Mike Kueber's Blog

October 16, 2014

The role of personal responsibility in America’s unequal distribution of wealth

In response a Facebook friend endorsing Bernie Sander’s attack on the Walton wealth (Walmart) and the resulting poverty at the bottom, I suggested as follows:

  • And the bottom 25% of American families have a negative net worth. I agree that something has to be done to keep all wealth from going to the top 10% (an annual wealth tax to supplement or replace the estate tax), but the bottom 25% need to be more personally responsible.

Not surprisingly, my response generated some emotional stories about personal hard luck, to which I responded:

  • Some of life is a crapshoot; some of it is bad decisions. I’m all for creating more opportunity for those who are so motivated, but for 75 million Americans to save nothing sounds like a lot of bad decisions.

Surprisingly, one commenter seemed to think I should propose a solution, as though personal responsibility was not one:

  • Mike, for you to make the statement, “…but the bottom 25% need to be more personally responsible”, baffles me! What kind of propositions, that those 25%, do you suppose would work? Enlighten me please!

When I didn’t immediately respond to the request (I had gone to the gym), my Facebook host jumped in:

  • I think he baled (sic) once we got by his stereotypes and anecdotal examples and asked for empirical evidence to support his generalizations.

And one of his partners-in-crime seconded the motion:

  • They usually do!

When I returned from the gym, I reentered the fray:

  • Excuse me, Terry, I didn’t bail and I’m not the one who gave anecdotal examples of victims who have not been able to save any money. My point is that 75 million people have been living beyond their means. The savings rate in America at one point dropped to zero, and I believe many people in tough times stubbornly refused to reduce their standard of living and instead chose to maintain their standard of living by going into debt. I believe the majority of that 25% could have saved something if they had the willpower to defer gratification and control their impulses. Re: empirical evidence – I don’t know what would confirm or refute that.

After a few more comments, my Facebook friend tried to put a wrap on this discussion:

  • You truly do need to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. I have seen many a middle class principled conservative change their tune when they suffer sudden job loss or catastrophic illness. You act as if austerity and poverty are choices. Any social study will tell you that geographical location and parental status are the true determinants of what a person’s economic status. For example, the starting point for Mitt Romney’s children economically is a lot smoother and shorter than that of a child born to a black single mother in Detroit. Poverty is a very complex issue that is deep rooted and not conducive to stereotypes and generalizations. It’s funny that conservatives try to blame social ills on those who have the least and are defenseless against. Marie Antoinette failed to realize that until it got to the boiling point. Even companies are now realizing the economic perils of wage stagnation and wealth inequality, which is not because of a lack of labor but by corporate exploitation. I know that you won’t but I suggest that you read The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky. It will both shock but educate you on the morass that is poverty.

I tried to put a wrap on it, too:

  • OK, I accepted your challenge by putting a hold on the Abramsky book in my branch of the SA library. Based on some of the comments to your posting, it appears your use of the word anecdotal escaped understanding by some people. Obviously, there are thousands of “anecdotal” situations where a person couldn’t qualify for health insurance and then had a medical catastrophe that bankrupted them. But there are thousands of other situations where a person choses a big car payment instead of buying health insurance or refuses to downsize from their 3000-sq.ft. house after losing their job. Bottom line – (1) structural problems should be addressed by raising taxes on the wealthy and affluent, but don’t demonize them just because they are economically successful in the system that our democracy has established, and (2) personal responsibility (i.e., looking to improve yourself instead of blaming others for your problem) needs to be encouraged and perhaps the Abramsky book will provide some suggestions because the current war on poverty since LBJ has been an abysmal failure.

Although I disagree with most of the comments, I do look forward to reading the Abramsky book. It is a bit glib on my part to argue in favor of personal responsibility without thinking through the means to achieve that. Government austerity alone will perhaps not suffice. Indeed, increased taxes on wealth and affluence and increased spending on opportunity (pre-K and college) might increase morale and lead to more personal responsibility.