Monday, January 13, 2014

How will conservatives save the poor?



Kevin Williamson, one of my favorite conservative writers, goes to rural Kentucky, observes white poverty, and is saddened by what he sees.

The key word here is "white". For most of the past few decades, conservatives basically told us that poverty was a black problem (and maybe a Hispanic problem), and that therefore white people basically didn't need to worry about it, and should certainly resist any liberal attempts to have the government do anything about it. During that whole time, liberals were shouting that poverty was a white problem too, but of course conservatives did not listen. Now, conservatives are finally discovering that yes, poverty is a white thing too.

Why are conservatives now discovering this? Maybe it's thanks to the work of people like Charles Murray, who have pointed out the cultural pathologies associated with white poverty. As Williamson writes, "the society [of poor whites] is broken." Conservatives' mental image of honest, hard-working, religious, close-knit communities of poor white families is finally dying the death it should have died twenty years ago (the death if would have died if conservatives watched Michael Moore's film Roger & Me, or the show Cops). But Williamson looks beyond cultural pathologies and sees the real pain of pure economic deprivation. Hopefully, conservatives will now take the next step and realize that it's not just the indigent towns of Appalachia, but most whites in America's "working-class" suburbs, who are experiencing these social and economic problems.

But anyway, that leaves the question of what to do about the poverty. Williamson is not a fan of welfare:
In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place...“The government gives people checks, but nobody teaches them how to live,” says Teresa Barrett, a former high-school principal who now publishes the Owsley County newspaper.
Those sound like very reasonable criticisms of the "just mail them a check" approach to poverty-fighting. But what is the alternative? For the last thirty years, the conservative alternative to "just mail them a check" has been "just don't mail them a check." Conservatives told us that welfare was the cause of poverty, and that if you just took it away, people would spit on their hands, rub them on their knees, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. To liberals, this sounded a bit like trying to whip the poor back to industriousness with the stinging whip of deprivation.

And I worry that even though they are starting to see the reality of poverty, conservatives are still mired in the fantasy that welfare is the cause instead of just a flawed and inadequate solution. In this follow-up piece Williamson shows signs of veering dangerously close to that comfortable old thought-rut:
And from the point of view of the policymaking class — not just the progressive perches at Princeton but the policymaking class in general — it is easy to see the great majority of the American public as something like dogs exhibiting various degrees of ruliness while waiting for table scraps. People cannot be expected to live. It is up to “the nation” to “offer” them life... 
The real question is whether we are going to think of poor people as pets. If we do not think that they are dogs begging for scraps — if we believe them to be fully human – then we have to account for the choices people make.
Naturally people's choices matter, that's obvious. But the dangerous subtext here is that there's nothing our nation can collectively do to help the poor - that if we just get the government out of the way, people's actions and choices will do the rest. 

Williamson does not explicitly say this, and I can sense that he doesn't entirely believe this. Nowhere does he precisely say that the poverty he sees is the fault of liberal welfare programs. And that is good. But conservatives kept repeating that line for so long that I worry that they will have a hard time extracting their minds from its zombie death grip.

Liberals do not think of poor people as pets, or as dogs begging for scraps. But that doesn't mean we know what to do about poverty, either. The "War on Poverty" programs did some good stuff. It ameliorated poverty, but it didn't whip it, and it didn't solve the social problems of the poor, and it probably had various negative side effects. 

We need new ideas on how to actively fight poverty. Hopefully now that conservatives realize the problem, they can think of some new ideas. Because "just get the government out of the way" is not going to do it.

55 comments:

  1. Give them enough time and I am sure they will come up with .. workhouses! It's guaranteed work.

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    1. Obama is beating them to it with "Promise Zones." These are the Free Trade Zones we have in places elsewhere in the world where we do away with minimum wages and pesky regulations to allow full exploitation of the locals by the corporate class. Might be the wave of the future. Bringing 3rd world policies right to your backdoor! The growth will surely follow.

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    2. Fresh from the Jack Kemp playbook. Starve the beast using tax expenditures, oh my.

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  2. Much of that poverty is going to stay no matter what happens - call it the hysteresis effects of the changing economy. Once those jobs of the working class are gone, they are gone for good. And middle-aged people int heir 40s or 50s who have worked with their hands since the age 15/16 are not going to change (much) anymore. The economically efficient solution is just to reduce the external effects of poverty. Welfare is probably a lazy, but sufficient solution. Keep the schools in good condition so the following generations have a chance to emigrate to better areas. And sustain a minimal local infrastructure to provide at least a couple of jobs.

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  3. In most developed countries, schools that serve poor and disadvantaged children get the best teachers and the most resources. It's taken for granted that children who have barriers to success should be given assistance in overcoming those barriers.

    In America, it is just the opposite. I forget where I saw it, but there was a recent graph published that compared standardized test scores for Americans vs. those for children from other countries. Children from wealthy neighborhoods did far better than the average of developed countries, while American children from poor neighborhoods did so much worse that America overall was below average.

    This is, to me, immoral and unacceptable. Anytime someone starts ranting about "local control," I hear racism and classism.

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    1. I feel a twinge of sympathy for your understanding of the phrase "local control," but it seems the alternative is Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Rahm Emmanuel. The Wall Street Wolves have totally captured the "education reform movement," and are using all their sales techniques to get their hands on the funds for public education before they are wasted on "those kids that nothing can help."

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  4. There are no good jobs, but many of these people have sunk costs in houses and property. They have trouble selling out because no jobs also means no buyers. Leaving the location would mean leaving without a support community. Children of the wealthy leave to go to college with a built in support network. Where would these people go? Do they have the skills needed to get work in another area or survive in a different social setting? Children growing up in that culture often are not taught or exposed to skills that could make them successful.

    There is no easy answer. Those with daring and motivation leave for greener pastures and make their way.

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    1. Doc at the Radar Station11:22 PM

      "sunk costs in houses and property" Finally someone mentioned this! I don't think Williamson mentioned it at all in his article. Someone needs to research who owns what land there. They did mention people who had moved away to make money and then returned to retire and die. The people there have family and roots. It's a big deal for them.

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    2. @Doc - Just so. Several years ago I had a discussion with a conservative who claimed that poor people routinely moved to states and cities that had higher welfare payments. I didn't believe it and he, naturally, had no evidence for his position. When you have a house but no cash cushion, or maybe you're living on property owned by a relative so you pay low or no rent, it's not so easy to pick u and move to a new place where you don't know anybody.

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  5. More schools like Milton Hershey to replace the perverse incentives of 'the draw'?

    http://boardingschools.com/school-profile.aspx?schoolid=918

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  6. Anonymous4:27 PM

    We will make a dent in poverty as soon as the government hires millions of unemployed people and pays them a living wage; until unemployment hits 3%. Incomes for those in the private sector will rise because private employers will not have the advantage of high unemployment and will have to pay more to keep employees. Meanwhile fix our tax code which allows the super rich to hide billions of their income and get preferred tax rates for what is visible. And as for deficits, they begin to evaporate at full employment. Besides, the government doesn't need to issue Treasuries or collect taxes to pay its bills anyway. We're a monetary sovereign. We can't go broke unless we choose to or we spend all the deficit injections on expensive chocolates and better scotch. Of course anything's possible, Myself, I'd choose infrastructure spending over chocolates. Kind of a close call versus great scotch though.

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    1. Anonymous3:30 AM

      Shocked everyone ignored your reply...

      Not Rube Goldberg enough.

      Try again.

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  7. People like to share, but not when its about sharing with 'those people'. The voters is generally very willing to provide welfare to those in need provided they are of the same race and religion as them. You had the great era of welfare, when those social programs, while facing entrenched opposition, were election-winners. Then immigration laws were relaxed and segregation was and it was no longer the old mono-cultural society.

    Until conservatives are convinced that poor people are in most respects just like them it would always be unjust, ineffective, counterproductive, abused and overly generous to provide welfare.

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  8. "Conservatives" only believe in personal responsibility for poor people. They fight hard against any suggestion that billionaires, bankers, politicians or their various paid apologists (hello Mr. Williamson) should be held to account for stealing billions of dollars or blighting millions of lives.

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  9. "We need new ideas on how to actively fight poverty. Hopefully now that conservatives realize the problem, they can think of some new ideas."

    If they had good ideas that were actually helpful in this context, they wouldn't be conservatives. that sounds flip, but I am deadly serious. Conservatives believe in a class stratified society, and are most also believe that your class is where you deserve to be. Cuz if you had the right bootstraps, by god, you'd be pulling yourself up by them.

    Another aspect of the conservative mindset is denial of reality. Most of them will go on blithely either ignoring the problem, not believing it's real, oblivious to it, or believing it's part of god's plan.

    The harsh reality is that progress only comes from progressives.

    And the existing progressive ideas would work better if conservatives weren't undermining them at every opportunity.


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    1. 'If they had good ideas that were actually helpful in this context, they wouldn't be conservatives.'

      Truer words never typed.

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  10. The main anti-poverty program should be education, but that too conservatives have brainwashed themselves into believe to be a problem.

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    1. The trouble with that approach is that the end result would be that you need a PhD. to get a job cleaning toilets. If everybody has a college degree they would be living in Lake Wobegon "where all the children are above average."

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  11. But of course it must be noted that one of the reasons our govts response has become "just mail them a check" is due to the fact that too many conservatives for years have railed against efforts of govts to "teach them how to live" as left wing social engineering. They only want churches and job creators telling the working class how to live, not pointy headed liberal academics or social workers. Its been insisted that sending them money is the ONLY proper response of govt.

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  12. conservatives are still mired in the fantasy that welfare is the cause instead of just a flawed and inadequate solution

    Fantasy? My wife works at a hospital here in DC and I believe two years ago overheard a welfare mother of, I think, 6 kids loudly proclaim that she wasn't worried about having more kids because the government helped take care of them. My wife has also never voted GOP in her life. But hey, maybe that was the lone mother in the entire country who was indifferent to producing more children -- and thus more poverty -- due to government safety net programs.

    And if welfare doesn't cause poverty, how to explain the success of welfare reform? Sure, a big part of the success has to do with the improved economy of the 1990s, but does anyone want to claim that it explains 100% of the success?

    Even Paul Krugman in a typically partisan column today said this:

    First of all, [conservatives are] deeply committed to the view that efforts to aid the poor are actually perpetuating poverty, by reducing incentives to work. And to be fair, this view isn’t completely wrong.

    Noah, aren't you a big Krugman fan? Is he wrong here?

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    1. And if welfare doesn't cause poverty, how to explain the success of welfare reform?

      Has poverty gone down, or up since welfare reform was enacted?

      Up.

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    2. I love the whole "my sister's cousin's overheard a poor person mooching off welfare" too. It's just so typically conservative, and illustrative of what diferentiates conservatives from liberals: a vastly narrower circle of empathy, which shows up in incuriousness about what life is really like for the bulk of poor people (especially poor minorities) and the nursing of stereotypes and caricatures.

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    3. I especially enjoy the more sophisticated variants of this that include take details such as 'my wife has never voted GOP'. Well, now I believe your story.

      How does the gov't take care of the fictitious welfare mother's children? My understanding is that welfare runs out after a few years since the reforms in the 90's. So the welfare mom is getting food stamps and maybe general relief? I don't think anyone wants to live on that, especially with 6 kids.

      I really want to know. What sort of money does a single mom get in DC?

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    4. Noah, surely you can do better than that. The question is not whether poverty is today higher or lower than since welfare reform, but what the level of poverty would be higher or lower absent welfare reform. If you think poverty would be lower today absent welfare reform, I'd like to see you make that case.

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    5. Hi Mike,

      My wife is European, has at times considered herself socialist, and voted for Obama in '08 and some female candidate from a third party in '12. The point being that she is hardly someone who has it in for the welfare state (I'd ask her for the exact quote she overheard but she is back in Europe at the moment).

      As for how the government takes care of them, my understanding is that DC for a long time did not subject recipients to a 5 year time limit as most states did, but that this started to change in 2011:

      http://www.dcactionforchildren.org/sites/default/files/Snapshot-TANF-final.pdf

      That would make sense, as the incident I described I believe took place either in 2010 or 2011.

      But hey, if you think I am just peddling third-hand anecdotal garbage (and no one has yet responded to my Krugman excerpt) to support my argument, here's Nick Kristof:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/opinion/sunday/kristof-profiting-from-a-childs-illiteracy.html?pagewanted=all&pagewanted=print

      This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

      Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.


      Tell me some more about welfare leading to poverty being a product of right-wing fantasy.

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    6. Colin, one thing we do know about welfare reform is that it increased mortality rates compared to traditional AFDC (http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/unintended-consequences-did-welfare-reform-kill-some-participants/). Not exactly a success, though that might depend on your point of view.

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    7. Anonymous10:08 AM

      @Mike

      "Are there no prisons?"
      "Plenty of prisons..."
      "And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
      "Both very busy, sir..."
      "Those who are badly off must go there."
      "Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
      "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

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    8. Colin - people are human. If a welfare program makes things significantly better for 90 people and encourages 10 to further indolence it is still a success. A few adverse side effects does not mean that the "treatment" is not worthwhile.

      As a personal example: I have provided material financial help to a friend who made some bad decisions (a whole long string of bad decisions actually). I did it for the sake of her children so that they did not suffer the full consequences of her mistakes. I expect that about 20% of what I gave has been spent on things I would not approve of if I knew the details and yet I do not regret a penny of the total. That type of "slippage" has to be expected. I know that most of the money went on college tuition, rent and food.

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    9. Absalon,

      That is a reasonable argument. What I object to is Noah's statement that the notion welfare causes poverty is "fantasy." Now, maybe on net it is a good thing, but to think there are zero examples of welfare causing poverty is ridiculous and shows an incredibly closed mind.

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    10. Colin - when you say "welfare causes poverty" the implication is that you are talking about aggregates. A few examples where welfare for one individual has caused that individual to reduce his work effort does not justify the statement: "welfare causes poverty." Saving that welfare on aggregate causes poverty is a fantasy.

      No system will be perfect. Moral hazard is always with us. In your world, insurance causes house fires - that, however, is not an argument against house insurance.

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    11. What is it with conservatives and their avowed inability to grasp burden of proof standards? First Colin says - without qualification or proof, mind you - that welfare reform is a 'success'. When it's pointed out that by at least one measure poverty has increased since welfare reform, he shifts the goal-posts twice: not only do his opponents have to prove what is essentially a counterfactual, but they have to prove it to Colin's satisfaction.

      Uh, no, that's not the way it works, Colin. You said that welfare reform is a 'success', it's on you to prove it; no one else has to disprove it. The name of the game is most assuredly not "If you can't make Colin say he's wrong he wins" (just about the only tool, poor as it is, in the conservative toolbox, alas.)

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  13. Noah's caricature of conservatives is troubling. Such broad stroke condemnation is offensive. It's taken as a given that all conservatives simply don't care about non-whites. (The implication is that all conservatives are non-Hispanic whites. Most are, but not all.) The clumsy attack continues with the notion that conservatives - all of them - simply see our choice set as "send check" vs. "don't send check". Surely some (many?; most?) conservatives use that overly simplistic false choice framework, but more likely many conservatives only utter that kind of rhetoric out of frustration or defensiveness.

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    1. drocto - it doesn't sound like a caricature to me. It sounds exactly like my conservative friends and family. I'm not sure why frustration and defensiveness makes people act speak like stereotypes but I can only go by what they actually say.

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    2. Hey - Romney spoke for "conservatives" when he said that 47% of Americans are leeches. If a few people who self identify as conservatives disagree and feel hurt about being accused of callousness by association maybe the solution is for them to stop claiming to be conservative. The defining characteristic of conservatism in modern America is contempt and hostility for the poor and working class.

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    3. And not only is it a caricature, to "show" that this is what conservatives really think he links to... The Nation and ThinkProgress, to leftist sites the draw the same caricature!

      Talk about tribal reality.

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  14. Rothosen8:25 PM

    Hunter-gatherers who were in areas where food was scarce moved to where it wasn't. During the depression people who lived where work was scarce moved to where it wasn't. With welfare you can now stay where there are no jobs and complain that there are no jobs. And if by some incredible coincidence the reason there are no jobs is the cost of welfare on businesses to start jobs you are well and truly screwed.

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    1. Welfare doesn't pay you to stay in place.

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    2. In a sense it does; if you're collecting benefits in KY, and move anywhere else, you are off KY benefits, and probably don't qualify for benefits where you are. And even if you do, it'll take months. No family on benefits has the savings to risk that.

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    3. I had to move a couple of times to get a job as a computer programmer. It cost me about a month's salary each time. It would take much longer for a poor person to make up the cost of moving.

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  15. Is there a way to achieve the poverty fighting effects of currency devaluation without exporting to anywhere?

    I'm hoping you'll say something cool like "a giant resource intensive project like colonizing mars would be equivalent to exporting to nowhere."

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  16. Still not quite seeing what's so bad about "mailing them a check", s**t_that_didn't_actually_happen.txt stories about eeevil welfare cheats aside. A basic income, paired with the opportunity to gain the skills needed to make a decent buck that allows for real prosperity, sounds pretty good to me. Granted, Walmart et al might be a bit peeved at having to pay more for labour...but that ain't a bug, it's a feature.

    And since the countries with the best social safety nets also tend to feature the most entrepreneurship, it's probably even good for innovation. Certainly encouraging Corporate America to sit on fat stacks of cash ain't doing much. Different tack is warranted, I think.

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  17. Haven't had a chance to really read this yet, but before it's too late, I wanted to let everyone know of a great new book, forthcoming, on poverty and economic insecurity in America today, "Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what Shapes our Fortunes", by a group of esteemed sociologists. This kind of up-to-date, high quality, information is what I love as a personal finance expert. And there hasn't been a really good book like this, that I know of, since Hacker's seminal, "The Great Risk Shift", in 2006. For a quick taste, here's an op-ed from one of the authors:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/02/poverty-in-america-is-mainstream/

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  18. Living in Slovakia we have a fair share of experience with poverty mostly concentrated among part of Roma minority. There were some things akin to "conservative" experiments tried by libertarian leaning parties here. Back in ought there was series of hard-handed policies ranging from capping social help for families with more than 4 chidlren, a populist policy aimed to sooth "population explosion" parania, other help was tied up in beuraucratical nonsense that required often illiterate poor to have impossible paperwork to get basic necessities.

    Needless to say the policy was success only if you consider food-riots and large increase of petty criminality as desired outcome of the policy. The sad thing is that being poor is a vicious cycle. The poorer the family the more children there are. There is also a lot of things similar to those described in Williamson's story. It is heartbreaking to see chidlren of 5 trying to break ferro-concrete construction block of abandoned factory that will bring them few cents and hour in scrap metal for incredybly hard and dangerous sort of "work". There is a lot of drug abuse, but it is less about cooking meth and more about toluene sniffing.

    Some people repeat that the key to escape is focusing on children and education. But how much do you think a child learns if she is permanently hungry, sick and afflicted by scabbies or tapeworm. How can you teach children what is mathematical set if they don't don't know how to brush their teeth. It is a miracle if some child gets to read by 5th grade.

    I don't know what is the response. I know that it cannot be making lives of those people more miserable. The price is just too large. I don't know how many of you want to read news about toddler's being eaten by rats while the parents were senseless from drug abuse or about children frozen to death in shack without proper heating, but I sure as hell don't want to hear them ever again.

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    1. Anonymous9:02 AM

      It is very true of what you have written. Even as a middle class citizen in a developing country, I always live in a constant worry of the future of my family. I can't see how depriving someone of his basic life support can make him look even harder for a job that does not exist. It can only paralyze him.

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  19. Nate O9:20 AM

    Re: liberals' failure to help the poor, and "actively" fighting poverty, Mike Konczal, Dean Baker, Thomas Edsell et al point the finger at neoliberal policies, and suggest New Deal-era solutions.

    I don't know if you read this, but it's along the same lines:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/opinion/edsall-is-the-safety-net-just-masking-tape.html

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  20. BTW, since Noah pulled Charles 'Bell Curve' Murray in, readers should know that David Frum ripped his work to shreds. Start with:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/06/charles-murray-book-review.html#url=/articles/2012/02/06/charles-murray-book-review.html

    This is part 1, with links to parts 2-5.

    Short version: the casual link is lack of good jobs to social pathologies, not the other way around.

    Shorter version: anything Charles Murray writes should be assumed wrong until proven wrong.

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    1. Frum's criticisms are right, but Murray is right that the working class is suffering severe social breakdown, and that's a valuable point.

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    2. anything Charles Murray writes should be assumed wrong until proven wrong.

      I laughed out loud sitting in my office.

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    3. casual => causal ?

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  21. so hard to answer this question

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  22. Anonymous3:32 AM

    It's like there's no countries that have virtually eliminated poverty. There are just no examples out there. Nothing we could study and/or copy. Totally all on our own here. Have to start from scratch. Just nothing that has been tried empirically. Such a hard question.

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    1. Anonymous3:33 AM

      (Obviously my train of thought went off the track in that first sentence...started with singular went plural. Oops.)

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    2. Not sure if the above is meant in all seriousness or sarcastically. Assume former. US poverty line = 11.7k. US, per capita income of the average person in the bottom 20% = 13.5k per year, roughly. Denmark, per capita income of the average person in the bottom 20% = 23.5k. So Denmark, as a quick example (there are others) would be a country where poverty - at least by US standards - has "virtually" been eliminated.

      Don't know what the income share of the bottom 10% is (which would include the folks in poverty and miss a few more). Strangely, so much effort and attention is devoted to calculating the top 10% and 1% share, but finding data on the bottom 10% - which is what you care about if you take poverty seriously - is pretty hard.

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  23. I'm going to push a citizen's income again (even if Noah doesn't like it). Part of the problem is that economics has forgotten about land and location. If you live in a neighbourhood where everybody is poor, then you naturally cannot stay there and do well. But moving to a neighbourhood where some people are rich may increase your chance of receiving income, but it also increases your debt (you have to set yourself up there), increases your costs and cuts off your support systems (friends and family). Increasing the flow of income to neighbourhoods where these people live will benefit everybody there - almost certainly not only improving the environment, but increasing the number of jobs as more money circulates locally. Eventually, this may make the neighbourhood attractive for inward investment.

    There really are viscious and virtuous circles (i.e. positive feedback loops) and switching from one to the other simply requires a change in momentum.

    Models based on negative feedback only (i.e. most economic models) are not much use in understanding these issues.

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  24. When vast corporate conglomerates have oligopolized entire national industries, and mechanized or offshored what used to be working class work, and replaced worker incomes with easy credit so broke unemployed people can keep buying the multinationals' 'low price' imports, then the problem of poverty is structural. 200 years ago the Luddites saw it coming. The capitalists who were industrializing national economies were eliminating workers' means of earning a living, and had no intention of providing the structually unemployed with an alternate "unearned" income to purchase the fruits of mechanized production. After WWI and the 1921 Depression the bankers stepped in with consumer credit, and speculator credit that blew the 1920s bubble, which put borrowed, not earned, money in the hands of the masses. Then in the 1930s Depression governments began social welfare programs for the truly destitute, but it was the no holds barred fiscal stimulus of WWII spending that put the people to work building stuff that blows up other stuff, a vast circle of make-work that paid workers well and paid war profiteers spectacularly well. After WWII the bankers again came through with their usual solution - spendable loans in lieu of spendable incomes - and the mortgaged construction of suburbia began in earnest, to house the Baby Boom. That petered out in the 60s, but Vietnam came to the fiscal rescue, Nixon took the dollar off gold, and credit expansion began its exponential runup that didn't peak until September 2008. Europe and America and the rest of the indebted masses of the world are still wondering how that happened, in a self-regulating financial industry serving a self regulating free market economy that automatically optimizes economic outcomes. Except for the structurally unemployed, like the Luddites, whom even David Ricardo admitted were right. Replacing workers with machines really does harm the interests of the working class. Capitalist-owned mechanized industry "renders the population redundant". So all you impoverished indebted former middle class workers, the conservatives have your solution. You have been rendered redundant. So go away and die already.

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