Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Government | Science

July 21, 2011

The Unmerited Origins of Wealth

Policy researcher Lew Daly explains why the self-made man is a myth.

David Goldenberg

Joe the Plumber probably wouldn't want to grab a beer with Lew Daly. If Obama's not-particularly-progressive plan for "spreading the wealth around" reminded the Ohioan of socialism, Daly's would seem downright red. Daly, a senior fellow at the public policy research organization Demos, has spent years studying economics and well-being and he's sure of one thing: America's richest people don't deserve their wealth. Indeed, Daly comes close to likening the richest among us to parasites who abuse societal resources for their own gain.

Lew Daly
"In the US, the family is just one more set of contracts in the marketplace."

Lew Daly

Daly, though, is also a realist. He understands that the policy changes needed to make a serious dent in the growing economic inequalities in this country are politically impossible at a time when both political parties are beholden to wealthy donors and big businesses. So he's also focusing on smaller issues of well-being, like increasing the power of workers' bargaining rights for fairer wages and making it harder for businesses to make their employees choose between their work and their families. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Daly tells Gelf why Americans cling to the idea of the self-made man, discusses the schism between pro-family rhetoric and pro-family policy, and explains why charity isn't always truly altruistic.

Gelf Magazine: In your book Unjust Deserts, you basically claim that America's wealthy don't deserve their riches, as all they've done is piggybacked on society's progress. Do you ever see that idea catching on here in the US, given our enduring hagiography of the self-made man?

Lew Daly: It would certainly be a major cultural shift. The self-made man myth is ingrained in our cultural narrative, reaching back to our origins as a settler society. The problem is that the story never evolved, even though we've become a complex, highly interdependent society where resources, knowledge, infrastructure, etc., can only be efficiently created if they are shared. The economics of growth shows that a large portion of output is generated by collective assets, not individual inputs.
My guess is that the narrative has not evolved—in some ways it has only gotten more reactionary in recent years—because it is needed to justify vast and growing inequality. A small minority has more than the rest of us combined.

Gelf Magazine: How would you redistribute that wealth?

Lew Daly: First and foremost, by shoring up U.S. workers' bargaining power through a combination of trade union expansion and enforcement of labor rights, new patterns of ownership of productive resources and assets, and trade pacts that prevent businesses from conducting a race to the bottom in search of cheap labor and unregulated production. You could call this a "producerist" approach. I don't think we can ever expect to get serious change through the tax code, because of the politics. We'll see about that in the upcoming battles over reducing the public debt.

Gelf Magazine: Do the major political parties drive the general population's thinking about taxation and labor laws?

Lew Daly: I think the Republicans do on taxes, to be sure, using effective messages. On labor issues, public opinion is broadly supportive of what some might call the union agenda. Yet labor policy has been stalled for decades. Business has gotten its way on trade and labor issues for decades, almost without a hitch and no matter who is in power.

Gelf Magazine: The event you're participating in takes place in Park Slope, home to some impressive wealth and some impressive guilt about that wealth. What should a rich Brooklynite do to improve well-being for society as a whole?

Lew Daly: Go into public policy work or advocacy instead of the private sector; or, do as much as you can to improve your community for those with less.

Gelf Magazine: How does charitable giving fit into wealth redistribution? Are richer people giving away more of their money, or is that just the Gates Foundation?

Lew Daly: Only a small fraction of charitable giving goes toward social assistance, although if you count volunteer labor time the value is significantly higher. In general, charitable giving has been rising because of all the Baby Boomer wealth (or maybe what seemed to be a lot of wealth, before the Great Recession). The massive giving of those at the top, like Gates, is of course having an impact, especially on health issues in developing countries, and perhaps education. But as these huge foundations continue to expand their investments in areas such as public health and education, they effectively become policymakers and that raises questions of democratic accountability.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think the US has been so far behind the rest of the world in balancing family and work life? Do you see that changing?

Lew Daly: That's a great question. I think it's because we do not have a strong enough culture around the family. There's a lot of pro-family rhetoric, of course. But no family policy to speak of. In Europe there are many policies to "de-commodify" the family—in other words shield the family from market compulsion. Here, the family is just one more set of contracts in the marketplace.

Gelf Magazine: I don’t understand why "de-commodifying" the family wouldn't play well here in the States politically. Who could be against real pro-family policies?

Lew Daly: Employers, who get less out of their employees if those employees are giving more to their families.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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