Saturday, November 12, 2011

Intermission, Entry 25

Intermission Entry 25, November 10th, 2011, 12:54am (GMT +0)

Today's blog post was inspired by an article I found linked on “The Crooked Timber,” a blog run by a group of professors and intellectuals around the world (the name is a reference to the phrase, “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” which I quite like). You can find it here:

The crux of Wilkinson's argument is at the end:

A politics of nothing but individual rights in a world dominated by social forces is a recipe for domination by those sufficiently powerful or organized to shape those forces.”

An interesting observation, and one that has prompted his own shift from, “right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal.” Put differently, it is a rejection of pure libertarianism as a viable form of government. Humanity is a self-organizing entity, and people will form groups capable of depriving each other of a shot at “the pursuit of happiness” without any one person depriving another of their individual rights (racism, sexism, etc.). A government that ignores social forces will fail.

It is not that government must control these social forces – government is a force, just like the others. It is a group of people who are “powerful and organized enough to shape those (social) forces,” by Wilkinson's own definition. It is one of the means that workers balance the power of employers, minorities balance the power of the majority, the poor balance the power of the rich, etc. Humanity will organize – it always has – and it is better to acknowledge that fact and work with it than to pretend it doesn't exist.

Bringing this argument back to the bum on the street in Amsterdam . . . where do the roots of poverty lie? Social forces exist; can we place all the blame for poverty on grand sweeping trends in society, against which the individual is powerless? Not completely. They contribute, but the picture is more complicated than that. An individual does have some power over their own life. A passage quoted by Wilkinson (originally written by Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of “The Nation) comes to mind:

Adult human beings have agency, the ability (even responsibility!) to run their own cost/benefit analyses and choose accordingly. You could go to a state school (or community college) instead of an over-inflated prestige mill . . .”

But can we? The modern college education is a good example of how complicated this issue is. I went to the school Welch holds up as an example of the “smart” decision – a large, unpretentious state university. I was very, very lucky to receive a scholarship, but without that my education would have severely strained my family's finances, left me in considerable debt, or both. Perhaps during the baby boom or during my parents' college years Welch's ideal institution may have existed, but affordable education is becoming a rare commodity.

I didn't have to go to college at all, of course, but while wage growth for college graduates has roughly flat-lined since the 1970s, wage growth for those without a college degree has plummeted. Welch is right, and wrong – sure, I had a choice, but it was between a pile of student debt and unemployment. Perhaps I could have gone to school part time while working full time, but even working 40 hours a week the summer after graduation I was barely making enough to live on. I don't know where the energy or money to pursue a degree would have come from in that situation.

I have friends who will be emerging from college heavily laden with debt. Welch is right – they're responsible for their decisions (even if everyone around them was doing the same thing), but you can't argue that the system they were part of was a fair one. The same thing goes for many other people living in poverty now – sure, some may be drunks or may be lazy, but in most cases they never had a decent shot at things to begin with. Everyone makes mistakes, and it isn't good for our society to toss those that do out with the trash.

We can fix the second part. It will be hard, but I believe that a decent system can be created that gives nearly everyone a decent shot at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But how do we fix the first part? How do we help people if they don't want to help themselves? We can't answer the question of poverty unless we can address both the internal and external causes.

P. S. Why is this an important question? This, I believe, is another issue of social forces. While the growth of wealth in the bottom 80% of United States citizens has been slow and sluggish the past several decades, the growth of wealth in the top 1% (and particularly the top .1%) has been spectacular. Seeing the issue as a morality play is a mistake, I think – the rich are not inherently evil, just as the poor are not inherently good.

Instead, what worries me is that this will lead to instability in the social system of America itself. With the balance of power (money, in this case) becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a few people, the social forces get more and more out of balance. Political discourse has been dominated by items of importance to bankers and the very rich – inflation, regulation, deficits – with nary a word about our drastic unemployment rate, an issue of actual importance. Eventually the balance must be restored – the harder you press people, the harder they will press back – and if the public's only means of exerting social pressure is with torches and pitchforks, that's what they'll use.

I'd rather it didn't come to that.

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