Tuesday, May 8, 2012

There Is No 1%

In a recent interview, the New York Times sat down with businessman Edward Conrad to discuss the merits of the American economic system. Conrad, a former employee at Bain Capital, friend of Mitt Romney, and author of the upcoming book "Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong," came out swinging with a powerful defense of the United States' capitalist economy and the so-called 1%.

Conrad must be given credit for both a sound economic defense of the American system and for unabashedly standing up to the onslaught against the core economic principles that have defined the United States for generations. In a financial and economic discussion that is defended as "genuinely fantastic" even by prestigious leftist economists, Conrad outlines how the accumulation of wealth allows investment that proportionally helps everyone.

Conard understands that many believe that the U.S. economy currently serves the rich at the expense of everyone else. He contends that this is largely because most Americans don’t know how the economy really works — that the superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone....Conard concludes that for every dollar an investor gets, the public reaps up to $20 in value. This is crucial to his argument: he thinks it proves that we should all appreciate the vast wealth of others more, because we’re benefiting, proportionally, from it.

Essentially, he argues that, despite much opposing popular sentiment, there is not anything wrong with the perceived wealth gap in the United States. In fact, it seems he argues the opposite.

A central problem with the U.S. economy, he [argues], is finding a way to get more people to look for solutions despite these terrible odds of success. Conard’s solution is simple. Society benefits if the successful risk takers get a lot of money.

While to the interviewer's chagrin, Conrad does not delve into some serious counterarguments, such as rent-seeking, his economic arguments are sound and convincing. If one buys his logic, as is hard not to do, the Occupy Wall Street crowd are simply fools who are naively injuring themselves.

Nevertheless, Conrad's argument implicitly accepts leftist (socialistic) assumptions through his defense of the so-called 1% by highlighting their provision of a social good. He attempts to refute the charge that the high income and wealth of the rich is somehow denying the poor of what they are due. However, despite the clearness of this analysis, he is making the wrong argument. He is battling the left (and the populist right) on their battleground—generally a woeful proposition—by accepting two significant, albeit it wrong, assumptions.

First, his argument accepts that the divide between the 99% and 1% is real, that there is some fundamental gap that separates the two groups. But such a contention is insupportable. What separates, for instance, the 2% from the 1%? Is everyone in the 99% in the same position? How about the 1%? The truth is that this divide is arbitrary, as any sensible person would acknowledge. It ignores myriad nuances—costs-of-living, family-size, personal goals, type of career, and others.

But the divide has powerful political ramifications, which is precisely why promoters of class warfare have seized upon it. It mobilizes people into an us versus them mentality, attempting to create an artificial camaraderie between the vast majority of Americans—an in-group—against some undeserving out-group. Worst of all, it ignores one of the founding principles of this country that all Americans are equal under the law. There is no 1% or 99%, but simply 100%, each trying to live their own life according to their own abilities, goals, and luck.

Second, by expounding these economic benefits Conrad is accepting the argument that in order for certain members of society to be able to justify high incomes or accumulated wealth, they need to be providing a social benefit. In other words, Conrad's formulation is identical to that of the far-left—individual success, at least for the wealthy, is only justified if the rest of society gains from their behavior. The flip-side implies that if high-income earners cannot convincingly highlight a social good, then their income is somehow illegitimate and possibly forfeit. Conrad only differs from the OWS thugs insofar as he believes that high-income provides such a social good, while those in Zuccotti Park do not.

But this argument is untrue and unjust. Individuals are entitled to the rewards of their work simply because they have been deemed valuable enough by the efforts and their employers to be compensated accordingly. No one, whether wealthy, poor, or middle-class, has to justify their compensation in any social context. Society seems to accept this logic for all but the rich. Very few people feel the need to justify their salary by citing a greater social good. Most feel entitled (and rightly so) to their income based on the hard work they put into their jobs. However, at some arbitrary point a sort of jealousy kicks in creating a scenario where certain Americans have to justify their incomes according to different standards.

This is profoundly un-American. A banker has no greater moral responsibility to justify a social benefit of his salary than a shopkeeper or mechanic. Every American is entitled to reap the rewards that come his way, in whatever form he desires. No one else has a claim to his income and no one else should arbitrarily define criteria to judge whether such wealth is deserved or not. To do otherwise opens a dangerous arena for improper abuse by the majority against the minority.

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