Dr. Seuss is my favorite childhood author.
The timeless wisdom woven into his rhymes, coupled with his iconic illustrations, combine to make his works ageless. Perhaps none of his stories illustrate this more than The Sneetches – a tale about a species of birds, their all-too-human qualities, and the exploitation of those qualities by a shameless huckster.
Some Sneetches had stars on their bellies, while others did not. The physical dichotomy between Star-Bellied Sneetches and Plain-Bellied Sneetches resulted in a socio-economic stratification. The Sneetches with stars would not associate with starless Sneetches:
“But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
‘We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!’
Dr. Seuss took the concept of the “haves” and “have-nots” and presented them in a comical way that resonates with everyone. One can’t help but empathize with the Plain-Bellied Sneetches, while harboring disdain for the arrogance of their Star-Bellied counterparts.
The story continues. One day, a businessman happened upon the Sneetches. He approached the Plain Bellies with an offer.
“ ‘My Friends,’ he announced in a voice clear and keen,
‘My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve hear you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie.’”
Sylvester McMonkey McBean presented a machine that put stars on the bellies of the Plain-Bellied Sneetches – for a price of only three dollars each. Not surprisingly, the Star-Bellied Sneetches responded with righteous indignation when they saw that the Plain-Bellied Sneetches now had “stars upon thars.” To their delight, the Fix-it-Up Chappie offered a solution:
“Then up came McBean with a very sly wink
And he said, ‘Things are not quite as bad as you think.
So you don’t know who’s who. That is perfectly true.
But come with me, friends, Do you know what I’ll do?
I’ll make you, again, the best Sneetches on the beaches
And all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.’”
Now the Star-Bellied Sneetches were Plain-Bellied Sneetches, and the Plain Bellies were Star Bellies! Each group got what it wished for – but neither got satisfaction.
The Star-Bellied Sneetches rushed through McBean’s machine again to have their stars removed. Which prompted the Plain-Bellied Sneetches to go through as well and have their bellies embossed with stars. This started a vicious cycle.
“All the rest of that day, on those wild screaming beaches,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie kept fixing up Sneetches.
Off again! On again!
In again! Out again!
Through the machines they raced round and about again.
Changing their stars every minute or two.
They kept paying money. They kept running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one…or that one was this one
Or which one was what one… or what one was who.”
The good news was that inequality among Sneetches was eradicated. The bad news was that equality came with a price: all the Sneetches were penniless.
We can learn valuable lessons from the Sneetches.
The Star-Bellied Sneetches were at fault for discriminating against the Plain-Bellied Sneetches. However, the Plain-Bellied Sneetches could have responded to the behavior of their Star-Bellied counter parts in a different manner. If either group hadn’t rushed head over heel to remake itself, then Sylvester McBean’s snake-oil solutions wouldn’t have bankrupted them.
I think The Sneetches should be required reading in all high schools.
Because if you look at America today, you can’t help but notice parallels between us and the Sneetches. Our society is almost as stratified economically as the Sneetches’ was socially.
Some people have higher incomes than others. The rhetoric of the “haves” and the “have-nots” is pervasive, and is growing stronger every day. The distribution of income is a hot topic, and is a focal point of the upcoming midterm elections.
As a matter of fact, tonight’s State of the Union address by President Obama is expected to include a “call to action” to address the problem of income inequality.
Some of our most prestigious academics teach that skewed income distribution and economic inequality represent a fundamental flaw in our free-market system. This inequality allegedly retards economic growth, reduces the social mobility of the poorest among us, and shrinks the middle class. In his column in The New York Times, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman contends that inequality hampers both social and economic mobility. Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger holds that one of the main reasons for stagnant economic growth is income inequality. Krueger claimed recently in a speech at the Center for American Progress that “the economy would be in better shape and aggregate demand would be stronger if the size of the middle class had not shrunk as a result of rising inequality.”
Both the President’s anticipated “call to action” and the alleged damage caused by income inequality brings to mind two very important questions:
1) What is the role of the federal government in insuring income equality?
2) Is income inequality truly as bad as many academics attest?
Regarding the second question, Economist Scott Winship, a former fellow of the Brookings Institute, has written extensively about income inequality. While I won’t parse all of his work – you can find it here – his conclusion is that income inequality is being oversold as a straw man and used as an excuse for a mediocre economic recovery. Not to mention it also provides convenient justification for further government intervention in markets.
Most of the studies identifying economic stagnation as a consequence of income inequality is based on data collected across many countries, focusing heavily on third-world and devolving areas. While mostly inconclusive, some of these studies point to income inequality retarding economic growth in these developing areas. Even the definitive study on the issue, by IMF economists, shows that inequality hurts economic growth by focusing “primarily on developing countries.”
Some of our best and brightest have taken these dubious findings and committed intellectual dishonesty by transposing the findings to the United States. Economists Boushey and Hersh conclude in their review of these studies:
“Ultimately, data and methodological issues mean that analyses are too imprecise to deliver definitive answers to this old and central question in economics research.”
In fact, the latest studies by Christopher Jenks of Harvard with Andrew Leigh and Dan Andrews refute these findings. In the U.S., over the course of the 20th century, rising income inequality did not retard economic growth; rather, it coincided with increasing economic growth.
Nobody wants income inequality, and it can be a threat to our economy in certain situations – like when it dampens opportunity. Nowhere is this more evident than in our public school system, where underprivileged students have been denied access to better schools. School voucher programs, like those instituted in Florida and Louisiana, have afforded students opportunity by allowing them to escape failing schools for ones that work. I’ve long held that if we were serious about addressing issues of equal opportunity, then school vouchers are a partial solution. Unfortunately, the current administration is hostile to the idea, and has even brought lawsuits against states that have instituted successful voucher-based programs.
Since the data on the issue of income inequality clearly show that the issue is being “oversold,” why, then, do some of our brightest academics and most prominent politicians promote it to the point of making it a centerpiece of the State of the Union address?
The answer is simple: for politicians, this is nothing more than election-year politics with an end goal of galvanizing the base in order to increase voter turnout. If the Democrats can get enough of their reliable supporters to rally behind the issue of economic inequality, then they might forego a potential ballot-box backlash for the Affordable Care Act. The same tactic of getting one’s base riled up is a political go-to play as old as elections themselves. It’s nothing new, and I’d wager we’ll see it again in 2015.
For the academics, who are much smarter than I am, the answer is less clear. Personally, I think many of them have been blinded by dogma, and this has caused them to commit these acts of intellectual laziness for the sake of the politicians or ideologies they support. Ironically, this goes against the very principles academia is meant to uphold.
One thing, however, is certain: politicians and economists alike are posing as Sylvester McMonkey McBean. The American populace are like Dr. Seuss’ fictional Sneetches. We are being told all of these problems will be solved if we just give certain politicians our vote, much as the Sneetches’ problems would be solved if they would only give McBean their money. These politicians will then enact policies meant to “fix” problems such as income inequality. Unfortunately, these policies by and large do not work. You can’t legislate income equality, just as you can’t outlaw poverty or legislate morality. If these laws were truly a formula for economic prosperity, then we could just raise minimum wage laws until everyone had an “equal” standard of living. The fact of the matter is that these policies are based on open-ended platitudes. How much income equality is enough? Each person would answer that differently, and if we accept this notion, then we are handing our politicians a ploy to use on us to leverage votes every election cycle. That’s why Milton Friedman observed that:
“A society that puts freedom before equality will have less of both.”
If we want to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder, we need to employ policy measures like school vouchers, which give them the freedom to choose the schools best suited for them, rather than accept the politicians’ arguments that only the government can help – if only you’ll vote to keep said politicians in office.
So expect lots of rhetoric tonight about income inequality, minimum wage and the obligation we have in our society to help others – but keep in mind that these hollow words are from the same administration that is so hostile to the reforms undertaken in the states that are truly helping the underprivileged.
Dr. Seuss describes the last scene we see of Sylvester McMonkey McBean in:
“And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
‘They never will learn. No. You can’t teach a Sneetch!”
Will politicians be laughing as they drive away in November? Only time will tell.