A few years ago I got to wondering about the differences among people – why some live in the Big House on the Hill and some sleep next to a dumpster. I know of no more important issue to examine.
Whatever the reasons for people’s different circumstances, it’s obvious that some people have done things that led them to “better” circumstances. and some have done – or failed to do – certain things, so they find themselves in “worse” circumstances.
What is behind those actions or failings? Are these different people better or worse human beings? What are the habits of thought or action that sculpted their different lives? Several years ago a college president tried an experiment. Fascinated with this question, he went out in old clothes with no wealth tokens in his wallet and lived on the economy for a few months.
We’re describing the Disadvantaged, those whom middle class Americans are likely to describe as unable or unfit to take advantage of everything our country has to offer. We see them all around us, but we don’t, I think, study the specific nature of their disadvantages.
Are they lazy? Perhaps, but the article about the posing college president reported that he had never worked harder in his life. Are they dumb? Arguably so, but researchers who have followed them around report that they juggle a daunting set of variables – weather, affecting them more than most of us, so reckoned with in a serious way; the various offerings of shelters, and how shelters’ availability varies with demand. Danger on the streets is as real for these people as it is imaginary for most Americans, who melt into terminal dysfunction at the thought of spending a night out here. Could most of us actually do what these people do every day? I think not.
So what, exactly, is the nature of their disadvantage? All I could come up with is that these people are procedurally disadvantaged. For whatever reason, they are unwilling or unable to take the actions which would put them into a halfway house or apartment or starter home. They don’t have a checking account, so obviously they have been unable or unwilling to take whatever actions lead to having a checking account.
That’s a superficial tautology, but it feels like it leads somewhere. As I go through my day, I always feel procedurally deficient – disadvantaged, in a real sense. What is the best way to structure a section 179 deduction on a 1040 Schedule C? Should I lower the price on the home we’re trying to sell? Is it better for my client to expose his entire training syllabus to his web site or keep it close to his vest? I’m not prepared to answer any of these questions, and they sound trivial compared to the life-threatening issues that the homeless deal with.
Facing those confusions, I cannot honestly say that I am more competent than someone who is dealing with being homeless. Can you?
The secret to this riddle must be complexity. The issues many of us deal with seem to be more convoluted and abstract than those faced by the homeless. That’s not to say they require more intelligence, just a kind of fractal symbolic manipulation, like comparing the exhausting subtleties of etiquette faced by a diplomat at the U.N. compared to the demanding real-life tasks managed by an F-18 pilot over Afghanistan (or a C-130 pilot in Vietnam, with which I have some experience).
The Aristocracy of Complexity
So are we ready to say that we have a privileged part of our society dealing with numbingly complex issues that don’t matter, but for which we’re rewarded disproportionately? And that there’s a dark underbelly of society comprising flexible, resourceful, emotional people dealing with danger and deprivation and alienation who have to be extraordinarly aware of the real dangers of their marginal existence?
In short, are we describing how we live today compared with how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived?
If the difference is simply complexity, how authentic is that complexity? Is it in some sense a contrivance to discriminate among our people to determine who gets the goodies?
That’s the conclusion I can no longer avoid. If you are willing and able to manipulate increasingly complex symbols of decreasing real-world significance, then you get promoted to the next rung on the academic/socioeconomic ladder. If you drop out of that silliness at an early age, probably abandoning whatever native symbolic-manipulation skills you might have, then you are destined for a tackier, scrappier, nastier future.