Lots of fences

For whatever reason, today I was reminded of the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost.

The narrator in the poem writes about his interactions with his neighbor:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

I don’t know much about Robert Frost, but this poem was published in 1914, and it strikes me that Frost was alive through much of the Gilded Age, that period of time where the rich and powerful few controlled American politics, and inequality was reaching its dramatic local maximum in the 1920s, even as incremental progress had been made under Roosevelt and Wilson. He was not writing about any of those things in this poem. But I think of his poem because of how we collectively interact with each other, and how this matters in a discussion about inequality that is sometimes missed.

Paul Krugman writes in The Conscience of a Liberal (2007):

[H]igh levels of inequality strain the bonds that hold us together as a society. There has been a long-term downward trend in the extent to which Americans trust either the government or one another. In the sixties, most Americans agreed with the proposition that ‘most people can be trusted’; today most disagree.

In 2012, this number was just 32.4%, as compared to 46% in 1972.

He also notes a bizarrely wrong op-ed by Irving Kristol in 1997 defending high levels of inequality: “in all of our major cities, there is not a single restaurant where a CEO can lunch or dine with the absolute assurance that he will not run into his secretary.”

This was a strange argument to make in 1997: it’s even stranger in 2016.

A recent New York Times investigation by Nelson D. Schwartz looked at the world of the rich and the companies that cater to them. The lede says it all: “Companies are becoming adept at identifying wealthy customers and marketing to them, creating a money-based caste system.”

The world it describes is one we all know exists: the rich are being catered to, and importantly, separated from the rest of us because they can pay to do so. In some ways it is also to the detriment of everyone else. Disturbingly, it seems that the big data that is collected on every single one of us (thanks to modern technologies) is used so that companies can just target those who matter (the rich) with greater accuracy than ever before.

Along with the rich being able to purchase and isolate themselves from everyone else, there is a set of drawbacks for everyone else. In an exchange with a reader, Schwartz writes:

If 20 percent of people end up going to the front of the line – and there’s only one or two lines at the airport or to board the ship, for example – the rest of us have to wait longer. Similarly, seats in coach are getting squeezed ever closer together to make more space in the front of the plane for first, business class and premium economy.

My point here is not that inequalities in income are leading to inequalities in services that did not previously exist, although that is certainly happening. My point is more that we are increasingly being separated from each other on the basis of class even outside of where we work and where we live (which had already increasingly become the case over the last several decades). A benefit of having a relatively compressed income distribution in the 1950s is that people of different economic classes were not separated from interacting from each other in the same way (ignoring the major issue of racial segregation). Unions and moral outrage ensured that workers, blue-collar or white-collar, made incomes that were not exorbitantly different, and further more individuals also occupied similar spaces in the world outside of work. Luxury items existed, of course, but fundamentally, whether someone drove a Chevy or Cadillac did not hinder or stop people from interacting with each other and understanding each others’ concerns. How can we trust or empathize with anyone as we pay money to separate ourselves from each other? How can the very rich, who separate themselves from the rest of society while having a disproportionate voice in the political process, possibly understand the problems of most people?

I think that the the modern conservative response, without irony, might simply be: “Good fences make good neighbors.”


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