Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz


I have two friends — let’s call them Q and R — whose political philosophy I find alien and fascinating. Like me, they genuinely want to help the poor but, like conservatives, they object to most typical solutions for doing so. (And yes, I know conservatives claim they want to help the poor, but it usually turns out that there are other things they think are more important. Not so with Q and R.)

Q thinks the most important thing is how it feels to be poor. The problem isn’t so much that they don’t have money, but that they’re made to feel bad because of it. Welfare is thus a bad idea because it just makes the poor feel worse — not only can they not make money, but they have to come hat-in-hand to the government for help. My first reaction to this was that the poor were wrong: it wasn’t their fault they were poor, they were just the losers in a rigged game. But, of course, they don’t know the game is rigged and things they don’t know can’t make them feel better. By focusing on the objective facts, Q argues, we’re ignoring the actual lived experiences of the poor.

Q is thus upset by socialist writers, like Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier) and Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch), who attempt to get the reader to imagine what it would be like if they were poor. Because this is just another way of getting the reader to focus on the objective situation. In all probability, the reader will not be poor ands thus the question of what it would be like is irrelevant; what’s important is what it would be like for the actual poor and that requires talking to them.

R also objects to welfare policies, but on rather different grounds. R starts from the premise that people are bad at making themselves happy. Well-to-do professionals, who seem so much better off than the poor, may not actually be doing that much better. To continue to live in the style to which they’ve become accustomed, they must work long hours at a job they dislike. Because of the endowment effect, getting off this treadmill would cause them even more pain. A few lucky people earn money at tasks they find fulfilling, but perhaps not many more than are happy being poor.

Welfare — or, indeed, any proposal to improve the objective situation of the poor — is a bad idea in R’s view because it simply makes it harder for them to get off the treadmill. One might think the right response to this is what we might call (with apologies to Thaler) a kind of utilitarian paternalism, where the government steps in and shows people how to be happy. But why would the government know how to be happy? Having a satisfied life is a cultural problem, R argues, and the solution lies in non-governmental steps to reform culture.

I find these arguments interesting because they start from rather inarguable premises (what matters is how it feels to be poor, people don’t know the best way to make themselves happy) to draw very frustrating conclusions.

Take Q. Corporate profits (and thus employee pay) depend on how much of a monopoly the company has. Even the secretary at Google is a millionaire, while even the owner of a farm is desperately poor. There’s no way to make a company in a competitive market pay more because there just isn’t more money to pay. But getting rid of competitive markets seems like a bad idea; competition has clearly made our lives better. But if we want to make things better for those who aren’t paid well (and let’s just say we do, since that’s kind of the basic premise of this whole article), that just leaves transferring money from those who have it to those who don’t. Which, according to Q, doesn’t make anyone feel better.

Other countries seem to deal with this by designing the money so that money isn’t transferred directly, but is spent on universally available public services. It’s not that the French poor get given money they can spend on health care, it’s that in France health care is free to everyone. Poor people don’t feel singled out and aided—everyone uses government health care. (And the wealthy are much less likely to vote against programs they themselves use.)

This also goes some way to addressing R’s objection: people aren’t being given more money to spend how they see fit, they’re being given access to services we expect to make them happy. And the access doesn’t ever go away, so it doesn’t contribute to the endowment effect.

Even so, R would argue, much of these universal services are things like education which make it so that a broader group of people can sign up to work at rat race jobs and thus get on the unhappy treadmill. Why support policies that bring more people into this unhappy system? (R also happens to think schooling is bad on its own terms, as is health care, but I don’t think that’s necessary for the argument.)

But a tax for service system compresses the whole wage structure. The wealthy earn less money, because they pay some of it in taxes, and thus don’t have as far to fall. And the poor get more services, which means that even if the wealthy do lose their job and fall, they don’t fall as far, since the floor has been raised. All of this would seem to make it easier to quit a job you don’t like. (Egads, I’m mixing metaphors like Thomas Friedman. Falling off a treadmill to services on a higher floor?) Indeed, in the extreme case, services would be so high you wouldn’t have to work at all unless you wanted to. (Whether this extreme is economically feasible is a separate discussion.)

So that’s what I’m for: democracy within organizations, transfers between organizations, and structuring the rules of the market to maximize social benefit. Oh, and euthanasia of the rentier.

You should follow me on twitter here.

October 19, 2009


I liked the structure of this essay a lot. I have conservative tendencies at times and this is one the more convincing arguments I’ve heard for social services.

I do believe that it would decreases the total economic output of a society, but that really shouldn’t be the only metric we use.

posted by Alex on October 21, 2009 #

Wow, what a disconnect. Both of these arguments are modern-day equivalents of “let them eat cake”.

@Q: One might more realistically argue that welfare lets “poor people” feed their families without selling blow jobs or robbing old ladies. That probably feels pretty good for someone without other options.

@R: From the perspective of a spoiled upper middle class kid, sure, college gives you options of “rat race jobs […] on the unhappy treadmill”. But for people whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for an education because they were living paycheck-to-paycheck all their lives, it’s an opportunity to aspire to a goal greater than paying rent to stay off the street another month.

It’s simultaneously sad and hilarious watching Q and R discuss what it must feel like to be “poor”. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I don’t see why is it so hard for people to get their minds around what it must be like for people to have no financial, personal, or social safety net? That means no parents with extra houses and bedrooms, no MacBook Pros, and no employable skills.

posted by Andrey Fedorov on October 22, 2009 #

Andrey Fedorov: Dude, I’m poor. Seriously. (I know! Aaron knows a real life poor person! Isn’t it weird?) The people selling blow jobs or robbing old ladies aren’t doing it for food, they’re doing it for drugs. Which we all know. We generally know who they are and what they’re up to because it’s a good idea to steer clear of them. Also, we know what they do when they get their welfare checks. Boy, does my mom have a fun rant about that. But really, like, if you’re not already deeply involved with drugs, it’s hard to know where to even get started sucking cocks for money. The people doing it are well armed and territorial.

For food there’s stamps, and generally a list you can get of kitchens, etc, that hand out bags once a week. Walmart is helpful for my mom, and she also has a little back garden where she grows veggies to supplement what produce she can afford. I have a longstanding tradition of going to upscale markets when flat broke and hungry and trying lots of samples, because I’m not just poor, I’m cheeky. If you’re really in need of food cafeterias are awesome. I used to just collect untouched sides and stow them away for later.

Another bit of news regarding the rat race: R’s possibly more right than even he knows. There’s a lot of poor people that don’t want your awful desk job. Not just because they clearly couldn’t do it, being just this side of literate. They like working in the open. They like work ending when they punch a timeclock and getting to be with their friends and family. They like talking to people, touching them, giving them things in their jobs. They like making people happy. They like knowing everything about a simple system in a simple place, becoming part of that. They like that work is just work, their boss is just an asshole, and they don’t have to give a fuck about whether they’re productive enough or how the company is doing. A lot of poor people not only don’t get any meaning from their work, they don’t want any, because they haven’t fallen for that weird middle and upper class delusion that somehow your job determines your worth as a person. (Some do. I did, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t do me any good.)

The thing that capital S-Sucks about being poor is the constant stressful sense that you are one out-of-your-control incident from falling off the bottom rung of the ladder. Your life is precariously balanced, and you’re often only one car accident, one bout of illness, one layoff away from it all falling apart. Sometimes it’s even less, you’re one cold away, or some incomprehensible bit of paperwork away from disaster, or the price of something just went up, or your kid brings home a surprise and you can be fucked by dominos of disaster and you don’t know how far you’ll fall, whether a relative can help slow the fall or what. You don’t know if you’re going to lose your home, lose your kid’s chance at school, if you’re going to die, go into debt, fall off the wagon, go to jail. That stress makes people crazy, and they respond by doing bad things. Hand a bunch of people totally acclimated to that kind of crazy a bunch of money, they aren’t going to exactly start researching 401(k)s. I am continually bewildered by people that want to give people that have not only never had any money, but any training in managing money, wads of the dangerous stuff without so much as a suggestion of what to do with it. It’s like the one backhoe per child plan. What could possibly go wrong?

But if we as a society could take some of those threats away, mitigate them a bit, and maybe help the people with drug and mental illness problems a bit more, let everyone go to the doctor, you’d find out something about us poor people. We’re really good at this. We know how to band together and help each other, we know how to prioritize, we know how to have fun, and we don’t need all of your crap to be happy. It hasn’t made you people happy. I kind of live in this class interstitial these days, and I’m amazed at how miserable the middle class can make themselves, for, as near as I can tell, no reason at all. You’re always scared, you obsess over really trivial shit, you have no idea how to relax. But you do often know how to balance a checkbook, or set up a household budget. You know what compound interest is, and which side is the business end. We know how to get everyone together to rebuild a car for the grandparents or somesuch. It’s unfortunate that class/race/etc walls are so unbreechable in the US, because we really could learn a few things from each other.

posted by Q on October 23, 2009 #

@Q: I find myself agreeing with your comment, although I don’t think you (or anyone) can speak for all “poor people”. More importantly, I don’t see how what you say shows that “welfare is a bad idea because it just makes the poor feel worse”. Yes, right now, people who sell blowjobs/mug old ladies aren’t doing it because they’re afraid of starving, because we do have very basic forms of welfare in the US - food stamps being one of them.

And this is exactly what I’m talking about - if conservative rhetoric against “the welfare state” are realized into law (removing food stamps, housing subsidies, homeless shelters, etc), more people will be forced into prostitution and crime. On the flip side, if we were to grow the “welfare state” to mitigate the financial threats from healthcare, housing, and education, we would also reduce the number of people doing things they are unhappy with out of necessity.

It doesn’t upset me when people sell themselves or commit crimes for drugs (or other non-necessities) because that’s their choice/risk to make/take. What upsets me is when they’re forced to do what they don’t want to (be it actual or corporate prostitution) to provide healthcare, housing, or education for their families. Hence, I see the solution to “white collar wage slavery” being an expansion of the welfare state - to give people social services that will allow them to leave their “desk jobs” and find both socially valuable and fulfilling work.

This is how successful communities work (Jewish communities come to mind) - they provide social welfare to their members (members know they’ll never need to sleep on the street), but encourage education (not just schooling) and creating value for the community.

Note how this applies to R’s point about “desk jobs” as well. Colleges aren’t only a gateway to schooling and white collar slavery, but to education and capitalism as well (self-employment, small business, etc) . It may be an unconventional position for a capitalist to advocate an extensive welfare system, but that’s just what makes sense to me.

posted by Andrey Fedorov on October 23, 2009 #

@Q: I just found myself in an argument along the same lines as this one, making the point that there’s nothing wrong with being content with being poor, and that people pretentiously assume that low net worth immediately implies misery. So, well done! Not only a year later, I’m arguing your points as if they were my own (I did link here when I realized it, of course)!

posted by Andrey Fedorov on June 24, 2010 #

Wow, I am tremendously impressed, especially with the follow up in a comment thread of all places, and thank you.

posted by Q on June 29, 2010 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.