Sunday, May 23, 2021

On Differences and Inequalities between People

Human beings differ from one another. Groups differ, social classes and cultures differ, and individuals differ. 

The question I want to bring up today is that of different OUTCOMES for different individuals. I.o.w.: different degrees of “success” in some field or other. 

The number of areas in which individual outcomes differ is practically infinite. Maybe most prominently, since today’s world culture is so materialistic, are different degrees of WEALTH. 

We have individuals such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Their net worths are, respectively, $151 billion and $177 billion. At the other end of the spectrum are starving people. The world’s adult median net worth is about $7,000, That of Africans is $1,200. (List of Countries by Wealth)
So the differences are as follows: Jeff Bezos = 25 million times the world’s median wealth, and 150 million times that of the median African wealth. 
The behavioral sciences have long been studying “differences.” Anthropology documents the world’s cultural diversity. Psychology helps us understand individual differences. Explaining the causes of differentiation in wealth, success and power has long been the province of such social sciences as economics and political science. My own discipline, Sociology, practically owns the field of “Social Stratification,” at least since Karl Marx. 

We speak of the so-called “reproduction of social class.” Wealth, privilege, advantage and social capital are transmitted inter-generationally. Those born with advantage are more likely to succeed. (Even though some born with a silver spoon still manage to mess up, think Donald Trump) 

When it comes to social differentiation, the “big three” variables are Max Weber’s Class, Status and Power. This is the basis of Social Stratification. 

Many of the variables along which people differ - i.e. are UNEQUAL - are interrelated. For example, Weber’s big three obviously co-vary. The rich also enjoy higher status and greater political power. However, the co-variation is not perfect. And there are many other co-variables, most of them either causes or effects. For instance, education, physical characteristics (race and ethnicity more than any other, for sure). 

But people differ from each other in many other ways. Take athletics: There are the world’s greatest - LeBron James in basketball, the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge who holds the world record for the marathon at 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds, or the Cuban Javier Sotomayor, the world record holder for high jumping at over 8 feet. 

I don’t know how long it would take the “average” person to run a marathon, or how high the “average” person could jump, but surely the world’s greatest performers in these areas would not be 25 million or 150 million times better, would they? For the disparity between the world’s greatest jumper and the world’s average jumper to be as great as that between the world’s average person’s wealth and that of Jeff Bezos, the world champion jumper would have to vault halfway across the earth in one jump. 

Same for the world’s top marathon runner. In order for him to be as much faster than the average Joe as Bezos’ wealth compares to that of the average person, he would have to run a marathon in a millisecond. I once ran a three-hour marathon. So the world’s best runner is not even twice as fast as I was. On the other hand, Jeff Bezos is 100,000 times richer than I am. Isn’t this interesting? 

Apples and oranges, you say. Comparing athletic and economic differences is nonsensical. Maybe. 

What about other areas of human differentiation and outcomes? What about politics - the realm of POWER? History provides a long list of people who have risen to stratospheric heights, both for good and for evil. 

What about people such as Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon and Hitler? The impact of such people upon the world is more difficult to quantify than the wealth of multi-billionaires, but there is no doubt that it is MILLIONS of times greater than the impact made by the average Joe. The difference between the most influential historical figure and the average individual is almost inconceivably large. Some individuals, for whatever reason, rise to such vertiginous heights that they alter the course of history. 

Discrepancies in political power between the most powerful and the most powerless members of society are as astronomical as differences between the richest and the poorest. This is not mysterious. Power and wealth are the most strongly correlated variables.

What about the Arts and Sciences? Here, Sociology is less helpful in its causal analysis. Isn’t it probable that individual talent and giftedness played a role in the ascent of people such as Shakespeare, Einstein and Mozart? (Even though Mozart was pushed by his father from the get go). 

The issue becomes even more complicated. We have the nature-nurture question. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. This controversial book argued in favor of the “nature” side of the debate, “inborn intelligence.” This would mean that nature gives some of us an inborn advantage. 

I am not going to wade into this never-ending debate, but to say this: None of us is born entirely a tabula rasa. However, it is extremely important NOT to automatically attribute mental tendencies, aptitudes, talents, intelligence, etc. to genetic pre-dispositions. Nothing is more important than socialization and education. While both nature and nurture play a role, the latter is far more important than the former. 

And then there are the   factors still favored by a majority of people: Effort, character, hard work, perseverance. There is among a majority of the public a stubborn resistance to the basic sociological concept of social stratification, especially among the American public, where the Horatio Alger and the meritocracy lores persist: The meme that it’s all up to the individual, that success is determined by effort, hard work, dedication and competence. The Peter principle is insufficiently acknowledged. 

Other folk theories include connections (“it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”), although this can be subsumed under “social class.” 

And don’t forget physical characteristics. For example, LeBron James is 6'9", which helps. And race plays an enormous role in determining one’s life chances. 

However, when I look at people’s trajectories, I see many outliers whose rise cannot he explained with any of the concepts just mentioned. 

At least in business and politics, two sorts of factors seem to play the preponderant roles: One consists of the traditional social class advantages identified by Sociology. Inherited wealth, status, etc. And the other one is pure and simple luck, being randomly in the right place at the right time. 

Some individuals become Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Napoleon, Lincoln or Hitler. This happens almost accidentally. Nothing at their birth predisposed them to become major movers of history. It just happened. They were born without much social advantage. Their trajectories cannot be explained either by social class advantage or by talent. We usually find, RETROACTIVELY, causes which explain the “great men’s” rise. But there is no evidence that such after-the-fact explanations are true. 

Many spectacular “success stories” cannot be explained by the “reproduction of social class.” Elon Musk was born in South Africa to a middle-class couple that broke up, then raised by a bad single father. He attended several colleges and ended up living in Canada and in the US. He is still in his forties and he has Asperger’s syndrome. Napoleon was the runt in a middle-class Corsican family, with little promise for speedy advancement. Hitler was a failed Austrian amateur painter. None of these men were child prodigies. The trajectories of their lives can only be seen as following the particles dispersion model. We have to accept random luck. 

Whether someone ends up being an Elon Musk or one of the other eight billion anonymous people on earth is a matter of randomness. Most human trajectories are not unlike those of scattering particles. They are distributed along the normal bell curve. There are fewer and fewer cases as one moves further out towards the extremities of the curve, and more and more cases towards the middle. The curve is not symmetrical. It is heavily skewed towards the negative. There are far more extremely negative cases than extremely positive ones. 

Countries’ income curves have long right tails. There are many more (very) low incomes (left of center) than (very) high incomes (right of center). In such distributions, the mean is much higher than the median. For example, mean US household income is $87,864, but median household income is only $61,937. American multi-billionaires, few as they are, bring up the mean and create a misleading effect of national prosperity. 

I am not saying that  most of us are doomed to live in poverty. At least in the Western world, a majority lives in a relatively comfortable middle range, even though its wealth and income are hundreds of thousands of times smaller than those of the super-rich. 

Perhaps the key generalization which emerges from my haphazard comparisons is that economic and political inequalities are artificial, man-made, not natural. They often reach levels that destroy society. 

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