Social mobility #

I’m a huge believer in social mobility and I’m not sure how one can’t be. In the same way that people are equal regardless of their gender, colour of their skin, or culture, and should be treated as such by law, so should all people have the same access to opportunity. There is certainly great variance between the intelligences, skills, strengths and capabilities of human beings. But any person with the same set of those attributes should have the same opportunities and chance to succeed in the world.

This is not true today in the West. There are, alongside many ethnic and sectarian splits, real class divides and systemic inequality in modern Western society. Once the great promise of a utopian future, social safety nets and welfare have become punitive and starkly ineffective to maintain quality and dignity of life in many places. And of course there is a vast amount of illiquid and unused wealth in the world which is passed down through inheritance of assets once wealthy people die. This contrast between a group of people who continuously must start from scratch each generation and a group whose wealth accumulates like compound interest, creates an understandable and dramatic schism between their respective understandings and interpretations of the world.

I think the only moral solution to this problem is for this wealth to be redistributed by aggressive taxation on high marginal income. This money can be used to dramatically improve the social safety net with a universal basic income and a serious minimum working wage.

It is so sad and infuriating that neoliberals have managed to paint recipients of welfare as bludgers looking for free money. This is such a priveleged and distorted view. I can speak from personal experience that receiving welfare can be a demoralising, embarrassing experience from which one is only seeking to improve. Of course there will be a small percentage of people taking advantage of the system. But the payments should be there to cushion a fall, or to help someone in their goal to become better, not to punish them for being where they are in their life.

Back when I needed it, Youth Allowance, the government payment for students whose parents make below a threshhold deemed enough to provide support (why should parents have to pay their grown children a monthly stipend to attend unversity?) was not enough to live off. While studying full time, I needed to work 15 to 20 hours a week to have enough money for rent and groceries. This was not respectful of my desire to learn and improve. Instead of focussing my time on being a student, I had to work menial jobs, at fast food restaurants or call centres or cafe kitchens.

Imagine a situation where students with less means are provided exactly the same opportunities as those with means. Tuition is free (as it functionally is for those lucky enough to have trust-funds from their parents), and lodging is as well (as it functionally is for those lucky enough to live with their parents in the inner city close to the campus). All students receive a monthly stipend during their studies, which is enough for food and supplies and whatever else a student needs to get by. If someone wants more than that: for example if they want to travel in the summer, or buy an expensive smartphone, then they can find a job on the side to be able to afford those things. But the playing field has been levelled, and the difference between the richer and the poorer students is much narrower.

Exactly the same idea should extend to society at large. Obscene wealth has been allowed to accumulate for too long without providing any measure of societal good. Marginal tax rates for extreme wealth have been very high before and should be again. There is enough fortune in Western society to be shared (I have said nothing here about other parts of the world because I’m sure they have very different problems and structures and I don’t pretend to know much about them at all). We just need to change the prevailing mood so that people want to share, and so they know why they are sharing: no one is inherently better than anyone else, and everyone deserves the same opportunity in life.

  • This interesting post by Meg Elison about the very different perspective privilege brings to working in tech.