I think a lot about human suffering and how best to reduce it. I particularly enjoy mixing this effort with various political philosophies, such as progressivism, or “libertarianism”, or “communitarianism”. More on those later.
For now I want to simply ask a few questions that have appeared to me after reading The Fall of the American Worker by the New Yorker. The article raises some interesting points that stir the water of my “liberal” mindset.
Basically, two folks, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, made a documentary about downward mobility in America and at one point decided to contact Charles Murray. Murray is the controversial author of books like The Bell Curve, and Losing Ground, and is a harsh and vocal critic of the concept of a welfare state.
Here’s an excerpt from Murray’s comments in the article, when he’s asked what he thinks about the working poor’s struggles:
“Give me an example,” Murray says. Maharidge begins to describe a woman named Maggie Segura, employed by the state of Texas, whom Maharidge met, along with her daughter, at a food bank. “Is she a single mother?” Murray demands. Guilty as charged. Maggie Segura shouldn’t have had a child with the wrong guy—point Murray. He asks for another example, and Maharidge describes an intact family: three kids, mom, and dad, Obie, who works as a janitor but has to sell his blood plasma to make up for shortfalls in the family budget. Murray is undeterred. “What is the appropriate success for working families? The guy is making ten bucks an hour, the wife is working part time. They’ve got three kids. Should we feel bad?” Murray does some quick calculations. “If I had to, I could figure out ways to live on $550 a week with three kids. I probably wouldn’t live in Austin. I’d go someplace else, where it was a lot cheaper. I’d make choices.”
Point Murray again.
And this is the pitch I get from my many conservative friends who say it’s all about free choices. People choose to have kids when they can’t afford them. People choose to not be educated. People choose to live in expensive places vs. inexpensive places.
This has a nice feel to it. It gives some order to the suffering. It makes it feel like it’s ok for it to happen, because it’s within the power of the sufferer to stop it at any moment. They’re simply choosing not to. Right?
Let’s back up
Let’s rewind and look at what we’re really talking about here. The two positions we’re usually asked to choose from when we’re asked about the suffering working class are:
They made choices to have too many kids, to not get an education, and to waste the money they do have, so I cannot pity them because they’re causing the harm to themselves.
The problem is institutionalization. Poor people come from poor parents. Uneducated people come from uneducated parents. These cycles continue, and given the way things are set up it’s extremely difficult to escape from the pit once you’re in it.
But isn’t this something of a false dichotomy? Don’t most people believe a combination of both of these? Most liberals believe people make choices, and should try to make better ones. And most Murray-type conservatives believe that it’s harder for disadvantaged folks to make the right decisions than for the well-off. Or at least I’d hope so.
Getting to it
Ok, so what are we really saying here? Here is my free-flow view on this:
The poor are absolutely making horrible choices that are hurting themselves. Due to traditional culture norms, the embrace of religion and other superstition, an antiquated work ethic that says having any type of job is respectable, and most importantly–having many children as a matter of course and having faith that everything will just work itself out.
This mentality is unbelievably destructive. It is the direct cause of suffering. It creates suffering by bringing ill-equipped people into this world, who will then do the same. It’s nothing less than perpetuating the manufacture of pain.
So that puts me in the so-called conservative camp because I acknowledge this?
Absolutely not. The above is only step one. It simply accepting that we have a problem, and that the problem is largely self-inflicted. This is the start of the conversation, not the end of it.
If you walk down the street and you see someone bashing their head repeatedly into the side of a stone building, you shouldn’t scoff at how destructive that person is and move along. No. That person needs help! If you know a teenager who cuts themselves, or is heavy into drugs, and has other mental issues, you don’t call them a loser–you get them help.
So what’s the difference between that and thinking that it’s ok, as part of your culture, to start pumping out kids as soon as you can? What’s the difference between that and thinking it’s ok to work at McDonald’s and try to raise four children in the middle of an economy that is in the middle of LOSING jobs to automation and outsourcing?
Nothing. There’s no difference. The first is perhaps more extreme, and more obvious, and more immediate, but the latter is far more dangerous to society precisely because it’s seen as quaint, traditional, and otherwise beyond reproach.
What are we to do?
So, getting right to it, what’s the solution?
Should we just let the poor and uneducated fall farther and farther behind? We just watch as they reproduce themselves into an ever-increasing state of suffering? We watch their jobs leave, we watch them go on welfare, which eventually gets cancelled, and then we watch them turn to crime. Finally, we lock them up–because they (once again) took the wrong path. Is that really an option? And we’re supposed to look on smugly a protective narrative of, “They made their choices?”
If your answer to that is yes, then I’ll just come out and say that you’re a bad person. Let’s not be delicate with our words. You’re a fucking asshole. Let’s proceed by assuming that you’re NOT saying we should just let them fall increasingly far behind, until they resort to crime and die in jail.
So what then?
Like most things, the answer is a hybrid. Of course it comes down to choices. Of course people need to be held responsible (to some degree) for their actions. Of course we should encourage and incentivize certain behavior and discourage others. All this is quite obvious.
But we should also acknowledge, as a society, that people are not in the same positions to make the right decisions. If you’re poor–especially in this society–and your parents come from a conservative background with little to no education, then you’re in seriously bad shape (on average). You’re probably not going to college. You’re probably going to have kids very young (probably a lot of them), and you will not have the skills to make good life choices.
So what do we do about that?
We, as a society, steer them in the right direction. We simultaneously accept that we’re trying to empower people to make better decisions ON THEIR OWN while saying that we refuse to let an entire group of people (millions upon millions) just fall off the wagon and die. So we build a hybrid system of support and encouragement.
We DON’T just hand out money like idiots so we can feel good. That’s an example of a good idea that ends up causing harm (see much of liberal policy). And we damn sure don’t let them starve or live on the street like animals (that’s an example of a conservative “tough love” concept that actually causes harm). They’re both flawed.
The key is to first agree that we SHOULD be helping. If you can’t agree on that then you can’t proceed to step 1. You have to take this stupid, “let them suffer” crap right off the table. Send those people back to the tea party where they belong; they’re not grown-up enough to have this conversation.
Next steps from common ground
So, now we have a mix of progressive and conservative types who agree on a few things:
- It’s our moral responsibility to try to help them. The alternative is that it is NOT our responsibility, and that it’s ok to let them suffer. We reject that.
- We are in this to help them learn to make the right choices, as it’s ultimately on them to do what’s right. They’re disadvantaged right now, and they need assistance getting to the point of being able to make those right decisions. We’re not looking to build a system where we perpetually have to feed and house them. This is empowerment, not hand-outs.
- We aren’t going to let them suffer while we’re helping them. It’s inhumane to do so.
- We’re not going to surround them in luxury or reward them for failing while we’re giving them the tools to be self-sufficient and successful. They get nothing but the minimums combined with education and life-training.
That’s a good foundation that I think can make most progressives and conservatives happy. Progressives complain if we focus too much on how they’ve made the wrong choices, and conservatives complain if we focus too much on it not being their fault. This is a pleasant middle ground between those.
Right then, so what are the actual steps?
School. The poor have to go to school. Good school. Free school. Public school. And the schools have to help the parents as well. Remember, the parents are hurting the kids, and the kids are pulling down the parents.
It’s a cycle. We as a society need to help these families as a unit. The parents either get jobs or supplemental pay to stay home and parent. To stay home and tutor. Oh, they can’t tutor because they don’t know the material? Then they get a tutor sent to them. They get training on how to act like a successful family. Eating at home. Cooking meals together. Spending family time.
No, you’re not going out to the club all the time. No, you’re not getting divorced. You’re staying together and being a family for the purposes of raising smart, healthy children. You need counseling? That’s provided. Healthcare? Provided. Enough money for going to the movies as a family, eating well, watching educational shows on TV (and the occasional sitcom, etc.)–that’s all provided as well.
Whoa. Wait. We’re going to say what they can do with their money? What they can watch and can’t watch? We’re going to teach them how to raise a family?
You’re goddamn right we are. We already know how to do this well. We know what works. The basics anyway. Education. The lack of old-world superstitions. A good diet. Plenty of sleep. Parents spending time with their kids. Etc. And most of this will be embraced anyway. Most parents will appreciate the help. For those who are creeped out by the government regulating all of this, the answer there is simple: once you’re self-sufficient you can do whatever you want. And in fact–THAT’S THE ENTIRE GOAL.
And for those conservatives who don’t need this help, and think it’s crazy that anyone does, and DOESN’T WANT TO PAY to give OTHERS this help, remember our list above. Remember our common ground. This is how we get there. Oh, and if you didn’t accept that common ground that’s because you’re a bad person, so I don’t really care what you think.
So let’s proceed:
Healthcare. Provided. As it should be. Obvious. Move along. Once they’re back on the path to providing and producing (assuming we can get there as a society given our move to technology) you’ll be putting into that system anyway.
Entertainment We should provide moderate entertainment, mostly around science, the arts, ways of helping the community, outreach programs where the people getting the help are helping others. Helping animals. Helping children. Helping the sick. Etc. All part of the training. Stipends for movies and such on occasion will be fine, but the key is to not just provide endless funds to waste time with–especially when it will result in filling their heads with destructive crap.
Ok, sounds pretty damn big brother. Sounds pretty damn invasive. Yeah, well, it’s an assistance program. It’s designed to train people to be successful. Many successful people lead modest lives in order to become successful, and this is showing them how that works.
And the result is that after some period of time (probably a long time), these families will break the cycle. The children will be healthy, well-fed, and will not be destructive. They won’t be having kids at a young age, before getting an eduction, and before being in a healthy and positive relationship.
So then the assistance stops. Then they’re just regular folks doing much the same stuff that the successful families were already doing, and what they were taught to do in the program.
And this doesn’t mean conformity. It doesn’t mean we’re pumping out a bunch of Cleaver families. Success has many forms. The things that will be uniform with our society will be things like NOT having kids when you don’t know if you’ll have a paycheck next month. Things like NOT having unprotected sex with someone who almost killed you last week. You know, starting small.
In short, we’re going to enable our population to think before reproducing. To think about how their actions affect others. To think about education as the foundation of healthy living in a society. Etc. These are extremely basic and extremely non-restrictive. Within these “confines” one can still be a musician, or an architect, or an IT person, or a teacher, or whatever.
So, I’ve spilled enough bits to take a break for comment (and to see how silly this sounds reading it back). Do let me know what you think of this approach, and if I need to fill in any parts of the model.