19 July 2016

Protesting Police Shootings VERSUS *not* Helping Your Kids with a College Degree and DownPayment

From the outside, it could look an awful lot like the liberal Left is populated with tens of thousands of Donald Trumps.  Trumps that just happen to have different values; but watch them on mute for a while, or listen to the emotion without the specifics, and there is the exact same self-righteousness, the exact same outrage and contempt for who ever they consider the "other" side. And with it, a complete and total obliviousness to anything they or their allies may be doing to exacerbate the very problems they rail against, while instead placing blame on the most immediately visible target. 

There are lots of details that vary, but they are fill-in-the-blank details that everything above applies equally well to.  Everyone is angry and loud and makes proclamations of fact which are just plain false.  Everyone is so confident that their own values are the "correct" ones that it doesn't even occur to them to qualify conclusions of what "should be" with an "if we want..."

But nobody seems to notice...





For quite a few years now the left has been very preoccupied with unjustified police shootings of Black men.

I have already written about this, and related racial issues a bunch of times:

15 Jan 2009 A Little Perspective

17 Jul 2013 Cops Shooting Unarmed Black Men

04 Aug 2013 "Culture" and "Race" are not interchangeable

27 Aug 2014 It has to be disproportionate to be racism

11 Dec 2014  I can't stand it anymore; OR - No, actually, violent Black men don't represent all Black people.

24 Mar 2015 Cops are the New Blacks

01May 2015 No One Ever Claimed Black Lives Don't Matter

Wow!  7 essays on essentially the same thing.  I hadn't even realized I had written so much. 
Yet I feel like the points are all so spread out, each with its own layers of complication, that the overall conclusion could be a bit obscured.

It's hard, because the first step always has to be correcting the simple factual information, which nearly everyone has wrong (for example, that when you take into account the rate of committing violent crime and the rate of directing violence at police, statistics show zero bias against Black suspects, and in some cases even a bias in their favor), and the second step has to be finding a way to point out to people that they are interpreting one situation with special rules that they wouldn't apply to any other situation to get to the conclusion (for example, no one takes the fact that 93% of non-traffic police stops and 93% of prisoners are men as evidence of rampant sexism in police, DAs, judges, and juries).

I pointed out, in various different essays, how overwhelmingly more Black men are murdered by civilians (the majority of murders being other Black men) than by cops, that White men are the victims of unjustified police shootings just as often (those cases just don't get news coverage or protest movements, because they don't fit the Narrative of Oppression, and therefor don't generate the same levels of outrage), that profiling based on clothes and other style choices may happen to look identical to profiling on race, but are not the same thing (its a rare exception that a non-white person in a business suit who drives a minivan is the victim of police brutality).

The last post on the topic touched at least a little on all those various points.
But each time I end up spending so much time correcting misinformation and explaining logical errors, that the overall conclusions, if they make it in at all, are relegated to a brief note at the very end.

So for once I'm going to try to gloss over all the evidence, and just make some categorical statements, and if you think those statements are wrong, feel free to read the links above where I justify each of them.

Some popular misconceptions corrected:  Unarmed Black men are not shot at any more often than unarmed white men.  The rate if being stopped by police for suspension of committing a crime is proportionate to the crime rate in a given area (in other words, a random white person in a high crime neighborhood has a higher chance of being stopped than a random black person in a low crime neighborhood), and the only time there is variance from that pattern is when within a particular neighborhood one demographic commits disproportionately more crime.

People who want to believe in the Narrative of Oppression will say that the statistics are flawed.
Except that, because of the anti-law-enforcement culture, crimes in Black communities are the ones least likely to be reported.  If anything, the crime statistics are likely to be skewed in the direction of seeming less disproportionate than they really are.

Then Social Justice Warriors will default to anecdotes: "talk to any Black person, and they can tell you about being stopped unreasonably".  Anecdotes - in the greater context of a society that makes very clear to people from childhood what to expect - are meaningless.  Of course if you tell someone their entire life that the cops are out to get them, the first time they get stopped for any reason they will assume it is because of prejudice.  Were you stopped because of race, or because you were speeding?  Did the store employee come up to you because they were afraid you were going to steal, or just to offer you help?  If no store employee came up to you, is it because they were busy, or because they don't feel inclined to serve you?  Anyone can interpret any circumstance to fit the narrative they are already sure is true.
While if you search for it, you can certainly find isolated individual examples of legitimate racism, true, you can also find examples where the bias is in favor of the "oppressed" group, and all in all it balances out.

What really does exist is a dramatically higher rate of violent crime - perpetrated by and against all races - in the United States than in most of the developed (and not currently at war) world.  Both with and without guns.  Whatever the merits of either strict gun control or, on the other hand, armed civilians, may be, is beside the point.  In most first world nations neither one is necessary in the first place, because, other than the occasional spurned lover, people just don't have as much desire to attack other people.

The rate at which police arrest, as well as shoot at, citizens is directly related to the rate at which citizens are violent.

And even if 90%, or even if 99% of police shootings are justified by the actions of the suspect, in a high-pressure fast-reaction-time life-or-death situation, you are never going to be able to avoid mistakes 100% of the time.  People can't even avoid killing other people with their cars under normal, no-pressure situations.  But even a low 1% error rate becomes an awful lot of accidentally unjustified shootings if the crime rate, and therefor the rate of potentially violent police interactions, gets high enough.

So, if what we ultimately want as an outcome is less innocent people being shot (by the cops, yes, but hopefully we are even more interested in the far larger number of innocent people who are shot by civilians), then we are focused in the completely wrong direction.
We need to be looking at the ultimate causes of our ridiculously high crime rate (particularly of the violent variety)

It can't just be the multitude of effects, both economic and cultural, of slavery and Jim Crow, because the crime rate among White people is much higher than most other nations as well.  When you hear about how excessively high our prison population is compared to the rest of the world, realize the majority of those inmates are White.  About 58%. Which makes it disproportionate to the population of 62%, (though not by that much), but still means White people are committing a whole hell of a lot of crime, and getting caught and being sentenced to prison for it.

Reducing sentences, especially for non-violent offenses, would unquestionably be good for society overall - but it wouldn't address the issue of so many Americans committing so much crime in the first place.  Addressing prions is dealing with a symptom.

Assuming you haven't given up on this blog post this far, hopefully we are at a point where we can agree that some of the deeper core issues are economic and educational.

But it can't be absolute levels of wealth or education, because the average "below the poverty line" person in America today has access to technology and a level of basic needs security that most humans in most of the world, and almost all humans for thousands of years, could never have dreamed of.  While there are certainly plenty of homeless people who fall entirely between the cracks, we do have a very well funded safety net, and the (relatively) poor never experience famines, which are a real threat in many places, and for most of human existence were a real threat for everyone, whether peon or king.  In America most people below the official poverty line even have cars for cryin out loud!
Even a highschool drop out has had more formal education than much of the world gets, and then nearly all people got until just the past couple hundred years.
And yet, despite the wealth, relative luxury (go to a welfare waiting room and see how many people are looking at their pocket computers), and high level of free education (almost everyone can read!), we still have much higher crime than many other cultures without those benefits.

That doesn't mean that we're wrong about the significance of wealth and education.
But its not about the absolute level.
Its about the relative level.

In fact, throughout history and cultures, the same two factors are associated with high crime: a significant wealth inequality, combined with cultural isolation within a society.
Even just in American history, the identical pattern emerged with every single wave of immigration.  Aboriginal Americans (obviously not "immigrants" in the literal sense, but similar in being a separate culture which was only brought into "America" as a country after it had been long established), the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Mexicans, they each got their turn as being the people suspected by the mainstream of criminality - and generally because there was at least an element of truth behind it.  It wasn't about skin color, as demonstrated by their being Europeans included on the list.  But there was distinct cultures, and there was a significant difference in average wealth.  These preconceptions disappeared as the stereotypes stopped being true, which in turn happened as the two factors stopped being true.  The Europeans basically fully assimilated.  In many communities the Chinese never have, so the fact that there isn't especially high crime in China Towns demonstrates that ending average wealth inequality itself is enough to break the cycle.  Ending the poverty ends the crime, and ending the crime ends the discrimination.

We have in the United States today the highest amount of inequality that humanity has ever seen.

On the one hand, for all the attention the "1%" versus the "99%" got in recent years, the disparity of the .01% compared to even just the rest of the top 1% is even higher.
On the other hand, the level of luxury of the entire upper 80% of society, compared with the poor, is already staggering.  As Mr Money Moustache reminds us every month, the average member of the American middle class wastes more money every month than most working poor can even earn.  In dramatic contrast to popular opinion, the American middle class is not remotely hurting economically in any way, they are just collectively making lots of stupid decisions.  There is no level at which it is impossible to live paycheck-to-paycheck, because there is no limit to the things you can buy that you don't actually need.

But in a system in which 100% of societies gains from productivity go to the investor class, an ever increasing unemployment rate (the real unemployment rate, which, unlike the official number the government releases, includes all the adults who have given up on trying to find a job) and ever decreasing wages (real wages, adjusted for inflation), is inevitable.
With no rules in place to lower working hours as technology displaces jobs and nothing to automatically and consistently raise minimum wage to match inflation, that also means an ever growing pool of poor people is also inevitable, even if each individual is ready and willing to work.

Here is where conservatives and Republicans and libertarians will generally jump in and say "of course there is inequality - everyone has the same opportunity, but some people have more talent, some people work a lot harder, and those people deserve to have more!"

Having more if you work harder is fair enough, only everyone doesn't have the same opportunity.

In that fact the liberals get it right, but not for the reasons that they think, (that certain people are oppressed by the system).  Yes, obviously slavery and Jim Crow oppressed Black people for hundreds of years.  However those institutions have gone away a long time ago now.  As much as people want to see versions of them in today's systems, the objective evidence simply isn't there.
If you go by anecdote, well, individual people see what they are primed to see, and are not a reliable source for what really happens and why.  If you go by statistics - and factor in all the relevant factors - then by most measures it would seem that there is no system bias (there's just the natural consequences of different groups of people making, on average, different choices).

However, that doesn't mean that everyone's opportunity in wealth and education (remember, the variables we noted as being significant about 1/2 a blog post ago?) are equal.
Lets start with education.  Every child citizen and resident is guaranteed 12 years of (free!) education.  With even a small amount of self-motivation and/or parental guidance, barring mental disability, that is enough time for anyone to become, at the very least, literate and able to do basic arithmetic.  Within that system, however, is a wide range of effectiveness:

Which is why school districts is one of, if not the largest considerations of families with children in deciding where to live.

And it isn't just the wealthy who can afford to choose what neighborhood they live in, it's the regular old middle class - though if you can't afford rent anywhere but near the worst schools, that's where your kids are going to go.  This class segregation gets magnified when parents with money to spare donate money and materials to their own children's schools, so that even if the entire city provides equal funding per student to every school, the school in the hills still has a computer for every student while in the school on the other side of the tracks teacher's are buying their own blank paper and bringing it in to school because there is none in the supply room.
This isn't because of government policies or subconsciously racist administrators or teachers, this is simply lots of individual people making (what seems on the surface to be) reasonable personal choices.

Once graduated, anyone who can not afford college is eligible to automatically receive $5-6K in grants per year, regardless of high school GPA, which is more than enough to cover tuition at a public junior college.  In other words, at least a basic college education is well within reach of anyone who wants it.
However, again, the range of educational options, from 2 years of community college to medical or law degree, is very large.  And reaching the upper end of the spectrum, even using public colleges, is very expensive.

Between 40%  and 60% of college expenses are paid by parents (or other relatives), with only 11% of contributions coming from the student's own work or savings.

So clearly some people are going to have a massive head-start compared to everyone else, from HeadStart all the way to University.  If the majority of people who get advanced education get help from mommy and daddy, then that means anyone unlucky enough to be born to parents without a savings account are at a severe disadvantage in life, through no fault of their own.

According to sociologists the single biggest factor in "success" in life - not just income and status, but even relationships and reported life satisfaction - is education, and the single biggest factor in success in college is the very first few years of early childhood education.
Of course - that's why parents puts so much time and effort and money into providing the best they can afford for their own kids.

Now lets look at wealth.  Certainly having a degree is, in itself, a major factor in most people's earning potential.  But there's more.  The single largest holding of wealth of the majority of the middle class is in the form of an owner occupied home.  Over half, about 65%, of all residences are owned by an occupant.  About 55% of adult Americans own the home they live in.  Which means just under half have to live in someone else's home, usually paying rent for the privilege.  The already poorer lower 45% spend the largest portion of their income every month paying down someone else's mortgage.  Over 1/2 of renters spend over 30% of their income on rent.  1/4 pay half.
By race, the home ownership rates for Whites and Blacks is 75% and 46% respectively.
While it may have been pure racism and oppression that set up this trend many generations ago, it doesn't require any of either to maintain it today.

What is going to happen to all of those properties when the current owner is no longer among the living?
As a society we have decided that the dead person still has rights, and gets to designate who gets the house, and that person - usually the (grown) child - gets all of that (unearned!) wealth with absolutely zero income tax.

People generally associate the term "inheritance" with the very wealthy, or at least the top 1%.
They think of people like the Walton's, who's 7 member family is all in the top ten wealthiest people in America due entirely to having been born to the right father.
But as extreme as it is at the top, most of it happens in the middle.

While there doesn't seem to be any really definitive data, somewhere in the range of 25%-75% (it varies quite a bit with the economy, so it depends on what year / age you focus on) of American's
receive some form of inheritance in either cash, property, or other assets.   The average is around $180,000, while the median is somewhere in the range of $30k-$60k.
While 50 thousand won't make you a millionaire, it is more than enough for a downpayment on the Average US home.
Homes are the single biggest source of wealth, and around half of people have one essentially handed to them, while the other half - generally the same half who also don't have the employment opportunities of a (partially or fully paid for) university education.
That's on top of the roughly $25k average cash a third of adults receive from living family members.

In addition to inheriting property outright, 27% of new home buyers get some to all of their downpayment money as a gift from a relative, and 10% have a "non-occupant cosigner".

And then there is the smaller, impossible to track, but still significant smaller ways that those who can afford to give their own kids an early boost that is unavailable to the poor.  A gift of a car can greatly expand the job and college options of a young person compared to relying on bikes and public transit.  Most middle class families give new adults a car.  Most poor families can't afford to.

These seemingly relatively small things add up, and what they add up to is a divide between not the 99% and the 1%, but the roughly top 80% and bottom 20%, with all of the American middle class getting a huge advantage that makes the idea of a "meritocracy" or that wealth is really proportionate to hard work and talent laughable.
What few Americans making more than just $34,000 a year realize is that they already are the top 1% of the world.  The lower middle class, and even the upper "working class", are, by any reasonable objective measure, rich.  And of the wealth held, somewhere on the order of 50% of it was in some form inherited - primarily in the form of property, whether direct transfer of title or a parent essentially buying an adult child their own.
Among the very rich, only 35% didn't started out born into the upper class, (and 100% built their wealth using the government backed system of capitalism to corrupt the free market into providing unearned income), yet 70% of them consider themselves "self-made".
But among all the ordinary people, even more consider themselves to not have had any advantages, despite the majority of them building wealth on a foundation of their parent's gifts.

Its always easier - emotionally - to point to other people, other institutions, whatever, and blame them for whatever one feels is injustice.  Its hard to see when the roots of it are millions of individual people making individual choices in their own lives.  Its even harder to admit when it is ourselves making choices in our own lives that are perpetuating the trends we claim, in principle, to deplore.

On an individual level, of course every human, for all of time, has wanted what is best for their children, as their offspring are, quite literally, an extension of one's self.
Every society that has ever existed has had some form or degree of passing down possessions and wealth, and especially property rights, from parent to child.
On an individual level, its an entirely reasonable desire, and it seems (on the surface at least) to be an entirely good thing.

But society is made up of lots and lots of individuals, so you can not remove an individual personal decision from the trends and demographics that make up the whole of society - at least, not if you want an honest and accurate assessment of how things are and why.

While "wanting what's best" for your offspring may be entirely natural, there is plenty of entirely natural human instincts that we, collectively, choose to repress; usually because of the negative impact it has on the rest of society.  Violence is ubiquitous in the natural world, but we don't accept it as inevitable just because it is natural.  Evolutionarily speaking rape is entirely understandable, but no one concludes that therefor it is ok, and can be ignored or even encouraged in human society.   Infidelity is seen in every monogamous specie. Xenophobia and in-group loyalty, an "us vs them" mentality is found in some extent in every culture that has ever existed.

Every form of selfishness and greed is entirely natural and understandable in the context of a living organism.
And in most manifestations of that we see it directly as a negative for society as a whole, and at least discourage it socially if not make it illegal, with enforced consequences for violators.
But since one's offspring is literally (biologically speaking) an extension of one's self, then wanting what is best for your children IS a form of selfishness!

We (collectively) treat the "family" as a single unit (for example, in a system that assumes parents will pay for an adult child's college education, or the lack of any income taxes on any level of inheritance of cash, property, or business assets) - and then in the very same context act as though each person was their own individual so as to see a transfer of wealth from one person to another as an act of generosity, rather than one of selfishness!

This viewpoint is no less common among liberals than conservatives.
And as long as this double-think is the norm, it is inevitable that there always be inequality well above and beyond that produced by natural differences in talent and hard-work.


Perhaps the worst irony of all is that all this well-meaning giving may not even be the best for the adult children receiving it!
While there are occasionally Howard Hughes' who take a massive inherited fortune and leverage it into inventions and companies that benefit humanity, they are the exception, not the rule.  In general, there is an inverse relationship between how much a person gets for free and how much value they personally produce.
While 90% of millionaires plan to leave fortunes to their children and half plan to leave them the entire amount, only 20% actually inherited significant funds themselves.
The more parents pay for college, the worse grades students get.
The more expensive one's house, the higher the chances they inherited it, but the lower average "wealth building productivity" they engage in.  There is a whole host of negative psychological issues that receiving unearned money creates, which is why for the most part fortunes don't stay in family lines for more than 2-3 generations: inheriting a fortune prevents a person from ever developing a work-ethic, from ever truly internalizing the value of money, and encourages the feeling that buying stuff is the key to happiness.  Which is all a recipe for not only squandering one's wealth, but perhaps more importantly (for the real goals of the parent), a lifetime of relatively less happiness.

This reality is not lost on many of the rich, most notably Warren Buffett, as well as Bill Gates, who have both pledged to give the vast majority (99%) to charity, rather than their children (although note that even 1% of 80 billion is 800 million!), and many of the less extreme but still wealthy 1%ers and upper middle class people are of the opinion that giving too much wealth to their children is likely to do more harm than good to their overall lives (at least in principal - while almost 1/2 say they are concerned about giving "too much", 91% still plan to give the majority to their own offspring).

46% percent want to avoid giving an amount that "provides a disincentive for the recipient to achieve their full potential", and only 25% believe that no one person should ever get a large chunk of an estate or "too much" absolute cash.
28% say it only becomes too much when it is enough to "provide the opportunity for the recipient to live in “perpetual leisure”.  I suppose even that is better than nothing - 22% say explicitly "no amount is too much" (there are overlapping categories - some people agree with more than one statement).


But as we have seen, most intergenerational transfer's of wealth (certainly in number of transactions, if not total wealth), are made by the middle class, not the top 1% and above.
And among this group, the majority of America, no such culture of awareness exists.

And - as a predictable result - the American middle class has in fact adopted a lifestyle much as the classic "trust-fund" baby does: one with lots of luxuries purchased at an unsustainable rate. Around 60% of people buy their cars brand new, 84% of those buy them on credit, and despite reliability increases that make a typical car last anywhere from 1 to 3 decades, the average new car is replaced after just 6 years.  Half of American's don't pay their credit cards in full, and over half have zero emergency cash.  68% of American's own a pocket computer, typically paying $100-200 a month for the privilege of not waiting until you get home to check Facebook.  Despite government mandated digital TV, which created access to dozens of channels and subchannels of mostly high-def content for free, nearly 90% of households pay an average of $100 a month for TV.
As much as stories of people who had been in their homes for 30 years and were just caught up in the foreclosure crises made for good copy, the vast majority of foreclosures were from people who bought during the bubble, bought more house than they really needed, and bought far more than they could afford.

Perhaps this is why recent and second generation immigrants to America not only do better on average than minorities that have been here for generations, but on average even better than White folk who have been here for generations.  As well as why, after the second generation (the one that makes the most money), that advantage disappears.

So if (parental) hand-outs actually tend to make people's lives worse overall, what is a concerned and loving parent to do?

Well, simply not giving an adult child large cash or property gifts would be a good start.  Ideally, though, one would start as early as a child can understand English, helping them learn the lessons of the Marshmallow test, one of the biggest indicators of later success in finances, relationships, health, and life in general.  From the youngest age, have them earn any allowance they may get, and give them the opportunity to save those earnings, with interest.  Let them know well in advance that they will be expected to pay for their own college through a combination of summer jobs, whatever scholarships they can get, and - only if absolutely necessary - loans, and encourage them to go to the best college that they can afford, preferably after transferring from a 2 year institution.
Not just if you are poor.  At any level of wealth, this is what will set a child up for the best possible career of their own, and their best chance to live consistently within their means, which is the only possible way to continue to save and build wealth throughout a lifetime.

The old "give a person a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime" is just as true if you have just one fish as it is if you have a billion fish.
And there is a neglected part 2 to the old saying: "give someone a fish, and they will be significantly less motivated to pay attention during your fishing lesson" (or, well, it should be, anyway...)


So now lets finally go back and put the first half of this essay and the second half together, explicitly.

-The majority of the effects of racial inequality in America (today) are a consequence and symptom of economic and educational inequalities.
-Economic and educational inequalities are primarily a result of regular, non-wealthy people giving unearned cash to their (mostly adult) children.

Therefore, when you read a report of yet another unarmed Black man shot by the cops, maybe take that opportunity to rethink your plans to leave your house to your kids.

If our goal as a society is equality, perhaps that college fund should be donated to the NAACP.
Instead of giving your child tuition, how about giving that same cash to a scholarship fund instead?  Instead of leaving your assets to your children, what about donating it to United for a Fair Economy instead?

It makes no sense to (pretend to) be concerned with the world at large when it comes to indignant and outraged conversations with your neighbors, and then use what control over the world's wealth you have to perpetuate the status quo in your own private life.

Society as a whole is just a collection of private lives.
Change doesn't happen because of what you say.  It happens from what you do.
Instead of being angry at someone else "out there", start with doing your part.







5 comments:

  1. I have read the treatise and am pondering....

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    1. Hee hee, I'll take that as positive feedback!
      I wonder is this the same Kim Johnson I used to work for in the microbiology lab, so many lifetimes ago?

      Delete
  2. Hi Bakari, I just commented elsewhere but you really focus on this one idea here. I agree with you that too much help from parents doesn't teach kids what they need to know, but parents can also structure the help in a way that minimizes the damage. (Helping only partially with college or mortgages; small loans that need repayment, for example.)I don't believe we should create a level playing field by mowing it down to the bottom, but by helping the shorter grass grow taller. What is preventing the bottom 20% you mention from bettering themselves, or saving, so that they too can help their kids? Some poor people do save and increase their wealth. What prevents the others from doing so? What could encourage them to begin?

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    1. There isn't enough wealth in the world for all 7 billion people to have the equivalent of the US median income of 52k a year.
      As it happens, it is a least on the same order of magnitude - it would take 364 trillion dollars (in 2017, US dollars), but only 217 trillion exists.
      A deficit of 147 trillion...
      So it is simply impossible to raise up the bottom without trimming anything off the top. Even if we made up that deficit with robots and AI of the future, it only works to bring the bottom up to that level if we simultaneously bring the top down to that level.

      So, to answer your question: what stops all poor people from saving and becoming wealthy is, cumulatively, the fact that the already wealthy hoard it all.
      Sure, on an individual and case by case basis there are cultural reasons why a particular individual is the one who wins and another the one who loses, but unless we eliminate the win-or-lose game completely, someone always has to lose. That's just mathematics.

      If, for example, the minimum wage was $30 per hour, it would be a whole lot easier for every employed person to save. If each person was only allowed to buy one single plot of land to live in, and no one could buy investment property, then houses would be affordable, and no one would have to throw away money on rent (which keeps poor people poor, and generates passive income for the wealthy - disclaimer: I am a landlord. In my defense, I do only have one parcel, and I live on it, next door to my tenants)

      Delete

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