On Small Advantages, politics, and society

Fair warning. This post is political.

There is a form of instability called Rayleigh-Taylor instability. See this for Wikipedia’s article.  I first heard of this in high school. You take a small-mouthed container, bottle or flask, say, and fill it completely with water, put a wet piece of paper across the mouth, and turn it upside down. The paper will stay in place. But, no matter how smoothly you remove the paper, almost at once the water spills out.

At first one might think that a perfectly flat surface of water/air would be stable in that there is no obvious starting point for it to begin to spill. It’s the same everywhere, where can it drip first? What really happens is that a small blip, perhaps a statistical bump in the molecules’ positions, starts a droop at one spot that grows exponentially.

I mention in passing that compound interest also grows exponentially.

If one were a water molecule trying to get down, being close to the instability would be an advantage, one which grows rapidly with the instability itself.

Market advantage is like this. Political advantage is like this. Business advantage is like this. Monopoly games are like this. A small initial advantage in Monopoly will often help accumulate more advantage, until we have a, well, monopoly.

Wealthy families are like this. While there is sometimes a generation that dissipates the advantage, as a rule the advantage continues to grow across generations. Unlike Monopoly, the wealthy can actually change the rules of the game to give themselves even more advantage. Removing tax from large estates is an obvious example. Lobbying for tax cuts for the rich (and tax loopholes for corporations) is part of the American inequality problem. It’s as if the water can change the rules of physics to make its own parcel more dense, more favoured, than its neighbours.

The Great American Dream is not like this. The great Democratic Hope is not like this. It should be possible for “anyone” to rise above their starting point by good judgement, intelligent decisions, special skill, or even hard work. My poster child for this is Nigel Short, a chess prodigy from a middle class background. Some combination of brains, natural board insight, and hard thinking made him one of the youngest chess masters of modern times.

Too much of life is not as democratic as chess. Rising tuition can keep the disadvantaged from higher education. Interlocking company boards can keep non-insider-family members from being nominated.

In North America, the middle class has been stagnant financially for some thirty years. (There are various articles on this in the Star, for one newspaper example.) The extremely wealthy have moved forward rapidly. Top executive salaries, as a multiple of the average salary within their corporations, have gone to multiples over 400. The poor have gone backward.

Now we are finding social security networks under attack while corporations sit on piles of uninvested cash yet demand higher productivity, which is a way of saying, less wages.

It is no longer possible, in the vast majority of cases, for someone with a small advantage to prosper beyond their starting economic situation. Being smart and industrious may not be enough to get into University: rich folks’ kids pay special schools to give them higher marks than bright plebeian students get merely by working.

Our dream of democracy may now be ending. Those whose initially small advantages have grown into wealth and power already, will strive to keep that wealth and power. Latecomers need not apply. Political parties themselves are mostly insiders.

I submit that this is a devilish recipe for social unrest that should be addressed urgently by our governments. We need some ability to escape original economic backgrounds to be available to the masses. Some upward progress needs to be possible, and to be visible to those below.

The alternative seems to be larger prisons and longer sentences, as the lowest of the disadvantaged become more desperate. This seems to be the vision of our current Canadian government, and to have been that of the previous administration in the USA.

It’s time for all of us to exert what small advantages we have, to make our views on these issues visible and vocal. Call your provincial representative. Email your federal MP. Talk to your local business executives. We need our voices to grow, like compound interest, until we are actually listened to.

We need more even distribution of wealth, which implies progressive tax rates and closing loopholes. The funding is needed for our safety net, health care, and other critical services.

We need fair distribution of educational opportunities, which implies more scholarships and lower tuition. It’s an investment in all our futures.

We need non-insiders on company boards of directors.Corporate direction should reflect the needs of shareholders, and also customers, employees, and the surrounding community.

Finally, we need a new corporate ethic. This is what at least one corporation claimed to uphold a generation or two ago: respect for the individual, customer service, and pursuit of excellence. Note that the first of these included employees as key stakeholders, along with customers.

It is time for all of us to think about small advantages, and how they should be allowed to prosper. Upward mobility may be the final judge of the worth of a civilization, and determine its life or death. Let’s vote for life, with our words, civil actions, and all forms of communication we have.

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