I have a radio in my bathroom. It’s tuned to NPR, which I generally find informative and reasonably balanced. I listen to it while taking showers that I can best describe as environmentally unfriendly in their duration. You now know far more about me than you ever wanted to, but it’s important for context.
Last Sunday, I found myself listening to a program hosted by these guys, commentator Tavis Smiley and Princeton (nee Harvard) professor Cornell West.
I haven’t previously sought them out, but I was in the shower, they were on the air, and I was trapped. What I heard would have stopped me in my tracks had my tracks not been washing down the drain. I kept listening post-shower with a mixture of fascination and horror.
Celebrating International Labor Day, their first guest, whose name I didn’t catch, said that real wages in the US are down because of the decline in collective bargaining. This is precisely backward. Real wages have fallen because American workers now compete with one or two billion highly productive workers in places like China and India. The decline of collective bargaining is a collateral issue, not a cause. It’s a supply and demand thing. Adam Somebody. . .give me a minute, it’ll come to me.
Their next guest, an oxymoronically described “Socialist Economist” named Richard Wolff, opined without a shred of evidence that the reason for the inequality of wealth in America, massive national, state and local debts, high unemployment and the financial crisis is that the “fruits of technology have been given to such a small number of people” instead of being distributed to the masses. This notion is so bizarre on its face that it defies logical refutation – sort of like blaming Mars for the Chicago Cubs. I should point out that with two Google clicks I learned that fully half of the billion people in Africa – the world’s poorest – have cell phones and that as of 2007 fully half of America’s poorest – those making less than $20,000 AND living in public housing – owned a computer. Prices have dropped since then, so that number may well have gone up.
If you think we’ve hit bottom, guess again. At West’s urging, Wolff went on to decry the rewards bestowed upon entrepreneurs and innovators for their entrepreneurship and innovation. Every great inventor, he said, has benefited from the influence of parents, teachers and many others, without whom said inventions would not have been realized, and who therefore should share in the rewards. Apparently, it takes a village to raise an iPhone. I’m still trying to figure out how many shares of Apple stock Steve Jobs’ second grade teacher should have gotten.
All of this is silliness that raises the question of why an otherwise responsible broadcaster would give up an hour each week to this kind of drivel.
There is, however, a moral component to this story, and I’m going to get in trouble for bringing it up.
Although the guests I heard were not African-American, Smiley and West are, and they (West in particular) make a point of speaking in the jargon of the 1960s Black Power movement. (By admitting that I recognize this, I’m dating myself. And please, I mean that in the chronological, not social, sense of the word.) In doing so, they attach a specific racial context to the perspectives they air. I don’t pretend to know what percentage of African-Americans they speak for. I hope it’s small. More fervently, I wish that our discussions about how to make the world a better place were not cloaked in race.
Most of the time, they aren’t. But this radio program struck me as one of the most racist, denigrating and debilitating rants I’ve ever heard. Ignoring basic facts of global competition, claiming that something as remote as the distribution of the benefits of technology is responsible for differences in economic outcomes, suggesting that economic rewards should be collective (which is a polite way of saying that you deserve something you didn’t earn) – these all take away from people the beautiful responsibility of being responsible for their own lives. The message to any poor black kids who happened to hear this is, “Not only is it not your fault, it won’t get any better until somebody else fixes something else over which you have no power.” The natural reaction is, “OK, then why try?”
I had CNN on while writing this and heard that more than half of African-American and Hispanic boys drop out of high school. I’m going to swing at a wild pitch here, but I’m guessing that has more to do with differences in economic outcome than does anything relating to who does or doesn’t have a profound personal relationship with Google.
The Smiley and West show I heard is a manifestation of the loss of our culture of personal responsibility. That loss is hardly restricted to any racial or socioeconomic class. Every kid on every soccer team gets a medal. People sue – and win – for spilling hot coffee on themselves and for getting squashed by vending machines they tipped over while trying to get a free Coke. This morning on NPR’s intentionally funny show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, I heard that a California man is suing BMW because his motorcycle tickled his giblets in a way that he claims gave him a 20-month version of the condition Viagra ads say is dangerous if lasts more than four hours. So he’s suing for what, a sudden and immense increase in popularity. . .?
Life isn’t risk free. The American promise is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We have never managed to fully deliver on that promise, but today we no longer expect it. If we manage to change that, it will be one soccer player, one radio show, and perhaps one lightly read blog post at a time.
That’s enough for today. Now I’m going to go experience some private distress over my relationship with Google, which I’m sure is much more profound and personal than I wish it were. Or perhaps I’ll go motorcycle shopping.