Saturday, 17 September 2016

Travels and Privilege

So my friend linked me this ranting leftie post ("Your Obsession With Travels Sure Feels Classist To Me") during my exams in Sydney and I finally got around to comment on it. The case is this: since being able to travel abroad or backpack the world or go on family trips requires money, and since money is a social privilege that some poor people don't have, talking about one's adventures is oppressive, showing your pictures is distasteful, publishing them on instagram is classist (whatever that really means...).

A stunning example of my super-privilege. 

Apparently, then, I’m super-privileged, although I'm (only?) on 29 countries and counting. Being able to travel is unfair and I need to give in to every leftie argument ever simply because of my "elevated" social status, and I'm disrespectful if I don't. So, today I'm gonna use their own garbage against them – by invoking their favourite charity Oxfam

Remember every year in January when Oxfam gets an avalanche of media coverage from releasing some Big Scary Number about world wealth inequality? Their laughable attempt at statistics always conclude something along the lines that the world is terribly unequal and that "62 people" own as much assets as the poorest half of the world does. The way they massage their numbers to come out this way is by counting Net Wealth rather than assets (that is, sum up a person’s assets and subtract all their liabilities). Then they line up all of us accordingly and find that the amount of Net Wealth owned by the top-whatever-number equals what everybody else owns - or, in this case, what the bottom half owns.

That quickly runs into a familiar problem: when you play percentages with values that can go below zero things go astray, as Ellenberg explains in his superb book How Not To Be Wrong - The Hidden Math of Everyday Life - the below quote is from his Slate post on the topic:
It had been another weak month for the U.S. economy as a whole, which added only 18,000 jobs nationally. But the [Wisconsin] state employment numbers looked much better: a net increase of 9,500 jobs. “Today,” the [Wisconsin Governor] statement read, “we learned that over 50 percent of U.S. job growth in June came from our state.”
This is a perfect example of the soup you get into when you start reporting percentages of numbers, like net job gains, that might be either positive or negative. Wisconsin added 9,500 jobs, which is good; but neighbouring Minnesota, under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, added more than 13,000 in the same month. [...] That’s how Wisconsin’s governor could claim his state accounted for half the nation’s job growth, and Minnesota’s governor, if he’d cared to, could have said that his own state was responsible for 70 percent of it. [...] The slogan to live by here is: Don’t talk about percentages of numbers when the numbers might be negative. (my emphasis)
This, too, is how it works for Oxfam (bear with me, we'll get back to travels and privilege in just a minute):

Anybody with more debts than assets in Oxfam's survey (say most people in the West below the age of like 30, and most definitely the very same students who indignantly retweeted Oxfam’s garbage on their brand-new iPhones) will end up on the negative side. There's nothing strange about that, since the whole point with most debts (especially student debts, but also small businesses) is to pay for present things with future incomes, to temporally redistribute income from when you’re older (and richer) to when you’re younger (and poorer).

2 things happen from this magic trick. First, Oxfam removes most people from their upper distribution (say, the top quartile), since your average western middle-class young professional is in net debt despite living a rather well-off life, making the distance to the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world so much larger. Secondly, it makes all of us western students and start-ups and young professional rank below your average Kenyan or Zimbabwean or Chinese farmer, since the latter may actually have a very small – but positive – net wealth, whereas we are likely to be deep in the red. In summary, Oxfam produces Big Scary Numbers by counting perhaps the least privileged of us all as wealthier than almost anyone in the Western world. 

OK, Joakim, you just showed how the people over at Oxfam are statistically deluded (or, in more conventional terms: idiots), and those basing their beliefs on their claims are too – what has that got to do with travelling and being classist?

Let’s do the same thing, comparing my finances with this Katherine lady @ Ravishly, since she was ranting about how unfair it was that she couldn't afford to travel and that all her income goes towards paying rent. Now I am gonna pull the Oxfam Stunt:
  • My net wealth is in the negative by something like £17,000 (that is, some 22k USD or €20k), and I'm travelling obsessively (you're welcome to check my insta anytime you like)
  • This lady earns some (a lot?) of income, she says, which makes it likely that her net wealth is actually positive (or at least higher than mine). 
Result: she is richer than me in our Oxfam-induced ranking, but I am being classist because I am travelling? 

If so, ma'am, then privilege isn't determined by net wealth - and Oxfam is completely wrong. 

Bottom line: as with the "Gender Pay Gap", I love it when indignant sacrosanct lefties put themselves in impossible situations, and they never ever realize it. 

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