Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

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.

Image result for war on poorSo 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.

Image result for bacon's rebellion
                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

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.

Image result for war on poorAs 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 Image result for psychology povertyyour 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.

Further Reading

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.

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My Two Pence Worth

This is probably the most opinionated thing I’ve ever said in public.  Not sure I should say it, but I guess everybody bubbles over a little.  I don’t know why the Trump/Pence football PR stunt seems like the last straw for me.  Maybe it’s just because they go from the still more respectable “clueless and not very nice” people, to two people who are legitimately and with forethought kicking their voters in their head.   It’s just despicable.  Forget about the wasting of taxpayer money for this stunt, but the very fact that they are intentionally trying to divide people as a form of theater…bad theater, is truly embarrassing.  It’s like they know the harder they kick their voters in the head the more their base holds on.  Because if they give up on him now they would have to admit that they’ve been kicked in the head all this time.  And the thing is it, I get it.  We’ve all had it happen before.  We’ve all got sucked in more than we should and the embarrassment is too much to bear.  But the embarrassment always gets you in the end anyway, and you always suffer more than you should by sticking with something that you thought understood well, but isn’t really what you thought it was. I know it sounds like I’m blaming those who voted for Trump, but I’m not.  Also, I might be just as stubborn had I been duped so badly.

It takes a corrupt system to begin with to get this Trump/Pence winning combination as leaders.  It’s been built over years from politicians from both sides of the aisle.  We all get that many of you who voted for Trump were reaching for somebody who you thought was an outsider, who could challenge the status quo.  What ended up winning was much different.  What ended up winning was the very set of values that corrupts those with power.  Trump didn’t come to end dysfunction, he IS dysfunction.  The only sense I can make out of any of it is that the rich white in America were bored and just wanted to see people fight.

But maybe my cynicism is wrong and in some grand design these soulless people will have us all joining the protesting NFL players and getting down on one knee, and a new golden age for this country will dawn.  My fear, however, is that if we keep accepting unintelligent and compassionless leadership, eventually somebody whose more competently ruthless will come along and the only knee we’ll get down on is one of servitude and the great American experiment will be over.  They want you to believe that freedom is bullying people into obedience.  This paradox has to become clear to everybody.  You can just as easily be a slave to the state as you can be a slave of it.  There are no real winners here.  I promise there will be no “I told you so’s”.  There is no joy in it knowing every minute this level of dysfunction remains in office we are one step closer to a lot more suffering and that’s just not a place worth going to if we can avoid it.

I hope we can avoid it.

Opposition and Divisiveness

This is going to be a little bit of a rant, so if it seems like I forgot to breathe at times, don’t worry I assure you I’m alright. 🙂

We’ve all heard the tone of those who voted for Trump, maybe they were third party voters, or didn’t vote at all “let’s give him a chance”, “let’s see how he does”, “I am going to support him since he’s my president”.  As nauseating as this can be, there is something worse to me that’s driving me up the wall.

“You’re being divisive”.

This is hard for me to understand.  Look, there is no question that we are a nation very much divided right now, and we need to, somehow, try to unite as a people.  There is no question about that.  During the past 8 years I heard people say all sorts of ridiculous things about Obama being a socialist, death panels, taking away everybody’s guns, and host of fabricated tales mean to discredit the president and his administration.  I tried presenting counter information without name calling.  I did not see their disagreement as divisive, just somebody who wasn’t informed or had a different point of view.  I never accused anybody of being divisive.

Now all of a sudden everybody on the right is concerned about how divided this nation is, and at that by opposing Trump’s terrible ideas we are being divisive.  When the right said they didn’t like the ACA, did anybody tell them to shut up they are being divisive?  That they aren’t helping?  To get behind the president?

I am a scientist.  I try to base my opinions based on something, and defend my point of view.  Sometimes my information isn’t the best and I own up to it.  But when my disagreement is being labeled as divisiveness, this is pure distortion and I will not take ownership of that label.  I’m not being derisive to people personally, but I will challenge ideas that I think are harmful.  And these people who label me as being divisive were never calling out people on their own side for the same behavior.  I mean if you know a large portion of the country is pro-choice…shouldn’t you tell your pro-life friend to stop posting videos of bloody fetuses on Facebook?  Never seen that happen once.  Never seen a Republican tell the birther’s they were being divisive.  I’ve never seen a Republican ever tell another Republican they are being divisive for posting something that the other side disagrees with.  But all of a sudden liberals are all divisive.  We are the ones causing division.

It’s not divisive to make abortion illegal, to normalize sexual assault, to call scientific consensus a hoax, to label illegal aliens as drug dealers and rapists, to build a giant wall, to freeze immigration on refugees if they are Muslim, to say gay people can’t marry the people they love, to say you are going to lock up your political opponent in jail….an entire campaign run entirely on divisiveness.

And because I not only resist those notions, but can defend those positions with evidence and statistics, that is deemed divisive.

Look, I am not saying their aren’t a great deal of liberals calling people names, or calling Trump names gets us nowhere and is arguably divisive.  But posting tips for activism, pointing out hypocrisy, presenting one’s viewpoint in a reasoned manner should not be seen as divisiveness.  One person, who dropped me off of Facebook, even told me that my divisiveness was of the kind that would lead to war.  And this was somebody who told me that she doesn’t vote for any party that doesn’t support banning abortion and told me Trump would restore morality to the country.

So I’m not sure what you want from me.  If it’s silence, that isn’t going to happen.  I am going to keep presenting what I think are informative and well-argued articles, and I am still going to reasonably explain why I think a certain action or ideology is wrong.  People act like I don’t spend a great deal of time trying to understand other points of view, I’ve reached across the aisle more than anybody has reached across to me to understand my point of view and I’ve actually adjusted a number of my positions on issues as a result of it.

So when somebody who denies the existence of climate change is put in charge of the EPA, or a white nationalist is put on the National Security Council, or a completely unqualified person is put in charge of the Department of Education and you are silent about it.  You are the one being divisive.  You are the one who voted for someone who used divisiveness as a tactic to win your support.  I am speaking out because you won’t, because I feel we will all lose at the hands of the people in charge of government.

And in the end, if you still think that’s being divisive, well then I can accept that, because I have no business being on the side of someone who, if they find my viewpoint disagreeable, can’t engage in civic discourse about it.  I still bear you no ill will, but I have a country to worry about and I really don’t have time for your hypocritical judgment.

Rant over.

Thoughts for today Jan. 20th, 2017

Many of my friends have had great things to say today. I have felt fairly empty lately.  Empty of creativity, or anything wise to say.  A lot of intellectual energy has been focused on keeping down a background of feeling of worry and dread for what’s to come in this country I have made my home.

Watching this video gave me pause for thought. They are old words, which have relevance today. But what it made me think of is that there is much in this universe that is bigger than I am. The events that led to Trump being elected, and the events that follow…may well beyond my control. There are maybe only a handful of causes that I can be active in, and I will fight and stand up for those who may fall under oppression and to those who people in power are denying them their humanity. I will always try to be more than I am, but I’ve realized that what I am today is also important.

I am a scientist.  The scientific method is simply the best tool we have for knowing, and well humans utilizing it may make mistakes, it is more reliable than anything I know.  I will continue to re-evaluate my views, and defend my views through the vehicle of science.  Introspection and advocating effecting methods for discovering our universe is a way out of the darkness.

I am an educator.  The reason I became one is because I love learning, and I love thinking about things.  I need to make sure to continue to pass that on through my job.  Curiosity and learning are wonderful and fundamental human qualities.  It is a way out of the darkness.

I am a husband.  I have this amazing wife who is strong, capable, and compassionate.  She doesn’t let herself be guided by convention or rules placed on her by society.  I am simply better because of her.  She reminds me that whether we are different by gender, or by race, we are better together.  Humans survive through cooperation.  It is a way out of the darkness.

I am a father.  As I watch my son grow, I know exactly what humanity is.  We are affectionate, we are kind, we play, we learn, and we love.  As a species we have propagated over countless generations.  Everybody is part of a family.  And we are all the same species, thus we all share so much and spend too much time focusing on the differences.  Children are the future, and if I falter as a father, I am also not doing what I can to make the world a better place.   The beauty and innocence of children is a way out of the darkness.

The history of humanity is long.  The Earth much longer.  I live in a small point in time and space, and even in the context of human history there is only so much I can do.  And most important is that I do it well.  Throughout history there has been great suffering, there has been great inequality and those places of suffering and joys have moved around to different parts of the globe and it’s still happening.  It could simply be our turn.  But there have always been good people in the worst of places, because most people are good.  It is their nature to be so.  If a social species evolved any other way, we simply would not be here today.

Alone I would not be the person I am today.  If I am proud of who I am, and if I am considered a good person, it is the people along the way that have made me so, and I am grateful to you all.  Stay vigilant and strong and I shall do the same.

Diminishing the Hate

The divisive ideological culture that we have in the U.S. appears to be getting worse with time.  It’s been growing on my mind, that more than anything else this might be the biggest problem we face in this country.  Because that “other side” isn’t going to magically disappear, and the very serious problems we face in this country are only going to be solved through coming together and bridging the gap that separates us.  I’ll admit that I am at a loss at how to effectively do this, but one thing has caught my eye, that I think might help.

One thing is that I think we have to stop posting things on social media that are just negative sound bites of what politicians or what celebrities say.  I think just the absolute large exposure of hateful and/or negative messages legitimizes the hate more than it does make it go away.  And the exposure might get around to some people that might not normally have seen it and those people might say “Hey, I actually think this hateful message might be right and not hateful.”  More importantly the key is how do we diminish the impact of such messages, I think one of those things is to literally ignore it.  Some of these things are so ridiculous that we literally waste our time sharing it and trying to shame the message.  There is a blogger on patheos that I follow called the Friendly Atheist.  As well-meaning as he is, he often brings up ridiculous things that are being said by small time pastors in small communities in the south, and now all of a sudden people are seeing it all over who follow him.  Now most who would follow this blogger will be like yeah, this pastor is an idiot, but some people follow atheist bloggers to argue, and to show their followers the ridiculous stuff the “other side” is saying.  Now a story that might not have gone beyond a local community or anywhere is bring spread around the country.  That’s not good.

Now I know you are probably saying, “well it’s important that these terrible ideas are challenged, and thus we must say something!”.  I don’t mean to argue that we shouldn’t oppose such things, and so before I address this, I want to add one more thing that is also I think unhelpful and leads into what I think is a better way to oppose.  The inspiration for this post came from an article that a friend posted yesterday.  A very compassionate and comparing individual, and I am sure we all know such people and the article was titled “While Trump Spews Hate, These Muslims Just Raised $100,000 for San Bernardino Victims”.  Now compare this to this article “Muslims Raise Funds for Families of San Bernardino Victims”.  Can you spot the difference in the titles?  Not only that, nowhere in the second article do we see an attack on those who are prejudiced against Muslims.  Now you might say well shouldn’t a good article represents both sides?  Not necessarily, because this article is simply reporting a reaction by the Muslim community to help the victims.  This is objective reporting.  Now if there were Muslim communities that were cheering, than yes it would be important to report that too, but my point is that when you read the headline of the first article there is an attack on Trump and his supporters.  Those who support Trump will immediately have a physical reaction that will prevent them from effectively ingesting the good works done by the Muslim.  I have written about this before and this is sometimes referred to as the “backfire effect”.  Now I am not saying all hateful messages shouldn’t be addressed, but most sound bites are hardly substantive.  We make all sorts of rational arguments about why they are wrong, but the sound bite itself (which sometimes is even out of context) contains no substance and thus from a rebuttal standpoint requires little substance in return.  And when we post that message it makes those who might support that message simply feel attacked and thus less likely to listen to all your rational arguments.  But when hateful or negative messages are spread with substance, by all means a substantive response is important.  But maybe this is best addressed in an op-ed to your local paper, or a blog rather than Facebook or Twitter.

What I suggest is simply posting the positive message when you are outraged by something.  Don’t post an article about what some hateful pastor has said in a rural community in Alabama, but perhaps post an article about what more progressive pastors are saying that would lead to increased tolerance and inclusion.  Post the rational arguments instead of only posting them in response to something ridiculous that is said.  If what you consider to be a negative and/or hateful message has merit, force those who support it to make their own substantive arguments to rationalize it.  Force them to think.  What I find is that even if I agree with you, I might get angrier and such an emotional state does not help me either in terms of seeing us a group who has to work together and I feel more helpless at how divided we are, even if I do feel that my friends are on my side.

My thoughts here are not meant to be judgmental, but rather a call to action for others as well as myself because I know I have been guilty of this at times too.  It’s easy to let our outrage get the better of us.  There is a lot of it out there today.  But most people, I think, would rather get along with their fellow man and a friend than an enemy.  This is one thing we all have in common.  So the next time you get upset, think about how you can spread the rational and the positive, without spreading the anger, the outrage and the remarks that attack rather than inform.