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?

Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

When I feel the weight of the world, and try to focus on the one thing that brings about the most injustice in the world, it is greed.  What I want to say about extends beyond the confines of one post so I’d first like to look at the type of inequality we face in today’s world and then I want to explore how systems and cheating work, and then have a discussion about the morality of greed.

I will start with sharing with you how I define greed, which I don’t think varies too much from anyone else’s definition, and that is the hoarding of resources.  I am however going to focus on money which is most ubiquitous resource out there.  Of course it is true to say that money isn’t truly a resource in itself, because as Douglas Adams says, “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them…”  However, it is a fiction that we’ve all agreed to believe in to give value to, and with money we can acquire the resources we need to live.  Now some of you will say that resources aren’t the most important thing in life, but I think we can agree that if you don’t have any food, having a meaningful job doesn’t do you much good.

Image result for hunter-gatherer shareAs someone who is very into evolutionary psychology, as I do with many things I like to start with our natural habitat, which is a group of a few hundred or so hunter-gatherers.  This is our beginning as humans and is very much how our brains are wired in terms of survival.  Power structures certainly exist, but the disparity is small.  People don’t really have property.  Everything in the tribe belongs to the tribe.  Some people are better at some things than others.  Some people maybe do more physically demanding activities and work harder, some may have less physically strenuous jobs.  Everyone knows each other, grows up with each other. If there is not enough food, the entire tribe is deprived.  If there is an abundance of food everybody prospers.  This is far from where we are now.

Let’s just take a look at some basic facts about the disparity here in the U.S.  The top 1% of earners in the U.S. according to data from 2015 is $1.4 million per year.  The average income for the bottom 90% is 34K.  The ratio between those two populations in income is 30:1.  Think about that for a second.  Imagine a tribe in which there were a 1000 people and 900 of those people had 1 piece of fruit for the day, while 10 of those people had 30 pieces of fruit per day.  There are about 90 other people averaging somewhere between 10 and 15 pieces of fruit.  Would such a system be stable for long?  Of course it would not.

First you may say, well you’ve just arbitrary given each person one piece of fruit, but what really matters is do all the people have enough to survive?  If so, then the disparity doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m going talk more about this later in future posts about why the bare minimum isn’t sufficient, but for now let’s say though that I changed it so that everybody had enough fruit to live each day.  So let’s give everybody their minimum calories for the day at 10 pieces of fruit.  Keeping the same ratio, the top 10 people in the tribe therefore have 300 pieces of fruit, most just rotting away and going unused.  Those people are still experiencing a lot of stress, because what happens when there is a low rainfall year and the amount of fruit goes down but the ratio stays the same?  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, can you honestly see those 10 people still withholding fruit from others?  Of course not.  Why?  Because everybody knows each other.  They grew up together, they care for each other and they would not let each other starve.  They would not blame those with little fruit for not working hard enough to gather fruit.  And if someone wasn’t pulling their weight they would talk to them and find out why they aren’t helping as they could and support them to do better.  Most people would not slack in their duties for the same reason that someone would not horde that much resources from other members of their tribe.  This is who we are.  We have empathy, we share, we help each other.

Image result for greed
Such a world is not the one we are living in however.  This disparity of course gets much worse if focus our attention on the extremes.  There are 300,000 people in the U.S. alone who average $6.7 million per year, and there are 1.56 million homeless people.  Just as a little math exercise, if you wanted to argue that each homeless person could live modestly and feed themselves for about 30 K a year.  If we took that money from the total wealth of the top 1%, they would still earn an average of 6.5 million a year.  I know, sounds like they’d be roughing it.  Now of course there are lots of reasons why homelessness happens, but my point again here is to look at the disparity, to look at the level of injustice that such greed allows.

Turning our gaze worldwide, in 2012 it was determined that the ultra-rich have 21 trillion dollars just sitting in off-shore accounts.  This Atlantic article also says it could be much higher at 32 trillion.  And since this was 6 years ago, it is certainly much higher.  This is money that these ultra-rich don’t even need for their day to day life.   Just to put that number in perspective, based on current rice consumption in China, this would continue feeding China rice for 329 years.  A population less than the size of China, 816 million, do not have enough food on a daily basis to live a healthy and active life.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that it would take US $3.2 billion a year to feed the 66 million hungry school aged children in the world.  This about 0.01 % of  the 21 trillion that sits in off-shore accounts.

So this is where we are at.  Now I am not saying that solving world hunger is as easy as just redistributing wealth, but I am saying that it’s a problem that we have several orders of magnitude times the resources to solve.  Next I’m going to look at how cheating occurs in systems, and how dehumanizing the poor, helps maintain the level of inequality and greed we see in the world.

Further Reading

Interesting article about sharing and cooperation in hunter-gatherer tribes.

And another

Psychology of greed

Don’t Bring Me Down

There have been numerous articles now posted in local papers about the upcoming possibility of a state system of higher education strike in Pennsylvania.  And with that comes comments.  It has been unsettling to see the amount of ire towards educators.  I know there are a lot of conservative people in PA.  In a way PA is probably a good microcosm for the general breakdown of the country in Republican vs. Democrat.  There is a thread in attitude by the critics of the strike and I just wanted to briefly talk about it.  I don’t know what to do about it, but it does make me sad.

  1. There is of course general ignorance towards the problem.  Nobody really understands what educators go through on a daily basis, but apparently we can all easily be replaced with more qualified people at a lower cost.  For most people it’s all about the bottom line.   Dollars and cents.  Critics don’t think of whether or not changes to our contract might not cause the quality of education to suffer, we are simply greedy people who want more money and don’t care about our students.
  2. There is an overwhelming sense in these hard times that if other people are suffering we should suffer too.  One person commented “Let them not work for a year and see them struggle to pay their bills just like us.”  When did we become a country who simply wanted to tear each other down.  Shouldn’t we be trying to raise people up?  I want other people to have good health care…if mine became bad I wouldn’t be asking for others to have their health care reversed.  As we tear each other down, it seems like the only people going up are the very wealth in our society.  I saw a meme recently that was based on a Harvard Business study on perception vs reality.  Most people think CEOs make 30 times what the average American worker makes, when in fact it’s 350 times more.  Here is a video that illustration financial perception vs. reality.  It seems to me that the wealthy have done an excellent job at pitting us against each other.  In the south poor white people blame poor black people or poor Latinos for their problems.  Average workers are pitted against educators.  Teacher salaries are actually quite low compared to other countries and yet we are painted as people who are draining the system.  Poor people are pitting against law enforcement.  Yet law enforcement doesn’t pay very well, and pensions are being cut.  Law enforcement is an important job that requires intelligent and highly skilled people.  Somewhere in lost in the sea of finger pointing are wealthy people laughing at us all and distracting us from who is really
    taking away all of our money.
  3. Anti-union sentiments are strong.  I never really thought much about unions and their value.  I know unions can become corrupt.  Anything can become corrupt. Churches, government, business.  But overall I’ve noticed that when there are no unions, workers are taken advantage of more strongly.  This country has a history of workers not being treated fairly and humanely.  Unions have helped us rise out of that situation.  They have brought us child labor laws and helped workers make living wages.  And while there are plenty of examples where workers are treated well without a union, by and large this isn’t always the case.  Some companies have no need to form unions, others I think it is very important.  Our union is unique because our contract also contains important elements to educational quality.  Investing in education pays off, but when we treat it like a business and we don’t invest in that business, the quality suffers.

Education itself may need reform, but the answer isn’t to reduce quality.  Let’s look at what research demonstrates as effective pedagogy and make that happen in our schools.  Let’s make education truly affordable again.  Let’s not bring each other down, and focus on the true cause of our suffering.  People on welfare aren’t my enemy.  People who have lost their jobs, their benefits, who have had to take pay cuts aren’t my enemy.  I would support you every step of the way for you to improve your quality of life, and be treated fairly by your employer.  I’m not your enemy either.  I’m in the middle income tier in PA, as are many other professors.  Your teachers on average are in an even worse place financially.  The middle class continues to get thinner and it’s not good for our country.  There should be common ground between democrats and republicans to work together to build the middle class.  Weakening education and tearing middle class people down, doesn’t seem to be the answer.

The War on the Poor

We have a lot of people living in poverty in this country and through various conversations on Facebook and on blogs you see a lot of arguments against providing a social safety net, raising the minimum wage, and helping them in general that I thought I would compile a list of my least favorite and most fallacious arguments I hear.

  1. I know some people that actually think the government owes them, doesn’t look for a job, and these people are just lazy freeloaders.  Throwing money at them just supports a dependency culture.

Some variant of this argument is often used so let’s dissect it.  Whenever you hear someone say “I know some people…” or “I know this person who…” this argument can already be dismissed based on being anecdotal and not necessarily a representation of how things are.  We all have our own experiences that shape our views, nobody is saying your own experience didn’t happen, only that you may not be understand your experience properly in the context of the bigger picture.  There is no question that some people cheat the system.  But this happens across the board at every level of society, and I would argue that the rich cheat the system by a far higher percentage rate than the poor, the only difference is that the rich can change the laws so what they are doing is legal.  They can afford better lawyers.  More importantly is that we do tend to focus on the negative, and this is what we tend to see.  There are so many poor in our country that even if 2% of the 50 million living in poverty in the U.S. were cheating the welfare system that still 1 million people and FOX news could run 100 stories a day focusing on a different cheater of the system and still not be done in a year, but that doesn’t really give you the reality of the situation.  What if there are a lot of people on welfare who are trying to get a job, or who actually work a job but it doesn’t pay well enough to make ends meet?  What if most people are actually embarrassed that they are on welfare and are trying to get out of it and don’t get very vocal about it.  Do the rest of our time really take the time to talk to all the poor and find out which ones are on welfare and are honestly trying to get out of their situation?  Nope.  And especially if the freeloaders anger us, not surprisingly we are going to take You-Pay-Taxes-So-the-Rich-Dont-Have-tospecial notes on those people and they are going to stick in our memory and support our views about wasted taxpayer money.  I have also yet to find anybody post some actual data on how many of these welfare freeloaders are.  They are always anecdotal.

I would agree that throwing money at the poor is not always the solution that we also need to do better to help people out of it so that they can support themselves, but the conversation always seems to be welfare, or not welfare.  There is a 3rd option and that is to improve welfare.  To say it doesn’t have value is an insult to many people who have depended on it when times were lean.  Not all people on welfare are on welfare for the rest of their lives.

And concerning the subject of wasting taxpayer money if we want to play the “I’m not supporting things I don’t like game” with my taxes, then I would also not like any of my taxpayers to go to foreign wars that I disagree with.  You pull your money out of the freeloader driven welfare system, and I will pull my money out of military spending, and I guarantee I will be much richer at the end of the day.

  1. I have never had to work a minimum wage job in my life. If you can’t live on minimum wage, go find a better job.  Ask for a raise.

Once again we have a point that rests on anecdotal experience.  I find these statements also come from white people.  I’m not saying their racist, but perhaps the people who hired you are, and preferential chose you.  That’s a light argument though, so let’s get a little deeper.

Let’s just look at it by the numbers.  In a capitalist society I think conservative and liberal alike we can say that businesses want to make money.  They will definitely maximize their profits by selling some product for the highest possible price that gives them a large base of customers, and they will try to cut costs on expenses.  People that work for them are part of those expenses.  So we would expect that just like there are always a very small amount of really rich people in the country, there are also going to be a lot of low paying jobs and then less and less jobs that are higher paying.  The more special skills you have, and this could simply being really strong and doing hard manual labor, trade skills, or this could be, being highly educated, you are of course are going to garner a higher wage.  The types of jobs available to the high school graduate are small.  You have a job at $7.25/hr and you want a better one, and of course a lot of people do.  You have to compete, and if that higher paying one doesn’t require a specific skill set then you have even more competition, quite simply not everyone can get it.  So just to say “Find another job” isn’t realistic.  Finally, how easy is it to find that new job when you are working 5 days a week and actually can’t search for jobs which are quite often only open during the times that you work?  How do you take time off from your job, unpaid, to go look for jobs?  How do you think your boss will react when you need to take an afternoon off to go to a job interview?  And if they don’t get the job, they’ve lost money just by taking those hours off.  Money they desperately need.

The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina
The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina

More importantly many poor people have other issues to deal with than just finding that better job.  What if that job is another city?  Can they afford to move if they already have no money?  What if by moving they lose the support of family who can help reduce their costs by taking care of their kid(s) while at work?  Even a job in another part of the city may involve a long commute on public transportation which increases the time that they have to leave kids at daycare or a babysitter that increasing their expenses.  Finally, should we really expect other people to move away from friends and family for a better job, a decision many of us are not willing to make either?  Why is it so unreasonable for them to expect the minimum wage to be increased and keep pace with inflation, since it has not?

Well wanting the minimum wage raised, is actually asking for a raise.  Going back to the start of this argument, in a capitalist society why would a company raise the wage of a minimum wage worker if they didn’t have to, if they job had such a low skill they could just replace them with the next applicant?  What if by asking for a raise, the boss actually decided to terminate them or give them worse hours?  When you are barely surviving rocking the boat isn’t always the safest play either.

And raising the minimum wage will help greatly with reducing suffering.  While it’s probably best to raise the minimum wage incrementally, in general the idea that prices on everything would double is wholly untrue, since wages are only a portion of expenses for a business.  While $15/hour might be excessive, no study finds that when the minimum wage is raised to keep pace with inflation that this harms the economy. This article by the Department of Labor does a great job of discussing it and remember that when people actually have money to spend, this is good in a consumer driven economy.  All those people in poverty aren’t buying as much stuff as you think.

  1. People on welfare are buying steak, have smart phones, getting manicures, smoking, buying drugs, etc.

Nothing cheers me up more than a person of privilege who has been fortunate to have the luxuries of this world, whether through marrying someone with a great job, or being born into a middle-class or higher family, complaining about other people wanting those things too.

Let’s ignore the fact that people need a phone, and that smart phones are practically free, and that maybe spending more money on quality nutritious food is maybe a better idea than crappy food which is cheaper and leads to all sorts of health problems.  But let’s look at the psychology of poverty .  When you live paycheck to paycheck barely making ends meet, and have grown up in poverty, your ability to long term plan fades, and yes you tend to not save money depriving yourself of creature comforts, because your life is one in which appears to have no long terms solutions.  So why live for tomorrow, when you can live for today?

Income-InequalityIn my training for my volunteer work we had to try and make a budget based on what a family makes on two minimum wage jobs and it is a daunting task.  And of course there are many families that do try to save, but saving is hard to do when you’re poor.  If you don’t have access to public transport, you have to depend on  car.  And people live in poverty have to buy old cars that nobody else really wants, but they can get a good deal on them.  However, such cars need repairs frequently, and repairs cost.  Now you could say why don’t they get a better car that is more reliable.  Quite simply it costs more and they wouldn’t qualify for the loan.  This leads to, what I call, the “stay-in-poverty-feedback loop”.  What little money poor people often save goes to these types of expenses because they literal can’t afford better quality stuff.  Car repairs are just one example, but people in poverty often have to get home repairs more often, replace things like water heaters, furnaces, or air-conditioners more often, because poorer housing means people are getting used, cheaper, and/or older stuff in their home.  So even if they are able to put away a little money each month it often gets eaten in one fell swoop by these unexpected repairs.  And there are plenty of other big costs, like health care, which they often put off, even if they have insurance to save money on co-pays, but then this compound into a worse cost later, but remember how poverty doesn’t lend itself to long-term planning.  And if you have kids, there are even more emergencies that can come up.

On the topic of buying drugs, well I don’t see a lot of people asking that all employees receiving public money take such drug tests, only poor people.  Some how if poor people are doing drugs, that is more egregious than any other income bracket.  As it turns out though, the amount of drug abuse among those on welfare is staggering low. So low that the cost of testing everybody costs more taxpayer money than letting that small percentage of people have their drugs.  Not to mention that just cutting off their life support doesn’t actually work as a deterrent to doing drugs, just makes them resort to more desperate measures to obtain drugs likely causes more problems.  And throwing these horrible drug users in jail, just gives them a criminal record, making it harder for them to get a good job and get out of poverty.

 4. Why are they having babies if they can’t afford to raise them?

Well there are all sorts of reasons that people have children, and if we ignore the fact that there are many areas of the country that don’t have adequate sex education, women don’t have easy access to birth control, or that a woman might simply get pregnant because a man lied to her, or the birth control failed.  But let’s say that there are these terrible women out there who are having children as some sort of scam to get more free money.  I am sure such women exist.  Nevermind the fact that such women were likely raised by a similar mother, probably has little education and special skills and is certainly not mentally well to be making that decision, should we cut her off from that money?  Is this the way she will become a wonderful mother? Or will she literally be unable to cope, unable to keep up with all her new responsibilities?  More importantly it’s of little good to question whether she should have had children, she does have children.  These children are innocent, they’ve done nothing wrong, and so cutting off the mother also harms the children.  Where is the humanity in this?  If you’re pro-life then this must also be part of your consideration if you care about children.

  5.  Poor people need to be more personally responsible.

I’ve blogged about personal responsibility before, I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said there, but I think we can agree that one’s responsibility for themselves depends on the environment in which they were raised, such as level of education, family, friends, culture, etc.  And as I also stated in that post, when we look around we don’t see a lot of people being personally responsible.  Politicians rarely are.  Rich kids like Ethan Couch certainly don’t show a lot of personal responsibility and so even if you believe that personal responsibility comes down to the absolute free will to choose to be that way, it’s clear that a lack of personal responsibility is not a trait that only applies to the poor.  Should we say that rich people are allowed to lack personal responsibility, but poor people or not?  More importantly why aren’t we asking the question of personal responsibility to those that are extremely wealthy?  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than you can spend in your lifetime.  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than is required to meet your basic needs have plenty of luxuries and send your kids off to the best of colleges?  Is it personally responsible for corporations to ship jobs overseas just to make more money, while their fellow citizens now struggle to make ends meet?  Is it personally responsible to make that 5 billion in a year than the 2 billion you might make if you paid your employees a fair wage?  Is it personally responsible to not pay your fair share in taxes by hiding your wealth in off-shore accounts and other tax shelters?  For those who hold personal responsibility as the most important of virtues, can we not apply this attitude consistently across all economic classes?  Why are only the poor held to these standards of personal responsibility?

———————-

I know this is already a little TLDR, so I’ll be brief here.  In a line from the movie the Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey’s character says “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is that he convinced the world he doesn’t exist.”  Well maybe there is an even greater trick.  Is it possible that those who are driven by greed in the acquisition of wealth and power have instead convinced you that the poor are the demons in our society?  That even though a majority of them work longer hours, take less vacation, receive poorer education, less nutritional options, worse health care, and less social mobility, somehow a good proportion of the wealthy have led you to believe they are the bane of your quality of life?  And so effective is this message that many of the poor are complicit in that oppression and vote into office the same people who have demonized them in society.  If trends continue as they do, with the exception of a small percentage of the population we all sink together so let’s stop making the poor our enemy.

Striving for a better world where you can keep your guns

An article I read recently has helped me admit the truth in regards to gun control.  There is truly no tragedy bad enough for us to reform our gun laws.  So be it.  It is a tiresome debate to be sure, and so I wanted to approach it from a different perspective.   In fact accepting the fact that people want their guns in this country has helped me ask questions that I might never have asked.  So let’s begin.

Let us accept as fact that guns are the best way to ensure safety in the U.S. today, which is full of criminals and people who want to hurt you.  Or in other words there are bad guys with guns; you need to be a good guy with a gun.  I don’t deny that there are far more good guys with guns than bad.   Okay, so you need this gun, whether it is to protect the people you love at home, or you might have to stop a bad guy with a gun in a public place.  I hope that it is not too much of an assumption to say that neither side of the gun control debate wants to have crazy people invading their homes or pointing guns in public places wanting to cause harm to others.  If you feel you need a gun in the world we live in now, that’s fine, but wouldn’t you like the world to get better?  Wouldn’t it be nice to be in a world where you didn’t need that gun?  Because let’s face it, a crazy person with a gun wanting to harm people is a stressful situation.  Somebody is likely to get hurt anyway before that person can be stopped, and the fright of a crazy person with a gun breaking into your home and being shot in your living room is an ugly sight to all who live there and can be traumatic, even if you were to just scare the intruder away with your gun.   So would it be safe to say that all would like to live in a safer world in which a gun wasn’t necessary?  It seems reasonable.  Again nobody physically wants to take your gun away.  I personally have no problems with guns staying in boxes in the corner of your basement, collecting dust because there is never an occasion to use it.  Even soldiers at war look forward to a time when they can lay down their weapons and not have to use them again.

Let us also accept the fact that there will always be criminals.  This is probably true also.  But is it true that crime levels are the same everywhere?  Of course it isn’t.  There are places with less crime, less homicides, and in some cases a stunningly low amount of guns. Now if we removed the U.S., which is a statistical outlier in terms of gun ownership, we might find that some of the countries with higher gun ownership (still less than half of the U.S. average gun ownership) have low crime.  If such societies exist then it seems that we would want to learn about what that society has done to lower crime, especially violent crime, so much.   Perhaps it is non-restrictive gun laws, but if gun ownership is 20-30 per 100 people, there are still a large number of people unarmed who could be taken advantage of by a bad guy with a gun, so the answer to their lower crime can’t be entirely gun ownership.   And this is aligned with what gun rights activists say, which is that gun control is not a means to make society safe.  So given that there are other countries that are safer, shouldn’t we be trying to achieve this type of society and trying to understand why they are safe?

What we’d probably find is that such societies have low economic inequality, good health care, emphasize education and have a high degree of education equality in all of its schools and universities.  Non-

From whenchemistsattack.com
From http://www.dailyyonder.com

restrictive gun ownership laws are likely to be only a partial answer to the solution.  The NRA lobbies to make sure gun ownership laws remain unrestricted.  They see it as sensible to make sure society is safe.  That being said, why isn’t the NRA also one of the biggest lobbies for quality education? Why are they not helping schools in low income areas getting better equipment and teachers to help people in those communities raise themselves out of their poverty?  Why aren’t they pushing for more funding to universities to lower tuition and public debt?  Why aren’t they using their vast wealth from supporters to create research grants for more research into mental illness?  Why aren’t they pushing for educational programs in schools that might help people recognize the signs early of mentally and emotionally unwell children, who when these problems go unaddressed, grow up into teens or adults who have the potential for violent behavior?  Why aren’t they pushing for better education about drug use and alcohol while decriminalizing, at the very least, marijuana which gives so much of the population a criminal record impacting their chance for future economic stability?  Don’t we want to live in a country where guns are not necessary?   Do we want our Generals in the military to be busy, or would we rather live in times of peace?

What seems strange to me is that it is mostly us naïve liberals who are constantly pushing for more money to education, health care, decriminalization of drugs (particularly marijuana), increased money to social services which help at risk youth, etc.  So I would like to formally say that I am willing to never speak of gun control again, if those who most vehemently support the 2nd amendment also take up the cause to live in a safer society.  You can still have your guns for when the government turns on you to attack you.  But just because society is unsafe, doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something better.  And there is better out there so let’s fight for that, instead of fighting over gun control.  Sound fair?

 

 

 

Crime and Punishment

On Dec. 17th, Ethan Couch, age 16, was sentenced to 10 years of rehabilitation after admitted to driving drunk and killing four people.  The reason for his light sentence according to the judge was that the defense successfully proved that he suffered from affluenza.

If you clicked on the Wikipedia link I provided for this condition (a condition which doesn’t even pass my spell check), I think that one could conclude that if someone was suffering from this condition, this could certainly impact their decision process greatly and make them likely to be reckless and careless.

Now I am a strong supporter of psychological treatment and the impacts our parents have on our development and decision-making processes.  We over-incarcerate far too much in this country and I am especially for providing our young with psychological treatment over incarceration because study after study shows how the earlier we recognize a behavior (whether due to a traumatic event or crappy parents) we can correct that behavior.

Ethan is a rich, white kid.  Worst-case scenario his parents are selfish assholes who spent little time with him, who enjoyed the privilege that money has given them.  They probably flouted laws themselves knowing that as an upstanding member of the community they probably wouldn’t get too many speeding tickets if pulled over, and even if they did they could pay any fine.  Remembering, I’m sure, to mention to the cop that they might have a talk with some politician of theirs who is a friend and talk about possibly reducing the budget of the police force after a generous donation to that politician’s re-election campaign. When you have ridiculous sums of cash, the law is always on your side.  After 16 years of seeing such behavior and without your parents giving you the time a day, I would say that your sense of right and wrong would be screwed up.  Your attachment to reality would also be screwed up, because you literally don’t understand how most of the world lives when the only other people you know are also filthy rich.  So I support the idea that it is at least possible that bad, extremely rich parents can screw up their kid so badly that he would do something so terrible.  I mean there was no intent to kill here, but this is always the danger of drinking and driving, and punishments are often quite harsh for most people.  Now most people are outraged by the judge’s verdict of affluenza, and for good reason.  I am among one of those outraged, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

The case raises numerous philosophical questions for me.  At what age do we become blameless for the mistakes of our parents?  Should parents ever be made responsible for crimes their children commit?  How long does the psychological impacts of things that happen in our childhood last? How long can we use them as an excuse for poor decisions that we make?  A child that is raised to hate African-Americans will probably hate African-Americans, but will he ever commit a hate crime? Who knows, but if he did, would it be an acceptable excuse to use the fact that your parents taught you to hate as a defense?  If the kid committed the crime at 13, is that adult enough?  Would we still all be as outraged at the verdict?  What about traumatic events like sexual abuse or physical abuse?  These things have definitely been shown to do psychological damage for possibly the rest of one’s life.  It seems reasonable that if you reinforced from childhood that a certain behavior is acceptable, you will likely feel that way as an adult.  The condition of affluenza, however, is perhaps not as legitimate as one thinks, at least according to one of the co-producers of the 1997 PBS documentary on the subject.   As John de Graaf points out, that in a capitalistic, consumer based society such as ours, we may all suffer from this to a certain degree.  Furthermore he says it is not a psychological condition, but rather a societal criticism.  Affluenza is not a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association.

But let’s say that even if we accept that bad parenting seriously messed up this kid, a whole host of other questions come to mind.  How often can we use psychological conditions as a defense?  Are such rulings equally applied to all such cases?  If there is a psychological condition that can be contracted by rich kids, what psychological condition does poverty cause and can these not be made for their defense when they commit crimes?

The same judge gave a 14 year old African-American a much harsher sentence for a much lesser crime the previous year.  One only has to look at the amount of minorities and poor people in the prison system, who commited crimes that did not lead to anyone’s death, to be convinced that such defenses as affluenza or any other defense based on psychological damage in their upbringing has not been successful.  The impacts of poverty on children, in fact, is a far greater reason actually for “deviant” behavior as young adults and is actually well researched within the psychological community.  Ultimately this is why I am so enraged.  There is probably no greater slap in the face the legal system could give to the poor than this verdict.   A compassionate sentence is either deserved by all or by none.  Whether you think incarceration helps society or not, there cannot be any true justice when it does not apply equally to all citizens.    If prison isn’t the answer for Ethan Couch then at the very least he should be made to volunteer and live in an inner city neighborhood.  If society truly believed in his correction then he won’t receive the education he sorely needs which is compassion and understanding for how the rest of society lives, especially since he hasn’t been punished in a way that the rest of society is punished for similar crimes.  His parents are paying $450,000/year to go to this swanky facility in California.  I shudder to think how many lives could be made better with that money instead of teaching one kid a lesson that would perhaps be better taught in other ways.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about Ethan Couch than any other youth who has been sent to a juvenile detention center or jail.  As income disparity mounts every branch of our government still continues to help the smallest minority ; the rich.  How long can we live in this illusion that we are the best country when we incarcerate more people than those places we consider our enemy and backwards in thinking?  How long can we live in the illusion of trickledown economics?  How long can we live in the illusion of the American Dream that all you have to do is work hard and that dream will come true?  This case is as much about racism and inequality as the George Zimmerman case and it is even more of a reason to be outraged at where our country is headed.  Don’t confuse the meanings of money and value.  Nobody is better person just because they have money and it’s time the government and the justice system stopped acting like this was true.