The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Poverty Page 1 of 3

The Most Radical Statement I’ve Ever Read

From Dr. Robert Tabash, in Bethlehem:

The poorest deserve the best.

I stared, stunned at this for a while, because it’s absolutely 180 degrees from how we do things. To do this would be a complete repudiation of our entire society, and every society of which I am aware.

I stumbled across it in the replies to this tweet, on the same general theme.

It’s hard to say much about this, because it’s almost impossible to imagine a world in which we do this.

Of course, this comes from Christians, and it’s why I have contempt for most modern Christians, especially evangelicals.

Christ was a radical. Unbelievably radical. “As you have done to these, the least of mine…” and telling the rich to sell all their possessions and give them to the poor. Real Christianity, the path of Jesus, not all the crap accreted about Christianity, is perhaps the most radical, and hardest, in the world.

This is why most “Christians” don’t follow Jesus’s clear instructions: Doing so is hard. That’s fine, I don’t either. But I also don’t call myself a Christian.

But put the Christianity aside, if you can, and marvel just in the idea of a world completely topsy turvy to the one in which we live, where those who are poorest; those who are weakest, get the best, because they are the ones who need it most, and we care for each other.

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The Cruelty and Stupidity of Trumpian Homelessness Rhetoric

From a study by his officials:

In the report, “The State of Homelessness in America,” even shelters get some of the blame for increasing the number of people who are homeless. The argument: Some people would be able to find their own housing if they were turned away from shelters.

“While shelters play an extremely important role in bringing some people off the streets, it also brings in people who would otherwise be housed, thus increasing total homelessness,” the report states.

So tiresomely stupid. Shelters are shitholes, and unsafe, and most people hate them. Many homeless people refuse to sleep in them, and even die of exposure. They are simply too dangerous.


homelessness could be dramatically reduced by slashing restrictions on housing construction and being less tolerant of people sleeping on the streets.

In which case, more condos which poor people couldn’t afford would be built. Developers don’t want to build for poor people in “world cities,” it’s just that simple. It’s a market failure, and there are solutions; simply slashing regulations won’t do it as the current market preference is for expensive homes and apartments.

As for being less tolerant of people sleeping on the street: What? These fucktards think more than a tiny minority of the homeless want to sleep on the street? It’s a positive choice they make?

The sheer stupidity and blind ideological thinking is tiresome.

As study after study has shown there are two ways to get the homeless housed: Give them money or give them homes. For those with the most mental and physical problems, some social assistance is also needed. But if you want people housed, house them.

That requires housing which they can afford (or the government can afford) to pay for for them. That doesn’t mean luxury condos.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s been studied repeatedly. We know what works. The question, as always, is whether we care enough to bother.

I mean, rich people need more tax cuts and subsidies. You can have that or take care of poor people.

That’s the choice, and Trump is on the wrong side of it.

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The Problem with Neoliberal “It’s Never Been Better” Triumphalism

Saying that humanity is currently the best off it has ever been (a dubious proposition in any case) is like saying “I’ve never been warmer” as you burn down your house.

Globe on FirePeople like Pinker have been trotting out stats to claim that we’ve never been better off. Those stats are questionable, based on a definition of  poverty that is beyond questionable. Meanwhile, in India, people eat less calories than they did 30 years ago. (I traveled in India and lived in Bangladesh 30 years or so ago. Eating less calories is unimaginably bad. That a small middle class and a new wealthy class has been created means little to those eating… less.)

But let’s wave that all aside. Let’s posit that human life now is the best it’s ever been.

Meanwhile, in India, people are dying in 50 degree C weather. France had a massive heatwave. Indian farmers are committing suicide in droves, in large part because of issues with ground water.

Extreme weather is getting worse, the permafrost is melting 70 years ahead of the consensus forecast, and so on. Ecologically, fish stocks are collapsing, the Amazon is being chopped down at a ferocious rate, more than one study has found collapses in insect populations at 80 percent or so, and others have noticed that without insects, you don’t have birds, and so on and so forth.

Blah, blah, blah.

Not only is no human an island, but humanity lives among other species, and they make our lives possible in ways we are barely aware of. Most oxygen in the world, for example, is produced by small ocean organisms, organisms which could have a mass die off.


So let us say that this is the bestest of best worlds, a Panglossian paradise.

Present prosperity is being paid for with future poverty, future mass death, and a non-trivial risk of human extinction. As for non-human species, they are already dying at a rate which will show up as the fastest mass extinction in Earth’s existence.

This is only a good bet if you are sure that you’re going to die before the bill comes due. That was a good bet for the GI Generation. A decent bet for the Silents and not a bad bet for about the first half of the Boomers. It’s a bad bet for everyone afterwards who expects to live to 70 or 80 or so (a normal human lifespan in most developed countries).

And, of course, it’s a bad bet if you actually, y’know, care about your children, or other people’s children, or the future of humanity when you’re gone. (Gonna be a shitty place to reincarnate too, if reincarnation exists.)

Now let’s bring this back to neoliberal “greatest time to be alive” triumphalism.

The sub voce message there is, “We don’t need to change, everything’s fine and getting better.”

But, if we’re living not just unsustainably, but in a way that will call Biblical level catastrophe within the lives of most people now alive and their children, perhaps we do need to change, and radically.

So this sort of triumphalism, even if it were true, would be a disservice to not just humanity, but life on Earth.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

The First Task for Prosperity Is Ending Artificial Scarcity

We have more empty homes than homeless people.

We have more food than necessary to feed everyone in the world.

This is not an era of actual scarcity. It is an era of artificial scarcity.

We either already have, or we have the ability to create, a surplus of every necessity that is needed.

This includes housing, food, and clothing. We still have enough water, globally, if we are wiling to be smart about how we use it, and where there are geographical problems regarding access, the problem of access is easily solved. In general, we need to be a bit flexible in how we grow our food; we need to stop draining aquifers and help those farms that over-use aquifer water to grow crops that use less water, or help those farmers find other livelihoods.

Early research shows that intensive urban agriculture creates between three to ten times the food that traditional agriculture does.

We are also short of security. This is another artificial shortage, though it’s harder to fix. Most countries that have been destroyed recently were destroyed in large part because of outside intervention, whether from Western, Eastern, or Jihadi influence. We are in a cycle of blowback after blowback, with the first step being to stop doing things that will cause devastation.

Education is unequally spread throughout the world, but this is another problem which is solveable: We have the books, which cost cents to reproduce, the telecom networks are almost everywhere, and we can train the teachers. If we wanted to spend more money on teachers and less on finance, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Again, most of this “scarcity” is artificial. It is imposed through a money system where a few people have the right to create money, and everyone else has to access it from them. That money is nothing, more or less in this context, than permission to use society’s resources, whether it’s people’s labor or the results of that labor.

The only real restrictions on our ability to supply what people need are overuse of sinks (like carbon) and overuse of resources, whether renewable or non-renewable, but we either have the necessary technology to move away from that overuse, or we have scientists and engineers who would love to create it for us, but who can’t get the resources/money they need to do so.

But much of this is low hanging fruit; we already have enough food and housing and far more textile capacity than we need.

Dividing up the world as we do between countries is a huge problem in which our resources are wasted where they aren’t needed, while others go without. Colonial powers have drawn ineffective and nonsensical borders, as is the case with most of Africa and the Middle East.

By centralizing the production of various resources (and that includes both ideological and intellectual resources) in a few areas and to a few people, we have pooled necessities in places they aren’t needed and denied them to other people.

These are social problems, with social solutions. The idea that technology will “fix” them is somewhat (though not entirely misguided.) We already have the material means to care for everyone, we do not.  This cannot be laid directly at the feet of technology–we have had this capacity for at least a century or so.

Oh, and the shortage of spare time for so many; with the shortage of work for others? Complete social construction. We are doing too much of the wrong kinds of work, and too little of the right kinds of work, and those choices are also social.

In the end, scarcity of the goods humans need most is almost always, in the modern world, artificial: It’s a social choice.

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As Baltimore Riots

I don’t have a great deal to say about this. I’ll simply note that if you shove peoples faces into the concrete enough, it’s not strange that they will riot. Given the well documented rate at which police have been killing African-Americans (and getting away with it, in most cases), well—Baltimore is a city with a long tradition of poverty and police violence in any case.

I’m not going to wring my hands about this. It’s unfortunate, but those who want peace must work for justice, as Pope Paul VI once noted. Instead of just condemning the rioting, the middle and upper classes might bear in mind that those lower on the totem pole, and especially Blacks, live a very different life than them, one in which the police are a constant oppressive force which appears completely unaccountable.

(I will note, again, that rioters need to get it through their heads to take their rioting to the rich areas of town. Rioting in your own backyard is not particularly productive.)

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The Right Thing to Do: Homeless edition

So, Utah decided to just give the homeless places to live.  The results are what anyone with sense, or who has followed the topic would expect:

Utah’s Housing First program cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per person, about half of the $20,000 it cost to treat and care for homeless people on the street.

Imagine that.

The right thing to do is almost always cheaper and gives better results, at least if the welfare of people is your concern.

If people are poor, give them money.  If people don’t have a house, get them a house.  If people are sick, get them health care.

The fact is, though, that you have to want to do the right thing. People tend to get down on the Church of Latter Day Saints, but for all their issues, I’ve always had a soft spot for them because I’ve heard many stories like this:

The church donated all of this,” Bate says. “Before we opened up, volunteers from the local Mormon ward came over and assembled all the furniture. It was overwhelming. For the first several years we were open, the LDS church made weekly food deliveries—everything from meat to butter and cheese. It wasn’t just dried beans—it was good stuff.” (The Utah Food Bank now makes weekly deliveries.)

I ask him if this is why the programs work so well in Utah—because of church donations.

“If the LDS church was not into it, the money would be missed, for sure,” he says, “but it’s church leadership that’s immensely important. If the word gets out that the church is behind something, it removes a lot of barriers.”…


“Why do you think they do it?” I ask(my emphasis)

“Oh,” he says, “I think they believe all that stuff in the New Testament about helping the poor. That’s kind of crazy for a religion, I know, but I think they take it quite seriously.”

A major driver of the social welfare movement in the United States was the social gospel.  The ending of sweatshops, the huge work programs of the 30s, the provision of Medicare and Social Security was driven in large part by Christian crusaders who believed that what they did to the poor, they did to Jesus.

You have to want to do the right thing.

This is just as true when dealing with matters like inequality.  FDR and the politicians of the 50s ran marginal tax rates for high earners at 90% or so because they, and the American people, genuinely believed that no one should have that much money.  They believed that it was earned by the efforts of other people: a rich person is someone who gets rich on other people’s work, with very rare exceptions, and even they get rich because of the society they are in.  (For a complete explanation of that, something most people refuse to understand, read “It’s Not Your Money.”)

Ethics and mores; belief, is why people do things.  It doesn’t exactly come before material circumstances (the two influence each other, with material circumstances, including technology, determining a range of possibilities), but within what is possible, belief in what we should do determines what we actually do.

In the world today we have the resources not just to feed everyone, but to give them a decent life, with education, entertainment, and housing that is warm in the winter and at least not unbearable in the summer.  We can cloth everyone well.  We have had the ability to do this for at least a hundred years or so, in theory, we’ve had it in practice since the recovery from World War II.

To do so, however, we must believe that we should, and we must be willing to act on that belief.  There will be sacrifices (a lot fewer billionaires, a lot less McMansions), but in the end even most of those who complain would be objectively better off, because inequality is robustly associated with worse health and less happiness, even for those who are the richest.  The top .01%, if they were still the top .01% but had far less money and power, would be happier and healthier in such a world.

As such, the battleground of belief; of ideology, is as important as that of technology. It is belief, mediated by power and turned into behaviour, which determines what actually happens in this world.

More on that later.

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The Problem with Basic Income

Basic income—just giving everyone a certain amount of money, is an idea with a lot to recommend it.  In any society which isn’t willing to just let people suffer or die because they don’t have money, there is a “social welfare net” with a vast bureaucracy.  Why not just give everyone enough money to live on, and wipe out most of that bureaucracy?  If you’re going to give poor people money anyway, it’s more efficient, and vastly less humiliating.

There’s a great deal of controversy around the idea of technological unemployment (economists sneeringly dismiss the idea on aggregate as the “lump of labor” fallacy), but even if you don’t believe in it en-gross, changing technology does cause specific people, often large numbers of them, to lose their jobs, and many of them never work again, or if they do, work at terrible jobs.  A basic income deals with this issue, at least somewhat, and, again, far more efficiently than welfare and unemployment insurance and so on.  And if you believe that there will be widespread technological improvement as AI and robotics improve, this will mitigate against it.

In a demand based society; a consumer society, where the economy is based on large numbers of people buying things, a basic income makes sense.  People with no (or too little) money, don’t spend it (obviously) and that’s bad for the economy.  Every dollar you give a poor person gets spent; it immediately goes to someone else, and that means that even those who are well off have reason to be for a basic income: most of it is going to wind up in their hands, and if it doesn’t (because you have a basic income which goes to everyone, not just those below a certain income), well, they still get theirs.

One might point out that we’re moving away from a demand based society, however, at least in the West. More than all the productivity gains of the last business cycle in the US, for example, have gone to the top 10% (really the top 3%).  Consumer inflation is flat, and in many countries verging on deflation, while the goods that the rich buy (investment art, Manhattan and London real-estate) are booming.  Moving away from a broad-based demand society, such as we had in the post-war liberal era was mainly done because it benefited the rich, but it also solved another problem—increased demand fed into oil and other commodity prices, and as the 70s  and early 80s showed, that lead to huge inflation and economic dislocation.

So basic income, at any level that would be equivalent to a living wage (aka. letting people live a decent life, not just barely scrape by), can be expected to spike inflation in various commodities, including oil.  This is a problem, but it’s not a huge problem, because we finally have the technology which allows us to move off oil (not completely, but enough to mitigate the effect of demand increases), and because, hey, we’re flirting with deflation anyway.

The real problem with basic income has to do with who controls our economy—with the fact that we are sold what we need, by and large, by oligopolies.  A few large companies control most industries, and effectively price set.  (Broadband profits in the US are almost 100% a year.)

This is known as pricing power. When someone needs what you sell more than you need to sell it to them; when they have little choice but to pay what you ask, you can demand a premium.  If something is scarce, either naturally or artificially, those who control it get more of the share of national income than otherwise.  In a society whose economy is not controlled by oligopolies this is usually a good thing—prices go up, more people enter the industry, prices drop.  That’s the what the economics textbooks tell you happens.  But it doesn’t happen in an oligopolistic economy where the oligopolists control government and where barriers to entry are very high.

So those who are in an oligopolistic situation, whether telecom companies, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies or landlords, are generally able to set prices: you must have medicine, you must have shelter, and in a modern economy, try and get by without a phone and internet.

What this means is that increases in income, especially at the lower end, tend to be simply taken away by those who have what you must have.  Everyone will know what the basic income is, and they will know who is surviving on just that, or just that plus a low-wage job.  And they will raise prices so that money goes to them.

Basic income which does include either oligopoly busting or regulation (or having the government, oh, just provide broadband and/or housing itself) will help many people, to be sure.  But in a not very long time, most of the gains will be eaten by those who have pricing power.

This, by the way, is far from a “socialist” theory. This comes out of bog-standard neo-classical economics.  Non-competitive markets tend towards concentration of wealth, and those who have pricing power use it (they act in their own self-interest, precisely as economics says they will.)  Markets are wonderful things. They are extremely efficient at allocating money.  And they will do exactly what they are set up to do.  In an oligopoly situation, with capture of government, they will allocate that money very quickly to the oligopolists.

So if you want basic income to work, you must also make capitalism work. You must create actual competitive markets, you must-trust bust, you must regulate and you must move, as government, to ensure that the important things people will spend that basic income on are not scarce—either naturally or artificially.

This extends far beyond basic income.  A market economy; a capitalist economy, works to the benefit of the majority only when it is competitive and when scarcities are actively managed, ideally to remove them, and when they can’t be removed, to ensure that those who provide scare necessities, do not reap outsize profits which allow them to buy up the rest of the system, including government and civic society.

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I’ve never understood why people care what the CBO says

On raising the minimum wage:

President Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would wipe out about 500,000 jobs by late 2016, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office…

…The CBO cautioned that its estimates of job losses were subject to wide fluctuation and could come in lower than 500,000 and as high as 1 million.

“In CBO’s assessment, there is about a two-thirds chance that the effect would be in the range between a very slight reduction in employment and a reduction in employment of one million workers,” it said in a report Tuesday.

Let me summarize: we think it will cost jobs, but we have no idea how many.

The fact is that empirical studies on raising the minimum wage have found no consistent pattern of job losses.  Sometimes you even get job gains. This is pure economic modeling: “well, if prices increase, buying must decrease, and labor is a market”.  That’s economic theory in a nutshell, the problem is it doesn’t work that way in the real world all the time.

In real terms, the minimum wage was much higher 40 years ago.  Did they have worse employment, or better employment than us?

Raising the minimum wage means that a lot of people have more money to spend, and spend it they do, because people earning that little spend every cent they have.  So it increases demand. It decreases borrowing from payday loan places, which charge usurious interest, and that also increases spending, because payday loans very quickly cripple the buying power of those who take them.

Economic modeling is, well, hard, and it’s not a science, because economics is not a science.  When the CBO says there’s a two-thirds chance a # is between negligible and a million people, they might as well be confessing to this.

Go ahead and raise the minimum wage.  It might increase employment, it might decrease employment, but it will help most minimum wage workers.  And because there are so many other things going on in the economy, any post-facto study on the affect will also be questionable.

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