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

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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  1. Jeff Wegerson

    I love it when a Mormon informs others that gay marriage is a slippery slope to communal marriage.

  2. atcooper

    I thought of the Mormon push in California against rights as well. Regardless, they do try to live Christian beliefs, more so than others in the religious right coalition – a little less hate, a little more ‘least among me’.

    I was raised Mormon in Texas. The baptists down there really don’t like LSD. That they’d get in bed with them politically is embarrassing, and one of the elements of the Romney campaign I think overlooked was the unwillingness of a sizable enough contingent in the base could not get excited about a Mormon running.

    Much of the backwardness in LSD is generational. The left would be wise to lever that, and bring more Catholics and Mormons into the fold. The Kennedys are an example.

  3. atcooper

    My apologies for the garbled wording there. Strike ‘the unwillingness of’. 🙂

  4. The Mormons have a combination of moralities which on its face seems odd; advocating self sufficiency while promoting the need to care for others, both of which I find rather admirable. Their consistency lies in being two facets of distancing themselves from government. “We don’t need government to take care of the needy, we can do that ourselves.” It is actually a thoroughly viable concept, but only the Mormons seem able to bring it off.

    In Utah they are now doing it through government, but it is a state government. They are less leery of state governments that of the federal one, especially state governments which they control.

    Somewhat less charming is their interference in California on Prop 8, and the fact that in the Saving and Loan crisis in the 80’s not only were virtaully all of the big players Mormons, many of them were highly placed officials in the Mormon church.

    Complex bunch.

  5. I think atcooper means LDS.

  6. eclecticdog

    This will only happen in Utah. AZ politics is driven by many, maybe even a majority of Mormons on local, county, and state levels, and there will be no slack or help given to the poor. AZ exists only as a colony for tithes and Mormon businesses, so Utah that can make itself feel good.

  7. atcooper

    Bill, yep. I need to say the full name out loud before typing it in. Latter Day …

  8. jump

    I think many people, particularly not well off folks, recognize and understand the concept of communal well-being (social gospel) and that it does inform their actions on a small local scale with friends, neighbors and church. That is not the narrative they hear on a larger scale from politicians and media though–just the opposite. The two levels and narratives are so divergent and distant that they never seem to get connected and as long as they remain disconnected the beliefs can remain discordant.
    How to get people to think that the individual/local well-being should inform the political? How to connect those levels? The divisive fear of the ‘other’ is a well cultivated obstacle to this.
    Does fear over-ride belief? And limit to whom social charity should be extended?

  9. alyosha

    PBS featured a show about Mormonism some years ago, and for someone who knew little about the religion, I learned quite a bit, both the good, the bad, and the weird.

    One of the more impressive things was how they responded to Hurricane Katrina. While the federal government was still coming to terms with the unfolding disaster, semi-trailers full of goods, dispatched from Mormon warehouses were already on the road to New Orleans. Of course this came with a healthy dose of proselytizing, but the recipients were grateful for whatever help came their way.

  10. Monster from the Id

    “He was in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. He took too much LDS.” :mrgreen:

    LLAP, y’all.

  11. jump

    I appreciate what you do and your articles, I will donate.
    But I sometimes wonder why you keep doing what you do? I am sure you do too.
    Comments can hijack the story to some inane outcome.

    The story is not about Mormons and LDS/LSD. It is about beliefs and actions based on those beliefs. Why do we not feed everyone when we can? Why do we not find homes for the homeless? Why are our children suffering?
    It is all do-able. Why don’t we do it!!!??? (does that count as a triple interobang!?)

  12. cripes

    Yup. GB Shaw and others observed there is sufficient productive capacity to feed and clothe all. and then some.
    I suppose it boils down to control, power; the perpetuation of articificial scarcity (the environmental/resource issue being another, albeit looming, issue) props up the class structure and splits into antagonistic camps all those that would otherwise find common ground to remove the 1% and their 9% retainers from power.
    It really is the question of our age.

  13. jump

    I remember in the 70’s the argument that we cannot feed the starving because the economics would bring down the price of wheat and rice, even though surplus tonnes were destroyed to preserve the economics, cause….
    Question of our age? Answer correctly. We’ve been doing it wrong for a while now.

  14. markfromireland

    @ Ian Matthew 25: 34-46

    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.

    This is axiomatic. I’m horrified that you feel you should have to point any of this out. Horrified but not even slightly surprised.


  15. “a rich person is someone who gets rich on other people’s work”

    A cogent fact that the 1 percenters and their supporters never quite seem to grasp.

  16. Tony Wikrent

    Anyone interested in pursuing the history of the social gospel movement in the USA can google Washington Gladden, a leading American Congregational pastor, early leader in the Social Gospel movement, and a leading member of the Progressive Movement. If I recall correctly, I learned of Gladden while reading Sam Pizzigati’s excellent book The Rich Don’t Always Win. Another important part of American history that has been successfully forgotten by TPTB. It’s a shame that so many otherwise well-intended progressives and liberals are so entrenched in their hostility to religion, because it blinds them to the truly inspiring and crucial part of the history of the abolitionist, social gospel, and civil rights movements – all of which were, as Ian notes, largely driven by Christian crusaders. Seriously, how can you possibly understand Martin Luther King Jr. without the context of his religious beliefs and avocation as a clergyman?

    Every once in a while, I mention “cultural warfare.” That’s really what we are engaged in. Our enemies are veterans at cultural warfare: any of the books on the intellectual and organizational history of neo-liberalism by critics such as Philip Mirowski, Steadman Jones, or Kim Phillips-Fein makes that clear, even though those authors unfortunately do not have what I consider a good, militant, radicalized conception of cultural warfare.

    I pray Ian is still intending to write a book. Rebuilding and restoring a philosophy of “doing the right thing” is so very, very important for the era we are about to enter, where computers with artificial intelligence will replace millions of previously well-paid humans. We will HAVE to move to such policies as free college education, sole-payer medical care, basic income support, housing for the indigent. and so on. We will be forced to mend and greatly expand the social safety net, or we will face a truly dystopian future of widespread misery and poverty ruled over by a very tiny elite of selfish rich.

  17. Senator-Elect

    And some economists think that distribution is not central to the discipline! Surely it is now, when we can produce enough junk to fill those McMansions many times over. This is where a consumption tax might come in handy.

    But, of course, taxes and financial ‘incentives’ pale in comparison to the power of ideas. Westerners live the way they live because they think this is the way they should live. It’s called the social construction of reality. It’s a very powerful idea, since it implies that we can remake the world into whatever we want it to be. We just have to spread the right idea around.

  18. V. Arnold

    Good stuff Ian, thanks.

  19. @jump, “The story is not about Mormons and LDS/LSD. It is about beliefs and actions based on those beliefs.”

    Point taken. I commented on the Mormons in part because the larger point is so obvious. And yet, those actions should be taken regardless of beliefs, based purely of the self interest of the society. Having the unfed, unhealtyy and unhoused among us weakens us as a community, and notwithstanding what one may believe is the “right” thing to do, feeding, caring for and housing them makes us stronger and more viable as a community.

  20. markfromireland

    Bill H don’t take this the wrong way but you’re rather spectacularly missing the point. “Self-interest” for many people is defined by their beliefs, by their faith. Your faith (or lack of it) may give you an entirely different set of beliefs to them and an entirely different opinion as to what constitutes self interest.


  21. markfromireland, don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t seem to be able to read English. What part of my comment spoke to my faith or lack thereof? For your information, I happen to believe that feeding, housing and caring for the poor is a profoundly good act and should be done regardless of its effect on society; done for the sake of dong the right thing, of being a good society and, on an individual basis, of being a good person.

    I was pointing out that it is ALSO beneficial to the society in a pragmatic way. Pragmatism and morals are not mutually exclusive.

  22. zot23

    Couldn’t agree more Ian! We moralize so damn much about the severity of poverty, crime, abortion, and drugs, yet when a solution that works for all doesn’t match our puritanical ideals it is dismissed out of hand. Regardless of whether you just give someone food or shelter or even financial assistance, very few people want to remain starving, homeless, or bankrupt. It’s very strange amongst a segment of our population: the worst thing they can imagine is to exercise a little compassion for someone not in their family or social strata. I guess they fear it could become a habit or they might like it?

    The USA (and Canada) has so much prosperity and wealth, yet look how we spend it.

  23. Xco

    The brutal, punitive, Manichean outlook that came in with the new century has not dissipated. Everything still has to be cast in terms of slaying villains.

    I recall seeing a promo for America’s Nanny: (roughly) “Until people in this family stop being so authoritarian, this house is UNDER LOCKDOWN!!”

    I’m fairly sure it wasn’t intended to be a joke.

  24. Dan Lynch

    Agree with Ian’s main point about kindness usually being the best approach.

    Like other commenters, I could give you a piece of my mind about Mormons, but that would require a book or two.

    One thing I would like to point out is that the original Mormon communities practiced a form of communism. They pooled resources and worked for the common good rather than for individual profit.

    Today most of the powerful Mormons that I have bumped into are reactionary Ayn Rand worshippers who want nothing to do with traditional Mormon economic values. As one example, Frank Vandersloot, Romney’s finance chair and perhaps the most powerful oligarch in Idaho. Vandersloot has used his power to push for tax cuts for the rich, charter schools, and cuts to social programs.

  25. john c. halasz

    “Ethics and mores; belief, is why people do things.”

    Actually, I tend to think the opposite. Generally, justification follow behavior rather than behavior being determined by justification. The human capacity and even the compulsion to rationalize one’s existence is large, if not boundless. But, at the very least, it can be a rich source of black comedy…

  26. “There will be sacrifices (fewer billionaires, fewer McMansions)”

    Excellent piece and many paragraphs worthy of a stump speech for a moderate Democrat or Liberal Republican in the U.S. from the Kennedy administration until approx. 1978 or so.

    Relative to the quote about billionaires & McMansions, above, I probably would have said: “There will be changes; some inconsequential such as the likelihood of fewer billionaires. Other changes will be more aesthetic, culturally inspired and environmentally sustainable such as fewer McMansions, which are like bunions on the rancid swamp feet of class warfare and income inequality.”

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