When we know so little, it’s incumbent on us all to show a little applied humility to interpreting the recent and much celebrated and punditised results about rising mortality amongst American whites.
But I will at least say this. The results which Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case report and which I reported in an earlier post, are much worse in the bible belt large parts of which are in the previously slave owning South which I’ve argued suffers from psychosis.
Education is good, looking after those at the bottom of the ladder is good. Of course the left’s tendency to valorise ‘victims’ can go too far. I think it does and it’s a growing problem (#TriggerAlert you may not agree and this may trigger anxiety, depression and flashbacks to traumatic events in your childhood when you discovered you weren’t the only person in the world). But ethically it seems like so much less a crime than the right’s demonisation of those at the bottom and their valorisation of those at the top. Perhaps it’s also a practical mistake.
This puts me in mind of what was a moment of epiphany for me in the suburbs of Los Angeles with my son Alex.
It was late at night in a not particularly run down light industrial area – a bit like Fyshwick in the ACT when we went into a ‘Walgreens supermarket’. The place was nearly empty. There may have been one other shopper. We went in and got our stuff and went to check out. At the check out was a Mexican guy and a very large overweight black woman security guard with guns strapped round her waste.
The Mexican guy checked one of four or five of our items through the cash register and then proceeded to have a leisurely conversation with the security guard. It seemed to go on for about 5 minutes though it was probably less. They weren’t making a point of their power over us. Indeed, these kinds of people’s jobs are on the line the whole time. They were just out of it. In a world of their own. A kind of eternal present.
There was something quite weird about it. If it was Australia I would have shown them my manifest annoyance at being kept waiting. I thought better of it in this circumstance. Then as we went to our car a black guy, somehow psychically part of the other two, though he was outside the door asked us for money. He wasn’t at all overtly menacing, but I felt unsafe. Unsure of what the safest thing to do was, we did what one often does in such circumstances. Nothing. And kept walking to our car. There was no problem at all. As we drove away Alex got a spray that surprised me as much as it did him.
Never forget Alex, that you come from a country where not only is the minimum wage over $15 per hour without compromising something close to full employment but we don’t hate poor people. We don’t want people ripping off the system, but we’re basically OK with people being given a hand. It might be a niggardly safety net, but it’s a comprehensive safety net. We don’t have beggars everywhere. Here in America, the general population hate people like the three we’ve just dealt with – that’s around 15 percent of the population. And they’re all out of it. That’s not true in Australia. We don’t hate the people at the bottom.
Or words to that effect.
So there you have it. My outburst. Until that time I felt rather torn about minimum wages – just because it’s a big call to say to someone you can’t work if you can’t get someone to pay you a wage others feel comfortable about. I still respect that argument, though mostly in the context of a situation in which one is concerned about people being priced out of a job.
I also had psychologically distanced myself from the issue of equality. I’ve always been in favour of strong redistribution policies and I don’t shy away from saying so here or in columns. But I’m not much of a campaigner for equality. If people who would be advantaged by them won’t vote for them, who am I to disagree? But I had my moment of epiphany. The means by which we try to help those losing out might sometimes be inefficient (though if high minimum wages coincide with close to full employment they offer an uncommonly efficient means of lifting low incomes). But what is prosperity about if it can’t be spent on what matters? And we really are all in this together. I really don’t want to live in a country with beggars strewn across the street, and where 15 percent of the population have fear in their eyes.