Do I Deserve What I Have? Part I


Photo by Lukas from Pexels

How am I lucky to have the career I have and the economic security I have? Let me list the ways.

I was born of two parents who loved me but who did not spoil me and who gave me an above average set of inherited skills. They created a love of reading in me as well as some measure of kindness and honesty. I did not choose my parents. I am so lucky.

My wife has been a constant source of support and inspiration to me, the reader over my shoulder. A number of times we have made leaps together where she supported the choices I made in my career. It could easily have been otherwise. We easily could not have met or she could have been hostile to the choices that allowed me to flourish. I am not sure where I would be today without her. I am so lucky.

I was born in the United States at a time when antisemitism was minimal — there were no restrictions on my ability to go to college or graduate school based on my religion. Over my lifetime, the opportunity to use my skills in creative ways has increased dramatically. For all my complaints about restrictions on capitalism here in the United States, there is still an immense amount of opportunity. But in my case, much of that is timing. Had I been born two decades earlier, I would not have been able to have a podcast or create the Keynes-Hayek rap videos or It’s a Wonderful Loaf. I might be a professor somewhere with a decent but unspectacular resume, the fate I could easily have had if things had turned out differently or the timing had been different. I am so lucky.

During my first few years of college, I studied very little. I spent most of my spare time reading novels. I unexpectedly ended up writing three novels that try to teach the reader economics. Having read so many novels when I was younger helped me write my novels and that was crazy lucky. Similarly, I read a lot of poetry and wrote a lot of bad songs. That helped me write It’s a Wonderful Loaf and the Keynes-Hayek rap videos with John Papola. Crazy lucky, once again.

In seventh grade, I was cast as Pyramus/Bottom in our class production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In eighth grade I played Henry Higgins in our class production of My Fair Lady. I loved being on stage. That helped me become a decent public speaker, something neither of my parents are comfortable doing. I doubt I was the obvious choice to be Henry Higgins but that probably helped me in ways I can’t detail. But I was lucky. Lucky to be decent at being on stage, lucky to be able to carry a tune.

As an economist, my salary has been boosted almost certainly by the increase in demand on Wall Street for economists. Though I have no interest in working in finance, this has benefited me indirectly, perhaps in very sizeable ways. When I finished my PhD, my first job, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester, paid around $19K. That was below the average in the US at the time, I think, and perhaps even below the median. Starting assistant professors now often make more like $125K or more. So while the price level has roughly tripled since 1980, that still means economists are about twice as well off now as they were then. I am well into the top half of the income distribution today, a result of this increase in demand for the skills of economists, and the particular skills I have cultivated — storytelling via books and videos and audio — but as I have made clear, that people pay for those skills is highly fortuitous — without the internet, many of the projects I have worked on would struggle to find a distribution channel. I would be teaching and writing research papers. I was OK at the latter but certainly not great. Without the internet, I think I would be making a lot less money. I am so lucky.

So is anything of my good financial fortune my own doing?

I had the idea to get into podcasting very early, back in 2006. I was late to blogging. I decided I would not be late to podcasting. Fairly early on, I settled on an hour for the rough length of an episode, though I’ve been expanding that recently. People told me 10 minutes was too long. But I persisted. Was that lucky or prescient? Hard to say.

I work pretty hard at what I do. But do I deserve credit for perseverance or grit? Or are they just another part of my genetic inheritance? So hard to say.

So do I deserve the life I have?

Of course not. I am so lucky.

I was thinking of this the other day after a shoeshine. The woman who shined my shoes — I’ll call her Bianca — was a black woman who got lost in our conversation, I think, and took maybe 20 minutes to shine my shoes. That’s a long shoe shine. I didn’t care. My plane was late and my shoes needed all the help they could get.

We had a pretty serious conversation. She told me about her son, the church she goes to, her interest in spirituality. We talked about the state of the country. We talked about the shoeshine business. She is looking for another job. Hoping to make a little more money doing something else.

The shoeshine was $10. But because the conversation was interesting, because she had done a good job and taken a long time, maybe because she mentioned her son being on medication, maybe because she seemed to have a goodness about her, I tipped her another $10, more than I usually add as a tip.

Later I got to thinking. Is there anything just or fair about the differences between Bianca and me, between her son and my children? And the answer is, of course not. I don’t deserve the comfortable life I have relative to hers. Oh, I can fool myself and talk about the time and effort it took to attend graduate school, but as I outlined above, there was so much luck in all of that.

I can cook up a story that makes the differences between Bianca and me seem more fair than they are, the kind of story economists tell about why some jobs pay a little and some pay a lot. Those stories are true, I think, as far as they go. My skills are much more valuable than Bianca’s. A lot of people can shine shoes. Not as many people can learn enough economics to explain it to people and help them understand it. The demand to understand economics is much greater than the demand for shined shoes. I have a lot more human capital. I have a Ph.D while Bianca probably didn’t finish college. She may not have finished high school.

All of that is true. All of that explains my higher standard of living. But it doesn’t justify that higher standard of living. She may be a much better person than I am, a better mother than I am a father, a better spouse than I am. I don’t know. But it is strange that because of the luck I describe above, I earn a lot more than Bianca.

All of which is to say that there is a case to be made for taking a lot of the money I earn and giving it to Bianca. A $10 tip is nice, but it’s a drop in the bucket of what it takes to even the score or get close to making our life experiences a little more equal. Of course the federal and state and local governments already takes a lot more money from me than they take from Bianca. And it probably gives a chunk to her. She may be getting the earned income tax credit. Her son probably goes to a public school while my children didn’t. Maybe she is on Medicaid. Maybe she gets food stamps. But surely you can make a case that the government should take a lot more from me than it currently does from people like me who have relatively easy lives and give it to Bianca and those in a situation similar to hers.

So what’s wrong with that?

There is a temptation to say it’s just a ridiculous idea. But I would think that, wouldn’t I? I have a feeling that Bianca might have a different reaction. There’s a temptation to say, come on, you’re talking socialism and we know about Venezuela and Cuba and the Soviet Union. And when those who like socialism respond to that and say but Scandavia, we capitalists like to point out that Sweden isn’t really that socialist. The government doesn’t intervene that much in the economy via regulation and that while Sweden does have a more generous safety net, it does nothing close to creating real equality.

But all of that posturing and virtue signaling by both sides really avoids the real issues. What’s wrong with real socialism? Given the injustice or at least non-justice of the current state of the world, why not strive for something dramatically more redistributive? Why not take the justice argument seriously?

I’ll give that a shot in Part II of this essay.

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

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