I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed. They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood. This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different. In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.
Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated. As an example let’s look at lying. When is lying effective? Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth. Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke. Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth? The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems. Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system. Within any system are cheaters. Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters. That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.
So with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor. Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other. There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money. But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this? Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs. Percentages are extremely low there. Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem. There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare. Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by. Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible. Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future. There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs. Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.
Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top? Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating? What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified. If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system. We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing. And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all. And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.
The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time. Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia. Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners. Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves. This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race. Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected. This tactic of division continues today. Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them. People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.
As a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump. It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare. The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute. Two wealthy white older males. Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem. Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other. And poor people buy into it. “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”. But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay? Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here. And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives. Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes. And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about. Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”. Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive? As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.
The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich. I mean we still have homelessness in this country. And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality. I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money. This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with. Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem? What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced? Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford. The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket. The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions. When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact your standard of living in any noticeable way. So I do think there is something real about affluenza. What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty. Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future. It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”
Where do such ideas come from? How do such divides enter into society? How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people? As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.
I found this site interesting. There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%. We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less. Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax. Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing. This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month. And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error. Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment. This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in. In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time. If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford. In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.
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.
As 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.
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.
For many people that I know and that I see around this country, the idea that a person like Donald Trump could be this close to the presidency is simply baffling. A place we find it hard to empathize. I am a person who always tries to remain optimistic. The more pessimistic about things, the more I try to find that silver lining, that thread of understanding, and try to open the door to a more enlightened and positive mindset. It is very difficult to do this about Trump and those who support him. However in that journey I came across a couple of media pieces that have help. One is this video piece done by The Guardian in the UK. It is very well done and closely examines McDowell county in West Virginia and speaks to the desperation that many people are facing and why they would hang their hopes on someone like Trump.
The main thing that I want to discuss is this article from Cracked.Com. Every once and awhile I’ll across a thought provoking article from this satirical site and this is one of them. There are many points that I agree with, and few points that are hard to swallow, and I had to remind myself that I did have to open my heart a little bit more than I had. There are also some important points that I disagree with, or rather omitted points that I think provide for a more fair approach to the subject.
The main thrust of the piece is that when you look at a map of blue vs. red, the state map that we often look at during elections gives us a false idea for how that break down happen. The map in the article clearly shows that blue vs red is really urban vs. rural. The fact that blue has been taking precedence nationally I think is fairly indicative of that demographic shift to an urban dominated country. My state of Pennsylvania is a good example of how the urban centers of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia dominate the voting population even though most counties tend to be very conservative. There are very many counties like the one investigated in WV in The Guardian video, and poverty and drug use is high. As the Cracked article points out, rural America is a forgotten group of people and grows smaller and thus is paid less attention to over time. Our country was once much more agrarian, many rural counties had factories or mines and all these things allowed small town and rural America to thrive. This however is not the world we live in anymore. As the article points out, even for the most part pop culture has left rural societies out of the conversation. We forget where food comes from. We are concerned about the mistreatment of urban minorities, but show little concern for the extreme poverty that many who live in rural areas or small towns live in. The deterioration of their livelihood with no plan put into place for how to give these people a chance to better their situation.
Republican politicians often talk about two Americas, and in some way they are right. They often talk about the good hard working folks in “any town” USA, and they are right. How many times do democratic politicians even really actively campaigned in rural areas and made their concerns part of their platform? I will concede that to many liberals, the needs and lives of rural America are forgotten or ignored. I included. We may find their attitudes deplorable, but let us also, at the very least consider how deplorable their lives have become over the past 40 years as jobs have moved overseas and that most of our food is produced by big companies and industrial farming. And here comes Trump, who addresses the “common man” who says he’s going to bring coal jobs back (even though they aren’t coming back), who says he’s going to lower everybody’s taxes, who says that he’s going to bring companies from overseas back (he’s not), and make America great again.
My criticism with the article I linked is that (and maybe this is a problem with the media) we aren’t getting people who come to the fore, supporting Trump, and really making nuanced arguments about the difficulties in rural America. What we have is a slick NYC businessman as far from rural as you can get being supported by people who rail against immigrants (even though they themselves were immigrants), who want religious law to influence government law (no abortion, end marriage equality), who shout patriotism without substance, who want to build gigantic walls that would only further their economic challenges, and who literally find their candidate’s offensive views on women to literally be no problem at all.
I think the article makes some great points and I think that in the end if we are going to survive as a nation than “WE the people” has to mean something. We all have to do a better job at reaching across the aisle. And this is one of my posts that is much as a call to action to me as anyone else. I struggle sometimes when I see someone come on TV speaking hate and intolerance, but I don’t want to become a person who writes that person off as a loss cause. So if there is this other America that is disenfranchised and needs are help than I am happy to do so, but that doesn’t mean I am going to turn my back on women, on racial minorities, religious minorities, on LGBQT people to do so. Both sides have to want to heal the divide and that means that we have to start seeing everybody as important whether it is racial vs urban, all races, creeds, sexual orientation. There are a lot of problems that we all have in common. Let’s start there, and I think you’ll find that if we worked out those things first, a lot of the other things wouldn’t matter so much.
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.
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 special 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.
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.
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.
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?
In 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.
I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to
listen to the physicians point of view. She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations. This is a very valid question. If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.
However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc. I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society. One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so. I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents. Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias. This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question. Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of. As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism. In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another? I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think. Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:
False authority figures.Who are the people we value in our society?
Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues. This is simply not the case.
The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority. If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it. That is false of course. Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
Devaluing intellectualism. In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large. Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?
The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress. We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.
I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately. I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing. His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future. To me that
is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.
One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series. In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people. The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware. In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human. Robots do everything. Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need. It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding. And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.
Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more. While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact. Not overly different from today’s city life really.
Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted. We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival. Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance. As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people. The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained. It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.
In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street. Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well. I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past. I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it. As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet. I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship. Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face. Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?
And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways. I can still conduct
my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me. You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door. Banking and paying bills can be done on-line. As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher. And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary. Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others. The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be. Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.
For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species. Is it simply not part of our
mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities? Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man? Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it? What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others. In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way. Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way? Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.
If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more. But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace? Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen? I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder. It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.
For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance. I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂
Topics are building up in my head faster than I have time to write them, and so despite the fact that I swore I was going to write about numerous other topics, particularly in the area of psychology a Facebook conversation has led me down a different path.
The conversation was about a McDonalds worker who wanted her $8/hr salary to go up to
the living wage of $15/hr. Which is still not a terribly high wage. The conversation that ensued went as you’d expect. Most people (who are in good jobs and living comfortably) saying that working at McDonalds requires no skill and thus should be paid accordingly. Or criticizing the person for not doing more with their life and thus have no one but themselves to blame. One person did make the argument that no wage has kept pace with inflation, which is true, but minimum wage has gone up at an even slower rate.
I made numerous arguments in response, most importantly challenging the assumption that the person had all these choices in their life. Most of the people reading this blog live in a position of privilege. And it’s not your fault. Your parents probably pushed you, help educate you, made you aware of different options for your life, encouraged you to do well in school. You probably grew up in relatively safe neighborhoods. You had friends that were similar to you. You had good schools to go to, with a lot of skilled teachers. But not all neighborhoods are safe. Not all parents care enough to encourage your education.
Not all schools are equal in the quality of education they provide. Some environments make it easier to fall into a bad crowd. Not everyone has the freedom to go for further training after they get out of high school. Maybe they have to work to take care of a sick parent who has massive bills because they couldn’t afford health insurance. There are a million scenarios that could limit the opportunities one has.
I also made the argument that I did not choose my career path as a meteorology professor because of the money. It is because I loved it. I am glad it pays well enough for me to live comfortably. But should all of a sudden a McDonalds job become available that pays more. I am not going to jump ship and say, “Yay more money, flipping burgers all day is going to be awesome!”.
An argument was made by someone that garbage men get paid a good wage so they
could do that instead of working at McDonalds. Okay true. But we can’t all be sanitation workers let alone teachers, lawyers and doctors. It’s also important to remember that at one time sanitation workers didn’t get paid very much. Thanks to unions though they could organize, strike, and refuse to pick up garbage until they made a decent wage to live by. Because picking up the trash and removing waste from our streets is actually an important and necessary part of our society.
I think education and teachers are extremely important. But do I think that makes a job that doesn’t require as much knowledge and skill less important? Of course not. There is nothing inherently more valuable about my role in society than someone who picks up the garbage. In fact someone could argue that picking up the trash is perhaps more important. When trash was in the streets, things like the bubonic plague happened. Hygiene and sanitation are extremely important. So let’s go a step further. Is there anything more inherently valuable about my job than a restaurant worker? Arguably we can have a world without restaurants and everybody cooks their own food. Might not be a bad world, but that’s not ultimately our world. People like to go out to eat. There will always be restaurants. So restaurants are just as much part of the fabric of society as anything else. So should the required skill level in any job be what determines the wage. The sanitation worker, from a skill level is just as demanding as a burger flipper and yet makes more. Is that right? I would further argue that an employee earning a living wage at any job has more loyalty to the company and stays longer thus becoming better at their job. If you’ve had bad service at a McDonalds, maybe it’s because they are constantly having to train new people since the pay is so bad that people leave after a short time. The money isn’t probably worth the level of abuse they get from customers.
Now there are even more good arguments to be made about a McDonalds worker making a living wage. They would need less social programs saving the taxpayer money, they can perhaps afford to move to send their kids to a better school to break the cycle of poverty, not to mention they may now have more free time to better themselves or spend with their kids, which also helps break the cycle. However what concerns me the most is the attitude towards the poor. One commenter on this thread said that “it serves them right making a low wage for their self-inflicted wounds”. I was like wow. As I’ve just argued it is extremely judgmental to assume the wounds are self-inflicted, but basically this person is saying:
“Hey poor person, sucks about the mistakes you made in the past. You deserve now to suffer the rest of your life because of that”.
How callous is that? I wonder if that person has ever had somebody so unforgiving to their mistakes. And how should the poor person respond?
” Thank a lot Captain Hindsight. Now that I realize my mistakes I’ll go back in time and fix it.”
Furthermore we can see how materialistic our society is by people who would look down on poor people in such a way. Because where is the condemnation to the rich owner of
McDonalds or any corporation? Why don’t we judge him just as harshly? Because he has money of course. And obviously he must be working really really hard in order to make all that money. This is of course nonsense. A single mother working two jobs to support her family is most definitely working harder than the CEO of McDonalds. And I doubt that mother is having fancy lunches on an expensive account and playing a round of golf out in the sun with business associates. But even if they were equal, why is that CEO more valuable than the person working at minimum wage jobs? The corporation itself made almost $30 billion last year in revenues. And the CEO’s take home pay is $9 million a year. Is that CEO that much more valuable than one of his employees? Is he/she that much more skilled?
And if workers should get a living wage, many argue about how much everything will cost. But there is a second option. The company could make less money. The CEO could make less money. Is that likely? Perhaps not, but in the free market there is always somebody who is going to take an advantage of an opportunity and will undercut the competition and take home only 2 million a year instead. That CEO is still living a better life than 99.99% of the people in this world. If we want to equate a monetary value to skill, a CEO still makes far beyond what his or her skill warrants.
The Great Pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the world, was built on the backs of slave labor to entomb the rich and powerful. When I look at the vast wealth of a few, at the expense of countless millions who can barely meet their daily nutritional needs for themselves and their families, I wonder how much things have really changed. What’s clear is that by dehumanizing the poor as many do in this country it allows a system to continue that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. So it saddens and sickens me when I hear people idolize wealth and abhor the poor. If the income gap continues to widen in this country I can tell you that statistically speaking one is more likely to find themselves in a poor man’s shoes. Perhaps only then will people learn.