Friday, June 06, 2014

A Taxonomy of Excuses for Poverty and Inequality (The Inequality List, Part 1)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Verdict column yesterday, and my accompanying Dorf on Law post, I confronted one of the more persistent conservative arguments regarding poverty and inequality.  Sure, they will say, poverty and inequality might be bad if they persisted for a long time, but there is so much economic mobility in the U.S. that we need only wait some acceptably short amount of time (with the maximum acceptable time period never specified, of course), and the poor will no longer be poor.  The former poor will be replaced by newly poor, but those people also will not be at the bottom for long.

This argument is surely a chestnut, but it has always been a bad joke.  "Thinkers" like Paul Ryan (ironic quotes very much appropriate here) acknowledge that there is persistent poverty, but they argue that it is all the government's fault.  If only we had not tried to fight a War on Poverty, they say, then we would not have created a nation of people who are the Democrats' political dependents!  Who cares that the evidence and scholarship that Ryan directly cites fails to support his case, or that the consensus among scholars is in substantial disagreement with his conclusions?

The mobility argument became even more ridiculous when we learned that there is now more economic mobility in the countries of Old Europe than in the Horatio Alger-esque New World, but it was always ridiculous.  Yet the argument endures, because it allows opponents of redistributive policies to wrap themselves in warm words like "opportunity" and "ambition."  Don't worry, be optimistic!

Leading into the discussion of mobility in my Verdict column, I noted that in 2009 I had written down a list of arguments that conservatives have offered against doing anything about poverty and inequality.  Those arguments could be arranged into three broad categories, in the form of arguments in the alternative: (1) “There is no problem,” (2) “Even if there is a problem, there is nothing we can do about it, and (3) “Even if we could do something about it, whatever we might do would only make matters worse in some much more important way.”

I noted that there were similar progressions of arguments under each of those categories.  It was unnecessary there to provide the whole list, but I will do so here.  Note that most of these arguments can be adapted from their current form -- "Reasons not to do anything about poverty" -- to their alternative form -- "Reasons not to do anything about inequality" -- only by changing one word of the argument.  Some, however, do not quite work when applied to inequality; but those isolated instances are not important here.  In any event, here is the current version of the list:

(1)       There is no problem

  • Poverty does not exist.
  • Even if poverty does exist, the poor deserve to be poor.
  • Even if the poor do not deserve to be poor, the market will eliminate poverty.
  • Even if the market fails to eliminate poverty, no one stays poor for very long.
  • Even if some people do stay poor for a long time, their poverty is only relative, not absolute.
  • Even if poverty is absolute, it is not harmful.

(2) Even if there is a problem, there is nothing we can do about it

  • Even if poverty is harmful, it is because people are predisposed to poverty.
  • Even if people are not predisposed to poverty, they are not equipped to handle opportunities after having been in poverty.
  • Even if people could handle opportunities, they would not take full advantage of what they are given, because one cannot appreciate what is not earned.
  • Even if people could appreciate opportunities that were not earned, the government in inherently unable to give them the opportunities that would allow them to be succeed.

(3) Even if we could do something about it, whatever we might do would only make matters worse in some much more important way

  • Even if poverty can be reduced by government action, it is too expensive to do so.
  • Even if it is not too expensive to reduce poverty, doing so would reward laziness.
  • Even if government action against poverty does not reward laziness, the government programs will be riddled with corruption.
  • Even if redistributive programs are not corrupted, they will reduce GDP (or GDP growth)
  • Even if redistributive programs do not reduce GDP or growth, they penalize virtue.

I emphasize that this was simply a list that I put together prior to a speaking engagement, which I hoped to use to illustrate the whac-a-mole nature of arguing about issues of economic distribution.  It is certainly not a complete list, especially under category (3), where an awful lot of work is being done by the second-to-last category (where "efficiency" arguments generally sit).

Despite its incompleteness, I do think that there is something to be gained by noting the progression of "even if" arguments.  It is never enough to win an argument, because there is always another one coming.  And there is every opportunity for a committed anti-redistributionist to loop back around to any point higher on the list, simply to muddy the waters.  One can, for example, flip back and forth between "there is no problem" and "the government makes the problem worse," as I discussed above re Ryan, apparently without embarrassment about the inconsistency.

Because this list is almost certainly incomplete, I encourage readers to offer suggested additions to this taxonomy.  Or, one might reasonably argue that this is the wrong way to view the game that is being played, and that I give too much ground by imagining that there is any logical structure to these arguments at all.  It might be better, for example, to view conservatives' arguments as a grab-bag of thoughts that can come out at any time and in any order.  I do think that there is something to be gained by seeing the arguments as successive attempts to change the subject, but I could be wrong.

In any event, it now appears that the inequality/poverty debate is going to be with us for some time.  This seems like an opportune moment to anticipate the fog of evasions and disinformation to come.  Constructive suggestions welcome.


Anonymous said...

I agree that there is more than one way to look at this situation. For example, one can look at the anti-inequality crowd (who are not all political conservatives but include many who would call themselves liberals) and say that they have made an irrational decision to support inequality and then simply find excuses to justify that position. First we decide, then we think.

I do not, however, believe that this is what drives someone like Ron Paul or Paul Ryan. What drives those men is the political imperatives inherent in coalition building. In this view intellectual hypocrisy is just the name of the game because one is simply telling the audience what they want to hear in order to collect their electoral support. The point then is that even if there are "successive attempts to change the subject" this subject changing is not being done to produce a fog of evasion or spread disinformation but is being done to motivate different elements in a coalition. When Ron Paul opens his mouth and starts talking BS it might look to you or I as evasion or disinformation but that is simply because we are not the intended audience for his remarks. The question is not whether we believe it--the question is do they?

So if I were Ron Paul I'd be grateful for the list Neil has produced in this post. All Ron Paul now has to do is match an intellectual point with a speaking invitation and then assign a staff member to write a thousand words. So easy. The only question left is will Paul's audience swallow his tripe and hey the whole point of elections is precisely to provide an answer.

LBF said...

Poverty has been with us since recorded history. We, and I say we, as American’s will never alleviate poverty. We are an amazing nation of people bent on doing good sometimes even if it hurts us.

Good news, for most, certainly not all, poverty is a time of life will fall into and than climb our way back out. It has happened to me and several others I know. All poor are not systemic poor. Second poverty is measured as income, without any offset for assets. I know many retired people who have millions saved but who’s taxable income is less that $10,000 per year as much of their annual cash flow is coming from annuities, tax exempt retirement funds, tax fee bonds, and social security. They are not poor, except by how they are measured.

Now there are a few items that insure the some Americans will become part of the systemic poor. The first is lack of education. Allowing children to advance from grade to grade as social grade promotions and giving them a High School diploma when they can barley read and write is a fraud upon the tax payer and a fraud upon the students and their families. The financial literacy is not taught in schools – even just a few classroom hours each year could make a difference. This topic woven into math and science and social studies would be a great game changer. The last is the broken family and the state’s compassionate but misguided financial support of the broken family. Here we should address the problem and not some much the incentives.

In America – as it stand we have planned or systems and designed our education to have more poor as opposed to less. While we can never alleviate poverty, we can stop planning to have more people that destined to end up in the struggle of poverty.

Anonymous said...


The systemic poor you keep talking about is not a bug--it's a feature. Broken families are a feature--not a bug. Get your head around that. Of course we can stop planning for poverty but were are not in fact going to stop. The reason is obvious--education is expensive while ignorance is cheap. It's a lot easier to import cheap labor from Mexico and countries to the south than it is to educate Americans. When one adds both legal and illegal immigration over the last 20 years from third world countries around 32 million uneducated people have been added to America. The world is full of ignorant people, literally billions of them. There are only 40 countries in the world where the average adult has more than seven years of education and only ten countries with ten years or more on average.

It makes a great deal of sense to throw the poor into the seething mosh pits we call our cities and watch to see who triumphs in the scrum. Not only does it save the cost and expense of any investment in human capital, the most awesome part of this cherry picking endeavor is that we can sell it under the moniker of promoting "liberty" or "merit". In fact, all it does is reveal the schadenfreude that is at the core of the modern American experience.

Can we stop railroading people into poverty? Of course we can--there is a book from the 1960s called "Regulating the Poor" by Piven and Cloward that deals exactly with this topic. But as I tried to intimate in my first post there is no good reason to do that when as a cultural matter we read books like The Hunger Games with approval and find our cultural aspirations in building a society based upon the Roman arena.

Unknown said...

"Even if the government could fix the problem with no 'collateral damage', it's unethical for the government to do anything because government is force and the threat of force."

Unknown said...

"Even if the government could fix the problem thru ethical means, the result would be unethical because inequality it natural and what is natural must be good."

TruePath said...

It's not even possible to eliminate poverty in the sense it exists in america.

First, note that even the very poorest (excepting perhaps the mentally ill/handicapped who have fallen thru cracks) enjoy a level of material wealth, medical care and freedom from violence that would be the envy of more than 95% of the population just 100 years ago.

True, in some domains, like housing where the good being distributed is inherently positional (there is just so much land where people want to you get less of it if you earn more) but even here on a sq foot per person basis the reduced reproduction rates make todays poor better off than huge swaths of the population 100 years ago.

I mean just imagine going to someone living before (maybe a bit more than a 100) widespread electrification, cars, modern medicine, TVs etc.. and offering them all those things. They would be the envy of even the richest men in the country.

So in a certain sense poverty simply doesn't exist for those capable of navigating the welfare state or holding down a minimum wage job. They receive a bundle of goods that is more than the good life of a 100 years ago.

Looking again at the problem the real issue that makes poverty so awful is the affront to social status. You are less than all those richer folks, you are treated worse, your kids go to worse schools etc.. etc.. Ultimately you get worse mates too. We are primates and like all primates we inherently care about *relative* social status.

Unfortunately, in this sense not even massive government efforts to increase equality can help. There will always be some order (if not economic then by what book's you've read or who your friends are) of social importance and as in all primates those at the bottom will have worse health outcoes, more stress, depression and generally shittier lives than those at the top.


Personally, I advocate the use of genetic engineering to change our brain or new drug development as ways around our basic biology but short of this it isn't even conceivable to have a world without poverty because poverty isn't lack of money/power it's having less than everyone else.

TruePath said...

To be clear I don't think that the inescapability of poverty in the sense I outlined provides any excuse for the governmental inequalities in schools or justifies not increasing our level of taxation to spread wealth more evenly. I support both very strongly.

Indeed, a corallary to my point is that people won't substantially reduce the amount they work as the tax rate increases since it is primarily relative position they crave. As a consequence the tax rate should probably be much higher and in some ways this can ameliorate some issues causes by inequality.

However, nothing we can do will stop people from working long days at burger joints. We imagine if only they had more money but just imagine that claim coming from someone a 100 years ago. Nothing we can do short of simply banning hard work will make in easier to keep up with the joneses. So long as people's individual economic value has some substantial (at least ~40% of almost everyone's income is a result of the free market) effect on their welfare they will work their asses off to get their kids in a slightly better school or to live in a slightly nicer neighborhood.

Unknown said...

@Peter: You do realize You advocated many, if not most, of the argument forms listed in the article's taxonomy, yes?

Unknown said...

@Jimmyd: Am I correct in presuming the "it's a feature" bit is to be read as if spoken by a Member of the "anti-equality crowd"?

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks to Jimmyd for his trenchant comments, to Unknown for his excellent proposed additions to the taxonomy, and to the other commenters for giving me yet more examples of the arguments that I had already included on the list.

TruePath said...

Of course I do realize but I have seen no claims that attempt to define poverty or reject it's necessity, mere insistence that it ain't so.

I point out that to the extent the post only means to argue these facts don't undermine progressive programs it is correct.

I was hoping to here in what further sense poverty cAn genuinely be attacked. I've given specific historical data that even large gains in wealth don't seem to eliminate poverty.

So in what sense does the original post maintain that actual poverty is subject to attack not merely ameliorate some effects or lower inequalify.

Primarily I want to know if the author disputes my factual claims or simply uses poverty to mean what I would call absolute income inequality (how large in the std dev in wealth in units of mean wealth).

Unknown said...

Psst, Peter. When the Author thanks People for the comments, it's like a Host serving coffee after dinner: time to go home. ;-) We might want to revisit the issue later but the Author is obviously ready to move on. ;-)

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PhiloBlogger said...

I find it interesting that many of the arguments here are of the form "x has always been; therefore, x will always be." Then, many of them go on to compare the material wealth or quality of life of those living today with those living in the past. I think it is worth noting that there is a difference between "poverty," "absolute poverty," and "inequality."

Poverty, in my view, is inescapable by definition. A person may be poor or experience a period of low earnings, but that does not place them in poverty. One is only in poverty when the resources available to him or her are so low that there is no opportunity for advancement. Thus, comparing those in poverty today with those in the past would require taking into consideration the vast difference between what was required for upward mobility then and now. You can be trapped in a persistent state of the least quality of life in today's society with much more material wealth than in the past.

Absolute poverty or subsistence living has not changed. Either a person has the basic needs of life met or they do not. Government assistance programs have almost eliminated absolute poverty in the US. If you need food, there are "food stamps" and if you break your leg you will not be denied emergency medical treatment regardless of your ability to pay.

So, to recap: poverty is being in an economic position in which one cannot reasonably sustain one's life without outside assistance (charity or government) such that he or she does not have the resources necessary to improve his or her economic situation. Absolute poverty is the inability to sustain one's life, which government programs and charities have virtually eliminated in the US.

Economic inequality differs from poverty in a very important way: it represents resistance to upward mobility, and it is a measure of social justice. The former harms everyone in society because it dampens economic growth and prosperity no matter where you fall on the income ladder. The latter harms society because it acts to diminish trust in political and social institutions and serves as the fertile ground for dissent and rebellion (see Russian and French Revolutions).

The vast majority of institutional mission and justification comes from an institution's ability to mitigate random chance events. No one can predict the behavior of aggressive foreign nations, criminals, or natural disasters. Thus, we create institutions to protect us: the military, police, and insurance, respectively. The random chance of being born to wealthy or poor parents, the chance of producing a product at the precise moment of market interest and technological capability, or the random chance of illness, accident, or misfortune are equally important risks for our institutions to mitigate. Thus, it is the inherent responsibility of government to act in a pro-equality, pro-just-society way. In short, economic stability and security are just as important - even tantamount - to national security and public safety. You can't have one without the other.

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