Supersize Me

by Belle Waring on January 8, 2005

This Jane Galt thread on poverty and obesity has many special moments. The basic lessons are as follows, helpfully summarized by SomeCallMeTim:

In the space of a week, Jane, Mindles, and the commenters have fleshed out the Republican policy towards the poor. To wit:
1. Those tricksy bastards (Dems) are wildly overstating the problems [this post];
2 A lot of the problems associated with the lower end of the income scale are a result of the stupidity of the poor (and really, what can you do with the stupid?) [this post];
3. Almost all Republicans have suffered through much more trying times than any of the poor have faced – and they’ve kept the aspidistra flying, dammit; the poor need to stop whining [this post];
4. Mercy is twice blessed because it is given; it cannot be commanded by the government. If someone has screwed up and doesn’t get another chance – well, they made their own bed. That someone else, with a different background, has had a second chance (or however many chances one gets in getting from 20 to 40 as a drunk) is of no import whatsoever, and people who are envious of the latter group should have had the forethought to have better parents. Indeed, even asking that we temper our scorn for them is too much – might be a disincentive to change [drug post];
5. Of course, the poor don’t need to have forethought because we keep cosseting them. If we let a few old people starve to death on the streets, they’d smarten up, work harder, and start investing; doing anything at all to help the poor merely robs them of the incentive to improve their lot [SS post];
6. Occasionally, you run across the very rare situation where it’s hard to entirely blame the poor for their situation, like natural disasters. In those cases, we may give them some help. But, before doing so, it’s important to note – that they’ve done very little for us; – that they are insufficiently grateful at the moment of the crisis; – that if we’re going to put aside our principles and help them, we must get credit! [stingy post]

Still, these two comments are the best:
it seems that leftists and liberals are really, really innumerate… anyone interested in the real world and good in math seems to be very libertarian or conservative…(Link)

and:
A pound of ham will make the equivalent of 20 quarter pounders, by my math. (This somewhat misses the point, as I wouldn’t put a quarter pound of ham on my sandwich, and probably neither would you.) Link

Ah, science. (And I grant that the comments are not strictly contradictory). On a more serious note, I was thinking today of how much better off the residents of American inner cities would be if the Singapore model of hawker centres prevailed. Sure, there’s fattening char kway teow, but every hawker centre has a fruit juice and sliced fruit stand with cheap papaya, watermelon, and kiwi fruit, not to mention carrot juice. I understand that crime is a deterrent, but why exactly is it that US inner-city markets have such awful, expensive, fly-blown produce, even the ones in Oakland CA? Is this true in poor neighborhoods in Great Britain? I understand that there are supply chain/perishability problems, but is it only this that makes it cheaper to sell St. Ides and a Big Grab Doritoes than mustard greens?

{ 102 comments }

1

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 2:20 pm

A classic example of just how mistaken you can be, in thinking that some things are refuted just by repeating them. ;) I think quite a few of those sentiments are quite reasonable, albiet phrased unsympathetically.

2

Nasi Lemak 01.08.05 at 2:32 pm

Yes, food poverty is a problem in Great Britain. It’s not so much to do with crime as it is to do with the economics of supermarket placement and the desire of suburban supermarkets to keep out the inner-city poor as far as possible lest they scare off more profitable suburban customers. Liz Dowler at Warwick works on this and has done surveys of exactly how much fresh produce is available within a plausible travelling time to someone without a car living in publicly provided housing in inner london & it’s pretty pathetic. I think she concludes that given the retail opportunities actually open to inner-city poor families in the UK healthy food is unaffordable (either too long to travel, or some limited choice available at a local store for an extravagant amount of money).

3

Jason Kuznicki 01.08.05 at 2:41 pm

I think the following comment makes a very good point too, though:

I honestly can’t believe that people are in this thread arguing that McDonald’s dollar menu is cheaper than buying food from the store.

The reason people (well-off or poor) buy a $1 McDonald’s sandwich and a $1 order of fries instead of making a cheaper sandwich out of a loaf of bread and some lunch meat and warming up a $0.39 can of corn or green beans is because the junk food tastes better and they can afford it, not because bread, balogna, and corn is too expensive for their budget.

Now, it’s quite possible to get all your nutritional requirements dirt cheap if you extercise a certain amount of judgment. Not everyone knows how or even wants to.

There really are differences of judgment and knowledge between the poor and the middle class, and it does the poor no good to dismiss them. Here is an interesting article along those lines from the NYT magazine:

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/magazine/06WWLN.html?ex=1105789248&ei=1&en=28903f59ef15b805

4

Nasi Lemak 01.08.05 at 2:52 pm

As far as Great Britain goes, Kuznicki’s claim above is exactly what Dowler shows to be false.

5

Peter 01.08.05 at 3:01 pm

Nearly all poverty is caused by social liberalism and the concomitant family breakdown, and welfare liberalism and the perverse incentives it creates. As the Economist famously showed, a person’s chances of being poor are 0.5% if they:

i) marry and stay married
ii) complete high school
iii) take a job even at minimum wage.

Of course it seems outrageous – outrageous! – to suggest poverty is mainly a consequence of the choices people make. But it’s also the mature and empirically obvious conclusion that if people are poor, it’s usually because they haven’t had sufficient foresight or ability to delay gratification. It certainly makes infinitely more sense than to blame Warren Buffet or something.

6

BigMacAttack 01.08.05 at 3:08 pm

Andrew Sullivan is such a loser. Cherry picking comments from the DU and pretending like they are representative of the left. What a hack.

Oh wait never mind. Carry on.

7

Jason Kuznicki 01.08.05 at 3:39 pm

I have lived as a student in both Washington, DC, and Paris, France. Both are generally considered expensive places to live, but careful purchasing habits allowed me to save money–to save money–in both places. I can hardly believe that the U.K. is uniformly more expensive than either.

Granted, I didn’t have children to support, but then, that too is a choice that we make.

8

Jason Kuznicki 01.08.05 at 3:42 pm

Oh yeah, and I ate very well too.

9

mc 01.08.05 at 3:46 pm

Peter – you say: “Of course it seems outrageous – outrageous! – to suggest poverty is mainly a consequence of the choices people make.”
What seems outrageous to me is to present ‘take a job’ and ‘complete high school’ as alternative causal explanations (of poverty) to ‘have rich parents’ or ‘live in a prosperous part of town’ – outrageous given how obvious it is that the latter two could operate precisely through the former two.

Nasi – you say: “Food poverty is a problem in Great Britain. It is not so much to do with crime as it is to do with the economics of supermarket placement and the desire of suburban supermarkets to keep out the inner-city poor as far as possible lest they scare off more profitable suburban customers.” I agree that it is a problem; and agree about supermarket placement. But there is still the question of why those supermarkets which are in poor areas (whether their owners would prefer them not to be or not) don’t do a better job for their customers.

I am reminded of the stand taken by Iceland, I think it was – certainly one of the chains which, like Iceland, have a lower-income customer-base – on organic food. Inevitably it pushed up costs, which was to be expected; but it also (and independently of costs feeding through into prices) reduced sales.

This and Jason’s comments on $1 meals reminded me of the following passage from The Road to Wigan Pier:
When the dispute over the Means Test was in progress there was a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive. So far as I remember, one school of dietitians worked it out at five and ninepence, while another school, more generous, put it at five and ninepence halfpenny. After this there were letters to the papers from a number of people who claimed to be feeding themselves on four shillings a week. Here is a weekly budget (it was printed in the New Statesman and also in the News of the World) which I picked out from among a number of others: 3 wholemeal loaves, half a pound of margarine, half a pound of dripping, one pound of cheese, one pound onions, one pound carrots, one pound broken biscuits, two pounds dates, one tin evaporated milk, 10 oranges….
Whether the letter was genuine or a hoax does not matter at the moment. What I think will be admitted is that this list represents about as wise an expenditure as could be contrived; if you had to live on three and elevenpence halfpenny a week, you could hardly extract more food-value from it than that. So perhaps it is possible to feed yourself adequately on the P.A.C. allowance if you concentrate on essential foodstuffs; but not otherwise.
Now compare this list with the unemployed miner’s budget that I gave earlier. The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

10

Kramer 01.08.05 at 3:47 pm

Peter:

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have my social scientist glasses on (not being a social scientist I don’t actually own the appropriate glasses) but some of the points you enumerate (perhaps they’re described in more detail in the Economist?) seem to conflate correlation and causation.

To wit, even if a larger percentage of the poor tend to be unmarried (than of the general population) it doesn’t follow that their non-married state is in any way the cause of their poverty.

The correlation/causation connection seems more intuitive for #2 but some data demonstrating that people are poor BECAUSE they didn’t finish high school would still be great.

#3 seems to avoid this problem nicely. I mean if people are working for sure they’re less likely to be poor, aren’t they? I think, though, that this may be wrong on the facts. I seem to recall reading somewhere that a minimum wage job working something like 50 hours a week would still place a family of four below the poverty line (but perhaps I’m mistaken?).

11

dave heasman 01.08.05 at 3:57 pm

“peter” says “Nearly all poverty is caused by social liberalism and the concomitant family breakdown”

Poverty in the UK is concentrated in the old, specifically elderly widows. I hope when Peter goes canvassing in the next election he will carefully explain to them that their poverty is due to a lifetime of bad choices. And I hope too that he gets an umbrella or two wrapped (gently) round his Tory neck.

12

harry 01.08.05 at 4:07 pm

Peter might also have trouble explaining why countries in which social democratic (in American terms, ‘socially liberal’) parties have held power for long periods of time have virtually elminiated poverty, while countries in which they haven’t (notably the US and the UK) haven’t. This fact also makes torubel for the people who want to blame the poor for their own condition.

Still, I treasure the Jane Galt thread — I’ll re-read it whenever I see leftists being accused of being smug, self-satisfied, and self-righteous.

Oh, and thanks for the quote mc; reminded me of how great Orwell could be.

13

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 4:16 pm

“To wit, even if a larger percentage of the poor tend to be unmarried (than of the general population) it doesn’t follow that their non-married state is in any way the cause of their poverty.”

Not logically, no, in the sense that it IS possible to be poor for reasons that have no relation to your marital status. But it’s undeniably true that marriage has advantages which make poverty far less likely, such as the possiblity of two incomes in the family, enlarging the circle of relatives who might help you through a bad patch, and, most critically, not being a single mother who can’t work because there’s a child to take care of.

“I think, though, that this may be wrong on the facts. I seem to recall reading somewhere that a minimum wage job working something like 50 hours a week would still place a family of four below the poverty line (but perhaps I’m mistaken?).”

And why should we regard someone as being innocent of their own poverty, if they decide to have a couple of children, and support a mate, on a minimum wage job? These are generally decisions, are they not?

In my experience, (I’ve seen it done.) a minimum wage job is sufficient to support a family with no children, allowing one member of the pair time and tuition for technical training, so as to qualify for a better paid job. And so a married couple can lift each other out of poverty, from just a minimum wage job, if they refrain from having children for even two or three years.

14

Matt Weiner 01.08.05 at 4:25 pm

And why should we regard someone as being innocent of their own poverty, if they decide to have a couple of children, and support a mate, on a minimum wage job? These are generally decisions, are they not?

Er–which decision? The decision to support a mate rather than let the mate starve to death? The decision to bear a child to term rather than to abort? The decision to have a minimum wage job rather than a better-paying job as a machinist? The decision, perhaps, to lose one’s job after one has started a family?

15

BigMacAttack 01.08.05 at 4:30 pm

I am sure you can get all the nutrients you need from potatoes with a little yummy Spam thrown in as a treat.

Also, you might be amazed at the useful stuff you can get by rummaging other people’s trash.

Sure it is wrong that such behavior is despised but that is just the way it is.

Sure Peter is right about the choices that lead to poverty.

And I am not inclined to buy another family an X-Box so they can live with dignity.

But we don’t choose our parents and not everyone can so easily throw off their conditioning.

Unless you have lived the life, your days play roughing it as a student don’t count, I suggest you make an attempt at empathy before you blithely start rattling off the per pound expenditures of this and that canned food. If you don’t you are about a step away from pointing out the excellent cost to nutrient ratio of dog food.

16

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 4:33 pm

What are you suggesting, that somebody wakes up in the morning, and suddenly finds that they’ve got a wife and two kids to support, without having made any choices?

Now, somebody who is already working at a good job, and marries and has kids, might through misfortune find themselves unemployed, and have to take a job flipping burgers… until they can find something better. But let’s not pretend that that’s the normal face of poverty.

17

W. Kiernan 01.08.05 at 4:42 pm

Well, jeez, now you tell me! That’s where I fucked up! Rather than waiting until after I had got salable skills and a record of steady employment and a livable income so I could afford getting married and having kids and whatnot, I should have gotten married (to whom? never mind) when I was completely broke and chronically unemployed. Why, I’d probably own a yacht now had I had the foresight.

18

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 4:43 pm

“your days play roughing it as a student don’t count”

“Play” roughing it? Oh, so I know nothing whatsoever about living cheaply, just because I did it so that I could afford tuition.

You know, maybe the answer is a manditory line of classes in school, on “how to live very cheaply, and not get yourself into debt”? Maybe we should HELP them throw off that conditioning? Instead of treating it as a reason to write somebody a check?

19

Peter 01.08.05 at 4:45 pm

When someone pretends to be stupid rather than deal with your points, it usually doesn’t speak well for their argument.

The decision is obviously the choice to have more children than one can afford, as you know perfectly well.

I would say more generally to those who talk about being outraged that using the language of blame is indeed not the answer. But you won’t ever solve social problems without an accurate prognosis, which does mean accepting that bad decisions can cause – and usually are the cause – of poverty. Red herrings like blaming people who make very wise decisions for being rich will only exacerbate the problems, which will begin to be relieved when society starts to stress the importance of behaving in responsible ways, delaying gratification and thinking of the consequences of one’s actions. That’s a genuine and challenging compassion, because it requires serious moral judgement, but it does display moral maturity in caring more about positive consequences for the person on the receiving end than good feeling for the giver.

20

BigMacAttack 01.08.05 at 4:49 pm

Harry,

Your overblown rhetoric needs puncturing.

Even when comparing relative levels, what % of the population is below x% below median income, of poverty social democracies such as France still run poverty rates of about 8%. About a 1/2 of the US rate. I am not sure 50% less and 8% qualifies as virtually eliminated.(1997 LIS)

And of course since the US median income is higher, even when adjusting for PPP, that means that families with the same PPP adjusted level of income in both the US and France would NOT be considered poor in France.

I don’t have anything against social democracies, they do a wonderful job providing for their citizens. As does the US. Perhaps we could do even better if we learned some lessons from the social democracies. And perhaps the reverse might also be true.

21

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 4:55 pm

You look at the economic growth rates of the social democracies compared to the US, and I have to say that, even if social democracy WAS a hot idea in a static analysis, it’s a bad idea in the long run. Because even social democrats need a GDP to pay for the welfare programs.

22

Antoni Jaume 01.08.05 at 4:56 pm

People don’t get to choose their parents. They don’t get to choose not to be victimised by criminals. They don’t choose to lose one parent. They don’t choose the society whose values they have to assume to fit. Oh, and nobody choose to be stupid. Now to be a criminal yes that is your choice.

DSW

23

Matt McGrattan 01.08.05 at 4:58 pm

The sentiments helpfully summarized by SomeCallMeTim and quoted by Belle above are the usual repugnant right-wing combination of callousness and self-aggrandisement — where the author’s own good fortune is ascribed to a combination of a dynamic will, incredible wit, intelligence and moral fortitude, and everyone else bad fortune is ascribed to slovenliness, weak moral character, stupidty and sloth — that we can expect from the right and those who espouse such sentiments deserve nothing but scorn.

However, I do find Dowler’s claims (cited by Nasi Lemak) about food poverty and the difficulties the urban poor have in finding decent fresh food within affordable travelling time a little hard to take.

I grew up on a council estate in central Scotland in exactly the kind of circumstances which Dowler is talking about and then lived in a number of different parts of inner-city Glasgow and in none of these places was good fresh food out of reach.

It’s certainly true that the local shops – those within a 5 minute walk – do sell over-priced and truly horrible vegetables (if they sell them at all).

However, supermarkets were always within a 20 or 30 minute or walk or, at worst, a relatively short journey on public transport. You might not want to do that everyday but decent quality produce was always within reach for a ‘weekly shop’.

It might take a little organisation or foresight and some effort to make sure that you ate good quality fresh food, but it was by no means impossible, or even particularly difficult at all, even if the worst places I lived.

Either Dowler has a very narrow idea of what constitutes a reasonable expenditure of time and money in order to buy food or Glasgow and other parts of central Scotland are highly atypical. I find that, the atypicality of Glasgow, hard to swallow especially given Glasgow’s notoriously poor nutritional health.

(Things may be different in, say, London which represents a fairly unique combination of vast geographic size and a hugely expensive and often poor public transport network.)

I suspect the view expressed in the quote from the ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ has a lot more going for it.

24

SomeCallMeTim 01.08.05 at 5:00 pm

Brett:

Personally, I don’t doubt that some of the problems of poverty are a result of choices made by the poor. What I object to is pretending that pointing that out, and then tacking on a “F*ck’em, they deserve it,” is tantamount to addressing the matter.

At the moment, you guys have a lock on the government; it really is your world, and we really are just trying to survive it. So if your poverty policy is “f*ck’em,” why write it? We already know that’s your policy (it’s not exactly a novel position in the Republican Party), and we’re not in much of a position to do much about it. Given that context, pointing to problems of the poor, and then saying, “they deserve it,” seems roughly analogous to offering a homeless drunk a can of beer just to get his face within range of your feet. Which bothers me. Because I’m “soft” like that.

25

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 5:02 pm

“They don’t get to choose not to be victimised by criminals.”

Ah, actually, in as much as crime rates vary radically from one place to another, (And over amazingly short distances, too!) and people are free to move, they do to a very large extent chose whether or not to be victimized by criminals. Not entirely, of course, but since when does something have to work 100% to be worth doing?

I think the real problem is all the bad choices people make, because they don’t realize there are other choices they COULD be making.

26

Peter 01.08.05 at 5:12 pm

The sentiments helpfully summarized by SomeCallMeTim and quoted by Belle above are the usual repugnant right-wing combination of callousness and self-aggrandisement – where the author’s own good fortune is ascribed to a combination of a dynamic will, incredible wit, intelligence and moral fortitude, and everyone else bad fortune is ascribed to slovenliness, weak moral character, stupidty and sloth – that we can expect from the right and those who espouse such sentiments deserve nothing but scorn.

I actually think there is likely some truth in this – certainly people are liable to attribute their good choices and actions to themselves and their bad choices and actions to uncharacteristic moods, moments of madness etc.

But does it not occur to you that a lot of people reading this thread might equally – and with far more empirical justification – conclude that on your side what we see are selfish ivory tower liberals so influenced by what are often little more than gonadal preferences for moral non-judgementalism, for casual sex, and for the abolition of family norms, into opposing social structures and social attitudes that have always acted to protect the poorest and most vulnerable? That if people like yourselves were less enamoured of sensual pleasure, the chaos and poverty far too many people suffer from would be less? The predictable calls for more state intervention by people like yourselves to solve these problems suggests the same self-serving, self-aggrandising attitudes.

27

Matt McGrattan 01.08.05 at 5:15 pm

““They don’t get to choose not to be victimised by criminals.”

Ah, actually, in as much as crime rates vary radically from one place to another, (And over amazingly short distances, too!) and people are free to move, they do to a very large extent chose whether or not to be victimized by criminals. Not entirely, of course, but since when does something have to work 100% to be worth doing?”

Now Brett, this is just nonsense. If you’re poor it’s often almost impossible to move from where you are.

Here in the UK if you live in council provided housing you basically live where they tell you to live and you don’t have a gigantic amount of choice in it. If you need housing at short notice you will be allocated a property in what’s euphemistically referred to as a ‘hard to let area’ [i.e. a shit-hole].

Moving out of that kind of area is next to impossible. The local authority may take years to find you a better place, if they find you one at all. If you want to move to private rented accomodation there are collossal barriers to doing so.

When my wife and I moved into our current rented accommodation we had to take out a bank loan to afford to do so. Not because the rent is unaffordable or because we have particularly low incomes but because the rental deposit and first month’s rent in advance was around 1500 pounds.

No-one living on or near the poverty-line could possibly come up with that kind of money – not without saving for many months or even years.

When you factor in delays obtaining housing benefit (for people on low-incomes) it becomes near impossible for anyone in poverty – even those in better than minimum wage jobs – to move to a lower crime area without expending a herculean level of effort.

28

Matt McGrattan 01.08.05 at 5:23 pm

Peter wrote:

“on your side what we see are selfish ivory tower liberals so influenced by what are often little more than gonadal preferences…”

Peter, I grew up on a deprived Scottish council estate in the 1980s. My grandparents lived and died in a bleak tower block in one of the most deprived and heroin ravagaed areas of inner-city Glasgow. I’m about as far away from the ‘selfish ivory tower liberal’ that you are prattling on about as it is possible to get.

I suspect I know far more about the realities of living in poverty than smug judgemental pricks like you will ever know.

So, politely, fuck right off…

29

McDuff 01.08.05 at 5:31 pm

Not logically, no, in the sense that it IS possible to be poor for reasons that have no relation to your marital status. But it’s undeniably true that marriage has advantages which make poverty far less likely, such as the possiblity of two incomes in the family, enlarging the circle of relatives who might help you through a bad patch, and, most critically, not being a single mother who can’t work because there’s a child to take care of.

Can we take this as an endorsement of gay marriage, Brett, to increase the options available to those who are both poor and homosexual?

30

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 5:31 pm

Well, Matt, I can see you’ve got a problem in that respect in the UK, because of some perhaps unintended side effects of social-demcrat type measures. It’s a lot easier for poor people to move in the US, of course.

31

Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 5:36 pm

“Can we take this as an endorsement of gay marriage, Brett, to increase the options available to those who are both poor and homosexual?”

Yeah, actually, you can. Provided you can get legislatures to enact it, instead of having courts do it by fiat. Though you can get quite a few of the benefits of marriage without marrying… For instance, you don’t have to marry to live in the same apartment.

32

Matt McGrattan 01.08.05 at 5:37 pm

Brett, I don’t know enough about the housing market in the US to be able to make any definitive argument here.

However, I assume that there is still a requirement to pay a deposit and rent in advance when moving into a new property?

Unless the deposits demanded in the US are substantially lower than they are here, where they usually amount to between 100% and 200% of a month’s rent, I’d imagine that finding that kind of money might still make it very difficult for those in genuine poverty i.e. with no spare money, to move.

Of course sometimes it’s possible to use the deposit from a previous property to pay the deposit on a new one, but generally the delay in the return of a deposit means that one needs to find the extra money (which as I said can be well over 1000 pounds) for at least a period of a month or two. Getting access to that kind of money isn’t easy for people without access to affordable credit and with no substantial savings.

33

mc 01.08.05 at 5:58 pm

Peter – I don’t know what kind of leftists you normally test your views against, but for what it is worth, among those I know, the reaction to your claim ‘poverty is mainly a consequence of the choices people make’ would not be outrage at the very idea that there is a connection between poverty and choice.
It would be, first, scepticism about whether this connection is causal, and if so which way round the causation goes (see various comments above); second, to the extent that it is causal, and choice does cause poverty, scepticism about whether it is the most important cause; and third, scepticism about the value of talking about choice in the abstract, independently of context. Of course all of us, including the poor, have to take (individual) responsibility for our (individual) choices; but at the same time all of us, including the poor, have to take (collective) responsibility for the (social) context against which we make those choices.
In fact, presumably you yourself agree with this – given that you complain about the ‘chaos’ and poverty which (you say) have resulted from ‘social liberalism’ and ‘family breakdown’. Surely that means acknowledging that it is at least more difficult for a young adult today than X years ago to choose stable family life – even if it is still their choice to make? But if so, can’t you accept that this is exactly what leftists think they are doing – not denying the significance of choice, but trying to provide for all in society the kind of resources and support such that holding them responsible for the choices they make is then a fair bargain – something it is reasonable for society to expect and demand from everyone?

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Robin Green 01.08.05 at 6:05 pm

I think there is a way to reconcile the view that welfare can act as a disincentive to responsible behaviour, with the view that people ought to be protected against the horrors of absolute poverty, and with the view that this protection ought to be provided by progressive taxation in the interests of economic justice:

Basic Income, aka Citizen’s Income.

This policy would mean that every penny (after tax) of your income – from work, from investments and from pensions – would be retained by you in addition to the Guaranteed Minimum Income set by the state – not as a replacement for it.

There would thus be no “welfare trap” where you couldn’t afford to leave welfare and take a job because the costs would be greater than the benefits. (This really affects some claimants – especially single parents, who need childcare to start work, and I believe the British government is starting to address this particular trap).

No need for a minimum wage, either, as (by assumption) the guaranteed minimum income would be sufficient to give workers a real free choice as to whether to work or not.

From the standpoint of a future Basic Income society, todays welfare and taxation arrangements might look like a gigantic and disproportionate tax on the poorest members of society.

Of course, most right-wingers are likely to regard this idea as “socialist nonsense”, at least on first viewing. But the idea is slowly gaining currency internationally. The Brazilian parliament recently passed a law which instructed the Brazilian government to institute a basic income in Brazil, taking into account Brazil’s economic situation.

35

Cog 01.08.05 at 6:07 pm

According to the UN, child poverty rates in Sweden are the lowest in the world, whereas child poverty rates in the US are second only to Mexico among OECD nations. Yet Sweden has the highest rate of single motherhood among all OECD nations.

But don’t let data get in the way of a good argument. Screw the lack of social safety nets; clearly the leading cause of poverty in America is the overpowering, irresistible sensuality of ivory tower intellectuals.

36

Katherine 01.08.05 at 6:19 pm

I don’t know about moving in England. But it is actually complete bullshit to talk about how easy it is for poor people to move in the United States.

In the cities–they are safer than they used to be. But as neighborhoods improve, prices rise, and poor people often move out.

Outside the cities, housing is cheaper. But there is no functioning public transportation system. None. So you need to buy a car, or, perhaps if you live in the suburbs, you can subject yourself to some of the truly shittiest bus systems in existence. My family is from Nassau County, Long Island, one of the most densely populated suburbs in America. We briefly had a series of home health aides come in to take care of a family member. Not only did the agency give them significantly less than half the money we paid (there are all sorts of retrictive contract terms to prevent aides from being paid privately), they often had two hour commutes in each direction. And they often had to work for more than family at once.

Towns are also allowed to write zoning laws that effectively keep any poor people out.

37

OhReilly 01.08.05 at 6:21 pm

Some people believe in a just world, where badness is punished by failure and goodness rewarded with success. Thus they must define those who have failed as bad… and be rewarded themselves with a nice little frisson of pleasure at how wonderfully good they themselves must be not to be in that situation. Trouble is, it is *effectiveness* not goodness that is rewarded. Thus a very effective but bad corporate criminal is not only going to have a much fatter wallet than a very good but ineffective burger flipper, but will also be rewarded with an automatic assumption of goodness by much of the world, whilst we piss on an incompetent burger flipper from a great height at every opportunity. Indeed, many people will respond to what I have to say by pretty much implying that any good person just can’t be an ineffective burger flipper. However, having flipped burgers myself in my youth, I can assure you that badness and inability to flip burgers have very little correlation. I don’t suppose anyone will dare suggest all effective businessmen are good people… plenty of well documented evidence to the contrary on that one.

The just world does not exist, and trying to impose the idea results in systematically calling some badness goodness, and some goodness badness.

38

Delicious Pundit 01.08.05 at 6:35 pm

That if people like yourselves were less enamoured of sensual pleasure, the chaos and poverty far too many people suffer from would be less?

Ah, yes. A return to the sexual values of the time of Dickens. No poverty there…

39

Jason Kuznicki 01.08.05 at 6:48 pm

I don’t find the Orwell quote persuasive for two reasons.

First, the price of food as a percentage of overall budget has never been lower than in the present-day United States. Even for the poor, there simply isn’t the same kind of struggle to put food on the table anymore. Now it’s a queston of making good food choices, rather than eating vs. starving.

Second, it strikes me that Orwell basically concedes the conservatives’ point: The rich are better able to make sacrifices for the long-term good. That he concedes the point while painting a sympathetic picture of the poor does very little to change my mind; the point remains intact. Sacrifice and hard work are still better than profligacy if you want to escape poverty.

40

abb1 01.08.05 at 6:51 pm

Yes, I think poverty certainly is a choice in many cases, probably in most cases. And it’s a rational choice – the minimum wage is too low.

It just doesn’t make sense to a rational person to do hard manual work for 5 bucks/hour.

And it’s real easy to fix: bump the minimum wage to $15-20/hour – like here in Geneva – and poof! Suddenly poverty is gone, petite crime’s gone, everybody’s happy.

41

Matt 01.08.05 at 7:09 pm

Matt M & Brett,

Here in Philly, when one moves to a new apartment, one must pay first and last months rent and a deposit, which is usually equal to a month’s rent. So, at move-in time one must come up w/ 3 months rent. That’s pretty hard. Now, it could be that if one has found an apartment that’s exactly the same price as one’s old place, and one gets the deposit back in time, one need only come up w/ one’s month rent, plust the moving expenses (very likely to be at least $100, in my experience.) But, that’s unlikely- if one’s moving to a “better” place, the rent will likely be higher, and the landlord can keep the deposit for up to a month, if it’s given back at all. Also, the deposit and first month’s rent are usually due well before one moves in, so one will still likely have to come up w/ a pretty fair amount of money up front. That can be quite hard. Add this to the conditions Katherine mentions, and the idea that it’s “quite easy” to move for the poor (or me, who’s above the poverty level, though not by much.)

42

Jim Harrison 01.08.05 at 7:18 pm

Unmoderated capitalism produces grinding poverty, which is precisely why no nation opts for it. Even conservative America has Social Security, Medicare, Medicade and other redistributive mechanisms. Absent those, we’d have poverty galore.

Pointing out that poverty levels are not terribly high in the U.S. is like noticing that Lake Erie is pretty clean these days. In both cases, the relatively good result didn’t happen without government action.

43

bad Jim 01.08.05 at 7:25 pm

There is a general tendency for people to attribute their successes to their own efforts and their failures to bad luck, but to attribute the success of others to luck and their failure to sloth. The cited thread sounds like the elevation of this tendency to an ideology.

In the same vein, it’s been said that Hollywood’s liberalism is in part due to an awareness of how much one’s good fortune is due to being born with the right attributes and also to pure dumb luck.

44

W. Kiernan 01.08.05 at 7:27 pm

Peter replies: When someone pretends to be stupid rather than deal with your points, it usually doesn’t speak well for their argument.

Oh come on, how else can I respond to

… As the Economist famously showed, a person’s chances of being poor are 0.5% if they:

i) marry and stay married
ii) complete high school
iii) take a job even at minimum wage.

except with mockery? The quote asserts that if you do i), ii), and iii), then you will almost certainly not be poor. Certainly there is a correlation, though not so strong as the one between not-in-povertyness and yacht ownership. But obviously, whatever causality might be revealed by that correlation goes more to than from i), ii) and iii).

I had minimum-wage jobs for a few years after I got out of hi-skool. If you lived on a minimum-wage job in the U.S.A. back then in 1973, you didn’t escape being poor, you were poor! That’s assuming that, even equipped with that valuable high school diploma, you could find a minimum-wage job in 1973. And adjusting for inflation, U.S. minimum-wage is today about 25% less than in 1973.

One thing I couldn’t afford on minimum-wage jobs in the mid-seventies economic slump was to go to college. (Which, contrary to The Economist, this fellow Graff says is “a virtual prerequisite for success and a decent life.”) Again, this has gotten even worse since 1973, for while the minimum-wage has fallen relative to the CPI rate of inflation, the cost of college has consistently risen faster than the CPI.

45

x 01.08.05 at 7:50 pm

“Occasionally, you run across the very rare situation where it’s hard to entirely blame the poor for their situation, like natural disasters.”

My, how generous. I like that “not entirely”. The kind of attitude that helps put the compassionate in compassionate conservative(tm). Feel the love, like a warm blanket given to a homeless person… (which of course, out of metaphor, is not an act of love but an incentive to relish the joys of poverty. It should be criminalised, no really.)

Strange bedfellows:

“I suppose laziness or a lack of desire to accomplish anything disgusts me most. … I’m not an unkind person by any means. People that I love, I do anything for. I support my parents. They’re both retired and have no retirement income. I support them completely. I take care of everybody that I care about. But you won’t see me giving a dime to a beggar on the street. … *liberal idealism is often the downfall of America; when you let people think it’s okay to hold their hands out and expect other people, who work hard to get where they are, to give something to you*.”

When even worthless millionaire celebrities feel qualified to give lectures about hard work and blather on about liberals and social issues, what do you expect?

Enjoyment of one’s wealth requires that you hate those who do not have a wealth to enjoy. God forbid you should have a sense of proportion.

46

Ken C. 01.08.05 at 7:51 pm

“it seems that leftists and liberals are really, really innumerate… anyone interested in the real world and good in math seems to be very libertarian or conservative”

Odd, the overwhelming majority of the many people I know who do research in computer science or mathematics are neither libertarian nor conservative; they are certainly Bush opponents.

47

Avedon 01.08.05 at 8:37 pm

I have an idea! Let’s sterilize all the poor people so they won’t have kids they can’t afford.

And then let’s see who is willing to work for the rich people.

48

Jeremy Osner 01.08.05 at 8:40 pm

W. Kieran raises a good point — you have a vanishingly tiny chance of being poor if you own a yacht — and surely yacht ownership is a choice.

49

Jason McCullough 01.08.05 at 8:46 pm

Er—which decision? The decision to support a mate rather than let the mate starve to death? The decision to bear a child to term rather than to abort? The decision to have a minimum wage job rather than a better-paying job as a machinist? The decision, perhaps, to lose one’s job after one has started a family?

The common retort that “well I’m not giving the poor any sympathy until they give up all aspects of humanity that cost more than nickel” is probably another post in itself.

50

Jason McCullough 01.08.05 at 8:50 pm

Second, it strikes me that Orwell basically concedes the conservatives’ point: The rich are better able to make sacrifices for the long-term good. That he concedes the point while painting a sympathetic picture of the poor does very little to change my mind; the point remains intact. Sacrifice and hard work are still better than profligacy if you want to escape poverty.

Ever thought the rich are more able to sacrifice for the long-term because they’ve got the short-term paid for? Lot easier to focus on going to college when you don’t have to work 40 hour weeks in high school.

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Brett Bellmore 01.08.05 at 9:39 pm

You see effect, we see cause. Anyway, life isn’t fair; The virtues that are optional for the wealthy, are life and death for the poor… they can’t afford to make the bad choices those better off can recover from.

Like I said, maybe we need to make home economics a manditory class, and go at it seriously.

52

Bob 01.08.05 at 9:40 pm

“The deep-fried Mars bar is alive and well in Scotland with more than a fifth of chip shops serving up the delicacy.

“A study by NHS Greater Glasgow found 22% of Scottish take-aways had the foodstuff on its menu and another 17% used to sell them.

“Researchers surveyed 500 chip shops and found children are the main buyers, with one shop selling up to 200 a week.”
– from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/4103415.stm

“Thousands of Scottish lives lost to coronary heart disease (CHD) and diabetes could be saved through better medical treatment, a report has claimed. . .

“An estimated half a million people north of the border have CHD. More people in Scotland die from the disease than in any other part of the UK, with 261 deaths per 100,000 men and 98 per 100,000 women in 2001. . . “
– from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/3719507.stm

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Zorkon 01.08.05 at 9:57 pm

The conservative argument amounts to saying “people should be better than they are”, and then “we tell them how to be better, they don’t take our advice, so there’s an end ont”.

However, if a large number of people AREN’T “getting better”, perhaps rather than let them writhe around in pain, something systematic is wrong and something systematic should be done?

54

Antoni Jaume 01.08.05 at 10:04 pm

“[…]Anyway, life isn’t fair;[…]”

That is true, and only criminals find no problem with that. That is your choice, mr Bellmore.

DSW

55

Ereshkigal 01.08.05 at 10:12 pm

A pound of ham will make the equivalent of 20 quarter pounders, by my math. (This somewhat misses the point, as I wouldn’t put a quarter pound of ham on my sandwich, and probably neither would you.)

I prefer MY math, the more traditional variety that has four quarters to the whole. Unfortunately, that would give us only four quarter-pounders to a pound of meat, and would require five pounds of meat to make 20 quarter-pounders.

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Uncle Kvetch 01.08.05 at 11:21 pm

Anyway, life isn’t fair; The virtues that are optional for the wealthy, are life and death for the poor… they can’t afford to make the bad choices those better off can recover from.

Which suggests that maybe the poor face obstacles in getting out of poverty that aren’t entirely due to their own personal failings. Which pretty much undercuts your whole argument, it seems to me.

And “life isn’t fair” isn’t much of an argument; it can justify just about any form of social organization all the way to feudalism. Some kinds of society are more fair than others…aren’t they?

57

Jack 01.08.05 at 11:48 pm

Brett, making these choices life or death for the poor is a choice not a fact. If it were not the rates and impact of poverty would be alot more uniform.

FWIW I found eating well in the US very hard. There was good food and cheap food but very rarely good cheap food. Far too much sugar and salt.

PPP figures in comparisons of gdp between US and European countries flatter the US not vice versa.

I believe that the average height of the American male has not increased since the 60’s and is now somewhat less than the average in Europe. This is usually a nutrition related phenomenon. (As I understand it this controls for the effects of Mexican immigration). I don’t have a cite but believe it was discused here.

Matt McG is too hard on London. In central London almost everywhere is near good fresh produce. There are street markets which undercut the supermarkets and many Turkish and other stores that stock fresh vegetables. Public transport has also been improving.

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dave heasman 01.09.05 at 12:04 am

Matt McG -“I grew up on a council estate in central Scotland in exactly the kind of circumstances which Dowler is talking about and then lived in a number of different parts of inner-city Glasgow and in none of these places was good fresh food out of reach.”

Would it have been in reach if you were a 75-year-old woman? Remember, that’s where the poverty in the UK is concentrated.

Funnily enough, London is better for food, because of all the immigrant shops selling fresh produce and the excellent and free bus services for old people. But if the road is wet,and it’s cold, sometimes a 5-minute walk to the bus is too much.

59

JO'N 01.09.05 at 12:55 am

Peter writes:

> That if people like yourselves were
> less enamoured of sensual pleasure,
> the chaos and poverty far too many
> people suffer from would be less?

So, poor people are poor because secular Jews like anal sex?

Is that REALLY your final answer?

60

drew 01.09.05 at 12:59 am

Brett-

Given that you want the courts to overturn democratically enacted social programs like Social Security it’s sort of ironic that you’re now decrying judical activism.

61

Mill 01.09.05 at 1:04 am

Uh, why the need for absolutes? Some poor people are poor because of bad choices, and some poor people are poor because of bad luck. (I am thinking of specific acquaintances here, not hypotheticals, and I include myself at a younger age in the former category.)

The argument surely shouldn’t be about “it’s always their fault”/”it’s never their fault”. It should be about “Given that some people need the help and some people just need to get off their asses, how can we construct a program that distinguishes between the two types accordingly?”

And even that is only assuming that a program which helps 5 genuinely deserving people but also helps 5 people who are simply lazy is unbearable, which I don’t think is true. Maybe I’m just too liberal but it really doesn’t bother me if a tiny proportion of my taxes go towards subsidising individuals who choose, with whatever degree of consciousness, the deeply unpleasant welfare lifestyle. (Especially since it also helps people who didn’t choose to live that way, such as the shitty-lifestyle folks’ kids. OMG COMPLEXITY!!!1!)

Once corporate welfare and pork-barrelling is eliminated (ha!), -then- I’ll have the spare outrage to spend on the relatively minor burden of the subset of welfare recipients who are “undeserving”.

62

anon 01.09.05 at 1:20 am

First, Brett Bellmore and friends should read Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Second, most arguments asserting that the poor have made poor choices leading to their poverty assume that those who make the “bad” choices had enough information to know the choices were bad and the alternatives. They also ignore the fact that a large percentage of those in poverty are children. In what sense are these children making choices?

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Matt McGrattan 01.09.05 at 1:21 am

Dave Heasman:

That’s a good point, actually. I can think of a few places I have direct experience of where it’d have been quite difficult for the elderly or anyone with poor physical health to have shopped well and of a few places where it’d have been pretty hard for them to shop at all for anything other than tinned produce.

The point with respect to London is also well taken. People living in parts of Glasgow with a high number of ethnic grocers also have access to cheap fresh produce a lot closer to home [it’s one of the nice things about East Oxford as well].

64

rob 01.09.05 at 1:31 am

It baffles me that the right is able to get away with saying the poor choose to be poor, so we don’t have to care about them. Societies can alter the costs of choices, and unless there is some argument that the costs of choices that the poor took are appropriate, it’s no kind of argument at all to say x chooses y. If we shot everyone who had extra-marital sex, would people be going round saying, they chose to have extra-marital sex, it’s fair enough? No, we be going ‘my f****** god, what in christ’s name is going on?’ But they would have chosen it, so, by the conservative argument, it would be fine.

65

rob 01.09.05 at 2:22 am

‘Below the Breadline’ by Fran Abrams is good for the UK on the subject of ‘Nickel and Dimed’ (summary: minimum wage work is generally soul-destroying, both in terms of what you have to do for the majority of your waking hours, and in terms of the resources it leaves you with to spend in the rest of them, although less bad in the north, where there is cheap housing). Also, the second to last sentence in the previous post should clearly read ‘No, we would be going…’.

66

Brett Bellmore 01.09.05 at 2:35 am

“Second, most arguments asserting that the poor have made poor choices leading to their poverty assume that those who make the “bad” choices had enough information to know the choices were bad and the alternatives.”

Geeze, how many times do I have to say it: I’m suggesting that, if a lot of poor people are poor because they’re making destructive choices, and if they’re really making those destructive choices because they don’t know better, (Rather than because of poor impulse control, or sheer stupidity.) then education ought to help. You think I learned to eat cheaply out of a college text book? Nah, I took home economics in high school. Perhaps we ought to make a beefed up home economics class required learning, since a lot of poor people aren’t getting that knowlege passed on from their parents?

67

Jim Harrison 01.09.05 at 4:33 am

Anybody ever heard of cultural capital?

68

Bucky 01.09.05 at 5:37 am

As Jim Harrison noted above, “Unmoderated capitalism produces grinding poverty…”
And certainly without capitalism at all, or money, or any other set of symbols that represent work and/or value, poverty would be something else entirely. A sickness maybe, a Darwinian failure, evolutionary loss. That’s the heart of the right’s stance, eh? Devil take the hindmost?
But it’s promoted from within an entirely artificial system of energy holding and transfer, a system that’s neither benign nor wise nor insightful, nor designed to improve anything but the lives and life-chances of the people it most benefits to begin with.

We gained our amazing immune systems from a race against pathogenic evolution in which the individual losers, those whose immunities were not strong enough, were de-selected. Now, at the same time they repudiate that method of selection and improvement, these bloodless fops want to return to Darwinian selection, from within a capitalist-biosphere they created and control, while at the same time thwarting organic Darwinian forces on every hand. And blame the losers for their losing.

69

Jack 01.09.05 at 6:00 am

I see a lot of gated communities in Brett’s brave new world.

70

bad Jim 01.09.05 at 8:06 am

Returning to the food theme, we should never underestimate the allure of nationally advertised brands. Why else would Americans consume such a vast volume of the world’s worst beer?

Unpackaged foodstuffs are unvalidated, undesirable, suspect. Just ask the nearest teenager.

71

John E Thelin 01.09.05 at 9:31 am

Oddly enough, all those rightists who espouse the meritocratic aspects of wealth v. poverty never seem to want to take the next step: a 100% estate tax.

If one wants people to succeed on their own merits, why allow them the benefits of inheriting money? The rich kids will already have had better schooling (and nutrition, to stay on topic), so they should havr an edge even *without* the accident-of-birth free handout.

I’m not suggesting this is anything but a bad idea (just like its opposite of no estate tax), but the above does seem to follow pretty naturally from “Are you poor? Well, that’s yer own fault, you lazy, stinking bum” – unless you think rich = good, rather than good = rich.

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Dan Simon 01.09.05 at 10:32 am

I was thinking today of how much better off the residents of American inner cities would be if the Singapore model of hawker centres prevailed. Sure, there’s fattening char kway teow, but every hawker centre has a fruit juice and sliced fruit stand with cheap papaya, watermelon, and kiwi fruit, not to mention carrot juice.

And cake, too. Let them eat cake!

(Oh, sorry–I didn’t notice that this unbelievably ignorant, contemptuous comment about the insufficient diets of the poor was mean to be condescendingly sympathetic.)

I understand that crime is a deterrent, but why exactly is it that US inner-city markets have such awful, expensive, fly-blown produce, even the ones in Oakland CA? Is this true in poor neighborhoods in Great Britain?

I heartily recommend Theodore Dalrymple’s demolition of the supposed “food poverty” problem in Britain. I expect the situation in America is similar.

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rob 01.09.05 at 11:06 am

Dan,

Dalrymple’s piece is fine, it seems to me, until the last causal claim, where he argues that the reason people eat badly is because they were never taught to eat together by their parents, one of whom is often absent. Thus poverty, crime, and every single social ill in the modern world is linked to family breakdown. But this seems to me like a supposition: although he says that subcontintental criminals who he sees are not generally malnourished, he would also need to show that criminals from two parent white families which ate together also weren’t malnourished to prove the claim that families eating together reverses food poverty, since presumably, not all white criminal come from single parent families. There’s probably also something to be said about revealed preferences in his claim that demand drives supply.

He is right about what there is and isn’t available to eat in areas generally though: if you’re prepared to travel a little to get it, fresh fruit and veg is usually available somewhere reasonably close by. That said, the standard, both quality and healthwise, of food shops in my area of London has improved quite dramatically as it has been gentrified: organic shops have sprung up, Tennessee fried chicken has turned into a posh pizza place. It is indisputably easier to eat well in rich areas, although not impossible to do it in poor areas.

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Jack 01.09.05 at 12:51 pm

dan, the Hawker food market comment is no kind of ‘let them eat cake’ argument. fast food is much better in teh far east than it is here. I think Japan does it even better.

I also fail to see how the Dalrymple piece is a demolition of anything. Even among the poor burglars are an insignificant minority and most of this debate is about obesity.

Most basic microeconomics courses show price discrimination in which the vendor will aim to make cheap products unattractive to high value customers with the result that they sell cheap crap cheaply and charge over the odds for the rest. It is hard to see a clearer example of this in practice than on the aisles of a modern supermarket and hard to avoid the thought that this will have an effect. It’s surely most patronising to presume that the poor are not rational actors.

As far as breakdown of the family goes, why do liberals get all the blame? Surely an economic system that would fail without almost universal labour market participation must place some pressure on families.

75

John Emerson 01.09.05 at 1:23 pm

I’m coming in late, but normally it’s leftists and feminists who oppose having children and want it to be easy to avoid this choice. It’s the right wing where you find the natalism. Right wing natalists even try to forbid contraception if they have a chance (talk to the Pope about this).

I imagine Brett will now back up one more step and say that he’s pro-choice *iff* it isn’t mandated by the courts.

People talk about how wonderful intellectual independence is, but libertarianish types like Galt and Bellmore are able to cherry-pick their positions and step back and forth over political lines, without regard for the actual political decisions that are taking place. Right now we’re moving toward Social Darwinist natalism, and Brett is fine with that.

If you’re of a rightist tendency, it seems quite right for parents to be punished for the sin of having children, if only as an object lesson (and source of self-congratulation) for others. But what are the children being punished for?

76

Brett Bellmore 01.09.05 at 2:15 pm

“If you’re of a rightist tendency, it seems quite right for parents to be punished for the sin of having children, if only as an object lesson (and source of self-congratulation) for others. But what are the children being punished for?”

Notice the unstated premise there, that if somebody gets into trouble, through no fault of mine, and I don’t help them out of it, I’m somehow punishing them? Well, I reject that premise.

It might be nice of me to help them out of their jam, but I’m in no way obligated to do it.

77

Uncle Kvetch 01.09.05 at 3:31 pm

That said, the standard, both quality and healthwise, of food shops in my area of London has improved quite dramatically as it has been gentrified

A similar dynamic obtains here in NYC, but it’s a mixed bag. In the case of my neighborhood, which has gentrified rapidly over the last 10 years, there’s much more good food to be found…but there’s much less cheap food around. The cheaper stores in the area–a Key Food (nasty, poorly run, but cheap), an A&P, and an independent supermarket–have all closed, with the result that we have only high-end supermarkets (Food Emporium, D’Agostino’s) and little corner bodegas, which are very expensive for basic staples. Just pointing out that gentrification is a decidedly mixed bag in terms of this discussion.

78

Cranky Observer 01.09.05 at 4:14 pm

Mark Kleiman has posted some thoughts over at his blog. One of the best essays I have ever seen on American eating habits in fact. Choice quote:

14. Eating habits are heavily custom-bound, and someone living in a social setting where the customary diet is unhealthy will, on average, consume a less healthy diet than the same person would in a society where the customary diet is healthy. Trying to explain individual dietary choices on a purely individualistic basis is simply a mistake, and gets the wrong answers.

Cranky

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gmanedit 01.09.05 at 5:30 pm

Since no one has spoken up for sensual pleasure, let me point out that we live in our bodies. Many people live with chronic pain, and more don’t feel pain because they are numb.

80

ohrilley 01.09.05 at 5:48 pm

Why is it that some people are so unforgiving of other people making mistakes? On the whole people don’t actually want to fail, so mistakes are either occassional and accidental, or they are frequent and the result of ignorance, illness, lack of confidence etc. If we suspect some individuals of deliberatelly putting together a hand for bidding open misere, then what does it say about the their lack of other reasonable options?

81

Ohrilley 01.09.05 at 5:55 pm

I’d like to address the sensual pleasure issue too. Rich or poor, nothing wrong with feeling good occassionally.

82

SomeCallMeTim 01.09.05 at 7:53 pm

Brett:

“It might be nice of me to help them out of their jam, but I’m in no way obligated to do it.”

Such comments usually seem to be premised on some strong claim about property rights (“The government shouldn’t take my property to (a) give to some idiot, or (b) use in a way that isn’t beneficial to me.”) In general, I’m relatively sympathetic to that argument. But (I assume) you just supported an Administration that claimed the right to throw US citizens in indefinite detention without a trial or access to a lawyer. And (I assume) you’d choose to give up all of your property rather than spend a substantial part of your life in jail. (I would, in any case). To me, it looks like property rights depend, in part, on some requirement that the government properly justify incarcerating you indefinitely before doing so. So I’m not so sure how much weight I’m supposed to give to your (my assumption) unspoken claim about the strength of property rights.

What am I missing here?

83

anon 01.09.05 at 9:17 pm

I doubt that poor people in the US ever get their security deposits back.

I make the median income for my region (more-or-less precisely), am college-educated, and come from a middle-class background. It took me three months to get mine back from my last (shithole) apartment — and that with the help of a law student friend and the threat of a lawsuit.

If my friend hadn’t offered to help, I probably still would be fighting it.

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bellatrys 01.09.05 at 9:38 pm

Um, this bit about getting marrried and choosing whether or not to have children?

That isn’t acceptable.

Not to a conservative *Christian* at least.

Contraceptives are out – they’re immoral, either becuase of being ‘abortifacients’ [sic] or being against nature [condoms].

So is sterilization – against nature.

So how exactly is this “self-control” going to be enforced – “Just Say No!” to sex? Has that *ever* worked in the history of humanity? The catholic church, chief pusher of the meme and all the anti-contraceptive memes, has a dismal track record from before the Borgias to the present hour.

So this secular conservative worldview is *not* going to float as far as the theocratic conservatives are concerned…

[imagine high-school after class chant: “Fight! Fight! FIGHT!” – this is what you’re heading for.]

Aside from that, you’re demanding impossibilities – that humans not be humans – the same problem that conservatives decry the old socialists for. And clearly brett & co do NOT personally know what it is to be poor, and get all their data on poverty from the minions of the Four Sisters and sundry other millionaires.

I have as much respect for them as I do for the celibate celibacy-peddlers – just because I personally have a) never been drunk or stoned, b) never been tempted to be drunk or drugs, c) have no problem saying no, it would be foolish for me to say then that alcoholism is not a real problem, that it’s merely a voluntary choice and alcoholics should not be given counseling and support…

–Actually I used to hold something like that when I was a naive high school student, lacking in empathy and life experience. But that was a long time ago.

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Ancarett 01.09.05 at 10:48 pm

How in the heck are poor people with children supposed to do all this travelling for their healthy food shopping (by public transit, on foot or by car) lugging home loads of groceries along with a crying toddler and an infant? Don’t tell me they should leave the children at home alone, not at least until the oldest is of a suitable age (12? 14? What are the standards or laws where you live?).

When can they do this if they’re working in one of the many minimum wage jobs where their employers chop up their days into puree and carefully ensure that they never approach fulltime hours in order to keep from having to pay benefits? (And this time of year many of these minimum wage workers find their hours slashed to under 20/week as employers cut payrolls to deal with the post-Christmas slump.) So the worker takes up two or more part time jobs, which often still don’t make full time, often conflict with each other and require even more travelling. When do they squeeze in a trip to the healthy grocer, then to home to stow the food, and then the extra time to prepare whole foods?

Even if you don’t work and try to feed your family healthy foods, there are many barriers to this: transportation, facilities, access to cooking utensils, etc.

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Kevin Hayden 01.09.05 at 11:25 pm

Brett: “Like I said, maybe we need to make home economics a manditory class, and go at it seriously.”

Ah yes. Being the deluded liberal that I am, when I was a case manager at a shelter for homeless women with children, a group of ladies from the agricultural extension agency came in to teach the women how to budget and live thriftily, pointing out how easy a family of three could live on $1,000/month. When the Moms pointed out that their impressive generous ‘welfare trap’ income – including food stamps – was closer to $650/month, the ladies took their leave to study the issue and said they’d be back in two weeks with a tighter budget. Two weeks later they called and said they’d determined it was impossible to do. There went our home ec plan.

Yet the fact is, the poor don’t have the choice of saying “it can’t be done.” They have to make it work, and they do. By their wits. Even when the only options are bad ones, with a potential to compound their problems, like picking up some babysitting money and not reporting the money, putting them at risk of being jailed for welfare fraud. You might be amazed at the actual ingenuity in practice that the poor command, that hardly deserves having their ‘bad’ choices emphasived.

Peter: “That if people like yourselves were less enamoured of sensual pleasure, the chaos and poverty far too many people suffer from would be less?”

Your words are in conflict with themselves. You have gained the sensual pleasures of smug self-righteousness, and apparently have not fallen into poverty. Yes, chaos would likely be less if we all chose the Jesuit life, but poverty would remain; it would simply be embraced by the monkish. Your idea is so grand in theory that I just don’t understand why you and others have had little success selling such a perfect idea.

Peter: “and stay married”

I agree this is a place where a better choice would have worked. I had me first mate tied with half-hitch knots, instead of bowline knots. Thus she was able to slip her bonds and escape the root cellar. With me second mate, I chose to cut off ‘er hands entire and our marriage has survived 43 years…

Are you saying that if one poor person in a marital knot is smart enough to know the importance of staying married while the other is too lacking in common sense, that both deserve poverty for the choice of the one? Or that one partner (the smarter one) in a marriage should get to call the shots, while denying the free will of the other? Perhaps you make the case that they both are responsible because they should have made a better choice in marriage partners to begin with. But that implies two things: that deciding on a mate is not a crapshoot at any income level. And that poor people have the option of choosing a mate from the same pool the rich swim in: well-educated, good breeding lines, with a dowry or a relative willing to loan money at moments where a capital infusion might help.

I’m of the mind that life is a process of ‘trial-and-error.’ I’ve found that for every formula for success, there’s not a few, but many exceptions. I learned, for example, with my food stamp caseload, that nearly 80% of our caseload were there for six months or less – dealing with a short term crisis. Another 10% (approx) were there for exceptional reasons like severe disabilities, not likely to ever be free of the need for outside help. Which left about 10% who included the substance abusers, the lazy, and the dumber-than-a-fencepost crowd – the stereotypes applied to the 90% who either have the self-motivation to move ahead, or simply, can’t.

The reality in the US is that most welfare flows to the middle (such as FHA mortgages and other housing programs), while welfare to the top (tax incentives to business and pork provided by lobbyists) flows in greater amounts still. (and spare me the differentials between tax cuts and pure welfare).

The only real welfare trap for the poorest occurred when conservatives decided in most states that an able-bodied male in a household precluded all members from getting help with anything but food and maybe medical aid. The result of that was to force marriages & partnerships to end, or to force the poor to lie, to be certain at least the women and children could gain help with the rent.

Had they not imposed that barrier, they could have set a time limit of six months to avoid the risk of folks getting institutionalized as welfare-dependents, without imposing added family dysfunctions where none may have existed previously.

As for choosing to parent only when it becomes affordable, I guess you mean that even married people must stick to abstinence because contraception choices aren’t foolproof. Which also overlooks that a couple could choose to have children when both have a good income. Then a plant closing, a recession, hyper-inflation, a car accident, etc. screws up that best-laid plan.

And the minimum-wage-steadily argument doesn’t hold either. My life and that of some siblings serve as the reality models here. When a layoff occurred, I took whatever job I could find so my downtimes rarely exceeded 30 days. And on numerous occasions, I juggled two or three such underpaid jobs to meet basic expenses. As a result, I’m a jack of all the lousy-wage trades, and have mastered few. Employers with minimum wage jobs won’t hire me now – I’m overqualified and they fear I’ll move on as soon as a better option exists… and they’re correct. But now the downtimes are so long that it takes many months of new work to get back to breakeven.

Ultimately, there’s some truth to the natural selection argument. Stop all welfare and the misfits will die off. But then there’ll be a much smaller labor pool to pick your cheap produce, to iron your shirts and to wax your heinys. Furthermore, some of the more enterprising misfits will decide that, along the exit corridor to life, there’s nothing at risk to behead the well off to gain an extra day of breath. Another choice that will seem bad to a theoretician, but one that will occur, as history’s made clear.

It must be terribly annoying that we don’t just have the courtesy to die without imagining how fun it would be to use our 2nd amendment rights just once, to stick a rifle barrel up your bum long enough to gain your confession to making a few bad choices yourself. (And I say this with full recognition that maybe you haven’t, and that you’ve achieved perfection. Which still would make it an exceptional educational endeavor, as some of us poor folks would like to know what the correct choice is when faced with a rifle up the bum).

Btw, don’t misinterpret my words to mean I’m making a threat against you or any individual. My point is that any animal cornered – even cornered by natural selection – is likely to be dangerous and unpredictable for a bit. Survival instincts can be messy things, but must be considered as a natural side-effect of pure libertarianism after theory collides with reality.

Brett: It might be nice of me to help them out of their jam, but I’m in no way obligated to do it.

But you are obligated to pay taxes to governments that aid the poor, or to find your mythical better society that lacks such obligation. Since there is a right choice and wrong choice to every question in your world, to maintain consistency with your belief system, your only choice then is to live in a society that does nothing for the poor. Go then, and be merry, and enjoy your choice. Your obligation to this society is nil and has been received in the spirit you intended. You clearly contribute nothing of value to my country except monetary theory, which sells for a dime a dozen these days.

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Brett Bellmore 01.09.05 at 11:28 pm

“What am I missing here?”

The fact that I didn’t vote for Bush because I liked him, let alone agreed with all (or even most!) of his policies, but only because I loathed Kerry more?

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Brett Bellmore 01.09.05 at 11:38 pm

Kevin, there’s an obvious difference between moral obligation, and the brute fact that I’ll be shot if I don’t obey some people’s orders. And one of those differences is that I don’t have to pretend to accept as right and noble the motives that drive those orders.

In other words, you’ve got my obediance, albiet at gunpoint. No NOT expect to lie about liking it.

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Kevin Hayden 01.10.05 at 12:22 am

At ‘povertypoint’ can feel like at gunpoint, Brett. It can hamper one’s capacity for best choices, especially since survival while poor, to a degree, regularly compels obedience, or else.

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Matt McGrattan 01.10.05 at 1:11 am

Kevin, lots of good points.

One good thing about the UK is that some of the measures enacted by the Labour government of the past 7 years have gone some way to offering people a way out of the poverty trap you describe.

I’m not the biggest fan of New Labour but moves like the Working Family Tax Credit really have made it substantially easier — by essentially ensuring a minimum level of income which means that almost everyone is certain to be better off working than they are claiming benefits — for people to escape from the poverty trap.

Things are far from perfect but I can think of a number of people I personally know — mostly single mothers — who have managed to return to work or retrain and who had found that impossible in the past because any option they took that involved going off benefits and into low-paid work inevitably left them worse off.

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go and the lack of good quality affordable housing and childcare in many parts of the country still make life a lot more difficult for those on low-incomes than they really ought to be.

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sara 01.10.05 at 1:31 am

The social ignorance of these people is amazing: don’t they know that McDonald’s is the opiate of the masses, hence they as pro-business should be for it,. People who are actually hungry (over the long term and as a class) tend to have socialist revolutions, as twentieth-century history shows.

I propose the title for Ms. Galt’s commenters and their like, here and at Asymmetrical Information:

Galtonians.

This is an allusion to Francis Galton, the inventor of eugenics. The new biography Extreme Measures shows what a quack he was.

Of course, they are also Norquistians: the level of irrationality (masquerading as hyper-rationality) on this subject of food and welfare for the poor reminds me of the story (apocryphal?) that Grover Norquist’s father used to take his small son’s ice cream cone away and eat it, telling him that each bite represented a sector of government allocation. Sorry, boy, the worthless welfare queens got all your ice cream.

The Galtonians and Norquistians certainly aren’t Christians or any other religion that teaches tolerance and charity. Reading all that at Asymmetrical Information last night made me ashamed of belonging to the same species as they.

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Thlayli 01.10.05 at 5:13 am

It might be nice of me to help them out of their jam, but I’m in no way obligated to do it.

Shorter Bellmore: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Don’t ever let me catch you calling yourself a “Christian”, Brett.

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John Emerson 01.10.05 at 5:29 am

Brett, part of the argument here is that the poor are poor because they make mistakes and are stupid, and more generally that they deserve it. Supposing that this is true of the adults, how can it be true of their children? That was my point.

Your response was, of course, about YOU.

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Badtux 01.10.05 at 5:49 am

Re: Housing choice in the United States: Not only does living in a decent apartment in a decent area in the United States require a deposit, but it also requires a good credit record. Poor people don’t have a credit record. Thus they’re not allowed to live in a decent apartment in a decent area. Rather, they’re generally only allowed to live in apartments that let by the week, which typically are either old hotels that let rooms by the week, or in very depressed areas of town. Neither is a very wholesome place for a family with children to live. And they’re often just as expensive as the good apartments in the good parts of town. $500/month for a room in a slum motel in Phoenix can get you a decent 2 bedroom apartment in Phoenix (in an okay, though not great, neighborhood). *IF* you have a credit record, plus the deposit (typically 2 month’s rent for the lower-priced apartments).

Now, I was lucky in that I was offered a credit card in college, accepted it, and managed it wisely, thus had a credit record once I graduated college. I was also lucky in that I entered college before Reagan gutted student aid and replaced it with student loans where you can go to jail if you don’t make enough money to pay the loan back (no, that’s not a joke — look at the 1998 revisions to the student loan act). Thus as someone from a poor family I got a chance at college (albeit a state university, not a “name” university) and ended up with a managable student loan burden (student aid paid tuition, the loans paid for books, I worked sometimes three part-time jobs for my living expenses). That route, alas, is no longer possible for the poor in post-Reagan America… and blaming the poor for this is as ludicrous as blaming the Jews for the problems of Germany in 1932.

– Badtux the formerly poor Penguin

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Firebug 01.10.05 at 9:29 am

You libertarian morons don’t get it. You really don’t. I believed it once, some time ago, but I grew out of it when I saw the real world. What’s your excuse?

Social welfare exists, ultimately, because the poor generally don’t consider ‘Let them eat cake’ to be an acceptable argument. As much as I would like to see Brett and Peter put under the guillotine, I would prefer to avoid the possibility that in such an event *I* might wind up there too.

In the final analysis, social safety nets don’t exist because of kindness toward the poor, although to many of us this is an important motivation. Social safety nets exist because it is dangerous to have a significant group of individuals who feel that they have no stake in society and the existing order. If there is a significant underclass with no real hope (and history shows that this is an inevitable consequence of laissez-faire capitalism, and most crony ‘capitalist’ systems) this creates a situation that is conducive to violent revolution. Consider the history of Latin America in the 20th century compared to the US and Western Europe.

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Brett Bellmore 01.10.05 at 11:00 am

“Don’t ever let me catch you calling yourself a “Christian”, Brett.”

In as much as I’m an atheist, you need have no worries on that score. ;)

Firebug, YOU just don’t get it: A point of commonality between both liberals and conservatives, is that you both think it ought to be illegal to “sin”; (You just disagree about what constitutes “sinning”.) Theoretically, though not in practice, you both think that there’s some optimal behavior for each and every person, which, to the extent it can be identified, it’s proper to FORCE them to engage in.

Fundamentally, neither of you believes in freedom. You just disagree about what orders ought to be issued to the slaves.

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abb1 01.10.05 at 12:03 pm

Brett,
if you want to be a person who believes in freedom all the way, then you have to reject the whole justice system totally.

If I am physically stronger than you, why shouldn’t I be able to take your stuff or, say, to rape your wife? You are limiting my freedom, forcing me to refrain from doing something I want; you’re enslaving me.

Well, you’re no anarchist and I am sure you’ll agree that some degree of coercion is necessary for a society to exist; I am sure you’ll agree that actual physical theft has to be banned, not to mention rape and murder. Right?

But then you choose to draw an arbitrary line and say: you should be able to steal from me if you’re not using your physical power but only the power of your wealth, the property you managed to accumulate.

See, it’s not really like you’re for freedom and the liberals are against it, it’s just a matter of degree, it’s just a question of where we choose to draw that line, that’s all.

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mw 01.10.05 at 2:55 pm

I posted a comment on the Asymmetric Info site, so I might as well speak up here as well. The point is not that *poverty* is not a problem in the US, it is that *hunger* is not a problem. It is true that food *has* gotten incredibly cheap in recent decades, and that the poor *do* tend to have higher levels of obesity than the well off. That is not to say that the lives of the poor are easy–they are not–but *hunger* isn’t the problem any longer. Housing, transportation, and medical care are now of much greater concern than food (or clothing). Most of the poor have enough to eat, have warm clothing, and even have cell-phones, cable TV, DVD players, etc. but STILL have difficult lives.

It is intellectually dishonest and ultimately self-defeating to try to use cooked statistics to portray hunger as a main area of concern for the poor simply because hunger is a more effective marketing tool for generating sympathy. The risk is that people increasingly know that the ‘hunger in America’ statistics that get trotted out routinely are bogus (just as John Edwards fictional little girl who was shivering because her family couldn’t afford a coat was bogus).

Advocates for the poor in America need to learn to focus on the other issues that are the real problems or they’re going to lose their credibility.

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HP 01.10.05 at 7:40 pm

So, Brett, just out of curiousity: Have you grappled intellectually with an issue and come to a conclusion that didn’t automatically justify and reinforce your own base instincts?

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Hannah 01.10.05 at 8:10 pm

I’m from Singapore (living in Toronto now). Hawker centers are great!

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Hannah 01.10.05 at 8:11 pm

I’m from Singapore (living in Toronto now). Hawker centers are great!

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slacktivist 01.13.05 at 12:06 am

Peter says: “Nearly all poverty is caused by social liberalism.”

Which explains the complete lack of poverty in the Middle Ages. Ah, the Golden Years before social liberalism arose to create the hardship of poverty.

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