and some change

The Plasticity of Social Norms

I recently had a conversation with my father about income disparity and social mobility in the US. He’s always been a huge believer in social mobility in the US - you know, the belief that if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. I showed him recent data that suggests the contrary - that the US is actually one of the least socially-mobile nations in the developed world, and he was legitimately surprised at the findings.

I pointed out that this really isn’t a huge surprise, given the fact that income disparity in the US is so high - that the rich keep getting richer and their tax rates keep going down, while the poor stay more or less where they are. I pointed him to an Ezra Klein article talking about this and he was particularly intrigued by the “top 1% of earners in America accounted for 23.5% of the total income in the US” figure. Upon further inspection, we came across the source of the figure and my dad was absolutely shocked to learn that he was in the top 1% - but what shocked him more was just how low the bars are for the top 1%, top 5%, and top 10% (they’re $398,900, $155,400, and $109,600 respectively). He seemed completely unable to believe that the average American was earning so little that if you made more than $110k a year you’d be in the top 10%.

It was really fascinating to see this happen - to see someone suddenly realise that their normal, everyday experience is actually completely abnormal - and for the shock of this realisation to be so huge that the person just simply refused to believe the truth. Since my dad mostly talks with other physicians, his normal everyday experience is to see people who are like him - making enormous amounts of money every year, that is - so to an outside observer it’d seem natural for my dad’s definition of “normal life” to change from a first-generation immigrant enrolled in medical school and forced to literally moonlight as a dishwasher to pay the bills to a successful physician in the top 1% of all American incomes.

But for my dad, it was shocking. I suppose it’s even more surprising given his history - he came to the US in 1988 with literally nothing more than $400 in his wallet and a medical degree from a university in China that nobody in the US would recognize. He had to work his ass off to start over from the beginning, and he very vividly remembers the hardships he had to endure to get to where he is now. So it’s interesting to see that his perception of normality in the US has changed so drastically when his memories haven’t. And it’s really enlightening to see the realization happen firsthand, to begin to understand why the people leading the firms on Wall Street, people who have been doggedly working in the financial system for their entire lives and have become successful, can begin to think that they deserve their incomes, or that their experiences are ordinary and that they’re normal people. It’s a bit humbling, in a way, to see that human memory is such a fragile construct.