A few days ago, I was sorting out stuff in my OLD PERSONAL CRAP box. And there, below my HUNTINGTON LIMOUSINE commemorative wristwatch, beside the putty-encrusted Vulcan ear tip extensions, and right there on top of all of my 80’s pins (I’M NEARLY FAMOUS, UGLINESS STRIKES 1 OUT OF 4, WHY CAN’T I BE RICH INSTEAD OF GOOD LOOKING?) was something I hadn’t seen in a long while. It was a business card — and when I flipped it over, it said MINDFIRE FILMS, INCORPORATED. It had a cool logo designed by my personal design studio, my too-talented friend Steve Stipp: an oval head with glowing eyes and fire for hair — too much like those damn skulls in DOOM that I would encounter years later. But the best part was beneath the logo:
How old was I when I had these printed? Nineteen? Twenty, maybe? I remember incorporating very well, because it cost about $150 and all you got for it was that cool thing you used to emboss your Seal on all the Important Financial Documents you would be Signing. I remember thinking $150 seemed like a lot of money, too — you could get some 16mm stock for that kind of cash.
But there we were: Incorporated American Teenagers. I was the president of a motion picture company. Why? Because I didn’t want spend four years trying to get a crummy $500 grant. I wanted real money to make a movie. I wanted investors.
And I got a few, too — the poor bastards.
Today, on her 227th birthday, the United States stands astride the world as the most economically, militarily and culturally powerful force history has yet revealed.
Well, one reason is because here in America, a practically broke 19 year old kid can be the President of a Corporation, that’s why. Of course some of these fail. Most of them fail, spectacularly fail, flaming wreckage, oh-the-humanity failures. I’ve had many of these, personally. More will no doubt come. It’s easy to succeed in a country that lets you fail this often and this easily.
The ingredients for greatness, goodness, success, happiness and prosperity are not hard to find, and yet so much of the world is a political and economic disaster.
Because folks, it ain’t the ingredients. It’s the recipe.
So we’re off on a little all-American road trip, this time to figure out why our economy, when sick, is stronger than anyone else’s, when healthy. To see if we can figure out how 300 million strangers, all the troublemakers and upstarts from every nation in the world, can come to one vast continent, be given more freedom than any people before or since, and manage to become the most prosperous, powerful, tightly-knit nation in history. And how come we invent everything, too? Must be something in the water out there.
We’re gonna go find out. Let’s just hop in the car and see if we can’t chase down that American Dream. You know the one: Think of a better way. Take a chance. Start a business. Put in the extra time. Work hard. Buy a house. Live a better life than your parents and a poorer one than your kids. And do it all in a place where you can be free and happy and safe.
America is a success machine. Yes, it’s easy to fail in America. It is also the easiest place in the world to succeed, to do the big things — become wealthy or famous — or just carve out a comfortable little patch of ground to spend an afternoon barbequing or watch your teenage kid drive off in their brand new used car.
It’s a siren song for many people, this idea of freedom, this dream of making your own life according to a script you wrote in your head. But it’s not for everybody. It requires some courage, at times. It demands hard work. It can challenge your bland security. It’s not cheap, this American Dream — nor should it be. And it lives and breathes optimism. Without that you’re sunk.
So y’all hop in the back and I’ll roll down the top. It’s a gorgeous day, we’ve got the Beach Boys on the stereo turned up to 11 and we’re hitting the road looking for the three things that make America hum. And no crybabies! We don’t have the time or the energy to waste on mean-spirited, bitter complainers — people who are so filled with gloom and doom that It’ll never work is stitched into the slack elastic of their unchanged underwear.
To hell with those people! It’s our birthday, dammit. This one is for us. Americans. This includes all you Americans living in foreign lands with foreign passports, speaking foreign languages and holding foreign citizenships. You know who you are. If you’re an optimist, if untrammeled freedom makes you giddy, if you think you know of a better way to do something and just want a chance to try, if you can tell right from wrong and still care about the difference, if you’re soft hearted and tough minded, if you think we could all get along just great if we’d all just leave each other alone, if you don’t like to fight but know sometimes you just have to, and most especially, if the idea of leaving the huddled masses and joining the pursuit of happiness has a mystical appeal for you, then you are already an American in your heart. Welcome home. Get here any way you can. We need people like you.
Hop in the back and let’s get outta here. But before we shove off, three quick things:
One: this is a big country. Go to the bathroom NOW. We’re heading out to the desert — that means doing 80, minimum — and we’re not stopping ’till we get below 1/2 tank, so figure three hours. And that’s 80 mph, not eighty of those crappy little kilometers. Remember, US minimum wage is about 3 gallons of regular an hour. Even when we start out working at McDonalds, American teenagers have a pretty long leash — about a half-continent per paycheck. Part time.
Two: Keep an eye out for Jackalopes.
Three: Rest Areas are For Emergency Use only. There is nothing scenic or interesting about them. Stopping anywhere other than to get gasoline and food is to admit failure and defeat. Real Americans judge their progress by the number of Rest Areas they can pass in one shot. That sign we just blew past — Next Service Station 96 Miles — means that you can go to the bathroom in a little over an hour. I told you to go before you got in.
Oh, and bring your favorite CDs or cassettes: Fleetwood Mac’s Second Hand News, One Week by Bare Naked Ladies, Ballroom Blitz by The Sweet: anything that moves, because that’s what we’re doin’. We’ve got the top down, the shades are on, I’m knocking out the beat on the steering wheel, and where we’re going, there ain’t no NPR…
I used to live in the desert. I spent about a year and a half out here among the scrub grass and the Joshua trees — long enough so that when I went back to Florida the mere sight of a puddle of standing water would make me gape in amazement. I was working at a glider port, which meant flying gliders, launching gliders, and when I wasn’t flying or launching — most of the time — it meant standing out in the 114 degree heat and raking rocks. For rock gardens. Know what’s underneath a layer of desert rocks? More rocks. The place was run by a former Navy test pilot. In the Navy, enlisted men with free time are only capable of doing one of two things: painting the grey deck grey — again — or planning the hideous murder and ritual cannibalism of the Commanding Officer. So rocks it was.
I’ll venture a guess that most Europeans — most easterners, for that matter — aren’t really emotionally ready for just how open and remote things are out here. The sky is a deep blue bowl from horizon to horizon. Big Sky. It leans down on you. You spend an hour or two out under that sky and you can feel yourself decompress. It’s a bit like your first scuba moment: disorienting, not exactly comfortable, but cool.
It seems an odd sort of place to look for the key to America’s greatness. We’re a long way from any city. A long way. Well, you’ll see when we get there. Not far now.
The desert is a great place to hide things. It’s a great place to test things. And that’s where I’m taking us: a test site. One of my readers was kind enough to invite us way the hell out here and give us a tour of a place I’ve wanted to see for a long, long time. There’s a lot of history out here, see? Right at the end of this windy little road…
That giant molehill over there, is, in fact, a bunker. Steel blast doors, reinforced concrete buried under a huge mound of earth. Of course, it’s starting to rust and show some age now. That makes it even more ominous. Seeing it reminds me of something — what is it? Oh. Got it. The old historic sites at the Kennedy Space Center — was that the blue tour or the red? — where you could stand in the Mercury blockhouse a few feet from where they lit the candle under Alan Shepard on May 5th, 1961. Same look and smell of old steel and concrete, ancient, Paleolithic electronics, the sound of frantic slide rulers decaying off the walls.
The wind is whipping like a –.
Well, the wind is whipping hard, so hard that as we climb to the top of the bunker we have to lean steeply into it. And surprisingly, it’s damn cold, too — I’m glad I brought the jacket. It’s snapping loudly in the gale, and the wind is kicking up dust and small pebbles that sting the back of our ears as we turn and look down and out at the test site.
We’re here because this is what American power, American might is all about. Right there in front of us, out there, in the middle of nowhere.
That’s the place.
I believe that there are three elements — just three — that we mix in just the right ratio to perform our national alchemy. Look around you at the rest of the world. Those who use none of these ingredients are disasters, basket cases, failed states where misery and poverty crush the life out of what is almost an indomitable human drive to create, to nurture, and to prosper.
Almost indomitable. There are governments, theories, and people that have managed it after many years of hard and dedicated work.
We together have wasted enough time talking about these failed ideas, these various and sundry kleptocracies, these stinking, wretched failures. We know what they are and we know what they look like. Today we are hunting success.
One of the three, any one, buys you a respite. Not a huge one, perhaps, but a glimmer of hope. Two, and life begins to become livable. Grey, perhaps. Uninspired. But livable.
Pull all three together and you have a society worth living in. Pull all three together in just the right way, and you have a reactor, a fire-breathing creativity engine that unlocks in each of us the very best people we can become.
Stop guessing. Sorry, but it’s not God, Guts and Guns. The Arabs have God, the Russians have Guts and the Colombians have Guns — you want to live there?
We’re going to take a moment to look at each one of the three, each element in this national Trinity of success and prosperity.
These three pillars have several things in common. Their first and greatest strength is that they are self-correcting. They require optimism — remember that: that’s critical. They are beyond flexible: they are supple. No, even more — they are fluid. And yet each has strict rules that must be rigidly obeyed for the reactor to produce full power. This combination of a rigid internal structure, coupled with astonishing flexibility, is what gives them, like a human acrobat, mind-boggling capabilities that leave us gaping in awe at the results.
Two are pretty easy to understand. One isn’t. So let’s be sensible and do the hard work first.
The first of these three pillars has several names: private property, the free market, enlightened self-interest. But the first essential element of the American Trinity, and the hardest to come to grips with, is Capitalism.
Capitalism just galls some people. They just. Can’t. Stand it.
Now I have thought about this one long and hard, and no matter how I look at it, I come to the same striking conclusion, and that is this:
Where you stand on the political spectrum, what you think of rich and poor people, and what you think about rich and poor nations and how they should act in the world, comes down, in my mind, to one single issue, and one only: Can wealth be created, or can it only be redistributed?
If you believe, as I do, that wealth can be manufactured out of thin air, then there is no limit to the amount of wealth you can amass. And since you are creating it out of thin air, there is no moral onus on making money — you work hard to create it and have stolen from no one. There is an expression for this: you earned it.
Indeed, since charity depends on excess wealth, excess capacity, the more you make for yourself the better off everyone else is. You can even throw charity out the window if you are so hard-hearted; the fact remains that you will spend that money to get the things you want, and the more you have the more you can spend. That money goes to other people. This interchange is called “The Economy,” and rich societies are rich because they understand in their bones the centerpiece of Capitalist thinking: Wealth can be created from thin air by human ingenuity and hard work.
Now people on the left have, in their guts, a revulsion towards the rich and the wealthy, because whenever they see wealth they naturally assume that it was stolen from people without any — the poor. That rich man in the private jet has taken the wealth from all the poor people and is therefore a criminal.
If you think about all of the protestors you see on TV, whether they be against US “imperialism,” or globalization, or corporations, or claim to be champions of the Poor, both here at home and for poor nations in the world — all of this anger and seething resentment, all of this bitterness and invective, can be attributed, when all is said and done, to having chosen to believe that there is only so much wealth in the world, and that rich people and rich nations gain and maintain wealth by stealing prosperity from the weak.
This is so idiotic, so demonstrably false, that you really have to wonder why we are having this discussion. All of the money owed to rich nations by the poor — money that was lent to them to lift them from poverty, and then squandered on palaces for dictators and Socialist prestige projects like International Airports in the middle of nowhere — all this money totaled together, is a small percentage of the wealth generated by rich countries in a single year. The idea that the United States can steal 10 trillion dollars a year from dirt-poor nations that don’t produce anything of value is absolutely insane, and yet, and yet, we hear it again and again and again from the professionally outraged who must be obtuse beyond human understanding to keep making such an absurd lie the basis of their entire philosophy.
If we can prove that our core tenet is correct, that wealth is limited only by imagination and the desire to work hard, then not only does the left’s economic theory come crashing down like a Statue of Lenin, but their entire view of US power has to be fatally flawed, as well. Because if we make enough wealth to be able to buy our oil at prices set by the seller — consult reality for confirmation of this annoying fact — then perhaps we are not in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to steal oil from poor Arabs. There must be some other reason for it. Something completely unintelligible and unknowable: national security, perhaps, or simple disgust with torture and repression and terrorism. Things like that.
Get this through your heads, you socialist ninnies! There is not a big, limited pot of wealth that is filled with the Magic Sweat of Authentic Third World Laborers, that America uses its military to steal from when we run out of wealth here at home.
Here’s something even the dimmest hippy protester / poet should be able to wrap his mind around:
You buy a legal pad: $1.29
You steal a Bic pen from the counter at Kinko’s: free.
You write the script for Weekend at Bernies 3: Bernie’s Revenge!: free.
You hire someone to type it: $30.00
You have Kinko’s print 5 copies: $62.20
You mail the 5 copies: $7.82
5 idiots in Hollywood love the idea: free
They enter a bidding war: free
You get a check for: one… million… dollars!
So let’s see… that’s $1,000,000, minus the $101.30 in expenses… uh… that means… You, the village idiot, have just raised the Gross Domestic Product by, uh, one million freaking dollars, and have made a personal profit of $999,898 dollars and 69 cents.
Where did the $999,898.69 come from? It came from thin air! You created it, out of nothing. You added value to the stock of paper and ink you started with. From the monumental talent you possess, the gift of intellect, the pen that made Shakespeare weep with envy, you have created WB3. You’ve given millions of people two hours of side-splitting hilarity, for which they will part with $8.00… and you have created wealth. What’s more, when you go and blow it all on the pointless material crap that makes life so much fun, you’ll be bringing in a little extra for the Sea-Doo distributor, the BMW dealer, the girls at Cheetahs in Las Vegas, and all the others. Not to mention putting — I dunno — maybe half a million freaking dollars into welfare, Social Security, Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts and the world’s first fusion-powered, laser-armed, flying stealth submarine, the USS George W. Bush.
You did not have to steal $999,898.69 from a farmer in Angola.
And in just the same way as your finished screenplay is worth more than the total cost of the paper and ink you needed to write it, so too is my 2000 Ford Escort ZX2 worth more than the hunk of iron ore, the silica for the glass, the chemicals for the plastic and tires, and the cost of the factory, the electricity to run the factory, and the salary of the people who build the car. That car, like that screenplay, has greater value than the raw materials that comprise it. Through human ingenuity, value is added. Wealth is created from thin air.
More relative wealth is created from building a Learjet than making a pencil, but then again, there are a lot more pencils than Learjets. Any time we make either, or any of the millions of things in between, we create wealth. From thin air. We did not go and take the money at bayonet point from some campesino trying to scratch out a living somewhere, and if I hear that lie again from those magnificently dense, blind and smug idiots, well, from now on I’m just going to haul off and kick ’em in the nuts. We should not have to keep going over something so simple, so basic, and so completely and totally obvious.
That capitalism generates wealth is beyond debate. This capitalist reactor of ours easily invents more, learns more, and produces more benefits in a year than mankind did under a millennia of rule by Kings and Barons and Caliphs and Emperors. It’s just amazing what people can do when you just get the hell out of their way.
As an economic system for increasing prosperity, you just can’t beat it. And those who despise capitalism can’t argue with this — they just can’t. What they can do, perpetually and loudly, is talk about how unfair Capitalism is. Because it allows the hard-working and ambitious to keep the rewards of their hard work and ambition, Capitalism does indeed produce some pretty uneven results.
But does uneven mean unfair? Depends on how you measure fair.
Now far be it for me to split linguistic hairs and argue over what the definition of “is” is. But if we’re going to get to the heart of this unfair business, we have to ask ourselves, unfair to whom? Because if we are to talk intelligently about this, we’re going to have to understand something right out of the gate: life is unfair. If life were fair, we’d all be the same — same intelligence, same drive, same capabilities. But we’re not. It is a hallmark of our species that we vary wildly in these and many other categories. That’s what makes us so diverse, and we sure want to celebrate that, don’t we?
So, when we talk about making things fair, making them equal, we find ourselves in the same impossible conundrum as we do when we discuss The Irresistible Force meeting The Immovable Object.
Cool! Which would win?
Neither. It’s an oxymoron. The definition of Irresistible Force means that there cannot be an Immovable Object, and vice versa. You have to pick one or the other. They are mutually exclusive.
Likewise, when we try to measure fair and equal, we have to face the hard reality that people are different. So, do we want to measure an equal front end: equality of opportunity — or an equal back end: equality of results? Can’t have both.
When the Declaration of Independence thundered that All Men are Created Equal, it meant equal in those essential elements: equal under the law. Equal in terms of basic human rights. Equal in dignity. Equal in the sense that if someone with a lot of money thinks they can cut in front of me at an ATM line just because they’re rich, then they can just kiss my Royal Irish Ass! — that kind of equal.
But to believe that all people are equally capable is to… well… not be paying attention, as a quick game of one-on-one half-court between Michael Jordan and Michael Moore will quickly reveal. (note to Don King: There are millions, and I mean millions to be made off this idea. Call me.)
There will always be people smarter than you, and people more stupid; people more and less motivated, ruthless, connected, ambitious, frugal, hardworking than you are. Nothing can change that. Nothing should change that — because therein lies the Gulag. People are different. Leave them alone. Encourage the downhearted, by all means. Help those in need when they ask for help. But otherwise mind your own business, bub.
Society is as fair as it can get when all people have equal opportunity to make what they will of themselves. We are not there yet. We are close. We are much, much closer than many would have us believe.
But people are different. They will always be different. They will succeed and fail differently. There’s no two ways around it.
Like so many flawed ideas beloved by the far left, equality seems like a noble enough goal. Until you think about it. People have different capabilities. So do you want equality of opportunity — as I do — where people can make of themselves what they will? Or do you want equality of results, where society steps in to make sure that everyone comes out the same?
If society had a magical way of raising the bottom up, of speeding up, buffing up, and tidying up Michael Moore, thereby giving him the means to beat Michael Jordan in our (sadly) mythical game of half-court, well we’d all be the winners and life would be just dandy. But, alas, this wonderful, brilliant idea is marred only by the annoying fact that it is demonstrably impossible. Michael Moore can never play as well as Michael Jordan. Never. If you want that game to come out a tie — equal! — then you are going to have to hobble Michael Jordon.
You’re going to have to remove a foot or two from his femurs, stitch him into a clumsy, bulky, ugly suit adding a few hundred pounds, heavily sedate him to slow down his mental powers, fill him full of cheap booze to degrade his aim and coordination — oh, and really mess up his face surgically. No fair if people are rooting for him disproportionately! That might hurt Michael Moore’s self-esteem and limit his ability to compete.
Do all these things, and more, and you will have two equal players. You will have a really stupid, incompetent, pointless game. You will have removed all the grace, power, style, finesse and genius from a gifted and noble man, and added nothing whatsoever to his opponent. You just made Michael Moore equal to Michael Jordan. Now is that fair to Michael Jordan?
And after you’ve done all these things, Michael Jordan will still hand Michael Moore his ass because he thinks and acts like a winner and not a victim.
Equality under the law: good. Essential.
Forcing people of differing skills, motivation and capability to be “equal:” ruinous. Suicidal. And deeply, deeply unfair. But, for the Berkeley crowd, there’s no reason why a fatally flawed, disgusting, historically-demolished idea can’t be retried — and retried — and retried… So long as it will fit on a 2×4 foot piece of cardboard that you can hold on the end of a stick while dancing in a public fountain wearing a star-spangled diaper.
Does Capitalism, and its equality of opportunity, produce cruel results? It does. Does Socialism, and its equality of outcome, produce a fair and happy society? Ask the Russian farmers under Stalin. Ask the Chinese under Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Ask the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge.
Oh, wait — you can’t. They’ve all been murdered.
Our opponents across the Great Reason Divide care not a whit about the logic of this. Their house is built on compassion, and that’s basically all they’ve got. So, What about the poor?!
Well, that’s a serious question, a legitimate question, and there is in fact an absolutely compelling answer to that question.
The satisfaction you derive from the answer will be dependent on a very simple emotional equation that you already have stored in your head, namely: do you love the poor more than you hate the rich?
I can see by the way you are staring at your Birkenstocks that you are disoriented and confused. Let me rephrase the question: would you rather see the poor live better, or would you rather see the rich torn down? I know some people think you need to do the latter to get the former, and in this they are quite completely raving mad, not to mention provably wrong, as we shall see in a moment. Just think about it for a second. What means more to you? Seeing poor people live better, or seeing rich people taken down?
If you said the former, then we are in complete agreement, and congratulations on your high moral character. If you said the latter, then you’re just a mean-spirited, bitter failure with nothing better to do with your endless supply of free time than steal from and bitch about those more hardworking, industrious, motivated and socially worthwhile people than yourself. In fact, why are you still here? Don’t you have some signs or giant puppets to make or something?
Now I can see a few honest souls who don’t really see how cut-throat capitalism helps the poor. Well, that’s fair, because capitalism is a study in contrasts. In fact, this would be as good a time as any to admit that I’ve spent much of my life worrying myself sick about making enough money to pay the bills. You’ll just have to take my word for this. I know what it’s like to have your phone and electricity cut off. I know what it’s like to avoid the telephone and the mailbox — in fact, I know what it’s like to avoid a stern knock on the door.
But even during the many times I’ve been out of work, flat broke, worried sick and living off the kindness of my life-saving friends — you guys know who you are — even then, when I was practically throwing up from fear, even then — I have never, ever considered myself a poor person. I have always thought of myself as a rich person experiencing severe cash flow problems.
That is a distinctly American attitude. Optimism. Hope. Ambition. You break these chains in your head first — everything else will follow.
Now in order to fully appreciate why Capitalism is such a blessing — including being a blessing for the poor — we have to understand what poverty is. We have to have a definition of poverty. And we have to understand what it really means to be poor in a rich country, and to be rich in a poor one.
We keep hearing certain professional (as in paid) complainers bleating about how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That’s just wrong. That’s demonstrably, provably false. It’s a lie.
The rich get richer, and the poor get richer too. At least here they do.
American poverty is defined by a certain income. These people are poor by definition. I’m not trying to be sarcastic, and I’m not trying to minimize the pain of it — I’m just stating a fact.
Now, what does it mean when we learn that the poorest Americans have incomes higher than 90-some percent of the rest of the world? What does that mean?
Poor people in America have electrically powered homes. They have the same clean running water the rest of the city residents have. Almost all have telephones and television. Many have a third-hand piece of crap automobile like my last three cars. (My current ride has had one previous owner and 12,000 miles and it feels new. I’ve never owned a new car.)
Does it suck to be poor in America? It depends on who you talk to. If you spend your life calculating what Bill Gates makes while you were sleeping, chances are you’ll be pretty ornery. But if you look out into the rest of the world, and even a few decades back into history — American history, a rich country’s history — then you just might begin to realize that you, a poor American, are living better than just about any other humans in history, and I am including the richest people of just sixty or seventy years ago — a single human lifespan for a poor American. A hundred years ago, if the Crown Prince caught the flu, that richest, most powerful person on the earth, likely as not, died. At this hour, at this instant, people of all incomes are being saved from certain death in clinics and hospitals by treatments unimaginable a few short decades ago.
Some facts are undeniable — that’s why we call them “facts.” Lifespan and infant mortality are scientific data sets that pay no attention to ideology. The first has been rising, the other dropping, all across the globe, and doing so spectacularly where capitalism has taken hold. Rich capitalist countries — the ones with those evil kkkorporations — are also far cleaner — Greener, you might say — than poor, socialist ones. That’s got to stick a little, thinking about that up there in that tree night after night for years.
Where monumentally thick governments, like that of China, are finally forced to get out of the way and let people work to improve their own lives — we call this process “making money” — the results are simply dumbfounding, given the amount of poverty that has been foisted on that industrious nation for a few millennia of raw tyranny. Ask your solid, upper-middle-class in Egypt, or Vietnam, or Belarus, if they’d like to get a chance to start a new life as a poor American. Then get the hell out of their way, if you don’t feel like tasting the sidewalk.
One of the few places where longevity is falling drastically is in the ruin of Russia and her poor, literate, long-suffering people. Communism is still killing those poor bastards. It’s like a disease that stalks you even after it’s been eradicated.
What a filthy legacy.
Now I told you this one would be tough, but we’re almost done with it. In order to show how Capitalism helps the rich, the poor, and the middle, we have to look at income. Unfortunately for the grey-ponytail crowd, this will require just a smidgeon of math and a little tiny bit of other stuff they didn’t study for when they were out getting high behind the dumpsters.
It involves a graph. If you are one of those people who are now reaching for a pencil and paper, then you already pass and spend the rest of study period at the library. The rest of you pay attention, especially you kids way in the back whose every other word is Nazi! The rest of us are getting a little tired of having to keep explaining this to you. So pay attention!
In your mind, draw a vertical line down the left side of a piece of paper, and a horizontal one across the bottom. Yes, it makes an “L” Moonflower…
The left-hand, vertical line represents the number of people. The higher we go, the more people there are. The horizontal line is income: the further to the right, the more silk you get to wear.
Now place a bell-curve along the bottom line. Okay? A Bell Curve. Simple.
Now, down on the bottom left are the poorest Americans. There are relatively few really desperately poor people. As we move to the right, into higher incomes, we see more and more people — the line goes higher. We’re still on the left side of the curve — the cheap seats. Most of the people — the bulge in the bell — make an average salary: that’s why we call it “average” (You statisticians leave means and medians and that stuff out of it. Just play along.)
Okay, now as we move to ever higher incomes, we see fewer and fewer people making the big bucks. Numbers go down. And then all the way at the end sit Bill Gates and Sam Walton all by their stinking rich selves. Okay?
Let’s call that a snapshot of America today.
Now, if we rob from the rich, and give to the poor, then what happens?
The rich people get poorer, the poor people get richer… the ends contract… the bell curve gets narrower. The right side, the rich side, moves left — poorer. The left side, the poor half of the curve, moves right — richer. In a socialist utopia, there is no curve; there’s just a single vertical line in the middle called The Salary. Collect all the revenues, add ’em up, divide by the total number of people, and pay them all the same exact amount.
Everybody makes the same: the Salary. Let’s say it’s fifty grand a year. Brain surgeons, the guy who cleans the toilet at the 7-11 — everyone makes fifty grand.
Fifty grand! Woo-hoo!
Now let’s set aside for a moment the non-trivial issue of whether or not such a society — which rewards 12 years of intense medical study and endless hours doing breathtakingly difficult and essential work exactly the same as the guy who spent his teen years stealing stereos, getting high and listening to White Snake — is more “just” and “compassionate.” Look at the bell curve — or what’s left of it.
There it sits. It will start to slide left as motivation and industry and ambition and just plain dreaming of a better life goes out the window. What’s the point? Fall asleep behind the glass at a service station, you make The Salary. Put in overtime, start a business, get an extra degree, invent the telephone — you get The Salary. Only we’re not producing as much. The Brain Surgeon decides it pays just as well to take tickets at the movieplex, and he’s got a lot more free time, plus the movie. Productivity goes down. We produce less, so now the average of what we make goes from fifty grand to forty-three nine. Then thirty-six grand. Then Twenty-One. Then eleven. But everybody’s equal! Equally destitute and equally hopeless.
But I’ll even throw this essential argument away for a minute.
Let’s just agree that everybody makes fifty grand. Forever.
If we went perfectly communist a hundred years ago, when the Big Idea started, that “average salary” would have been closer to five grand a year.
What the hell can you buy today with five grand? Well, quite a lot of hay, some dry goods, perhaps a corset for the missus. But it doesn’t buy anything of value today. What will fifty grand buy in a century? Some crappy new Volvo, perhaps a PlayStation? What about a personal transporter, or a NeuralBoy? You’ll need to make 500 grand to afford those puppies.
Now if you’d just been smart and listened to Adam Smith, he’d tell you: you don’t improve people’s lives by narrowing the bell curve. You improve people’s lives by moving it to the right.
Is this so hard to figure out?
I guess so. For some people this is like learning calculus — in Greek.
If your goal is to pull the money from those goddam rich people, then realize all you can do is raise the poor to the middle. On the other hand, if you don’t give a damn about people richer than you, and everyone does the best they can, then there is no limit to how far right a wealth-creating engine can move the curve. Poor people today make more money than average people did a hundred years ago, and they can buy much cooler stuff with what they make — like televisions.
So write this on your palm, because there will be a test in the afterlife: if you want to help the poor by taking from the rich, all you can do is take all that they have. Take from the industrious, the ambitious, the clever and the hardworking long enough, and they will go somewhere else and get rich — again.
And then where are you? Your bell curve gets narrower, and as the gap between rich and poor shrinks, you have a few years, maybe a few decades of smug satisfaction as the whole edifice topples slowly to the left and collapses. The rich get poorer — good for you — and the poor? Well, simple. They starve to death.
Behold Africa. What an egalitarian paradise! All starve equally.
On the other hand, there is no limit — again — no limit, to how far to the right, how rich, capitalism can make even the poor. Some people will do better than others, because some people work harder, or smarter, or longer than others, and some are just plain luckier. That’s life. And if that’s the case, then some people, by definition, will be the rich half, and some will be the poor half. And at the far end of the poor half will be the people we call The Poor. It doesn’t matter how much money they make, or don’t make. The bottom ten or fifteen percent we will define as The Poor. Seventy-five years ago, these poor Americans lived in shacks with dirt floors. Today they live better. Not as well as the rest of us. But better. The rich get richer, and the poor get richer, too.
We can narrow that bell curve, reduce the gap, if we so choose. We can have the bland, benign socialism of, say, Scandanavia. When we rein in the industrious and the inventive, we can narrow the difference between them and the unfortunate. And we will give to the rest of the world… what, exactly? Electric lights? Airplanes? Weather satellites? The non-existent laser in your non-existent DVD player? Computers? Miracle drugs? Carbon-fiber structures? MRI scanners? Where have the vast majority of earth-shaking inventions come from?
These socialists point an accusing, bony finger at America’s huge gap in outcome. They have a point. I point a perfectly toned, buff finger back and ask, where is your genius? Where is your creativity? Where are your movies? Where is your music? Where are your breakthroughs? Where, in fact, is your contribution?
And where is your passion, you poor, passive, grey people? Here we are, working like hell to move the world’s bell curve to the right, and you’re just tagging along for the ride!
Look, I am all for every reasonable, proven method to help the poor. Job training, educational grants — I’ll pay for that. And I’m all for a safety net. It’s the safety hammock I have a problem with.
And if each and every one of us lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps, if every American was a millionaire, then someone would still have to sit at the left side of that curve. In a country club of billionaires, the guy with 900 million is a schmuck. In the richest country in the world, its poorest citizens live better than the vast ocean of human history. And yet there are poor Americans. That’s reality. It’s not fair. History — recent history — shows it can’t be made fair, unless you can make human capability, human creativity, all the same. This is indeed possible. You can crush people’s creativity and intelligence, and steal their hard work. There is the socialist laboratory of Africa, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as models. Go live there for a year before you throw your next Molotov cocktail at a G7 meeting.
I want to be rich. I’m tired of being broke. I’m doing something about it, too. I am working like an animal. I am putting in 12-14 hour days, and weekends, for weeks on end, and no end in sight.
I don’t have to do this. I could get by on a lot less. But see, I have a burning desire. I want to own my own airplane and see the world at 200 knots. That is my dream. And so I make the choice, daily, to work harder than I have to because there are things that I could never, ever have in a socialist society. There are more licensed pilots in Los Angeles county than there are in all of Europe — and that’s just an example I am familiar with. America is an economic dynamo not because of the big corporations like Boeing, GM and GE. It is productive out of all proportion because there are so many people with so many small businesses trying to make a better life for themselves. LA county, alone, has what I believe would be the 22nd largest economy in the world. People work hard — and smart — in America.
I’m one of them. Chances are, you are too. Many places in the world won’t let you work harder to get further. The State throws you a crappy apartment, a crappy car, a crappy job — so enjoy your crappy, hopeless life.
How fair, how compassionate, is that?
I’m doing something else, too. I’m giving up what’s left of my free time, because the fact of the matter is, I’m writing a goddam book, and all you rich folks nodding a few paragraphs back — well, you get those checkbooks ready.