Here are some cross-pollinated ideas from
- White Trash The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg
- The Color of Law, A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein
- Inadequate Equilibria, Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck, by Eliezer Yudkowsky
White Trash presents 300 pages of examples to refute the idea that the United States is the land of opportunity. The book starts with the colonists, most of whom did not choose to come to the colonies for the opportunity to start over, but who were sent over as punishment. Most whites were never given a chance to own property, earn a living, or become rise to middle class, and a large majority died within their first few years. And it was obviously even worse for people of color.
Rights were reserved for property owners and the already wealthy, which was then baked into and perpetuated in the new republic. Social privilege was often justified by the construction of race. Up until the middle of the 20th century, race was defined more by class than it was by skin color. If you were wealthy with relatives from Western Europe you belonged to a different “race” from the poor; the Irish were a different race from the English, plantation owners were a different race from white trash in the Carolinas, Jews were a different race from Protestants. Race was a type of caste. Policies, education, culture, and opportunity were used to reinforce caste and class; races and economic strata were pitted against each other, which served as a way of preventing the poor from seeing their common interests. Darwinism was used to support the premise that these racial qualities were passed down generation by generation. Race and class helped promote the idea that those who had more had them because they deserved it, and that you had more than the classes that were below you, and you needed to keep them down or they would take what was rightfully yours.
The result is that the US has actually shown lower economic fluidity than most other developed nations; in the US, the economic status of your parents is by far the largest determinant of your own economic status.
The Color of Law shows how government laws and policies have set obstacles and barriers preventing people of color from reaching the middle or upper classes. The book is a rebuttal to and a rebuke of Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote that, as much as he deplored the fact that there were insurmountable barriers for people of color to gain access to the benefits of property ownership, education, and capitalism, this was just the way things were, and since there had been no direct governmental cause for those obstacles, the government was not obligated nor should it take on the obligation to make amends for them or lend a helping hand. The book shows countless examples of how legislation, executive decisions, and policies have exacerbated inequity and prevented people of color from taking advantage of the economic opportunities afforded Caucasians.
Here is one example.
Suburbanization started just after World War II. Private developers build large tracts of houses, like the Levitts with their Levittowns. They were able to finance construction because the government guaranteed that anyone who bought one of the houses would be able to get a mortgage. But those same government organizations that guaranteed the mortgages restricted that the houses, in fact the entire suburb, would not be allowed to accept anyone of color as either a renter or owner. The houses, cost about $7,500 at the time, which, in current dollars is about $75,000. But the median price of those houses today is about $350,000, a substantial generation of wealth in white families that has not been afforded to those prevented from purchasing. People of color were forced to rent, since they were not afforded guaranteed mortgages, and rent farther from good jobs, community services, and good schools. Citing this and a slew of other examples, Rothstein’s premise is that government policy essentially stole the future from generations of people of color, going all the way back to post-Reconstruction, and reversing that disadvantage requires more than just changing a few laws, it requires active policies and opportunities.
Inadequate Equilibria describes how we get stuck in situations where the system is obviously wrong (and whether or not you accept the premises of the previous two books, you certainly have to agree that there is a lot that’s wrong)?
Yudkowsky points to two causes of sub-optimal decisions and a third which leads to perpetuation of sub-optimal solutions.
When decision-makers are not beneficiaries, outcomes are made for other reasons than best results for the most people.
When decision-makers can’t reliably learn the information they need to make good decisions, especially if someone else has that information, they will seldom make the best decision as they would if they’d been able to credibly gain access to the best information.
These two causes are simple to understand. Understanding why sub-optimal systems perpetuate is more difficult.
Systems often exist as Nash equilibria, where even though the systems are broken in so many areas, single or small groups of actors are actually disadvantaged from trying to make a change, and moving to a new stable state could only be effectuated by some coordinated action of some large critical mass of actors.
A simple example might be a hypothetical competitor to Craig’s List. Let’s say someone came up with a system that provided better results to both sellers and buyers. But everyone already knows that if they place an item on Craig’s list, there is already a ready market of sellers, and that if you want to buy something, you’ll be able to find what you need. So any one seller would lose too much by going to this new system, because there wouldn’t be buyers, and any one buyer wouldn’t be able to find sellers. So everyone continues to use Craig’s list because it is in a Nash equilibrium.
Healthcare is a good societal example. Everyone knows it’s broken. But any patient, doctor, pharmacy, pharmaceutical company, or hospital (or even reasonably large groups) would be disadvantaged by trying to start a new system. It would take a coordinated effort of all parties to create a new system, and even then, the result might be even worse. Which is why we are stuck with what Yudkowsky calls, “the most broken system that still works ever recorded in human history.”
The concept of Nash systems explains how healthcare, education, and airlines perpetuate even with high levels of dissatisfaction, and even knowing that they get a little worse every year.
We live in a society of untold wealth. Large swaths of society have incredible obstacles from benefiting, and I’d even argue that everyone’s well-being, not just large populations, is obstructed. But we are in what is likely a whole cacophony of Nash equilibria, which we can only transform through a coordinated action of a critical mass.
It’s frustrating. What do we do?