The Stacked Deck

Recently a ridiculous graphic was going around showing how somebody could live on $2000 dollars a month, still save $100 a month and have a couple hundred dollars spending money too. Of course that person didn’t have children, most of the costs seemed to be typical of the 90s, and in order to clear $2000 dollars a month you still need to be making $13 or $14/hr which is nearly double the federal minimum wage. For those of you who don’t want to do the math, by saving $100, they could potentially get a year of college after 10 years of work. So, by 60 they could have their bachelor’s degree and maybe move up in the world.

If that sounds ludicrous, congratulations, you are a sane person. But more importantly that $100 (we could even bump it up to $200) a month savings isn’t going to just sit they’re happily waiting to be spent on something big in most cases. A capitalist society has many rags to riches stories, and while such stories typically rise to the forefront of the conversation, they are a vast minority. Why? Because they depend on luck. I think a capitalist society can be set up in a way to give more opportunities to people, but that’s not through an unrestrained free market. It requires a government that is actively restraining it.

What I really want to talk more about are the ways in which the society we live in is stacked against poor people. I find the GOP talking point that poor people are lazy to be one of the most insidious ever devised and one that causes not only continued financial misery for poor people, but also dehumanizes them, diminishing their human dignity and value.

Shop Cutco Knife SetsWhen I was 20 I worked a summer job where I sold Cutco knives. I’ve met other people who did the same thing; lured in by the promise of $11/hr for summer work, only two find that this was $11 for a 1 hour demonstration and you had to go into people’s homes and try to sell them knives. I’m not a great salesman, because I hate dictating how people should spend their money. Nevertheless they were quality knives and I did okay.  I was reminiscing about the job recently because I actually bought some Cutco knives off of eBay as I accidentally melted one of the handles off a knife I kept from sample set that I earned by selling enough knives. Anyway, I remembered how they taught us to explain that cheap knives might work great at first, but they dull or break quickly. So without buying good knives, over the course of some number of years you would actually lose money. The company was trying to justify why you would spend a lot of money (they were quite expensive, average $70 a knife in the early 90s) on a set of knives. Let’s take for granted that these are quality knives and that you would save money in the long run.  I was smart enough back then to know that this wasn’t how the real world worked for many people. Putting $800 down for a set of knives, no matter how great, was not the kind of capital people had lying around just for knives. Interestingly the thing that broke me was when the mechanically cheery regional sales manager told me to target middle class people because they were likely to have more money saved up than upper middle-class people who were more likely to have been frivolous with their money and might have less saved up.  So I was expected to take savings away from people who I felt could put their money to better use buying their kids new bikes for what amounted to only kitchen knives.

The knife example is like many things in our society:  good quality things that last longer are the better option to buy if you want to save money in the long term. However, to get those savings you need to have money to begin with. I remember when I was a grad student, and had limited income when I was buying a blender; there were many cheap choices that seemed like a good deal. And they would often work great for a little while, but invariably break down after a year or two.  Capitalism has done a great job of making these things at a cheaper and cheaper cost, but the trade off is durability. It’s a piece of equipment that works for a limited amount of time,because they know poor people have limited amounts of money and on any given month they can only afford a cheap blender; and in a year they will be able to afford another cheap blender.

There are many more examples like this.  You can reduce energy costs in your home by getting solar paneling on your roof,  but it is an expensive investment and the energy savings might only make up for the cost after 10 years.  You can afford to do this only if you have a nice house and the capital to invest in the first place.  Another caveat is that even if poor people did want to invest in a house, it is likely not one that is well built enough to invest in something like solar paneling.

Let’s go back to that budget I talked about at the beginning where somebody with $2000 a month is able to put away $100-200 a month in savings.  People who are poor generally have:

  • Cheaper/older appliances
  • Cheaper/older car
  • Older and cheaper living accommodations
  • Cheaper or no health care, thus high co-pays and deductibles

All it takes is a broken water heater, fridge, or washing machine, a car breakdown or accident, or a medical emergency for all those savings to be wiped away.  And these problems will occur more frequently as a result of what you can afford when you’re poor.

Let’s throw in some other important factors.  In our society, nutritious food costs more and thus families with lower quality foods may suffer more health consequences adding to their medical costs.  As the COVID situation is showing us, poor people don’t get to social distance and stay home from work easily. To survive they depend on their social network and this can lead to worse outcomes in terms of getting sick and missing more work and school. The way public school funding seems to work here is that property taxes are a large part of the funding.  Poorer communities get less equipped schools, can’t afford to pay their teachers as  much and thus have less teacher retention, with the most experienced teachers unlikely to stay.

Another thing people might not be aware of is that poorer communities also tend to be in more disaster prone areas.  Consider living near a river. There are places that are less likely to flood and more likely to flood. But instead of just not letting people live in flood prone areas, developers build cheap housing there for people with less money. It’s relatively inexpensive to rebuild if the area gets wiped out and this keeps insurance costs down in riskier areas.  Meanwhile, a poor home owner in a flood zone is less likely to be able to afford and purchase flood insurance. So as poor person you are also just more likely to have your life wiped out by a natural disaster. There are also many other factors that increases disaster risks for people in with lower socioeconomic standing.

Disasters do not just happen – they result from failures of ...

It’s possible that a parent taught you a lot about cars and you know how to fix them yourself and spot a good used car. But that’s not everybody.  It’s possible that you are great at sniffing out good deals for quality appliances, but that takes time: a luxury money also gets you. Getting a higher education can also be a great way to get you out of poverty. However, this is becoming increasingly unaffordable without taking on significant debt, which in turn keeps you in a state of perpetual struggle for at least a decade after you graduate.  So maybe you get lucky and stay healthy, have few car issues, end up in a good school district, or are gifted genetically in some way that gives you an advantage. And of course there could be any number of issues that your parents have which might limit your ability to rise very much in life. A lot of people may be working hard, but only some will be able to rise out of poverty.

Capitalism doesn’t care if you put away money as long as you are buying something.  In fact, it prefers you spend your money rather than save it. It makes much more money off people buying multiple cheap blenders than a good quality blender that lasts 10 years. In fact, it is in capitalism’s best interest to not make things last for anybody. It seems that as the middle class erodes we just have rich people who can buy new expensive items every couple years; not because they have to, but because they can change their aesthetic anytime they want. Meanwhile poor people are forced to repeatedly buy cheap goods they have to replace often just to have a functioning home or vehicle.  Capitalism is also in general happier if you are sick more and need to buy pharmaceuticals instead of being able to have the leisure time to keep healthy, exercise, and buy nutritious foods.

The real insult is that this capitalist engine, working exactly as intended, accuses the very people it exploits of being lazy and stupid, performing worthless jobs that they should be thankful for because it is only by the grace of their corporate overlords that they haven’t already been replaced by machines. When workers start to demand enough money to get by on they get replaced by machines anyway because heaven forbid some CEO can’t afford to replace his 7th vehicle that year that’s parked unused at their 4th mansion most of the year. If you listen to conservatives a CEO is the hero in this story: he is better, smarter, and a harder worker, deserving of his riches, and possessing of a superior morality. Should they screw up on that front, however,  that’s okay. They have friends in the corporate media, they can hire the best lawyers and pr firms, and escape with barely a dent in their fortune. And sure some small percentage fall from grace, and while many people will recognize such people as criminals, others will simply say “Well if he’s really guilty, he surely would be in jail”.  Trump is a good example of how rich criminals support each other. Meanwhile poor people pay for even the most minor of crimes for a lifetime. Capitalism not only exploits poor people as workers, but also exploits them as consumers, all the while devaluing their very existence.

This system’s cracks are showing. It can’t sustain itself. Creating division among the population is its last-ditch effort to keep itself alive. And so far, it’s working. How much longer can it all go on?

Eyes In The Darkness

A picture of darkness. Who knows what might be in there!!?

My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself.  Even in the day time.  He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc.  He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real.  But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so?  My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him.  He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room.  So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced.  Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters.  There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation.  It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it.  And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further.  This will take time.

As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying.  But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child.  One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon.  Apparently this happened around the age of two.  I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it.  I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed.  Then everything was fine.  Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon.  It

daffy
The menacing Daffy Duck,

was clearly an irrational fear.  When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck.  It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white.  That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out.  In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that.  Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark.  I don’t know.  Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.

All this made me think about fear.  My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water.  We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.”  I think this is a pretty good analogy.  But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears.  The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution.  We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world.  And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers?  So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.

It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears.  And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat.  Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things.  One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce.  As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young.  So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility.  It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear.  And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.

fear_seneca

But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear?  The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to.  Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came.  Things like small pox and influenza.  Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity.  Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu.  Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people.  This would be a reasonable thing to fear.  But T-cell backgroundwhat could one do about it?  The microscope was not invented until 1590.  It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do.  The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems.  When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears.  Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling.  Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems.  I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears.  So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.”  The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear.  To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives.  Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.

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Note the “Think! Try Again”

One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative.  Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology.  Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion.  We see the narrative science builds change;  openly and unabashedly.  Yet books remain unchanged.  Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever.  Such is the nature of institutions.

Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well.  Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today.  I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.”  This is also what angers me about fear mongering.  It really might be the worst human behavior.