Sunday, April 08, 2012

The History Of Equality in the US

It starts, oddly enough, in the late 1400s. The Roman Empire had crashed some time ago and Europe was recovering. Among the things that were happening was that traders were pushing their boats and some of them, like King Henry the Navigator of Portugal, found that stuff that was brought back from far places was uncommon and could be considered very valuable if it was considered desirable. Gold was something that was already desirable and pearls and these could be found far away and traded for local stuff like knives and cloth that was easily made by machine. By the end of the 1400s even private traders and ship captains were rich but, of course, they were still commoners. It took more than being rich to be aristocratic.

But where there is a need somebody will invent a remedy. In this case it was Calvin. He invented a kind of person who was, in his religion, beloved by God. He called that kind of person a member of the “Elect” and he said you’d know that kind of person because God rewarded him with all kinds of good stuff. In other words if you were rich and dressed and ate like a rich man and lived in a big house, you were in this new kind of aristocracy: “The Elect”.

In other words Calvin invented the characteristic social dynamic of the Industrial Era: Upward Mobility by accumulating money.

The Traders brought exotic stuff from overseas and traded it for money. The Bankers lent some of that money to other traders who chartered boats and made money that they divided with the Bankers. And they all were upwardly mobile.

But some of the people who hired space on the boats weren’t planning to come back and be upwardly mobile. They stayed in the colonies and tried to make a living. Some of them landed in areas where the soil was fertile and you could grow crops like sugar and coffee and cotton that would last in storage and could be shipped to Europe. They paid passage money for europeans to work on their plantations, but they found that for field workers it was a cheaper investment to buy slaves from Africa. When they were prosperous enough they decided to cut the connections with Europe. We call that the American Revolution.

In the north it wasn’t as easy to grow tropical crops like sugar and coffee, but you could grow grain. That needed machinery to process the quantity to support an economy, so the north went in for mechanical invention. When that was mature and the industrialists wanted to show some upward mobility the Planters still pretty much controlled politics. The result was the American Civil War, the creation of a War Machine by the Industrialists, and the abolition of slavery, which destroyed the economic system of the south. The industrialists controlled the United States for the rest of the century.

But they made one mistake. They didn’t pay attention to what their employees were doing. The Northern Industrialists tried to express their Upward Mobility by acting the way they thought European aristocrats did: they built mansions in the Cities and mansions as summer playhouses in resorts like Newport Rhode Island. In the way that their houses were run by their servants, they left their corporations to be run by their clerks and mechanics. That was the mistake. The ownership of the corporations was split into thousands of pieces that were used as gambling chips in “stock markets” so that nobody really “owned” the corporation any more. The corporation was operated by the former clerks and mechanics who became the bureaucrats who were the “managers” of industry.

Through World Wars One and Two and the Great Depression these managers became a self=governing oligarchy that made its own rules and exploited the rest of us. During the Second World War women and the poor were employed because young males were fighting, so that they had a taste of upward mobility. This frightened the managers. The economist made the argument that if women and poor men were allowed to experience upward mobility they would expect to indulge in conspicuous consumption like the managers did, and that would exhaust the global resources. By the 1950s this was accepted doctrine, and since then, while the incomes of managers have increased significantly, that has not been true of the working and middle classes.

When Barack Hussein Obama was elected President, the top managers pulled the plug so that everybody except the top of the upper classes suffered.

However, during the second half of the 20th century laws were passed that made it illegal to discriminate according to gender or skin color. These laws were passed as a palliative to prevent women and dark-complected people from taking action to have the laws enforced. Unemployment is still higher among darker-complected persons and women get paid substantially less for the same kind of work. The managerial class, corporate managers and government bureaucrats, had no intention of treating dark-complected persons and women as equals of white men, and they know neither party will take serious action in that regard.

The police, who are the ones who have to clean up after the politicians, know what the game is, and if they are stupid enough they’ll try to play it too. Since they have to cowtow to politicians they take the opportunity to make up for the bile they have to swallow by harassing those who they think are powerless. Unfortunately some police who aren’t bright enough to understand the game pick the wrong people to harass.

This is a particularly sensitive period. Women and dark-complected people have at least the protection of the laws, even if those laws are seldom enforced. But they are there and there will be females and dark-complected people who will take the risk of going to court. There may even be wealthy foundations that will take the risk of supporting cases that are sure things. So the situation is not entirely hopeless.

And there is a goal to be won. If the laws that prevent gender and skin color discrimination serve to make people act as if those qualities are not detracting from equality, then the only thing left to certify inequality is money. And money, unlike gender and skin color, is not permanent. If the economy crashes, and we all get poor, we will all be equal. And that may look like a desirable option in the face of systematic harassment by the police.