When I was in a writers’ group years ago, my friend Alan had this gag he did when commenting on an obviously short or funny story. “I found what it said about the human condition profound and illuminating.” Or “This is obviously about the human condition, but other than that—”
Well, that gag made me hesitate to make this post, but this post IS actually about the human condition.
Yesterday just before going to bed, I read an article linked from Instapundit about poverty in the Appalachia. Of course, this meant I spent most of an unquiet night (yesterday was one of those days where real life and interruptions intervened to keep me from going for a walk or even using the treadmill – by the time I had time to, I was dead on my feet. For some reason just walking around most of the day, but not an uninterrupted, full out, fast walk of three miles, doesn’t allow me to sleep well at night.) dreaming of buying land in that region. It was the line about violent crime being below national average and also the line about how cheap cost-of-living was. Something in my back brain went “Well, it would be a place we could live in on my writers’ income.”
While this is probably true it would be quite stupid at my age, since I doubt there is any easy way to access emergency medical services. (Yes, I’m only fifty, but my health has been iffy from early on, and I tend to work myself into sickness. Also, given my inability to catch on that I’m ill till I’m VERY VERY ill, I have needed medical services in emergencies more than I should, and I don’t expect this trend to taper off. Also, if we bought we would be buying for the rest of our lives, and I hope (fingers crossed) for another forty years with increased need for medical services as I go. Which is one of the reasons for considering relocating to a LARGER city.)
Now I’m awake, and not shopping for land amid verdant hills I’ve driven through once or twice in my life, I was thinking about the article.
I have reasons to add some salt to it. First the characterization as a “White Ghetto” brings with it a whole lot of freight which the journalist should have been wary of and clearly wasn’t. Because of the title and leaving the correction about how low crime (other than welfare fraud) actually is, I imagined the images that “Ghetto” conjures: shootouts in the glades, women murdered in their houses… that sort of thing.
Turns out no. While it is inhabited by a bunch of welfare recipients, has almost no stores (this possibly to the lack of population density) and lacks opportunities for local employment, this region is not a hell hole of gang shootings and violent theft.
Which immediately makes it completely different, and far more desirable as an address, than any urban ghetto.
In fact, the author says that for those who have money and who are “well connected” (though this is likely true I think the more important part is “self controlled”) it’s a paradise.
Which brings us to what is wrong with the rest of the local population, and how to help them.
The first is obvious and is going to make me sound horribly heartless. The second… Ah the second is far more difficult.
The answer to the first is “There is nothing wrong. They are normal, sane humans.”
And now you’re going to gibber at me about drug use and child neglect. And – not here, but elsewhere – someone is going to call for more federal money dumped into the place. They’ll call for more Head Start, more jobs programs. The left who – with more than a bit of self flattery – will flap gums about how our technological society is leaving people behind, how all these poor people simply aren’t SMART enough to make money and thrive in the new new technological world.
This flatters the left insanely because they clearly are “smart” enough to thrive in the new technological world. Lately in reading their stuff it’s all about power couples and marrying intelligent people and – bah. They wouldn’t know intelligent people if one bit them in the arse. They are what in our school system were A students. These were never – at least when I was going through school – the actual SMART people (unless the smart people made a great deal of effort.) True geniuses tended to be odd. They dressed funny, sometimes had er… hygiene issues, and they had the confounded habit of correcting teacher. As such, they were heartily despised by all right thinking people, and usually managed Bs, unless they were really really smart, in which case they trolled the D/F region. In adulthood the geniuses I’ve known – those functional enough to hold a job – tend to hold jobs in convenience stores, fertilizer plants, or other menial positions where the fact they don’t dress fashionably and haven’t attended Harvard doesn’t matter.
This is why the beautiful people hold on to CREDENTIALS over accomplishments as signs of their specialness.
Which is why the “economy” the left is thriving on is a combination of glitz, glamour and valueless money printed at speed and of crony capitalism which devours the real substance of prosperity accumulated by our ancestors.
HERE ENDETH DIGRESSION
Part of the reason that even as the welfare model is collapsing all over the world, the left is hysterically seeking to bolster it is that they really think they are in a “With Folded Hands” future, where everything that “the little people” could do has been mechanized and therefore we should give the little people the means to survive and let them get stoned out of their minds, because, what else is there to do? Kill them? Oh, please, the left aren’t monsters. They just hold on to monstrous ideas. (Note I said “part of the reason” – some of the left is doing this for the power, of course, and to create a neo-feudal society. But the rank and file of the evil party are not actually evil. They’re just human and know a lot of things that just ain’t so.)
(Is there a lack of work for uneducated/not particularly intellectual people? What, in the last 20 years? Show me where the advances in manufacturing/computing/etc put these people out of work. What is really happening is that our personal do-gooders have priced the US worker out of competition – and it’s not even the minimum wage, an effort as sane as legislating air humidity, as the crazed and increasingly futile environmental and other regulations – so the jobs have moved overseas. This will correct itself either when the other lands create a middle class that demands better treatment – though they’re unlikely to demand crazy enviro regulations – or when we hang the komissars with their own guts. Because as has been pointed out on this blog, there will always be need for the kind of mind that thrives on detailed, repetitive work, and which really really really doesn’t want to speculate about the causes of the Spanish-American war or read about Elizabethan England. Whether these minds are less able, I refuse to even consider, because look… I couldn’t do what my plumber – or my hairdresser! – does. I certainly couldn’t do what factory workers do. It would drive me as batty as for them to do what I do. Yeah, they test lower on IQ, a test designed to measure achievements of a certain kind. We’ll just say they have different types of mind and that, without interference, there would be work they could do.)
So, what is wrong with these people is that they’re human. When war on poverty was declared, it’s obvious what they were thinking of as an explanation for poverty was what is now called “The beesting theory of poverty.” That is people are poor not because of any one big problem/injustice, but because of an accumulation of little things. Car broke down, children got sick, got laid off, and is so held down that nothing – nothing – can lift you up again.
Does this happen? Yeah, sure. I’ve known cases of its happening to my friends and relatives. I’d call it “crisis poverty.” But I’d dispute the theory that this explains long-term poverty.
The facts seem to dispute it too.
I’m not just going on my own anedoctal experience – though I have that – having been in that situation at least twice in my life, and having clawed back out of it, or even in the experience of my friends and relatives, ditto, but on the fact that very few middle class people “fall” that way and never get up again. In fact statistics seem to show the middle class moves up far more frequently than down. I can’t find it, of course, but someone did an analysis of middle income in constant dollars, and the middle class has shrunk, as has the poor class, but the upper income has grown.
No, the sort of ground in, long lasting poverty is, as instapundit noted in linking this “the condition of the human race.”
Heinlein has a quote about it, and I’ve mentioned it here before:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck.”RAH
Insty mentions this, but Heinlein doesn’t go deeper into the mechanism, and neither goes insty.
Look, I’ll admit I don’t have any study on this, except what everyone has: that minimum income guarantees don’t make regions markedly richer (I understand that there was a program in Denver that spectacularly had the opposite effect. I don’t remember when – the seventies?), that people on welfare that covers their bare minimum needs have trouble escaping it, and their kids have trouble escaping it, that socialist countries tend to go the route where no one quite starves but no one thrives, and everyone sort of simmers on at “poverty” level, more so as the years go by. (Sweden? Norway? Well, not enough years. Despite the oddities of culture there – and yes, culture does count – they seem to be heading down, just not as dramatically and as fast as bigger and more diverse countries.)
Part of the issue with the war on poverty is that it seemed completely reasonable “Give people just enough to lift themselves up out of dire need and they’ll do the rest.”
Only people don’t work like that. No?
Okay, do an experiment with your toddler: offer them a food they like well enough but aren’t crazy about – say eggs – and tell them they can have chocolate cake instead if they clean their room to your satisfaction.
Sure they’ll take the bait SOMETIMES, but most of the time they’ll shrug and have the egg.
I don’t know about other human beings, but I know one of the most prolific writers I know says he’s the world’s laziest writer. He just FORCES himself to work. And I can attest that I too often think I’m two people: one that wants to go bum out on the bed with a book, and the other who chases her around and makes her write. (The chasing around time usually involves my bummish self trying to justify her leisure with increasingly crazy stuff like “I’m cleaning the litter boxes. Scrubbing the toilet! Ironing!)
I also know my older, extremely driven son, often tells me he is incredibly lazy and doesn’t force himself to do a quarter what he should.
I think all humans are lazy and all humans given a “minimum to live comfortably” don’t do anything else. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. A Neolithic hunter who continued hunting after he’d eaten enough for the day would deplete the food supply and the meat would rot. This idiot left no descendants. We’re descended from the sensibly lazy ones.
So, what about that “despised minority” – well, the despised minority that does more than strictly needed and thereby makes themselves “rich” and advances the wealth of all human race are usually, in social terms, deeply flawed.
It either has a tribal identity which needs security in mobile goods for the next time its crazy neighbors try to kill them, or it – one on one and individual on individual – is deeply broken. Often they are Odds, and no, don’t get recognition just for “being smart” or whatever their oddity is, so they keep trying to get some recognition for SOMETHING. And often they have other issues. It is not coincidental that the lives of almost all great men often resemble horror tales, particularly the childhood parts.
There is another driver and that is a cultural identity that prizes work above all else. The famed “Protestant work ethic” though I always thought that was funny as obviously there is the same thing on the Catholic side (but maybe there wasn’t at one time) was a powerful driver. People would judge you for being lazy and not trying as hard as you should, and that in turn made people try very hard indeed. Most people. Because as Heinlein also pointed out the strongest motivating force for any simian, member of a highly social species, is the approval of its peers.
So you can see how when the “war on poverty” started and there were still fumes of this social judgment going on, the bee sting theory would apply. Oh, sure, there were still ne’er do wells who weren’t even pretending to try, but they were few and far between. Most people would at the very least PRETEND they were trying to climb out.
So people looking from the outside would think “let’s make it easier”.
But the very fact of giving people unearned income makes two implicit assumptions: that poverty is not their fault and that it can and should be treated from outside. (I.e. that there’s nothing they could do.)
That in turn changed the culture so people don’t at all feel guilty for not trying to climb out. In fact the poorer they are, the more “deserving” and the more obviously burdened, and they should be given more stuff to bring them to parity with “luckier” people.
And then you have vast regions of poverty.
I resent very much the implication that the people of that region are good for nothing but being “peasants” – although in a right wing publication, the writer clearly buys into the left’s nonsense about “too dumb to thrive.”
Medieval peasants were in their unenviable condition because they needed the Lords to defend them in case of attack and this meant giving the lord rights to micro-manage their lives. Which meant they could never climb out, because this was their “condition” – and yes, the lord looked after them in terms of keeping them alive. And could kill them as well.
It might seem primitive to us, but it’s a highly sophisticated structure and far from natural.
As soon as the Black Death burst the bounds of the middle ages structure, the peasants took off into the wilderness, where they could take risks for their own survival AND they could innovate and be richer than ever before.
So, am I suggesting we abandon the people of Appalachia to their fate? Isn’t that cruel?
How much crueler can it be than what we’re doing to kids raised by drugged-out parents? And what business is it of ours anyway? Keep the payments for the elderly and the too young, and cut everyone else off. Let them make their way to where they can make a living, or learn to wrest a living from the land again.
Horrible, right? Well, it sounds horrible, even to me. Because I grew up in a time when it was assumed it was the state’s right and duty to improve human lives – even in contravention of human condition.
The chances of it happening? Not high. So these people will go on living in pill-happy serf-like poverty (but producing nothing useful, unlike the serfs.) Until and unless the gods of the copybook headings in terror return. Or until the culture takes a turn where work is again enforced as a virtue.
And then we’ll find the vast majority of those “too stupid to thrive” people do indeed thrive and that most of them aren’t stupid at all. They’re just human.
And here’s the truly stupid thing about humans: as much as we hate work, work is good for us. When we work, we create something of value to others, and that raises our simian status among our peers, and in turn that’s good for our mental health and even our physical one. (Work here being defined as doing something useful, not filling federal forms or polishing dog poo.)
And the more we work and the more confidence we gain, the more we find we can do, and the more interesting it becomes.
But none of us would start without some incentive that makes it more painful not to work. For a lot of us that’s being not quite right in the head (what, you think a person who sits around writing lies for a living is sane?); for others it’s having something to prove; but for the vast majority of sane humans it is to need to eat and have a roof over their heads.
And this is why in the war on poverty we lost. We met poverty and found that the seeds of it resided in each of our very sane normal brethren.
Poverty is normal. Sloth is normal. It’s we who work who are crazy. Absent that madness we’d all be living in caves and feasting-starving on hunted mammoth.