Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Billionaires and Prejudice

There's an old story: what do they call a black neurosurgeon in South Carolina? Answer: Boy.

Labelling, or profiling, can be an awful thing. Our society has actually made a lot of progress in fighting prejudice. Now, sometimes there is actually something valid about it, maybe. Are Jews generally funnier, do blacks have better rhythm, are black women louder, are WASPs more repressed, are pediatricians generally nicer? There can be probabilities that pan out, and other stuff that is just labelling. Almost none of it is genetic, except blue eyes.

I play a game with myself – I see a shitty driver (no lack of them on the road), I make a prediction for gender, ethnicity, age, etc., and then I catch up and look to see who it is. My guesses have proven time and time again to have zero predictive value.

We are schooled now to beware of such labelling, and publicly we usually avoid doing it. No one disses a black on TV, we're very careful. Few people mention the predominance of Catholics and Jews on the Supreme Court, you don't hear about religious denominations for presidential candidates, you don't even hear that much about Pete Buttigieg's sexual orientation, at least publicly. We understand generally that yes, some labels mean something, but there is so much more to the individual that labelling doesn't tell us.

Which is why the internet information gatherers have been so successful. They have gathered real information on people, not labeling information, and it must work or they wouldn't be so successful as they are. In depth information works, superficial labeling information doesn't.

Which is why I'm struck with the opprobrium that Mike Bloomberg faces because he is a super-billionaire. “Do we really need another billionaire candidate?” Yes, having your own money to finance your campaign is a singular advantage. But does being a billionaire really tell us any more about a person? I mean – who could be more different than Donald Trump (maybe a billionaire, but certainly rich, at least for the moment before all the litigation after he falls), Howard Schultz, Tom Steyer, and Mike Bloomberg? Personally, so different. Policies, different. Personal style, different. Experience, different. Would we say, “Do we really need another white male candidate?” Oh, whoops, yes we would, “white male” has been dominant, so it's OK to label them. But would we say, “Do we really need another woman candidate?” Or, “Do we really need another black candidate?”

It's true that we expect officials to have a point of view that generally reflects their own personal background and interests. White males have predominated in the past and unconsciously or consciously pursued white male domination, or at least acquiesced to it. We expect black candidates to do something to help their oppressed race. We expect women to stand up for women. But, should we expect billionaires to protect their own wealth and the wealth of their financial group? Trump does it, but the others have been in the forefront of saying that the wealthy should be paying more. So to reflexively think that billionaires are in the race to protect their own wealth is demonstrably false.

Should we feel sorry for the poor oppressed billionaires? I hear your snorting laugh – I wish I had their problems, you say. Right. It's not something to feel sorry about, for them. But it is something to feel sorry about, for us. At this point in this confusing race for President, I'm a Bloomberg supporter. It's quite possible that he is really the best candidate the Democrats will have to offer. I'm not going to get into that whole discussion other than to say – you wouldn't eliminate someone like Barack Obama from consideration because he's black, and we shouldn't eliminate Mike Bloomberg because he's a billionaire. Or Jewish. Or a white male.

This whole identity thing -- shouldn't we insist that everyone have equal access to run for president, and then decide on who we want on an equal playing field?  We shouldn't want "a woman," or "a minority."  We should want the best.

Shouldn't we concentrate on the quality of their character, the policies they espouse, and the abilities they bring to the table? If we discount their candidacies because of extraneous factors, like how wealthy they are – try predicting the gender and ethnicity of the next bad driver you see.

Budd Shenkin

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