The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: November 21

It’s here, guys. Thanksgiving week. If you weren’t listening to Christmas music already the last couple weeks like me, we’re legitimately into the holiday season now. I wrote some thoughts about the holidays yesterday if you didn’t get a chance to check it out. Do you have traditions you’re looking forward to? Favorite movies and music? Places you’ll go? Are there people and things you miss that are no longer around?

Here’s the best that I could find on the Internet this week. Check them out in-between the dishes you’re cooking.

Nature at its most intense. A reminder that safety is not guaranteed.

We all really need to move beyond identity politics.

Some Native American tribes are reviving indigenous crops, and it’s much more than a food fad.

Speaking of food, vegetables may be your secret weapon against illness this winter.

Is now finally the right time for electric cars?

Breakthrough success is not about waiting until you’re old enough. Get going!

CRISPR has been used on humans for the first time. The start of a new era of medicine.

If you’re still trying to make sense of the election, this is worth checking out.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that excessive screen time can rewire youngsters’ brains. “I would minimize it.”

Weekly global warming alarm bells: the North Pole is 36 degrees above normal and Arctic sea ice is at a record low.

National Bird looks like a must-see documentary.

“Post-truth” is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. I’ve got some thoughts on what’s true and how we know in a post coming soon.

Have a wonderful week and Thanksgiving! (if you celebrate it).

 

Let’s Let People Be People

I am riveted by the current presidential campaign. Each presidential election is historic and interesting in its own way. But this one is different. Traditional candidates and predictable narratives are being subverted. There seems to be a groundswell of desire to move beyond the status quo in dramatic ways. In the long run, we’ll see what that means concretely: who wins and what (if anything) changes in society. Right now the race is still up in the air. I hope you’re enjoying watching and participating as much as I am. We need as many people as possible to be invested in this process.

But even in an unpredictable and entertaining race, some things never change. I’ve been especially bothered in recent weeks by the lazy use of stereotypical identity attributes to bunch people into monoliths. Media, candidates, pundits, and others do this regularly. African-Americans must all think and vote one way because they’re African-American. Elderly people must think and vote the same way because they’re elderly. Pick out a single trait or two–an age range, a gender, an income level, a race or ethnicity, a religion–and you can probably find some commentary about how that whole group of people is essentially homogenous.

One among many examples: last night in the Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a spirited exchange over the significance of Henry Kissinger being a valued mentor of Hillary Clinton. In the short time since the debate, I’ve heard Anderson Cooper and others on CNN, my local NPR station, and various tweets say something sarcastic like, “I bet that played well with Millennials–since they have no idea who Kissinger is.”

Surely some younger adults don’t know. But quite possibly some do know and have an opinion about it. Why assume an entire age range of the country fits into a uniform group of don’t know and couldn’t care less? And who’s to say a younger person can’t deem it important and figure it out? Between Internet searches, books, documentaries, and other sources, it’s pretty easy to give yourself a decent introductory lesson in things you don’t know. I’m inclined to believe that a number of people care enough to do so–and not just the ones that fit into a nonspecific age range reduced to “Millennials.”

Analogous things could be said about how predominant voices are talking about Hispanics who live in Nevada, African-Americans who live in South Carolina, young women, older women, and many others.

We should all be insulted by this. We can do better.

Identity generalizations may be convenient for a stump speech or a news segment. But they certainly do not represent or empower the individual human beings they are made about. You are a complex person. I (like to think I) am a complex person. Despite the fact that you may belong in a fundamental way to this or that race, class, or generation, you have a unique web of motivations, interests, knowledge, experiences, and beliefs. So does the person next to you. However much we are like others who share certain identity traits, there are meaningful idiosyncrasies that make each of us profoundly different from one another.

So let’s move beyond lazily and simplistically grouping people together. Let’s call it out and challenge it whenever we see it–from national media to our conversations with each other. Let’s let people be people.