One of the advantages of being a twice-divorced hermit living on a quiet street hidden between Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard is what could be called cultural autonomy. You’re not part of the big sort-out in American life. The Economist offers a bit of a primer on that – and it is an economic issue having to do with wealth inequality and that sort of thing. But it’s more than that. There’s the issue of self-selection. People who feel comfortable with each other sooner or later end up living next door to each other – so whole neighborhoods, or towns, or congressional districts, become, over time, entirely Tea Party Republican or latte-sipping liberal. If you’re uneasy with either you eventually move out. And this means that sooner or later there really are no swing districts, and probably no independent voters to win or lose. Folks have settled in. The only issue in any upcoming election is who is more motivated to vote, and who just blows it off this time around. Obama motivated his self-selected base in 2008, while the self-selected hardcore Republican base just wasn’t that excited about McCain. Who could be? And the Democrats lost the House in 2010 because their base just stayed home, thinking no one would really vote for that jerk who actually won. Oops. So the idea is to get your base off its ass. There are no voters to win over, none at all. That was all sorted out long ago.
And you see this culturally too. It’s the gated communities. Those who can afford to do so live behind those guarded gates, in a separate world. The world outside those gates is invisible to them. The hired help lives out there somewhere, but that’s about all they know. And those who live outside the gates live their own lives, as that other world doesn’t matter a whole lot. It might as well not exist. That’s something you see on television – on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or something. But it’s not real. And here in Hollywood at the base of Laurel Canyon it’s like that. The back balcony of the apartment faces the Hollywood Hills, with the multimillion-dollar cantilevered glass houses staring down on the Sunset Strip here, and below that, the flats that stretch all the way down south to the grinding despair of South Central. The east end of Sunset, out beyond Echo Park, is grime and crime, where it’s not El Salvador, and the west end of Sunset runs out through Beverly Hills and even fancier places, all the way out to Malibu, where the stars frolic on the sand. And yes, the Malibu Colony is a gated community. These worlds have nothing to do with each other, nothing at all. And it’s like that in most of America. There are gated communities everywhere. And the idea that there could be something like a common good or a shared vision for America, and a set of things we all agree on, seems absurd.
And you see that in discussion of public policy. On Fox News everyone laments the idea that Obama and the Democrats are going to confiscate what people have worked so hard to obtain and should be able to keep, with new taxes to pay for social programs to keep the freeloaders who contribute nothing from dying in the streets. Well boohoo – people should be responsible enough to take care of themselves. And why should people who made it all on their own, by the sweat of the brow or whatever, pay for some welfare queen’s Cadillac? And over on MSNBC they lament the days when we all chipped in, and the nation assumed some temporary but massive debt, and then did great things, like building bridges and highways and the Hoover Dam. The folks on Fox News may claim all taxes are essentially theft, and theft from the successful alone, while the folks on MSNBC say taxes are really a policy choice where we elect people to make substantial investments in the future of the country. And on CNN they line up people from each side to shout at each other about whether taxes are pure theft or agreed-upon group investment in a better future. And no one convinces anyone of anything. We sorted ourselves out into one camp or the other long ago.
And that is what makes being a hermit living on a quiet street hidden between Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard so interesting. You’re not in either world, the one above or the one below. You just watch both. In fact, and oddly enough, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose body of work from Gatsby on explored this great divide, lived out his last years right here on Laurel Avenue, just a few doors down the street. When he died here he was working of The Last Tycoon – still trying to figure it all out. His buddy Nathanael West had tried to work out this great American divide in The Day of the Locust – and then West died in a car cash out here, as he stupidly ran a stop sign in El Centro. They say he was upset that Fitzgerald had just passed away. Maybe the issue is just too thorny.
But it seems to be the issue of the day and underlies all that is being said in the flurry of spin leading up to the next presidential election. The issue is taxes – and temporarily assuming additional national debt – as theft from the successful, and from future generations – or as agreed-upon group investment in a better future.
Should we do less or do more? Who knows? But it does seem that the idea that there could be something like a common good or shared vision for America, a set of things we all agree on, is quite absurd. Here you might see Paris Hilton drive by in her SLR Mercedes or find yourself in an East Hollywood alley chatting pleasantly with a young black street artist, cans of acrylic paint in hand, working on his new angry wall mural. Both are fascinating, in their own way. But it does get confusing when you haven’t self-selected and sorted yourself out into the Real America. Which is it?
But it may come down to the successful. Who are they? Are they even who they say they are? Sam Harris says we do live in an odd new world:
There is no reason to think that we have reached the upper bound of wealth inequality, as not every breakthrough in technology creates new jobs. The ultimate labor saving device might be just that – the ultimate labor saving device. Imagine the future Google of robotics or nanotechnology: Its CEO could make Steve Jobs look like a sharecropper, and its products could put tens of millions of people out of work.
What would it mean for one person to hold the most valuable patents compatible with the laws of physics and to amass more wealth than everyone else on the Forbes 400 list combined? How many Republicans who have vowed not to raise taxes on billionaires would want to live in a country with a trillionaire and thirty percent unemployment? If the answer is “none” – and it really must be – then everyone is in favor of “wealth redistribution.” They just haven’t been forced to admit it.
The issue is how rich is too rich:
The conviction that taxation is intrinsically evil has achieved a sadomasochistic fervor in conservative circles – producing the Tea Party, their Republican zombies, and increasingly terrifying failures of governance.
And you know the drill:
Conservatives view taxation as a species of theft – and to raise taxes, on anyone for any reason, is simply to steal more. Conservatives also believe that people become rich by creating value for others. Once rich, they cannot help but create more value by investing their wealth and spawning new jobs in the process. We should not punish our best and brightest for their success, and stealing their money is a form of punishment.
And Harris calls this just an economic cartoon:
We don’t have perfectly efficient markets, and many wealthy people don’t create much in the way of value for others. In fact, as our recent financial crisis has shown, it is possible for a few people to become extraordinarily rich by wrecking the global economy.
Nevertheless, the basic argument often holds: Many people have amassed fortunes because they (or their parent’s, parent’s parents) created value. Steve Jobs resurrected Apple Computer and has since produced one gorgeous product after another. It isn’t an accident that millions of us are happy to give him our money.
But even in the ideal case, where obvious value has been created, how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep?
So Harris is not happy:
Yes, we must cut spending and reduce inefficiencies in government – and yes, many things are best accomplished in the private sector. But this does not mean that we can ignore the astonishing gaps in wealth that have opened between the poor and the rich, and between the rich and the ultra rich. …
Some Americans have amassed more wealth than they or their descendants can possibly spend. Who do conservatives think is in a better position to help pull this country back from the brink?
And whose country would that be? Residents of the gated community of cantilevered glass houses out back in the Hollywood Hills would not agree, and he pushes back when they hammered him:
Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.
Many of us have been extraordinarily lucky – and we did not earn it. Many good people have been extraordinarily unlucky – and they did not deserve it. And yet I get the distinct sense that if I asked some of my readers why they weren’t born with club feet, or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments. There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles.
Yes, there is that, but basically most of his readers were outraged that he could support taxation in any form:
It was as if I had proposed this mad scheme of confiscation for the first time in history. Several cited my framing of the question – “how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep?” – as especially sinister, as though I had asked, “how many of his internal organs can one person be allowed to keep?”
But he says he really does understand ethical and economic concerns about taxation:
I agree that everyone should be entitled to the fruits of his or her labors and that taxation, in the State of Nature, is a form of theft. But it appears to be a form of theft that we require, given how selfish and shortsighted most of us are.
Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers.
So they say his appeal to state power is some sort of sacrilege, which puzzles him:
Either they yearn for reasons to retreat within walled compounds wreathed in razor wire, or they have no awareness of the societal conditions that could warrant such fear and isolation. And they consider any effort the State could take to prevent the most extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty to be indistinguishable from Socialism.
And then there is Ayn Rand:
I often get emails from people who insist that Rand was a genius – and one who has been unfairly neglected by writers like myself. I also get emails from people who have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” or otherwise saved by the “living Christ,” who have decided to pray for my soul. It is hard for me to say which of these sentiments I find less compelling.
As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly “objective” morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism – a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. And Rand’s attempt to make literature out of this awful philosophy produced some commensurately terrible writing. Even in high school, I found that my copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged simply would not open.
So as much as he is a libertarian, and like Rand an atheist, he is also a realist:
Why do we have laws in the first place? To prevent adults from behaving like dangerous children. All laws are coercive and take the following form: do this, and don’t do that, or else. Or else what? Or else men with guns will arrive at your door and take you away to prison. Yes, it would be wonderful if we did not need to be corralled and threatened in this way. And many uses of State power are both silly and harmful (the “war on drugs” being, perhaps, the ultimate instance). But the moment certain strictures are relaxed, people reliably go berserk. And we seem unable to motivate ourselves to make the kinds of investments we should make to create a future worth living in. Even the best of us tend to ignore some of the more obvious threats to our long term security. …
And lurking at the bottom of this morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition.…
Given the current condition of the human mind, we seem to need a State to set and enforce certain priorities. I share everyone’s concern that our political process is broken, that it can select for precisely the sorts of people one wouldn’t want in charge, and that fantastic sums of money get squandered. But no one has profited more from our current system, with all its flaws, than the ultra rich. They should be the last to take their money off the table. And they should be the first to realize when more resources are necessary to secure the common good.
And he’d rather not be lectured about the failure of socialism:
To worry about the current level of wealth inequality is not to endorse Socialism, or to claim that the equal distribution of goods should be an economic goal. I think a certain level of wealth inequality is probably a very good thing – being both reflective and encouraging of differences between people that should be recognized and rewarded. There are people who can be motivated to work 100 hours a week by the prospect of getting rich, and they often accomplish goals that are very beneficial. And there are people who are simply incapable of making similar contributions to society. But do you really think that Steve Jobs would have retired earlier if he knew that all the wealth he acquired beyond $5 billion would be taxed at 90 percent? Many of people apparently do. However, I think they are being far too cynical about the motivations of smart, creative people.
It doesn’t get more basic than that. But the pushback comes on hot and heavy from Timothy Sandefur:
Harris believes that because people are “lucky” enough to be born with certain endowments, they must be reduced by force to being the means to other people’s happiness – literally forced, since he believes the state should “supersede” our “immediate, selfish interests” to accomplish a “fairness” that he does not define, but admits is based purely on emotion and intuition.
And how can one “require” a form of theft?
We yearn for a society that respects individual rights and that does not commit theft against us in order to subsidize those who Harris himself admits act wrongly. We yearn for a political system that respects us as ends in themselves – as having the right to pursue happiness – and not as a means to the ends of others.
This seems to be the upcoming election in a nutshell. And people have already self-selected on which side of this basic divide they stand, behind their guarded gates or outside those gates they will never enter – up in the high-rolling hills or down in the desperate flats that stretch on and on forever.
And a few of us have selected to opt out, living between the two, just watching these two separate nations not even try to coexist, much less get anything done. Maybe all there is to do is watch, or like Fitzgerald, drop by the cigarette counter at Schwab’s Drugstore down on the corner here. That’s where he had his final heart attack. But that’s long gone now. Ah well. This divide will never be worked out. The sorting is over.