In the flood of words written recently about women and work, one related and hugely significant point seems to me to have been neglected. It has to do with America's future, about which -- here's a familiar opinion from me -- I'm an unqualified optimist. Now entertain another opinion of mine: Women are a major reason we will do so well.
Start with the fact that our country's progress since 1776 has been mind-blowing, like nothing the world has ever seen. Our secret sauce has been a political and economic system that unleashes human potential to an extraordinary degree. As a result Americans today enjoy an abundance of goods and services that no one could have dreamed of just a few centuries ago.
But that's not the half of it -- or, rather, it's just about the half of it. America has forged this success while utilizing, in large part, only half of the country's talent. For most of our history, women -- whatever their abilities -- have been relegated to the sidelines. Only in recent years have we begun to correct that problem.
Actually, that's far less than half of it, since, for most of our history, it was only about white men, too. It's odd that Buffett doesn't mention that, because the same arguments could be said about race, not just gender.
And this, too, easily applies to both situations:
Resistance among the powerful is natural when change clashes with their self-interest. Business, politics, and, yes, religions provide many examples of such defensive behavior. After all, who wants to double the number of competitors for top positions?
But an even greater enemy of change may well be the ingrained attitudes of those who simply can't imagine a world different from the one they've lived in. What happened in my own family provides an example. I have two sisters. The three of us were regarded, by our parents and teachers alike, as having roughly equal intelligence -- and IQ tests in fact confirmed our equality. For a long time, to boot, my sisters had far greater "social" IQ than I. (No, we weren't tested for that -- but, believe me, the evidence was overwhelming.)
The moment I emerged from my mother's womb, however, my possibilities dwarfed those of my siblings, for I was a boy! And my brainy, personable, and good-looking siblings were not. My parents would love us equally, and our teachers would give us similar grades. But at every turn my sisters would be told -- more through signals than words -- that success for them would be "marrying well." I was meanwhile hearing that the world's opportunities were there for me to seize.
If you're young, you may be surprised at this, but it was very much the case when I was a kid, too. There were a number of very bright girls in my high school, but none of them were on the "major college" track. They were encouraged to take classes in home economics, for example, rather than classes which would help more in college.
And even if they planned to continue their educations - almost always in such traditionally female areas as nursing or school-teaching - that was mainly for finding a better class of husband. I thought that was very old-fashioned myself, even back then, but that was their society's expectation. That was, in general, their teachers' expectation and that of their parents, too (and so, their own expectation).
Fellow males, get onboard. The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be. We've seen what can be accomplished when we use 50% of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100% can do, you'll join me as an unbridled optimist about America's future.
Yes,... well, there's certainly reason for optimism. And Warren Buffett is exactly right about the potential here. But let's look at the backlash, which is becoming more and more evident every day.
You see, it used to be that white men were just automatically on top - or, at least, not at the bottom. No matter how much of a loser you might be, your status as a white man still put you ahead of more than half the country. You could still call a black man 'boy,' and you were still the unquestioned lord of your household.
You might not have any education at all, but you didn't have to compete with black or Hispanic men, or with women of any race. You might be far down the pecking order, but you could still lord it over plenty of other people. Sure, you'd have to take crap from your boss and pretend to like it, but then you could do the same to other people, if you wanted.
Of course, I'm talking about complete losers, but the benefit wasn't restricted to them, not at all. White men had to compete against other white men, but that still left them - us - with a huge, built-in advantage.
But what happens when black people become your equals? What happens when Hispanics become your equals? Suddenly, you have to compete against everyone. Now, you still have a huge advantage - your boss is still white, your political leaders are (mostly) still white, our entire economy is still run by white men - but it's not what it was, and you can see that advantage slipping away more and more.
I worked with plenty of white men who were convince that white men couldn't get a break these days, that white men faced tremendous discrimination with everyone favoring minorities. These were people whose bosses were white men, who'd been hired by white men - often someone they or their families had known socially, often in their church, which was also overwhelmingly white - and whose co-workers were also white men with the exact same experience.
When the boss hired or promoted his nephew, that was considered normal. But if he hired someone who wasn't white - or hired a white woman, for anything but a secretarial position - that was clear evidence of discrimination against white men (even though the boss was a white man with opinions very like theirs). Of course, such a thing didn't actually happen, not to them, but they were still somehow convinced that they faced discrimination. After all, now that could happen, right?
Obviously, the only reason Barack Obama was elected president - twice - was because he's black, right? Oh, 'those people' get all the breaks! Remember when Mitt Romney bemoaned the fact that he wasn't the son of a Hispanic migrant-worker? Gee, if only he could have chosen his father. But no, he was stuck with being the son of an extremely wealthy, politically-connected white man, born with every advantage in life, including lots and lots of money. Poor guy.
This is how many white men think - Republican white men, at least. As you can see from Romney's comments, even the most powerful of them tend to think that way, as crazy as it seems. The least powerful? They join those white supremacist groups. No, they're not racists,... but someone has to stick up for white people, right?
We're seeing the same thing when it comes to women, too. I told you how it was when I was a kid. Attitudes were starting to change, but only just starting. Still, that was unsettling to men. It used to be that you didn't have to worry about knocking up some woman, because that was her problem. But when they started demanding child support - especially when DNA testing became available - well, that was just too much. Why should you have to pay out the nose for the next 18 years or so, just for one night of fun?
The sexual revolution was great,... but women began to learn they could do without men. By and large, they still wanted a husband, they still wanted a loving partner, but that wasn't absolutely required in order to have a family, so they didn't have to pick the first loser who came along.
And soon, there were good jobs out there for a woman with an education. You didn't have to settle for nursing or secretarial school. Women were still paid less than men, but they didn't have to settle for the lowest-paid jobs, or jobs that traditionally went to women (which was pretty much the same thing).
These days, even more women are going to college than men - and not just to get husbands. Women are getting a better education than men, and so they're getting the better jobs, too. You'd better not slap that waitress on the butt, because it's likely to be a man now, earning $3 an hour, plus tips. Women have better things to do. More men are dropping out of school, dooming themselves to poverty - and now they're finding that they can't even attract a woman desperate enough to find them attractive.
Suddenly, you don't just have to compete with racial minorities, you have to compete with women, too! And in many ways, women are harder to compete against. Your white boss might feel uncomfortable around blacks or Hispanics, since he's never had much contact with them, but he's been around women all his life. And he likes them - young, pretty ones, especially (yes, that's still an issue).
And now, we're seeing an incredible backlash against women. I've been shocked at how common it is online - even among atheists (which shouldn't have surprised me, I suppose, but it really did). Often, these are young men, too. But they're very unhappy at losing their privileged position.
Videos that criticize the 'men's rights movement' (like this one) or which feature feminists or support feminist concerns, tend to receive a torrent of complaints from angry men. Atheism Plus is vigorously denounced. Women who dare to speak up are inundated with threats of rape or other sexual violence. These are from a minority of men, of course - especially the threats - but they're a very angry and very vocal minority.
Some men are unhappy about real issues, of course. We're in a period where attitudes are changing, but not yet fully changed. And thinking that a woman's place is in the home, with her children, can actually benefit a woman who wants to keep custody of her children, though it will hurt her when looking for a good job.
Likewise, some feminists go completely overboard - just like some of every group go completely overboard. Note that there are complete loons on the left, as well as the right. The big difference is that the loons on the left have no political power at all, while the loons on the right pretty well control the entire Republican Party. But let's not deny the presence of loons... everywhere (and yes, that includes the atheist community, too).
But most of this is just backlash. The men's rights movement and the white supremacist movement are similar in being a backlash against social changes that are causing a privileged minority to lose their automatic privileges. Well,... tough! Face it like a man, why don't you? (And no, I don't mean by whining.)
Warren Buffett is right. For most of our history, we've accomplished great things with one hand tied behind our back. No matter how capable, no matter how accomplished, non-white men and nearly all women were kept from contributing fully to our society. That's not to say they didn't contribute, of course. But they weren't allowed to contribute to their full potential.
Well, now things have changed. Now things are changing, at least. For us white men, that means we have a lot more competition, and that's making some white men unhappy. But not all of us. And unhappy or not, this is a big advance for our society as a whole.
This will benefit all of us - white men, too. You may not like being a little fish in a big pond, but that pond is likely to be a far better place to live. And that will benefit you, your friends, your family - everyone. I may not be as bullish on America as Warren Buffett, but in this respect, at least, we're very definitely moving in the right direction.