File this under ‘Clueless’

The September 2010 issue of Awake!, the magazine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has an article titled Is Atheism on the March? that says right at the beginning:

A new group of atheists has arisen in society. Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.

I have written before about the absurdity of religious people complaining about the new/unapologetic atheists not keeping quiet about their disbelief when we are swamped with religious messages. But coming from a group that actually comes to your door to proselytize, this surely must win the prize for lack of self-awareness.

Counting calories for the poor

Because people have such negative prejudices about the poor and unemployed as being lazy good-for-nothings who are trying to live off the fruits of other people’s hard work, they pay unusually close attention to prevent cheating and fraud by the poor. This explains why some people get more worked up by stories of petty fraud by poor people than by huge corporations and rich people carrying out massive swindles that have a far greater negative impact on almost all of us. People will rail about welfare cheats or workers in the cash economy not reporting all their incomes and thus paying less tax, while ignoring the tax sheltering schemes of the rich.

This is because well-to-do people are making a moral judgment, not an economic one. They think that poor people are somehow inferior in character and their misdeeds are thus seen as springing from character weaknesses, not economic calculation. It is the same mentality that results in society punishing the crimes of poor people proportionately more harshly than those of rich people.

There is also a whole industry devoted to the enterprise of determining exactly how much money people need to live on to meet their most basic needs. This is not an unreasonable exercise for governments to carry out in order to determine the size of the welfare benefits it should provide to make sure that people can survive ill health or the loss of jobs or other personal misfortunes that prevent them from earning a living. But what irks me is that the same government that is so careful with tax money when it comes to allocating resources to the poor spends like a drunken sailor when it comes to the needs of Wall Street or the military or tax cuts for the rich. If they paid as much attention to prevent waste and tax fraud and other forms of cheating in the defense budgets and in corporate sector, they would likely save a lot more money.

What is objectionable is the way people pass moral judgments and lecture poor people on what they should do with their welfare benefits. Some people seem to feel that just because our tax dollars are going to pay for poor people’s food stamps, we have earned the right to criticize other their food choices in ways that we would not dream of doing for anyone else. For example, welfare recipients are often at the receiving end of openly disapproving looks, comments, and other negative judgments about their purchases if they happen to use food stamps to buy foods (like cakes and doughnuts or soda) that are eligible but are perceived as luxuries and not wholesome. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is even proposing a ban on the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks.

One of the good changes that happened recently is that food stamps are no longer in coupon form but are now debit cards that can be swiped in cash registers. While this makes for more efficiency in the system, what I like most about it is that it makes it hard for anyone other than the cashier to know if people are purchasing items using food stamps, and thus restores a small measure of dignity to people who might be embarrassed to reveal that they are down on their luck.

Being poor leads to behavior that can seem irrational and inexplicable to the casual observer who is not poor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, his masterful examination of the lives of poor mining families in the north of England written after living with those families, George Orwell described how despite having incomes or unemployment benefits so low that they could barely subsist, the families would still ‘waste’ their money on frivolities like beer and cigarettes and sweets, leaving them with less money for more wholesome fresh fruits and vegetables. These choices led to them being malnourished.

But such poor choices are not caused exclusively by stupidity or failures of character. In chapter 5, Orwell explains how market pricing systems drive people towards making bad nutritional decisions.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even ‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry.

Orwell wrote this in 1937 but it rings true even now. The cheapest source of calories and the most economical way to satiate your hunger and get your daily caloric needs is to eat a meal of hamburger and fries and wash it down with a soda. Whole wheat bread, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fruit juices may be much better for you but they are more expensive to live on.

But it is not merely economics that drives poor people into making bad food choices. Orwell points out that there are important psychological factors at work too, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

George Orwell on the poor and unemployed

My ideas about what being poor and unemployed must be like were shaped by two books by George Orwell that I read at an impressionable age in my late teens that eloquently recounted his own direct experiences of that condition. One is Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a semi-autobiographical account of a period in his life when he was really poor and at times homeless. The other is The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), where he recounts his experiences after he was sent on assignment to the north of England for an extended period, and lived in the homes of coal mining families at a time when there was widespread unemployment.

Both books can be read online for free by clicking on the links and hold up remarkably well with time. Orwell’s obvious sympathy with the people he was writing about, coupled with his ability to write eloquently but honestly, brings the experience of the people he lived and moved with to vivid life.

What those books taught me is to be much more conscious of my own deeply ingrained class prejudices and not be too quick to judge what poor and unemployed people are like, and that many of my middle-class assumptions about them are not to be trusted. I learned that it was not a case of how different they were from people like me but how similar. I know that I still have plenty of class prejudices but at least I am aware that I have them, which makes me much more careful about making generalizations about the poor. Very few things infuriate me more than to hear well-to-do people (like Ben Stein in the previous post) smugly speak of the working poor and unemployed as if they are somehow and in some mysterious way inferior human beings lacking in the basic virtues.

Orwell writes in chapter 5 of The Road to Wigan Pier about how his own prejudices were confounded by the actual experience of getting to know people up close:

When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work, those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would probably continue. The middle classes were still talking about ‘lazy idle loafers on the dole’ and saying that ‘these men could all find work if they wanted to’, and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves. I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion, perhaps a quarter, of these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical parasites, were decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them.

What Orwell’s books also taught me is to appreciate the great desire of people to maintain their dignity and self-respect even under conditions of extreme poverty and hardship, and that this feeling becomes even stronger as they slide down the socioeconomic ladder. This is why poor people often dress and otherwise behave in seemingly more extravagant ways than those who are much better off. They feel a greater need to hide their poverty. The fashion industry’s success depends on making people desire to distinguish themselves from the less well-off by showing that they can afford to buy new and expensive clothes even when they don’t need to. And poor people who want to keep up appearances of gentility get caught in this consumption trap.

For example, I myself am frugal and wear clothes until they are so worn that they become frayed, and sometimes have actual holes in them. I wear shoes until they are so scuffed and beaten up that my feet get wet even in slight rain. My shabby appearance does not bother me. No one has as yet mistaken me for a panhandler and offered me money but if it happened I would not be offended. It would be merely an amusing anecdote that I could share with friends.

So one might wonder why poor people take so much care to look good and even spend money on clothes that they really cannot afford. The difference is that I know that I am not poor and if people think that I am, it is their error and does not impinge on my self-image. But poor people often desperately want to hide the fact of their poverty because they are not sure if they will ever stop being poor and they feel that looking obviously so by not taking care of their appearance is the first step to acknowledging permanent poverty, that they actually belong in the despised underclass and are not merely temporary sojourners there. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes the highly complicated extremes he went through to maintain a genteel façade while being homeless, just so that no one would suspect the truth.

In purely practical terms, it is obviously not a good idea to spend money one cannot afford to buy nice clothes or make-up or get one’s hair done, and whoever does that is being objectively foolish. But spending money in order to disguise one’s poverty springs from a different motivation from that due to vanity or self-indulgence, which is why we should not be so quick to judge the character of people simply by their visible state and actions. People who try to maintain a good appearance, even if they cannot afford it, are more likely to seek work to improve their situation than those who become resigned to their poverty and give up trying, sinking further into apathy and despair.

The US media’s subservience to the government and the Pentagon

I have praised Glenn Greenwald before but today’s article on the WikiLeaks releases and the response of the major American media is absolutely brilliant in its analysis. It is an absolute must-read.

Also see a fascinating video of a forum and Q/A with Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. It is long but engrossing. Assange comes across as a very smart and courageous person who is totally committed to continuing the practice putting out official government documents to the public.

I have just made a donation to WikiLeaks. You can also do so here.

Denigrating the poor and unemployed

The current high levels of unemployment in the US, hovering around 10% officially and likely around 20% really, seems to be on its way to becoming perceived as ‘structural’, an euphemism among policymakers for ‘permanent’ or close to it. Along with it, the poverty rate has risen to the point where one in seven people are now below the poverty line.

Unemployed people are dangerous to the oligarchy since they are the ones who are most likely to demand changes in the way things are done. What governments try to do to pacify people is make the unemployed feel as if their situation is due to their own fault, that they have no one to blame for their predicament but themselves. One way is to cook the unemployment numbers so as to make the figures seem lower than they really are. Low unemployment rates makes the unemployed feel that they are alone and isolated, and thus make them less likely to organize and protest.

Furthermore, if people think that only a few people are unemployed, they are more likely to blame themselves for their plight, to wonder what is wrong about themselves that prevents them from getting a job. This sense of self-doubt is compounded by the pervasive feeling among the middle and upper classes that their own comfortable situation in life is due to being smarter and harder workers. This results in the corresponding message being sent to the unemployed that their lot is bleak because they are lazy, lack skills and education, and have poor attitudes and work habits.

People who belong to the middle and upper classes can sometimes have extraordinarily patronizing attitudes towards the poor and unemployed. This smug attitude is manifested in people like Ben Stein who says:

The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say “generally” because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job.

People like Stein also think nothing of lecturing the unemployed on what their faults are and how they should shape up. Such sentiments are usually precursors to handing out prescriptive solutions, of which one is invariably that giving unemployment benefits merely encourages such laziness by enabling people to not seek work.

Simple habits of prudence will almost save the day, even in a bad recession. People who have meaningful savings, insured retirement plans, diversification of assets, people who do not buy what they cannot afford, people who do not simply assume the money will materialize out of thin air for their next purchase, people who add and subtract and see life plain, these people rarely get in desperate trouble. It is amazing how old-fashioned habits of buying modestly and living within one’s means, and planning for bad times as well as good times, can get one through earth shaking events.

So there’s some good advice for you waiters and dishwashers and shop clerks. Stop busting your money on frivolities like food and rent and clothes. Instead save up those pennies and buy rental properties and stocks and bonds, all the while making sure you diversify your portfolio of assets.

Just ponder Stein’s words for a minute and the mindset that underlies them. How many unemployed people do you think Stein knows intimately enough to make such sweeping judgments about their personalities or work habits? Despite his grand claim that “as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed”, with its implication that he knows a vast number, I suspect that Stein cannot even name more than a handful of working class poor, let alone have much familiarity with them. Such statements are usually the product of unexamined class prejudices, pure and simple, made with the confident assumption that those prejudices are shared by his readers and will not be challenged.

It turns out that his judgments are arrived at on the basis of knowing people just like him: “I get letters and e-mails from friends of decades standing asking for money every single day. Their common denominator is that they lacked prudence and lived in a dream world.” Silly people, thinking that a decades-long friendship with Stein might count for something when they were down on their luck. I am sure that they were pleased to get a lecture from him on their lack of prudence and thrift.

Stein writes as if he himself is an up-by-my-own-bootstraps type but Paul Krugman points out that he must have actually inherited a huge amount of wealth from his parents. What is also interesting is that Stein himself, going by his performance as the narrator in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, has an extremely irritating personality, pompous, dour, humorless, and with a grating voice. If I were a boss who fired people according to Stein’s criteria, he would be the first to go. If I had to share a cubicle with him, I’d shoot myself. (See Bill Maher on Stein and other rich whiners.)

I have been extremely fortunate in my life in never having been really poor, to the extent of having to worry where my next meal is going to come from or fear that I cannot pay the rent and may become homeless, even during the couple of years when I was underemployed and doing part-time teaching and consulting. As a result, I can never really understand what it feels like to be in such a situation. Even though I grew up in a developing country that had a lot of poor people, and also have poor relatives and friends who have been through hard times, just seeing poor people by the roadside or on an occasional basis isn’t sufficient to know what such a life is really like.

One usually learns about people different from you (in say ethnicity or culture) by reading books written by such people who can eloquently convey the experience from the inside. But it takes an improbable combination of means, energy, time, education, and writing skills to convey the full range of their experience, and the somewhat clinical reports about the lives of the working poor and unemployed provided by academics and journalists, however sympathetic (of which David Shipler’s book The Working Poor: Invisible in America is a good example), cannot do it full justice. There is always a temptation to make assumptions about what makes people poor and what poor people must be like and think that these unsupported beliefs constitute real knowledge.

Fortunately there are writers who can break through that barrier and provide a more visceral sense of the experience and in future posts I will discuss one who had a profound influence on me.

More on the WikiLeaks release and US media coverage

In a previous post I described how the US media carefully conforms to meet the needs of the establishment. One sees this on display again with the new WikiLeaks release. Glenn Greenwald compares the worldwide coverage of the explosive nature of the new revelations with the carefully sanitized version given to the US public by the major media outlets here and the focus on the trivial, such as Julian Assange’s private life.

Ellen Knickmeyer, former Baghdad bureau chief of the Washington Post, writes about the upbeat press briefings she received from the US government while covering the war and now says that “Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world, as the Iraq mission exploded.” Of course, it is a safe bet that if she were still at the Post, she would not be allowed to write that.

As I repeatedly said, WikiLeaks is serving the same public service as Daniel Ellsberg did when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, which is why he is such a strong supporter of their actions. If he had tried to leak them to the New York Times today, they probably would not publish them and may even turn him in to the FBI.