What George Carlin Has Wrong On The American Dream

George Carlin was a left-leaning comedian with a knack for seeing the bad in everything, including politics. This article addresses a particular well known segment of his where he talks about “the big wealthy business interests” running the country:

First let me say: In some sense Carlin is right! That’s why the post is even worth making:

  1. It’s true that the political preferences of the rich dominate the preferences of the non-rich. Yes, even the middle class. The empirical data is clear and the abstract mechanism is straightforward: Politicians need money to win campaigns, so they cater to high dollar donors.
  2. The rich are often, but not always, major corporate shareholders and executives.
    1. However this begins to be an erroneous meme as there are many rich privately owned businesses including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Dell, and many more.
    2. Moreover, the rich often invest in investment funds like mutual funds and hedge funds, and those funds own corporate shares on behalf of the true rich in an obfuscated way, so you can’t just look at who owns even a controlling number of corporate shares and conclude they are running things in a substantial or independent way.
    3. Actually, Carlin may have finessed to recognize this distinction by referring to “the big wealthy business interests”, although at other times he treats this equivocally with rich corporations.
  3. Education is a widely supported policy solution among politicians, economists, academics, wealthy voters, and non-rich voters as well for the matter.
  4. Politics does provide an illusion of choice. At least the 2-party system in America. Both groups tend toward the middle so that eventually the difference is negligible.

Despite his good points, Carlin is wrong on several points:

  1. While “the big wealthy business interests” control most of the things Carlin mentioned including major corporations, land, politics, and the media, Carlin errors by identifying these interests as a homogeneous unit.
    1. For example, major corporations do own the major television stations and major farming corporations do own a huge amount of land, but these are not the same corporations.
    2. Carlin’s comment is comparable to the statement “Vehicles have 2 wheels and they have 4 wheels.” Vehicles as an aggregate group includes members which have 2 or 4 wheels, but there is no particular vehicle which has both 2 and 4 wheels. Similarly, farming corporations don’t run the media.
  2. Carlin omits the fact that “the big wealthy business interests” are in fact large groups of individuals. Business entities and corporations per se do not own anything. While business may own other business, these chains of ownership always eventually end in ownership by groups of individuals. So Carlin’s criticism of “business interests” boils down to an ambiguous attack on anyone who wants businesses to do well in America.
    1. The poor should want businesses to do better! More business success means more business competition and productivity which leads to better products at lower prices. Carlin is capitalizing on the typical American’s economic ignorance, which involves a tendency to equate business success with unfair profits instead of mutual benefit.
    2. There are only two kinds of producers: Businesses and government. So Carlin unwittingly advocates socialism or communism by attacking business interests per se, implicitly advocating government control.
    3. Are individuals who own investments particularly bad? I own some investments, do you? I think investing is generally a good idea. What I’m getting at here is that by Carlin attacking “business interests” he may be attacking the smart people. The political preferences of the wealthy look pretty good on a cursory glance.
  3. Carlin states that the business interests want more for themselves and less than others. This is importantly mistaken. Individuals want more for themselves, it’s true, but it’s exceedingly rare that the want less for others.
    1. Economics done the right way is a win-win for both the rich and the non-rich.
    2. When non-rich become wealthier in real terms it trickles-up to business who want to sell them more stuff. So if the rich want to maximize their own well being then it is often in their interest to help others. This is the moral-correcting mechanism of the free market.
  4. Carlin states that the business interests don’t want well-informed people capable of critical thinking and a better education system.
    1. First of all, the majority of rich Americans favor improving the education system, even by increasing public funding.
    2. While the rich tend to be more libertarian compared to poor voters, this does not mean they don’t want better education. The education system can be improved in ways other than increasing government spending on public education. Private education, charter schools, and in particular homeschooling are all better ways of improving education compared to increasing public funding.
    3. Businesses are more productive when their employees are better educated, so of course businesses want a more educated public.
  5. Carlin states that employers want employees who are smart enough to run machines and obey orders, but dumb enough to accept “increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension”
    1. Disposable personal income per capita has been rising in the US ever since the last world war. See the image below.
    2. According to the OECD, average hours actually worked per worker in the US has been decreasing at least for the last 15 years and I suspect much longer since this value is positively correlated with disposable income per capita. Neither is the level particularly interesting compared to other countries. In 2014, average hours per worker per year in the US was only 20 hours more than the OECD average.
    3. I have worked as a programmer and as a grocery store clerk among other things. Programming is a newer kind of job and grocery store clerk is a job that has been around. The job of a programmer is vastly more comfortable in my opinion, so I don’t see the kinds of jobs which are being created over time as increasingly shittier.
    4. Compare being a grocery store clerk today to being a grocery store clerk 50 years ago. Now we have awesome computers that calculate everything where it used to involve by-hand calculations with an unwieldy typewriter. Cashiers today also get paid more and work fewer hours. It may not be vacation, but it doesn’t seem shittier either compared to the past.


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