free money, and we want to control and improve the poor recipient’s behavior.  But what if that approach – and a few centuries of failed development work – is totally wrong? Every 10 year-old knows the coffee-mug wisdom: “instead of giving a man a fish, you should teach a man to fish.” What if we learned that all wrong?

As one of the co-founders of GiveDirectly, Paul Niehaus, cleverly tweeted recently: “The implicit hubris in ‘teach a man to fish’ is that we’re great at fishing lessons. We’re not.”

 

A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

 

 

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Book Review: Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs

dark_age_aheadI judged this book by the arresting title Dark Age Ahead, and decided that – in my current frame of mind – I had to read it.1

Jane Jacobs wrote this is 2004, and the book has a bit of the feel of a time capsule – as her current events examples stem from 2001 to 2002. Jacobs’ strength as a thinker and writer is that she can extrapolate from events in her own life, close observations, and from the newspaper, and illuminate patterns and principles of any age. She’s not academic, and she depends on telling anecdotes. Some may see that as a weakness, although I feel it’s a strength of her work. Her ‘big ideas’ tend to be right, and written in a way that an educated, but non-expert, reader can understand.

The central thesis of this book – and I tend to agree – is that invisible but essential strands of our strong society2are fraying at the edges. Her list of essential strands are not necessarily somebody else’s, but hers seem worthy of consideration, and worry. At the beginning of 2017, when the fraying seems particularly acute, its interesting to note, again, that Jacobs published her book in 2004.

So what is unraveling?

Households

Critiques of the breakdown of the nuclear family are commonly heard from the Right, but Jacobs does not mean exactly the same thing here. A main concern, she develops in the chapter, is the extreme rise in the housing prices, beyond the rise of household incomes. Now that’s interesting, since her book predates the housing crash by four years, although it was obvious to many in the early 2000s that we were on an unsustainable path brought on by low interest rates and easy credit. Her other concern – which will not surprise Jane Jacobs fans – is with the pernicious affects the automobile has had on the development of suburbs and the undermining of public transportation infrastructure.

jane_jacobsCredentials vs. Education

The replacement of a true education in favor of a more “practical” set of market signals through degrees offered by institutes, community colleges and universities. The focus of educational institutions has become to offer a set of letters that indicate preparation for a specific job, rather than passion about learning or knowledge. We can only imagine how justified Jacobs would feel about the $25 million settlement made by the President-elect with respect to his fraudulent “University.”

Science Abandoned

Jacobs has a specific complaint here about the “engineers” who deal with traffic congestion – a particular obsession of hers – but we see plenty of evidence lately of the denigration of science and the scientific method. I can’t tell if the problem has gotten better or worse (probably it’s mixed) but we suffer when society fundamentally doubts scientific conclusions or discounts the need for a scientific approach.

Dumbed Down Taxes 

Jacobs addresses here the problem of tax collection at the Federal level, for example, when certain problems must be solved at the local level. Or vice versa. The result is decision-making with the wrong branch or level of government. In my home state we are plagued by the problem of school funding, which is taxed at the local level, legislated at the state level, but clearly failing standards at the federal level.

Self-Policing Subverted

Specific industries sometimes do best when they self-regulate, recognizing their collective interest to seek best practices and internally police or punish wrong-doers. While acknowledging that truth, Jacobs points out examples – from architecture to police departments to accounting firms – where deeply problematic practices arise from bad self-policing.

Are these the root causes of the rest?

In her introduction, Jacobs asserts but does not prove that these five negative trends listed above over time increase the chance of a major societal breakdown. And she means “Dark Age” literally. Like, post-Roman Empire type reversion-to-chaos.

She also asserts, but does not prove, that these five are not just as consequential as a more typical list of “society-destroying trends” such as racism, environmental destruction, crime, voter apathy/distrust, and the widening gulf between rich and poor, but that they are causal. Meaning, the racism, environmental destruction, stuff etc are actually symptoms of the societal unravelling, rather than the root causes.

I don’t know if she’s right. But there’s good stuff there to chew on.

 
Please see related posts

Book Review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Book Review of Cities and The Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs

Book Review of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue On The Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs

Conflict of Interest And Moral Codes

 

 

 

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  1. My current frame of mind also has me reading Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic and seeking out any signs that the center will hold, and that things will not fall apart.
  2. Jacobs is a Canadian who lived a significant portion of her adult life in the United States, so her “strong society” comments could be considered aimed at both countries.

The Link Between Health and Wealth

hans_roling_dataMy wife (a doctor) likes health, and I like money. In that sense, our marriage represents the intersection of two things everybody wants more of.

The biggest predictor of good health and a long life is how wealthy you are. This is often true – with plenty of variation of course – at the individual level. The correlation is even stronger at the societal level. Conversely, poverty in society correlates highly with illness and death.

To see the link between money and health most memorably, you really should look up – on your favorite video playback device like your iWatch (do those still exist?) – the YouTube videos of Hans Rosling.

Rosling, a Swedish data scientist, animates massive time series of national data sets that show the change in the life expectancy of people, as incomes rise, over time. In one short 4-minute video you can see where we humans were – grouped by country – in the year 1800. There’s a big clustering of national populations with an average lifespan of around 40 years in 1800. The year 1800 was only 150 years past Thomas Hobbes’ description in Leviathan of the life of man as “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Rosling then rolls the animation forward in time, and we see that as incomes rose over the past two centuries so did lifespans. First Europe and North America move upward in lifespan as incomes rise, but then eventually in the second half of the Twentieth Century huge populations in Asia and Africa rise in both average income and expected longevity.

It’s really much cooler to watch than it sounds. (Or maybe I need better hobbies? You tell me.)

The video is also a great reminder that no matter how much we may despair about the direction of the world on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, on at least a decade-by-decade scale, we’ve made extraordinary strides as a species.

Most countries in the world – especially the rich ones – soar to above 75 years life expectancy by 2010. The wealthier we get, the longer we live. This is an extremely strong reason for optimism about the future. We have pulled ourselves up from the Hobbesian morass.

hans_roling
Hans Roling

For academic types and data nerds I’ll briefly acknowledge that the causal relationship between income and life expectancy is considered poorly understand by scholars. It’s a classic chicken and egg question – do you need wealth to become healthy or health to become wealthy? The relationship over time is so clear, however, that we can say this: We will live longer, if we can all figure out how to get richer.

Ok, that’s the happy story, and I think is a long-run optimistic thought.

Health and Wealth at Home

The glass is also only half full, however.

The link between wealth and health – or if you prefer that half-empty glass, the link between poverty and death – not only correlates over time, but also in specific locations.

In August of this year, my home city of San Antonio released its own powerful data visualization map showing the relationship between health and money for specific places at a moment in time.

The map shows color-coded average life expectancy in San Antonio zip codes, for which we also have average income data.

In zip codes directly East and West of my house, to examine some specifically poor neighborhoods, people have a life expectancy 15 years lower than people who live in the wealthiest zip codes of my city. 15 years on average! How big is that gap?

The 15 years on average difference between San Antonio zip codes is bigger than the difference between the average life expectancy in The United States (79.3 years) and Ethiopia (64.8 years), according to the World Health Organization. The health differences between neighborhoods in my city seem to me nasty and brutish. The disparity is an indictment of how wealthy – in the truest sense of the word – we really are today.

And while San Antonio just happens to be the most unequal city in the country by zipcode comparison, according to a report by the think tank Economic Innovation Group, this kind of health and wealth disparity is found all over. Fort Worth, TX ranks third in the nation in zipcode disparity. Houston’s Tarrant County ranks 12th among counties nationwide for zip code inequality.

Policy implication

The opening move of the Trump administration and the next Congress “on Day 1” will be the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare.) This is just a current example of one policy issue at the intersection of health and wealth.

affordable_care_actPlease believe me when I say I’m agnostic overall about whether that’s a good or bad move, in the long run. Its repeal and/or replacement might lead to something better. I know more or less what ACA supporters intended, which was an attempt to blunt the effects of poverty on health outcomes. I know many intended beneficiaries found the rollout clumsy, coercive, and surprisingly expensive. I know many opponents feel socialized medicine like this makes us poorer.

The bigger question

That unhappiness with the ACA notwithstanding, the biggest question is not necessarily the ideal form of government-subsidized healthcare. That’s kind of a distraction, actually.

In my mind the central issue is whether poverty, and the faster death that comes with it, are ok.

Are we ok with this? Are we ok in the short run with a life-expectancy difference comparable to the gulf between the United States and Ethiopia? That gap exists between me and my neighbors just down the street.

I know what the long-term solution is at the intersection of health and wealth, and I’m really happy about that. It’s the short and medium term that we haven’t solved.

 

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle

 

Please see related posts:

The Map: Inequality in America – From the Washington Post

Kooky and Good Idea To Address Inequality

Book Review: Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland

Video: Wealth Inequality in America

 

 

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Book Review: Between The World And Me

Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote Between The World And Me as a personal intellectual and political history, and guide for his son, for thinking about race in the United States. The book also might seem to serve as an updated guide for the rest of us to make sense of the mess of race relations in the United States.

We need the help. Along with rising inequality and rising oceans, rising racial tension is a defining Top-3 issue of our time.

We each understand the race issue in this country differently. The latest fault lines run between those who believe #BlackLivesMatter and those who respond that #AllLivesMatter. Some see an undeclared war on unarmed black men, while others see equal and compelling evidence for the disrespect and endangerment of uniformed police officers. It sometimes feels like the misunderstanding between these sides must be the worst ever. A little bit of history shows that, no, things may be bad now but they were actually even worse before.

Coates has a stark, powerful, way of describing race relations.

Right now it’s about – and always has been about – control over black bodies. Coates’ long thesis statement below:

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals…

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was a mark of civilization. ‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,’ said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. ‘And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.’ And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that ‘below.’ That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws. And they would rather subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin, slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transforming into a murderous juggernaut.”

So, Coates isn’t going to sugarcoat this for us.

Malcolm vs. Martin

I can’t remember if Coates actually ever mentions Martin Luther King by name in his book (I actually kind of doubt it) but one of the unspoken messages of Between The World And Me is a clear rejection of the King line of thought.

between_the_world_and_meI know it’s too simple to set up Malcolm X and MLK as the two competing branches of black thought in the twentieth Century, but if you’ll grant me that simplification, Coates roots himself deeply in Malcolm’s camp. First, by crediting him as the initial spur for Coates intellectual journey. Next, in naming his alma mater Howard University “The Mecca,” he references the need and centrality of a gathering point for blacks other than in the Judeo-Christian world. Finally, the enemy Coates identifies most strongly throughout his book, is “The Dream.”

The Dream of course is what all us are living – an imagined world of increasing prosperity, justice, keeping our head down, following the rules. For so-called whites1 in America, the Dream can be achieved through going to the right schools and living in the safe suburbs.

Coates recalls being taught in school about the King-inspired Freedom Marches and watching images of a seemingly endless series of beating, clubbings, water-cannoning, and dog-attacks on a compliant, non-resistant, group of blacks.

“The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists who bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?”

Maybe, as Coates believes, the message from teaching about the Freedom Marches is a disempowering one. The Dream, in Coates’ telling, is both a comfortable White illusion, and a Black prison of self-imposed subservience. It’s what allows white America to control black bodies. To embrace the Dream therefore – a word that we’ve made short-hand for MLK, the man who had The Dream – is to be complicit in the well-known deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, and Sandra Bland, in addition to of course the historical murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evars, and the children inside the 1963 Baptist Church.

Ta_Nahesi_coates

It’s a strong indictment of King’s legacy, even if Coates never mentions the man’s name.

My problem with the book

Coates has forgotten more about writing than I will ever learn, nevermind obviously his specialization in black intellectual history. His writing is amazing. He wins prizes for his stuff in The Atlantic more often than I visit the dentist. So I criticize this book at my peril. However…

Something I selfishly wanted from reading Between The World And Me was the feeling of walking around afterwards vibrating with my new knowledge as the most “Woke” white guy around. I’d read this book and then see race relations with a fresh perspective, offering cool insights and radical sympathy. It’s unfair, but I wanted transformation and I didn’t have that moment. Maybe I was so “Woke” already that I couldn’t improve upon myself? No, obviously not. Maybe I can’t feel the radical sympathy because the cognitive dissonance with my own whiteness would be too far a stretch? I don’t know. But that selfish desire and consequent disappointment affected my view of the book. Which is to say a main problem with this book was my high expectations.

I was more blown away by Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the MLK years than I was by Between The World And Me. Maybe those are unfair comparisons, between absolute all-time classics and a book that just came out last year. But Coates is our best contemporary writer on black America, and a MacArthur winner, so it’s not totally unfair either. I didn’t find myself transformed or breathless or wanting to tell everyone I know to go out and read it. I do think every US Citizen needs to read Taylor Branch’s trilogy in order to vote or to qualify to collect social security. I don’t have that same feeling about Between The World And Me.

Not The audience?

Now, maybe I wasn’t supposed to get that inspired feeling because I’m not the intended audience for Coates’ book. Coates uses the 2nd person voice throughout to address his son specifically, and in that sense this could be seen as a more personal book, or at least a book more directed at Coates’ inner circle than, say, me. His project may not be, in the end, to make so-called white, ex-finance guys, “woke.”

But I do actually think I’m one of his main audiences. He’s in the Style section of the New York Times this month, and I am the Atlantic-reading demographic.2 But what is he doing there if not trying to capture the likes of me?

Coates will remain a top voice on these issues in the decades ahead, so a lot is riding on whether he rises to the occasion. Like I said, we certainly need the help.

 

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  1. Coates makes the interesting point every time he mentions “whites” that this “so-called” racial designation is as invented as any other. Today’s “Whites” used to be called the Irish, or Jews, or Norweigans, or Italians, or Scots, any number of whom would resist common cause with any other now-designated “white” group. It just became convenient and powerful more recently to unite “whites” under a single designation, for the purposes, Coates posits, of control of black bodies. This seems, unconsciously, true.
  2. He’s also the latest comic-book author for The Black Panther, which obviously also makes him cooler than me in every way.