Over dinner a couple of nights ago, a wise old friend asked me this: "Do you think that we're the luckiest of all generations; aren't we living in a golden age?" He was alluding, of course, to the relative peace, prosperity and progress that have hallmarked the last half of the 20th century; but, I think, his question also wondered ominously aloud `Are the good times, upon which we've lately rolled, peaked?'
My first reaction was that most "generations", operating from a much clearer view of the past than the future, have retrospectively translated the mostly-steady march of progress that they've seen as placing them mostly in the best of times. Even in Dickens' times their assessments were mostly right (and wrong)! But, what if this in not one of those "mostly best of times"? What if we're at one of those points of Punctuated Equilibrium, first described by Stephen Jay Gould, wherein the "slow but steady progress" of evolution occasionally stalls, if not even reverses, for a while? What would that mean? And, to the point of this post, what would lead one to believe that the 21st century may join those comparatively infrequent, but painful, times in the past when the next generation(s) struggle? What overarching nature of things could lead one to such a pessimistic speculation?
As one of evolutionary biology's most distinguished scientists, Gould's interests spanned ages, epochs and the rise and fall of entire species. This post, however, is more concerned with more recent centuries, generations and individuals (as it continues upon points began in the last)⎯i.e., on our growing anxiety about inequality. But, in a larger sense, this post is about the larger "nature of things" and in a kind of timeless context. Specifically, it's about the cause and effect of...everything!.
I'm tempted to digress into parallel speculations on biological evolution, arguably stalled by the diminished survival of [only] the fittest mechanisms of our past. But let's come back to that in a minute. First, focus upon the apparent folly of our incessant yearning for equality; more specifically, let's turn to the question of whether there's any objective reality in our sense fair play.
Back to nature: again in the larger 'cause and effect sense. It's here where our notions of fairness begin to wither. No other animal (let alone all other things) has any aspiration or expectation of fair. A mother robin may spend her entire adult life building a nest, laying then incubating eggs, followed by tireless searching for food to bring back to her hatchlings. Then, a hawk flies by, spots the chicks, and they're history. Why? Just because the hawk was hungry and it could. Was it fair to robins? Who really cares?
But, you say, we're not animals; we're better than that. Maybe, but nature is still nature: there's still a cause and effect⎯a reason⎯for everything.
There was a time when we didn't understand much of how/why anything happened; so, we made it up. And we hoped and prayed (literally) that there was a higher power that knew everything; and, though often incomprehensible, we had faith that it was, ultimately, "fair." Then, about halfway through the 17th century, a major transformation began. Called the Enlightenment, in short historical order, most of our superstitions and our general reliance upon the supernatural dissolved into a new "Age Of Reason." Could it be that, like a the apparent stall in biological evolution, we're trying to turn back reason? In our compassion, empathy and pervasive affluence, has our sense of fairness outpaced reality? Do we so want to believe that we're all, more-or-less, equal that we're losing touch with the reality that we aren't?
This fact became painfully obvious to me early. Growing up in Indiana, I desperately wanted to be on the school basketball team, easily ace Latin class and have a certain cheerleader girlfriend; none of it happened. The undeniable reality is that some people come into this world with more talent, brains, looks, etc, than others. And, just because the "nature" of commercial evolution favors open markets, the gifted folks are generally going to fare better. Adding insult to the injury, routinely meted out by an unfair mother nature (one now living in a naturally capitalist system), these same lucky gene youngsters will almost always enjoy unequal opportunity from the jump. In other words, inequality breeds inequality.
What's a mother to do? My own mom would probably reply with something to the effect of "Deal with it!"
`time then to cut back to the chase: inasmuch as equality is an illusion, how can we square our natural, unequal and unfair, lot with our "incessant yearning for fairness"?
Well, first we have to, in fact, "deal with it." In Average Is Over, Tyler Cowan echos many others in laying out a troubling, though not altogether dystopian, future: one in which technological and other forces combine to leave ever larger proportions of the population unneeded (at least in terms of conventional careers). And, in yet another arguably immutable law of the market, the fewer folks that there are responsible for producing the more and better products, that everyone else consumes, they will become all the more unequal (at least in terms of income, social standing, access, etc). There will always be jobs at the other, bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum, but the chasm between them and the top (the space formerly occupied by the middle class) will become and ever-widening void. Martin Ford makes similar points in The Lights In The Tunnel; and Ross Douthat's editorial in yesterday's NYT attempted a more optimistic synthesis, of sorts, between these "troubling" scenarios and more traditional patterns of culture, society, faiths, etc. But the common denominator among most all futurists is that accelerating changes in...most everything, are going to demand profoundly different ways that an ever growing and stratifying population is going to need to get along. Forced artificial policies, intended to artificially force different (a.k.a., unequal) individuals into smaller spaces (of presumably fair and equal opportunity) will be as frustrating as they are cruelly ineffective. In other words, the real problems driven by inequality cannot and will not be fixed in Washington.
So, what is a mother to do. `beats me; something different and something real...[tbc]