Optimistic Populism

In the comments of my recent post “On Atheist Janitors“, I was accused of being naive for my belief in the possibility of a truly just and prosperous state:

I wasn’t even going to address Ebon’s utopian comments on how we should ensure a minimum income for everyone on a full time job sufficient to travel for leisure and all. Clearly Ebon’s not an economist, but a dreamer. I guess that’s his own variety of opium. Heaven not in heaven, but here on Earth… I ask you, is that any less of a pipe-dream than a celestial heaven?

In this post, I’d like to offer an extended defense of why I believe this is possible. But first, I must address an all-too-common fallacy: the school of thought which holds that economics is a zero-sum game and that some must lose for others to win. According to this way of thinking, if the poor are badly off, then the only way to help them is to take money away from the rich and give it to them.

This way of thinking is not unique to one side of the political spectrum. Wealth redistribution leading to enforced equality is the sine qua non of communism, but ironically, this belief is also held by many right-wing, libertarian-conservative schools of thought, who likewise believe that the only way to aid the poor is to punish the rich. Of course, unlike communists, they see this as a bad thing.

Both the communists and the libertarians are in error about this. As I wrote in the third part of my series “Why I Am Not a Libertarian“, the great insight of capitalism is that wealth is not a constant but can be created. When it comes to basic questions of social justice, there is no reason why some must lose for others to win. On the contrary, by harnessing market forces to create greater overall wealth, we can all succeed.

That said, all proposed means of attaining this end are not created equal. We should be suspicious of economic theories which claim that we can best promote societal prosperity by lavishly rewarding the rich and trusting that their gains will eventually trickle down to the lower socioeconomic classes. If nothing else, we should be skeptical of such theories because they so obviously align with the short-term interests of the wealthy people who propose them.

Nevertheless, it is true that a rising tide lifts all boats. Even if vast disparities in income persist, it is undeniable that the overall level of prosperity of our society has substantially increased over the past hundred years, and it is similarly undeniable that many of these benefits have been enjoyed by average people and not just by the elite. In terms of life expectancy, of productivity, of innovation, our capitalist society is far richer in real terms than many past societies – including communist states, where poverty, deprivation, waste, misallocation, and hoarding seem to be the rule and not the exception. Marx and other communists thought that history would vindicate them, but instead, the opposite has happened.

So, how do we bring about prosperity for all? One important step, as I mentioned previously, is to commit to creating a social safety net that ensures universal access to basic goods like health care and education. That way, natural differences in talent and ability have the best chance to manifest and are less likely to be stifled by accidents of circumstance, and people are encouraged to take risks and become entrepreneurs since they know failure will not mean total disaster. Another is to require that all full-time jobs pay a living wage. People mired in poverty, working but unable to advance, are a net drain on society and are far more likely to turn to crime and other societal ills. By contrast, people able to support themselves have incentive to cooperate and to pay back into society, creating further opportunities for economic growth. (Fears that this policy will harm the economy usually turn out to be overblown.)

In this respect, I’m in agreement with organizations like the Hope Street Group (H/T Peter Levine). Markets are not a panacea to solve all problems, but when properly guided, they can be a potent force for good. We are so familiar with poverty and inequity that they sometimes seem to be intrinsic parts of the natural order. But human civilization has already reshaped the world in countless ways, changing or eradicating things that once seemed universal and inescapable. Why can we not use our ingenuity to solve this one as well?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew

    Excellent post Ebon!
    I have recently found myself saying that Communism and Capitalism need to have a baby, and that I believe that baby is Socialism. The social safety net you mention is very close to what has been put in place here, in Canada. If our Federal government were to start using recent budget surpluses to fund a significant increase in our minimum wage, I think Canada could become a beacon for the rest of the world.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Another positive step is assess how money is being spent by the government now. Billions of tax dollars are being spent on projects not likely to lead to any real positive outcomes relative to their cost (and I’m not just talking about the war; the government wastes tons of money during peace time as well). It’s not that there isn’t money available for projects like this that could create a better place for everyone, but it’s the will and intelligence to execute such plans that’s harder to find.

    A good step might be to start by electing a true diversity of politicans. Diversity that comes from ideas and socioeconomic status, not that popular diversity they have right now of “see, we have some blacks and some women in here! We’re diverse”. Just about every politican comes from a certain type of general background, since money does most of the talking in our society, and quite frankly, I have serious doubts that any of them have interests in mind other than their own.

  • Entomologista

    Well said. One of the major reasons that publicizing healthcare would work to reduce poverty is to ensure that all women actually get the reproductive healthcare that they need. Catholic/religious hospitals would be forced to treat women like human beings instead of cattle. (Well, assuming we get some secular, reality-based people in medical advisory positions in the government.) Very few women want to have baby after baby, since loads of children cost loads of money – and contrary to popular belief TANF benefits don’t extend just because you’ve had more kids. And when children are wanted they tend to lead better lives in the form of better education, better healthcare, more parental attention, and so on. A lot of poverty could probably be prevented if we just didn’t let religious people shit all over women.

  • Matt Sunderland

    “What I found was that economic inequality doesn’t frustrate Americans at all. It is, rather, the perceived lack of economic opportunity that makes us unhappy. To focus our policies on inequality, instead of opportunity, is to make a grave error—one that will worsen the very problem we seek to solve and make us generally unhappier to boot.”
    (http://city-journal.org/html/17_3_economic_inequality.html)

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    This is related to what I was saying the other day in my post earning admiration in today’s world. A couple of additional points I’d mention are that satisfaction comes more from relative wealth than absolute wealth and that wealth doesn’t have to be wasteful if the society as a whole values and admires forward-thinking.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    I agree wholeheartedly that economics is not a zero-sum game. Certainly we can choose to do things better by reassigning priorities. One example that came up in our past discussions was taking money away from prisons and giving it to education. That along with doing away with victimless crimes would immensely improve society at zero net cost.

    Incorporating best practices in energy efficiency and sustainability is another way to vastly improve how we live without increasing drains on our natural capital.

    Also, the amazing increase in wealth in the past 150 years has redefined the concept of poverty. People living in wealthy nations can have all their basic needs met but still be considered below the poverty line. Not that it’s any fun to live at subsistence level, but it’s a far cry from the Dickensian poverty of the past.

  • Damien

    “What I found was that economic inequality doesn’t frustrate Americans at all. It is, rather, the perceived lack of economic opportunity that makes us unhappy.”

    “We don’t want to stop exploitation! We want to become the exploiters!”

  • Andrew A

    “We don’t want to stop exploitation! We want to become the exploiters!”

    No? Economic opportunity is different from exploitation.

    Consider a minimum wage job, such as working in a fast food place.

    Currently, if your wage is too low to support you without a major debt or loss of luxuries, or even necessities, our society (in the U.S. at least) would prefer to put you on welfare, rather than help you get a better job.

    Is it that this person wants to exploit people, or just have a life were there are fewer concerns about if the next pay check is going to be enough?

    People of the upper classes generally have enough economic strength that don’t have to worry about their income keeping them alive, and so already have plenty of economic opportunity.

    Ebon, and the message you quoted, are referring to the people that lack any sort of mobility. And any of us could find ourselves in that position, so why not work to improve this failing of our society?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “Even if vast disparities in income persist”, Ebon writes in his essay. While I find the disparities between, say, Eisner’s parachute and mine, or his salary and mine, to be disgusting and immoral, I must say that some disparity is not only inevitable, but probably desirable in the sense that our culture and the individuals therein seem to derive great motivation from material gain.

    Of course I realize that I am generalizing, and for that reason I may well be wrong.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I guess I probably agree with you. Certainly the dream of a world where it would be possible to establish some sort of global base-line below which poverty would be unlikely to sink is one that I’ve had for a long time (How, theoretically, would you manage a world-wide minimum wage? Would it be possible to tie it to the local prices somehow? Would you need some sort of flexibility clause that could be invoked in the event of true disaster?). Of course, that would have to be a long way off — you’d need world-wide stability of a sort nearly unimaginable at present. So I suppose in the mean time I’d better stick to questions like ‘How can I get my local supermarket to stock Fair Trade bananas?’

    Side note:

    Clearly Ebon’s not an economist, but a dreamer.

    I didn’t like to say this at the time, because I thought the author of that statement was gutsy to speak up and I also thought it was important that opposing views be heard rather than shouted down, but did anyone else have a sudden flash to the chorus of Imagine?

  • Jim Baerg

    BTW I think there are a lot of good ideas on this website, http://www.holisticpolitics.org/ , for increasing both equality & freedom. The author of it takes Christian doctrine a lot more seriously than I do, but he’s telling his fellow Christians not to put it into the laws of the country, so I regard him as someone who would make a good neighbor, unlike many Christians.

  • Paul S.

    Ahhh….yes, I’ve heard these sentiments somewhere before, haven’t I?

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – Karl Marx

    “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

    “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)

    I, for one, have been taken aback by the statements of many of the respondents to Ebon’s post. This country already provides basic healthcare and education to everyone. It’s called Medicaid/Medicare and the public school system. The problem no one ever wants to address is that the poorest among us procreate at a rate that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Throwing more money at these people will solve absolutely nothing.

  • windy

    Consider a minimum wage job, such as working in a fast food place. Currently, if your wage is too low to support you without a major debt or loss of luxuries, or even necessities, our society (in the U.S. at least) would prefer to put you on welfare, rather than help you get a better job.

    Even if society helps “me” to get a better job, what then? The fast food job will likely be filled by someone else who will then end up in the same predicament. Luring their workers away one by one doesn’t seem the most effective way to force the fast food industry to offer better terms. Why not do both – try to help the fast food worker survive, and ensure that those who have the ability can proceed to better jobs?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    The problem no one ever wants to address is that the poorest among us procreate at a rate that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Throwing more money at these people will solve absolutely nothing.

    I strongly disagree. First of all, as part of real economic reform, we need to implement effective policies on sex ed and family planning – if we equip people with the knowledge and the ability to limit the sizes of their own families, they’ll make use of them. Second, family sizes are correlated with poverty; that’s a well-known demographic trend. As people become wealthier, they inevitably have fewer children. Therefore, there’s no reason to believe “throwing money at the poor” (I prefer to call it wise investment in social programs) will result in an unsustainable population boom. If anything, it will have the opposite effect.

  • Paul S.

    First of all, as part of real economic reform, we need to implement effective policies on sex ed and family planning – if we equip people with the knowledge and the ability to limit the sizes of their own families, they’ll make use of them. Second, family sizes are correlated with poverty; that’s a well-known demographic trend. As people become wealthier, they inevitably have fewer children. Therefore, there’s no reason to believe “throwing money at the poor” (I prefer to call it wise investment in social programs) will result in an unsustainable population boom. If anything, it will have the opposite effect.

    Please note that I never said anything about an “unsustainable population boom.” My point was that the poor procreate at a rate that ensures the cycle of poverty.

    Here is something FDR said in the 1935 State of the Union address (and remember, this was in the middle of the Great Depression):

    “Continued dependence(upon welfare)induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

    LBJ’s “Great Society” was supposed to lift the poor out of poverty by giving them welfare, subsidized food, public housing and free medical care. The government was supposed to end poverty in America. Since 1965, the US Government has spent $3.5 trillion (that’s with a “T”). You call that wise investment in social programs? So what do we have to show for the $3.5 trillion? Poverty levels that have increased? A perpetual welfare state where people think they are “entitled” to government handouts? We’ve had over 40 years of policies on sex ed and family planning. It just doesn’t work. Here is an excellent article from the Cato Institute: (http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-212.html)

    ps-sorry about the link in longhand-I don’t know how to “hotlink” here. My bad.

  • Alex Weaver

    Paul S:

    At the risk of being blunt, do you have anything other than appeals to authority to offer here?

    There is a correlation between lower incomes and greater family sizes. Please provide some evidence that there is a causal connection of the nature your argument presumes.

    Though frankly, I’m not entirely sure it’s worth trying to discuss this with a person clueless enough to equate “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” with a system that promises people the minimum they need to survive and allows them to lift themselves as far above that level as their efforts will take them.

    This country already provides basic healthcare and education to everyone. It’s called Medicaid/Medicare and the public school system.

    Neither of which has been adequately implemented or funded, otherwise the United States would not be rapidly falling behind many third world countries in education and healthcare, millions would not be uninsured or virtually illiterate with regards to science, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    Also, links to articles from partisan obfuscation tanks aren’t really that convincing. You might take a look at this page, however.

  • Pi Guy

    “I prefer to call it wise investment in social programs”

    I tried to sit this one out but it’s difficult after that statement. Like, Thumpalump, I don’t agree. I appreciate your compassion – it is definitely a good trait – but I ask, simply, who decides what constitutes a ‘wise’ investment? I assert that the sub-prime mortgage crisis is the direct result of such an attempt.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t wish to generalize but, essentially, the reason that so many people are defaulting on mortgages today is that it was either (a) unrealistic to assume that people who didn’t qualify for loans under prime conditions would suddenly generate the extra income to keep up when the rates and, consequently, monthly payments went sharply up or (b) unwise to invest in people who’ve demonstrated that they aren’t good credit risks in the first place. (A Wall Street Trader Draws Some Subprime Lessons by Michale Lewis)

    There’s a saying that goes something like “If you feed 5 million starving people, in 10 years you have 20 million people.” It’s analogous to “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Some of these ‘wise’ investments have turned out to be nothing more than throwing fish at the hungry. And, it should go without saying, that some people don’t want to learn to fish. As you note, economics is not a zero-sum game. The second law of thermodynamics doesn’t not apply here because wealth, unlike energy, can be created. Or destroyed. Throwing fish is the same as destroying wealth. It’s not a wise investment.

    The point behind the ‘zero-sum game’ statement is that you don’t need capital in the first place in order to create wealth. Wealth is the result of ideas, of creative thinking, and of effort. Wealth is increased when someone finds a way to reduce the time taken produce a product or provide a service, or by increasing the value of a product or amount of service provided in a way that doesn’t incur a greater cost to the producer or service provider. It takes the fortitude to hire people who can do that task better than you, who not merely perform tasks but actually pride in the achievement of tasks; people that desire not merely to survive but to grow. Wealth is created by people who are proud. Wealth isn’t created by people who didn’t have hope before but suddenly have money that gives them hope. Throwing fish won’t give them pride, just something to get them through until the next meal.

    I am not a racist or even a classist. I don’t believe that there are any inherent traits that prevent people from striving to make their own life better. There are many examples of people who started with little-to-nothing and have succeeded, not because of charity but in spite of it. These successes give me faith in humanity and lead me to be wary of charity or welfare. Not only do I think that it doesn’t generate any of the pride required to succeed, I think that it’s actually counter-productive to that cause.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Paul S.:

    Since 1965, the US Government has spent $3.5 trillion (that’s with a “T”). You call that wise investment in social programs? So what do we have to show for the $3.5 trillion? Poverty levels that have increased? A perpetual welfare state where people think they are “entitled” to government handouts?

    The United States has one of the highest levels of poverty in the developed world (see this from the Guardian; also this). On the other hand, most European countries, with far more “socialist” economic policies than ours, have lower rates of poverty.

    Clearly, the problem is not that anti-poverty spending is intrinsically ineffective. If that were the case, American poverty rates would not be so unusually high; rather, they’d be the norm. Assuming your figures are correct, they’d just point to the conclusion that American anti-poverty programs have not been enacted in an effective way. Again, I’d point to the necessity of supporting good public education and family planning and sex ed programs – two key ingredients in any effective fight against poverty, and two areas where America notably trails much of the industrialized world, thanks to religious and social conservatives. When public money is squandered on worthless ideas like abstinence-only sex education, of course results will not be commensurate with spending.

    Next:

    …but I ask, simply, who decides what constitutes a ‘wise’ investment? I assert that the sub-prime mortgage crisis is the direct result of such an attempt.

    That’s simple. We’re atheists and rationalists here, so we should already know the answer: wise investments are the ones whose efficacy is supported by evidence. I trust there’s no dispute that improved education and job training, among other things, have been amply proven to be effective anti-poverty measures. Any other methods that can prove their efficacy in suitably rigorous studies should also be considered.

    On the other hand, it’s rather odd to point to the subprime mortgage mess as evidence against social programs. That was not a failure of the public sector, but of unregulated private markets: incautious home-buyers who assumed that the value of their property would go up forever and unwisely agreed to adjustable-rate loans, and greedy lenders who falsified records to lend to unqualified people and trusted that their foolishness would never come back to bite them. It was a mass gamble, and the people who placed bets on it lost.

  • Angie

    I’ve run through all the comments and tried to do a bit of a distillation. Comments/observations I have:

    1. The very first comment was from Andrew in Canada. So, what are the Canadians doing so right? I realize I could do some research on Candian social programs, I’m just saying that it sounds like we could take a page out of their book.
    2. How money is spent – Assessing how a particular program is implemented is important. Is it a good program poorly run? Someone mentioned public education – certainly we have better access to primary education than we once did in this country. Still, I read an article in the NYT within the last 6 months where a woman who moved here from India was saying that her daughter, always struggling and falling behind in math in India was at the top of her class when they moved here. All these years and the program still isn’t that well run.
    3. Policies based in reality – We have to put our collective foot down on things like ‘abstinence only’ and ‘mandatory sentencing.’ Our country’s obsession with sex=sinful and incarceration=safe society are just the most obvious examples of attitudes that are hurting us.
    4. Living wages – How do we deal with the fact that many people work full time/multiple jobs and still can’t get make enough to pay the rent/mortgage and put food on the table. Many corporations, i.e. WalMart, deliberately keep employees at just under full time hours for the express purpose of being able to get out of having to pay proper wages or provide benefits. As much as we Americans don’t like to be told what we can and can’t do, don’t some controls have to be put in place to stop exploitation when that exploitation as such a devastating effect on our society?
    5. Procreation – Kind of makes sense that, if you combine working two or three jobs with people who aren’t very bright in the first place, you get more children. If drinking and fucking are the only recreation you can afford (no designer drugs, no vacations to Spain) then well, there’ll probably be little Bubbas and Bubbettes all over the place.
    6. Laziness and Stupidity – There are always going to be lazy people and stupid people. What are we going to do with them? You can’t force someone to be energetic or assertive, but they gotta live. People who aren’t very bright still gotta live. We don’t have to worry about rich people who are lazy or stupid but what about poor who are lazy or stupid? I don’t know what the answer is, but this harkens back to policies based in reality.

    Thanks for the stimulating conversation everyone. G’night.

  • Paul S.

    Alex, thanks for the link to the HTML site. I apologize if my lack of knowledge of the HTML linking process offends you. That certainly wasn’t my intent. And it’s not my intent for you to read one article from the CATO Institute and automatically agree with everything the CATO Institute believes in. Instead of dismissing it out-of-hand, how about coming up with a rebuttal to the arguments of the article? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

    Alex says: I’m not entirely sure it’s worth trying to discuss this with a person clueless enough to equate “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” with a system that promises people the minimum they need to survive and allows them to lift themselves as far above that level as their efforts will take them.

    The ad hominem attack doesn’t really help. I’m clueless because I have a different viewpoint about a welfare state than you do? I’m going to reiterate what I stated previously. The US government has spent $3.5 trillion on a “system that promises people the minimum they need to survive and allows them to lift themselves as far above that level as their efforts will take them.” The problem that you have is that you make statements like this (on Medicare/Medicaid and the public school system): “Neither of which has been adequately implemented or funded.” I may concede the former, but the latter is a joke. OK, so besides making generalizations about how things need to be implemented better, do you have any ideas on how to implement it better? It’s nice to think that spending more money will help alleviate poverty, but what are the “new ways of implementing” them you have in mind? Anything specific? There is 40 years of evidence that the war on poverty has been a failure. What do you have to offer that would make anyone believe it can work?

  • Paul S.

    The United States has one of the highest levels of poverty in the developed world (see this from the Guardian; also this). On the other hand, most European countries, with far more “socialist” economic policies than ours, have lower rates of poverty.

    Clearly, the problem is not that anti-poverty spending is intrinsically ineffective. If that were the case, American poverty rates would not be so unusually high; rather, they’d be the norm. Assuming your figures are correct, they’d just point to the conclusion that American anti-poverty programs have not been enacted in an effective way. Again, I’d point to the necessity of supporting good public education and family planning and sex ed programs – two key ingredients in any effective fight against poverty, and two areas where America notably trails much of the industrialized world, thanks to religious and social conservatives. When public money is squandered on worthless ideas like abstinence-only sex education, of course results will not be commensurate with spending.

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. I’d like to take one point you made and expand on it. You said there is a necessity of supporting good public education. While I couldn’t agree more, I believe we already have good public education in place. My wife is a 1st grade teacher at a school here in California. She happens to teach at a Title 1 school (which means there is a majority of disadvantaged children at the school). The problem isn’t the curriculum or the ability of the teaching staff. The problem is the apathetic parents (and as a result, apathetic children) who, despite the abject poverty they find themselves in, continue to have kids. My wife has kids in her class that come to school filthy, hungry, and unable to pay attention because they lack any semblance of parental supervision and stay up until all hours of the night. These people are already on the public dole. They have no incentive to work or stop having children because they will be paid more money commensurate to the amount of children they have. It is not unusual for children in my wife’s class to have 3 or 4 siblings who have 3 or 4 different fathers. And I haven’t even addressed the problem of kids whose parents are illegal immigrants from Mexico who show up to school with the inability to speak English. Do you have any idea how hard (and frustrating)it is to teach children basic concepts like reading and mathematics when they go home and there is no one there who either doesn’t care enough to sit down and read with them or who can’t read with them because they don’t understand English?

  • Jim Baerg

    So if there was a reliable & reliably reversible sterilization, should we do it to everyone at puberty?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Paul S.:

    Your comments on the responsibility of parents sits well (and fearfully) with my neo-libertarian heart, well because they concord so much with my views, and fearfully because too many parents have abdicated this responsibility, passing it along to the mass media as well as the child’s peer group.

    Ebon:

    “We’re atheists and rationalists here, so we should already know the answer: wise investments are the ones whose efficacy is supported by evidence.” — Ebonmuse

    While this is indeed the ideal, I fear that it ignores the reality that people get so emotionally invested in their politics that it is divorced from their rationality, in much the same way that religionists show when they type away on a blog about the evils of science and rationality. I certainly hope you are right and I am wrong; but I find even in myself an emotional urge to cling to ideas held dear. (You’ll notice I labeled myself above a “neo-libertarian”, which is to say that while in general I agree with the libertarian creed, I also think that it is not a complete answer to modern problems, and so my old view was modified to include a more expansive government role. It was very difficult to). Not only that, but often times evidence is so multivariate as to be beyond straightforward analysis leading to agreement.

    And finally, can we be truly rational about socialism, when it is still such a lightning rod here in America? That remains to be seen.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    pleasse insert:

    [....It was very difficult to] *do so*

    into the penultimate paragraph of the above post.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Paul, I don’t doubt that poverty often gives rise to self-destructive, self-sustaining bad habits like the ones you mentioned. That’s a real problem that’s been noted by many observers; in one of my posts on libertarianism this summer, I cited an article that mentions it:

    There is, I think, a liberal squeamishness about confronting the reality that one important element that sustains poverty is culture: a self-destructive pathology that arises from poverty and then entraps the poor in it for generation after generation. The culture varies with the society, and it is different for Dalits (or Untouchables) in India and for villagers in Congo and for the homeless in the US. Often, though, this culture involves elements of hopelessness, substance abuse, underinvestment in education, self-fulfilling expectations of failure, and squandered resources.

    This is one of the reasons why poverty is so difficult to eradicate, and we do ourselves no favors if we shy away from confronting it. But that doesn’t mean the solution is to give up and conclude our efforts are futile because “those people” are uneducable.

    What it shows, instead, is that to truly and effectively tackle poverty requires a multi-pronged strategy to break the cycle: investment in family and community programs, as well as crime prevention, education and job training. Self-destructive behavior can become a positive feedback spiral, giving rise to more of the same. Fortunately, self-constructive behavior can do the same thing.

  • Pi Guy

    “neo-libertarian”

    I like it!

    On the other hand, it’s rather odd to point to the subprime mortgage mess as evidence against social programs.

    Fair enough. That might be a bit apples-and-orangish. However, I think that the point that I was trying to make is pretty clear. Namely, that somebody has to decide and it isn’t easy to determine what’s a good bet and what’s not. If it were easy, we’d all be rich off the stock market.

    However, with respect to the assumed risk, it’s my opinion that the public sector has far less incentive to make good investment decisions than the private sector. The government is essentially playing with house money while a bad investment decision on the part of a private enterprise means angry stockholders, lost jobs, or, in the worst case, the company goes belly up. When a corporation goes under and takes the money of its investors with it, it’s their money. But, when the government makes a bad investment, they’re doing it with my money! It is not unreasonable for me to want to get value for my dollar and I’m just not confident that the public sector has my best interests in mind.

  • Stephen

    I come to this rather late, but just in case anyone is still reading, here are a couple of links which may give some context to the discussion.

    http://www.7×11.nl/images/eijkelboom_schilderswijk06.jpg

    http://www.haagwonen.nl/info.asp?ID=148

    Yes, I know they are rather boring photos of very ordinary decent-but-boring houses. The point is that this district, near the centre of The Hague, is the poorest district in the Netherlands.

  • Stephen

    Something weird happened to that first link: the symbol between the 7 and the 11 should be a letter ‘x’ – and it was when I typed it in. Apparently I have suffered from the curse of the software that thinks it knows better.

    [Fixed - sorry about that. I share your enmity toward software that thinks it can outsmart me. —Ebonmuse]

  • Entomologista

    they will be paid more money commensurate to the amount of children they have.

    This is a commonly held misconception. My friend is a sociologist who specializes in poverty, and this is what he has to say: “Federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program– which, by the way, is the real name for “welfare”– has a “family cap” limitation whereby having more children does not increase the family’s grant amount. While many people think this is justice, it also means that when a child is born, each child must eat proportionally less, have proportionally fewer clothes, etc. (Food stamp allowances don’t increase with more children either). But, despite this reality, there’s still a widespread notion that people have babies to increase the amount they receive. Oh, and you can’t have children to stay on welfare longer. There’s a federal time-limit (2 years consecutively and/or 5 years over a lifetime).”

    Some other things to think about regarding “Why don’t those lazy sluts just get a job?!”:

    One thing we also need to realize is that in most cases, we’re talking about women. These women face a variety of barriers as they try to improve their lives. Who will take care of their children while they work or look for a job? Child care is extremely expensive, so one of the things the government could do is provide free childcare to all working mothers. Low income areas tend to be very dirty, and the residents don’t have access to decent food or health care. A simple thing like redoing the zoning laws to allow for grocery stores to be within walking distance of poor neighborhoods would go a long way to improving people’s lives. Many of these women have problems with domestic violence. How can you work if you’re always recovering from beatings? Where will you work if you don’t have a car? There aren’t very many jobs people with low levels of educational attainment can have, and there aren’t many jobs at all in poor neighborhoods. Maybe they don’t have a regular place to live – nobody will hire you if you don’t clean up for the interview or don’t have a phone number to be contacted at. There are also race, class, and language barriers. If you no habla ingles, you’re unlikely to get much of a job. Studies have also shown that people with black-sounding names or people with addresses from known poor/public housing neighborhoods are less likely to get called back after an interview.

    Finally, I have to ask. Do you think women are stupid, Paul S.? Do you think that pregnancy and childbirth are such a walk in the park that we flighty females just do it on a whim? Did you ever stop to think that the reason the children are ill-cared for is that they aren’t wanted? That given a choice, the women would have been on birth control or had an abortion? And don’t even say the word “adoption” unless you’ve personally adopted a non-white child – most families who adopt are white and want white babies (with no disabilities). You can thank the religious folks for those dirty, hungry children. By ensuring that low income women have little or no access to reproductive health care, they’ve ensured a constant population of urchins. You also haven’t considered that these women may have no choice in the matter – how do you make a man who outweighs you by 100 lbs stop, or wear a condom? Maybe if you say no or ask for a condom you get a beating and then he rapes you anyway. Maybe you need $100 really badly so your phone doesn’t get shut off. Maybe sex is one of the few pleasures available. I’m not one of those people who thinks that sex is something only rich people should get to do, and I don’t think that abstinence is a reality-based birth control method. The people who were really good at not fucking were not our ancestors.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Thank you, Entomologista – that was a very informative and telling comment. I think a lot of opposition to welfare and other social programs is predicated on harmful stereotypes about who the recipients are and why they’re receiving it. I’m sure there are aid recipients who are irresponsible, but I suspect that they’re much rarer than most people think.

    And in any case, what about the legitimate recipients? Your comment painted a much more realistic picture of why people need these programs. Must we punish the truly needy for the sake of a few bad apples? Isn’t it far more important to make sure that the people who genuinely need assistance can get it, even if a few free-riders manage to sneak their way in?

  • Serban Tanasa

    First of all, Ebon, thank you for addressing my comment.

    One important step, as I mentioned previously, is to commit to creating a social safety net that ensures universal access to basic goods like health care and education.

    I have to disagree with this. If we have to provide education and health care, then by all means we should provide food and shelter as well. And not just any shelter, but a livable one, otherwise the people won’t use it. Now, if one has shelter, food, education and healthcare, where does the need to work come from? Work is something you would do because of ambition, or because you like it. In such a society, who would ever be doing the unwanted jobs, such as being a janitor, cleaning other people’s toilets? Perhaps Robotics can solve this for us, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    You also haven’t considered that these women may have no choice in the matter – how do you make a man who outweighs you by 100 lbs stop, or wear a condom? Maybe if you say no or ask for a condom you get a beating and then he rapes you anyway. Maybe you need $100 really badly so your phone doesn’t get shut off. Maybe sex is one of the few pleasures available.

    Poor girl, she needs to prostitute herself to pay off her $100 cell phone bill. Perhaps if she don’t have a source of income, she shouldn’t have gotten a cell-phone. And don’t come telling me that women are such frail creatures who can’t say no. If he tries to rape you even once, you go to the police, have the jerk arrested. Don’t make women into objects without will, please. They always have a choice. People without cars can choose to live and work in a place with public transportation.

    Child care is extremely expensive, so one of the things the government could do is provide free childcare to all working mothers

    That is something I strongly support.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Serban,

    then by all means we should provide food and shelter as well

    Food stamps? Subsidized housing? It’s possible for the government to provide some basics or ease in taking care of the basics without having to provide everything.

    Now, if one has shelter, food, education and healthcare, where does the need to work come from?

    It comes from people always wanting more than the basics; I know I do, and since you have a computer I assume you do too. Clothing, better food, better housing, nicer electronics, drugs, money to go out, status, hobbies; you name it, people will want to work for it.

    People without cars can choose to live and work in a place with public transportation.

    Sure, provided they have the money to move to that place with public transportation (presumably renting an apartment – which a working phone might help with setting up), getting a job when they get there (They’d need to have it set up beforehand too. If you can’t afford some of the basics you also can’t afford to move to a place and hope you find a job when you get there), leave behind everyone they know; you know, all that stuff it’s so easy for [poor] people to do. Of course, it’s hard to make plans to/and move without the proper funds to do it, especially if you can’t even pay off a phone bill or take care of kids (or have a car to drive, which also might help in moving). Likewise, if they get injured and don’t have proper health care they’re shit out of luck, and if you’re looking for help in private sector for these things, I wouldn’t hold my breath either.

    Not to mention the added benefit of less crime (less cost to the state in trials, lawyers, and incarciration, along with fewer victims of crimes; another plus)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Now, if one has shelter, food, education and healthcare, where does the need to work come from?

    I don’t think anyone’s suggested that we should provide food and shelter to the able-bodied indefinitely and ask nothing in return. As I’ve said in the past, we should make access to public benefits contingent on the recipient’s willingness to work at whatever job can be found for them.

    Poor girl, she needs to prostitute herself to pay off her $100 cell phone bill. Perhaps if she don’t have a source of income, she shouldn’t have gotten a cell-phone.

    It’s interesting you should say that, because Entomologista’s comment nowhere referred to a cell phone. You do know that land lines cost money too, right?

    And don’t come telling me that women are such frail creatures who can’t say no. If he tries to rape you even once, you go to the police, have the jerk arrested.

    You know, I wish it were that easy to get rapists prosecuted. I really do. Unfortunately, rape is still a crime that carries a tremendous social stigma for the victim, and the real world doesn’t always work as in your simplistic advice.

    First of all, the majority of rapists are not strangers, but friends or relatives of the victim. That can put her under strong social pressure to keep quiet, lest she be ostracized or even assaulted by members of the community. Even if a rape victim comes forward and finds a DA willing to prosecute, at trial and in the media she can expect to have her name dragged through the mud by defense lawyers who will argue that she was “asking for it”, that she incited the rape by dressing or acting provocatively, or that she’s mentally unstable and simply made the story up. If it’s admitted by all parties that sex did happen, the inevitable defense is that it was consensual (and, if wounds are present, that she liked rough sex), and then what’s to keep the trial from turning into a he-said/she-said dispute? (Read this editorial to get an idea of what women who complain of rape usually go through.)

    Faced with obstacles like these, there are many rape victims who make the choice not to report what happened, and it’s hard to fault them. It would be nice if we lived in a truly egalitarian society, but a lot of old prejudices still persist, and blaming the victim isn’t going to help.

    They always have a choice. People without cars can choose to live and work in a place with public transportation.

    Do explain. Let’s say you have no car and live in an area with poor public transportation. What are you saying you’d do? Just pick up and move to somewhere else? How? You don’t have a car, remember? What if you have a job that gives you no paid time off, as millions of Americans do? When are you supposed to look for a new job, potentially in a distant city, no less? How are you supposed to arrive and establish yourself until you can find employment there, if you work at a job that doesn’t pay enough for you to save up?

    It’s wishful thinking to say that everyone can simply choose to improve their circumstances, if they really want to. That would be nice, but it’s not the way our society works at all. The reality is that many people, through no fault of their own, are stuck in circumstances that offer no realistic hope for change or advancement without outside help.

  • Paul S.

    Entomologista said:

    This is a commonly held misconception. My friend is a sociologist who specializes in poverty, and this is what he has to say: “Federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program– which, by the way, is the real name for “welfare”– has a “family cap” limitation whereby having more children does not increase the family’s grant amount. While many people think this is justice, it also means that when a child is born, each child must eat proportionally less, have proportionally fewer clothes, etc. (Food stamp allowances don’t increase with more children either). But, despite this reality, there’s still a widespread notion that people have babies to increase the amount they receive. Oh, and you can’t have children to stay on welfare longer. There’s a federal time-limit (2 years consecutively and/or 5 years over a lifetime).”

    The TANF program, while it was a major reform bill, has not done much (at least here in California) to eliminate reliance on welfare. There are so many loopholes in the California version of the welfare reform program (CalWorks) that a majority of welfare recipients continue to receive benefits long after the federally-mandated time limits have expired. And even when welfare recipients do not comply with the time limits, the harshest penalty is that the parent/s are removed from the program. But the children still receive money on a monthly basis. And since the children are still considered minors, guess who cashes the checks and determines how the money is spent? Even when the parent/s are removed from the CalWorks program, they are still able to receive food stamps, free healthcare, and rent subsidies. And since the welfare reform from 1996 gives states a lot more leeway in how money is spent, the state penalties for lack of compliance trumps the federal time-limit rules.

    I also have to take issue with the statement you made:

    Entomologista said:

    Some other things to think about regarding “Why don’t those lazy sluts just get a job?!”

    I don’t know where this came from! I never called anybody a “lazy slut.” Those are your sentiments, and yours alone. Can anyone say “strawman”?

    One thing we also need to realize is that in most cases, we’re talking about women. These women face a variety of barriers as they try to improve their lives. Who will take care of their children while they work or look for a job? Child care is extremely expensive, so one of the things the government could do is provide free childcare to all working mothers.

    How is it that no one asks the question, “Why are these women (and men) having children when they can’t afford them?”

    Many of these women have problems with domestic violence. How can you work if you’re always recovering from beatings?

    Not to sound too cold, but why are they getting themselves into these situations in the first place?

    Where will you work if you don’t have a car? There aren’t very many jobs people with low levels of educational attainment can have, and there aren’t many jobs at all in poor neighborhoods. Maybe they don’t have a regular place to live – nobody will hire you if you don’t clean up for the interview or don’t have a phone number to be contacted at. There are also race, class, and language barriers. If you no habla ingles, you’re unlikely to get much of a job. Studies have also shown that people with black-sounding names or people with addresses from known poor/public housing neighborhoods are less likely to get called back after an interview.

    Again, there is no accounting for personal responsibility. How bout this? Don’t have children unless you can afford them. Don’t have sex with a man who abuses you. Use birth control if you do. You make it sound as if people on welfare are unable to obtain birth control. That’s absolute bullshit.

    Finally, I have to ask. Do you think women are stupid, Paul S.? Do you think that pregnancy and childbirth are such a walk in the park that we flighty females just do it on a whim? Did you ever stop to think that the reason the children are ill-cared for is that they aren’t wanted?

    Give me a break. So children are ill-cared for because they aren’t wanted, but the mothers continue to have them? I never suggested that pregnancey and childbirth are a walk in the park. But yes, I do believe that some females “do it on a whim.” How else do you account for the children born out of wedlock? These aren’t stable relationships these women are in. They apparently cannot rely on the men they have sex with to provide them with anything, so you tell me, why do they do it?

    You can thank the religious folks for those dirty, hungry children. By ensuring that low income women have little or no access to reproductive health care, they’ve ensured a constant population of urchins.

    While I do agree that abstinence-only sex education is a ridiculous folly, it is just not true that low income women have little or no access to reproductive health care.

    I’m not one of those people who thinks that sex is something only rich people should get to do, and I don’t think that abstinence is a reality-based birth control method.

    Who said anything about sex being only a rich people-only activity? If that was the case, then there would be rich families with a lot of children. But that’s not the case. The wealthier people are, the less children there are per family. Sex is something everyone should enjoy, but there are obvious repurcussions when the proper precautions are not taken.

  • Entomologista

    Here are some links to help Paul:

    http://www.guttmacher.org – Peer reviewed research on family planning and reproductive issues in the U.S. and world-wide. Some numbers for the US: “Each year, approximately 7 million women receive contraceptive services from the network of publicly funded family planning clinics, representing 41% of all women in need of subsidized services.” And since you’re so worried about your pocketbook, here is an interesting finding: “Every tax dollar spent for contraceptive services saves an average of $3 in Medicaid costs for pregnancy-related health care and for medical care of newborns alone.”

    finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com – Atheism is intrinsically related to feminism, so it should be an easy read. Go forth and prevent future toolishness!

    Here is a FAQ on abusive relationships. The link will answer your question about why all those silly people don’t just leave their abusers. Foot in mouth, Paul, chew vigorously.

    Sure, in life there are choices. But we don’t control every aspect of our lives – and since the universe isn’t like a movie, people don’t always deserve what they get or get what they deserve. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try to even the odds. After all, we’re social animals and we need each other.

  • Paul S.

    Entomologista said:

    Here are some links to help Paul:

    http://www.guttmacher.org – Peer reviewed research on family planning and reproductive issues in the U.S. and world-wide. Some numbers for the US: “Each year, approximately 7 million women receive contraceptive services from the network of publicly funded family planning clinics, representing 41% of all women in need of subsidized services.” And since you’re so worried about your pocketbook, here is an interesting finding: “Every tax dollar spent for contraceptive services saves an average of $3 in Medicaid costs for pregnancy-related health care and for medical care of newborns alone.”

    Maybe I’m missing your point. I don’t disagree with you about reproductive healthcare for the poor. But you said, “Did you ever stop to think that the reason the children are ill-cared for is that they aren’t wanted? That given a choice, the women would have been on birth control or had an abortion?” According to the statistics you provided, 41% of the women in need of contraceptive services receive it. My question is this: What about the other 59%? If 100% of women enrolled in subsidized healthcare (i.e. Medicaid) are eligible for family planning services, why do only 41% receive it?

    Here is a FAQ on abusive relationships. The link will answer your question about why all those silly people don’t just leave their abusers. Foot in mouth, Paul, chew vigorously.

    You really need to take a deep breath and ease up on the hyperbole. First off, I wish you would quit attributing statements to me that I haven’t made. You have an uncanny knack of rewording my statements by inserting derogatory comments about women and implying that I was the one that called them that. I did not call anyone that is in an abusive relationship “silly.” You added that yourself. And please point out to me where I suggested that someone in an abusive relationship should “just leave their abuser.” I never said that. As another example, in a previous post, your statement was:

    “Some other things to think about regarding “Why don’t those lazy sluts just get a job?!”

    Once again, I never called anyone a “lazy slut.” That was your interpolation. You are employing a fallacious appeal to emotion argument in your statements. You don’t seem to want to discuss this matter without denigrating me with your personal attacks.