People tend to get more conservative as they get older, at least according to this and this and this. Perhaps this is simply because with age comes caution. Perhaps it is that the world is becoming more and more wicked before it is burned. But I think part of this is simply financial.

Conservative policies tend to benefit the wealthy, and older people make more money and have (a lot) more money than younger people. This makes sense. They’ve had more years to develop experience, work, save up money, etc. They also have a higher likelihood of gaining wealth in a less “meritocratic” way, like inheriting it- with retirees expecting to pass an average of $177,000 on to progeny. And this third way older people achieve their wealth is what I’d like to talk about.

Most things in capitalism can be said to be “produced” or “created,” and therefore “earned.” One of the few exceptions to this is land. While the money you spend to buy land is earned, the unimproved value of the land itself is not something that the previous owner “created,” nor the owner before that. It simply was claimed.

Now imagine a primitive economy, where two parents and their thirteen children live on a farm. They own the land because it was given to them by one of their parents. The children begin working the farm from a young age, because this is their duty to their parents, to tell them thank you for protecting them and providing for them and helping them make it to the hard working age of nine or so (if I lived back in these times, I’d be much less reluctant to have children). Anyways, some of the children continue working. Others leave. Most of them die, because it is, after all, a primitive economy. At the end of the day there is one daughter taking care of her aging parents. And she inherits the farm when her parents pass on and continues the cycle with her thirteen children.

The point of all this is not that she earned the land because she worked for it (even though she did, along with many of her dead/ now moved on siblings). Or that she earned the land because she created it (she certainly didn’t do that). She earned the land because she respected her parents, and her parents deemed her a worthy heir. And this how at least part of capitalism works. It isn’t simply about “producing value” or “creating marketable goods” or “developing skills”- it’s also about, well, respecting your elders. So much of wealth is not goods or services, but land. There is about 21.2 trillion dollars worth of private land in the United States; which divided by the 318.9 million population gets us to about $96,800 worth of real estate for every man, woman, and child in America. But most of that land is not for sale, and belongs to the oldest among us. The Silent Generation (20 million people) and the Baby Boomers (65 million people)- roughly 27% of the population- control about  83% of the wealth in this country; and they control that wealth, not only because they worked for it, but also simply because they waited in line. And perhaps this is how it has always been.

This alternative perspective on the accumulation of wealth- as something that is sometimes achieved, not through creating value for society as a whole- but through respecting the values and the older generation and winning their favor- is helpful for understanding why certain inequalities don’t seem to ever mend themselves. African Americans- 13.3% of the US population- control only about 2% of the real estate- less than the top five land owners in the United States. Racism is obviously a contributor here, but also the simple economic problem that the freed slaves had no parents to inherit land/ wealth from (and no “forty acres and a mule“). There is very little a guest (employee) can offer his/her host (property owner) in terms of work that will be sufficient enough for the host to be willing to switch roles. Some things are not up for sale or up for grabs. Some things are only available when our elders pass them on to us.



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