I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, August 16, 2013

A few rambling thoughts on wealth disparity.

I read a lot these days about wealth disparity. One frequently sighted statistic is that the top 10% of households control 75% of the total wealth in the US. Dig even deeper, and the to 1% control 35% of the total wealth in the US. I have no reason to dispute these numbers.

A billionaire has roughly 10,000 times as much money as I have. But, does that make him 10,000 times better off? Can he buy 10,000 times as much health care? Perhaps he can afford 10,000 cars; good luck driving all of them. Is his television 10,000 times as large as mine? Does he have 10,000 times as much food? As much clothing? It seems to me that there is a point where extra wealth runs up against the wall of practical reality. He probably could buy his wife a wedding ring 10,000 times more expensive than the one I bought Cheryl, and maybe he could own some rare painting worth more than all the houses combined in the small town I live in. But, rings and paintings have value mainly because of subjective cultural factors. Practical things you need to live, like food, can be extremely expensive, but, from a nutritional standpoint, your body burns steak and potatoes from a high dollar restaurant exactly the same as it burns a taco from a food truck.

A billionaire and I have access to exactly the same books, movies, and music, at least what's recorded. I suppose people with a lot of wealth can hire their favorite musicians to play their children's birthday parties.

It is true that wealth can purchase experiences beyond my income. A billionaire could travel around the world on his or her private plane whenever the whim struck; I can barely afford a couple of trips a year to a beach in the next state. It's not just the money I can't afford, but the time. Working for an employer, I'm allowed only a certain number of days off each year, and these have to be approved in advance. Of all the things I envy most about great wealth, it would be the freedom to do what you wish with your time without asking permission. But, even the free time produced by wealth runs into some limits. We all get the same number of hours in a day and days in a year. I might chafe at the constraints placed upon me by holding down a steady job, but I'm sure wealthy individuals have their own headaches and hassles and wonder where all their time goes.

So, if there's a point where wealth has brought an individual pretty much everything that's available to own or experience in the world, does it make sense to allow a small sliver of the population to keep accumulating wealth? Or, would it be more beneficial to spread some of that wealth around?

Maybe I've been listening to too many Billy Bragg songs, but there is something appealing to the notion of taking a billionaire's wealth and dividing it up among, say, 100,000 families. An extra 10 grand for most families would be a pretty significant windfall. But, would it be moral to just take the money? What exactly is the ethical principal that says it's okay to take someone's property against their will and give it to someone else, even if the person you give it to really, really needs it? If I had bad kidneys, and there was a compatible donor who didn't want to give up one of his, would it be ethical for a doctor just to go ahead and take the involuntary donor's kidney anyway because it will save my life without causing permanent harm to his? One could argue there's a huge difference between body parts and money, but, I don't know. The money I have I've paid for by exchanging lots and lots of hours of my life, countless heartbeats and breath, lots of sore muscles and burned out brain cells. Taking my money is kind of stealing my body.

But, maybe it's all just a matter of what analogy you choose to use. Suppose there was a huge fire at my neighbor's house, and I had a swimming pool in my back yard, and the fire truck started pumping my pool dry, despite my protests of, hey, that's my water! I think only the most hardened libertarian would say that the firemen were in the wrong.

One last rambling thought: Is our wealth disparity possibly protecting the environment? While so few people control so much wealth, there are practical caps on how much they can consume. That billionaire can't realistically drive the 10,000 cars he could afford. But, divide up his wealth among 10,000 poor people, and suddenly they might all be able to afford cars, and bigger televisions, and find themselves eating higher up the food chain, consuming more meat and fewer backyard tomatoes. Distributed wealth would inevitably result in increased consumption. We don't notice a lot of the environmental harm our consumer society produces because we've outsourced a lot of our pollution. Not many American cities still have smokestacks, but China puts out enough smoke and dust you can see it from space. Could we survive even a hundredfold increase in our consumption? My gut instinct tells me we'd muddle through. It also tells me I'll probably never find out, since there's zero evidence that the wealth accumulation trends are going to change anytime soon.


OmnicronLives said...

Excellent. I will be forcing my friends to read this, not for political reasons, but because of the philosophical qualities of this rant. My most cherished axiom is that free time is a persons most valuable asset, as it is finite, the more we use the less we have, and we are all ignorant of the balance. On a side note, the deceiver from Greatshadow is my favorite powered character ever. Wonderful power. I would love to see more of him.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Omnicron! You know, the older I get, the less philosophical clarity I have on anything. In college, I would definitely have felt that the wealth disparity developing today was unfair and dangerous and that the public good would be served by taking from the rich to give to the poor. Later, I became fiercely libertarian, and would have opposed pretty much any and all redistribution and said that, if the free market dictated this disparity, it must be because the work of those at the top was worth more to the world than the work of those at the bottom.

Today, I'm far more skeptical that the free market had much to do to create this wealth imbalance, and think that government meddling has distorted the gap. There are numerous large corporations who rake in profits from government contracts and numerous markets that can build huge bubbles because of governmental guarantees, real or implied.

Education, housing, healthcare, agriculture, energy, communications... almost none of these foundational markets of modern life operate without governmental distortion. If government is creating the distortions, shouldn't it at least try to fix them?

I'm left with questions, but not much in the way of answers. Would the best solution be to get government out of these markets? Maybe, but politically, there doesn't seem to be any realistic path toward that end. So, as long as the government is picking winners and losers, do the winners have any moral leg to stand on if the government decides to claw back some of their wealth and spread it around to others? Which leads to the third question: Even if there was a moral argument to be made in favor of redistribution, could any democratically elected government ever be trusted to carry it out fairly, or would the redistribution always be doomed to distortion in favor of politically important voting blocks? And, does the complexity of debating these questions... let alone debating the answers... lead to cynicism, despair, and disengagement, so that only those with the least worthy motives remain on the battlefield of ideas?

As for Zetetic, the Deceiver, I'm glad you like him. He's definitely one of my favorite characters as well. Zetetic makes a cameo appearance in Hush, the second book in the series. His role is pretty small, but pivotal to the plot. He returns for a more sustained appearance in Witchbreaker, where he has a whole chapter to star in right at the core of the novel. And, there's no way I'll be writing the fourth book of the series, Soulless, without him.