Wednesday 3 February 2016

Where does modern poverty come from?

Modern poverty is different from ancient poverty - and this is true whether we are talking about 'relative poverty' in The West (where the poor do not work, are overweight and tend to overuse drugs); and 'absolute poverty in the Third World (where people work long hours, are thin and malnourished, and cannot afford any inessentials).

200 years ago, the modern poor would have been dead.

In other words, as a generalisation, the people who are poorest nowadays would not have been alive in the past.

(Socialism probably got its start and its moral force from observing the 'new poor' - and misunderstanding their origin. Socialists assumed that the new poor had been immiserated by capitalism from the old prosperous working class. But they had in fact been created by saving some of the children of the poor from death: but saving them from death to only-just-subsist in extreme poverty.) 

In The West, instead of being part of a chronically unemployed/ sick/ unemployable and socially pathological underclass, the modern poor would have been long-since dead - probably in the womb or in early childhood; plus quite a lot more in the teens. 

In the Third World  - they modern poor would have been dead from infectious diseases, or predation, or starved to death, or by violence (all of which have now been significantly prevented or cured by importing technology and expertise and other resources from The West).

The average poor woman woman 200 years ago would have had close to zero children surviving to sexually fertile adulthood on average (no matter how many babies were born). And if she personally did not raise the children, they would even-more-certainly die.

Nowadays, even in the poorest areas the average woman can expect to raise a majority of her children.

And in The West, she can expect that very nearly as many children as she gives birth to, will reach adulthood in a condition to have their own children (even if she personally does not rear them, someone else will be paid to do so - and there is no limit to the number).  

This analysis seems to suggest that the problems of modern poverty are essentially ineradicable - since there is no compelling reason to believe, no precedent to assume, that the problems can be solved.

Maybe they can be solved? - or substantially ameliorated? But, if we are hard-nosed and sceptical, we would have to acknowledge that that is just a wish and a hope, and - as yet - there is nothing at all to support the idea.   


Rich said...

Agreed, Bruce.

I have become a bit more hopeful for the poor, at least in the US, since opening my mind to what money actually is and what it actually does. The US has a sovereign fiat currency, but we run the country like it is still on the gold standard. I don't want to get too detailed here, but if the government stopped worrying about imaginary debt and started putting people to work, say repairing roads, building more infrastructure, etc. we could potentially reach full employment.

I'm not suggesting socialism. The gov't would simply set minimum wage by offering public works jobs to unemployed people that want them. They would not compete with the private sector for labor, rather they would provide liquidity to the private sector labor market. Put a stop on all unemployment checks. Do away with welfare. Just fund jobs.

I don't think this solves the more major problem of spiritual malaise breaking the world. However, I do think that people want to work and feel useful and that those that are employed will be less likely to abuse drugs and succumb to meaningless laziness.

This may be far fetched, but it can be implemented in our current system unlike a lot suggestions I've heard out of the Austrian economist faction. I think they have good things to say, but they are so far off of where we already are.

David said...

Well there are a few potential solutions to these kinds of problem but most or all of them are very morally dubious and lie well outside of today's 'Overton window'.

I'm afraid the societal hospital is only likely to swell until there are not enough of us left to look after the modern poor.

How about incentives for voluntary sterilisation for those who are creating children they don't really want or those who consistently show they are incapable of caring adequately for their offspring without enormous and financially incapacitating state investment? Perhaps an X box or other games console or life time sky TV membership in exchange for a vasectomy? It would save billions and the men canvassed would probably be happy about it as well!

Or perhaps a more realistic acceptance of the likihood of achieving mass employment for a large section of society. Instead of endlessly hounding the modern poor to seek work and attend job centres until they become 'ill' with anxiety or depression and present to overstretched nhs mental health services, which, let's face it, is unrealistic and destructive and most modern jobs are 'made up' nowadays to plug people into an economic system that doesn't require billions of workers and only an elite of a minority (relative to actual population size) technically skilled or professional class. If the rest don't want to work or realistically *need* to work or *can't* work why not have an acknowledged 'opt out' position ie rationed food (a healthy shopping list of ingredients dropped on the door step but nothing else or a restricted menu of options), basic housing and other essentials provided in a resource economy format (possibly less expensive than what we are trying to do at the moment anyway with current benefit system) and if you want holidays or other perks you need to go out and work for it or chose 'opt in!' Package. In one fell swoop the hunted anxiety of the hounded unemployed could vanish, there would be less obesity (perhaps some kind of customer weighing system in doorways of fast food services could reinforce this eg you can only get served if your bmi is low enough or you fit through a narrow doorway) and work-related stress and heart disease would reduce as well! But then that would assume the people in power actually want to improve things. And then further down the line the epidemic of age related illness due to dementia, cancer and other problems will inevitably strike whatever is done.

Failing that...there's always the hunger games approach which might ensure that the genetic stock is maintained by an artificial selective pressure! :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - I think this scheme would come up against the problem that the military found - which is that there is a significant proportion of the population that are much more trouble than they are worth. The US and Uk army uses intelligence and other tests to evalauate applicants, and quite a lot are rejected (at varies between groups and situations, but I think 20 percent or even more is usual - and of course military applicants and even conscripts are pre-selected, not least for health).

This is because these people are unreliable, cannot learn procedures, cannot follow instructions, are always injuring themselves (and, worse, others) - and in general use-up a proportion the competent military manpower in an inefficient and futile attempt to supervise them.

Added to which there are many people who lack sufficient motivation to turn up, work at all, and to do a decent job. Bad quality work will hurt someone sooner or later.

Of course all this is exacerbated by the incentives structure, whereby people are *much* wealthier not working than doing a low level job, and therefore the sanctions against refusing to work need to be very severe indeed - at the level of 'work or starve'; and of course the threat must be credible, therefore must be implemented as a general rule.

But I don't think incentives will fix the problem. Even vicious slavery can only get a less than total proportion of people to work - and the type of work such coerced people will do is limited to that which can be survised and inspected (if they can sabotage, they will).

This is graphically explained in Pier Plowman by William Langland from c 1380. In those days it really was work or starve, and still some people would not work! I suspect the proportion in this category would nowadays be much higher than in the intensely selected Middle Ages in England - many populations have never been through the selection for intelligence and conscientiousness that happened in agrarian England:

Rich said...


Points well taken. I am full of hope for a solution, but the reality is that there just may not be one.

I will admit, actually interacting with the poor/welfare class really puts a damper on any hope of progress in this realm.