Who’s Your God?

I really liked the Gene Healy (author of The Cult of the Presidency, check out a shorter Reason/Cato article here) op-ed BP oil spill: Who’s your daddy?. In it, Healy returns to that theme: criticizing the public for their “Juvenile expectation that there’s a presidential solution to everything from natural disasters to spiritual malaise.”

He characterizes the ridiculous cries for presidential trips to the area and shows of concern as:

If only Obama would manifest himself at the afflicted area, shed his aura of cool reserve, and exercise the magical powers of presidential concern, perhaps the slick would recede.

He’s right. This reaction is silly, and the tendency to grant the president more and more power in the belief that with it he can fix any problem is dangerous.

But, I think the problem is deeper than just president-worship. I think that is just an instance of a wider tendency to have faith in the power of coercive leadership to solve any problem.

Primitive people, when faced with a phenomenon that they couldn’t control or understand, concluded that it must be under the control of a more powerful entity that could control the phenomenon at its whim. It must be somebody’s intention, and somebody must be to blame. They had trouble accepting that it was just a natural effect of mindless forces that they didn’t presently understand.

Similarly, many people today assume that if there’s a problem in people’s lives, it must be under the control of the rich and powerful and it can and should be solved by political leaders. Economic problems: More government action and better regulation. Energy problems: More government action and better regulation. Environmental threats? Poverty? Health care? Education? Retirement security? Addiction? Dirty words?… The same prescription.

Many people who scoff at organized religion, have merely shifted their faith to the state (or, at least they faithfully blame the rich and powerful for most problems). They’re true believers, and every incident will only serve to strengthen that belief.

If there’s an economic panic in an area where there was lots of government involvement and heavy regulation, it’s seen as evidence that rich private people are to blame and what we need is more government involvement and more regulation. If there’s an oil spill, and there’s evidence of incompetent regulation, it means that rich people caused it because they don’t really care about safety or the environment and we need more regulation.

I understand that it isn’t satisfying to accept that the government can’t fix the economy, or oil spills, or nature, if only we’d give them more money and power…

But, it’s true anyway.

And, if you really want to improve the world, you’ll be more likely to make progress if you work from the truth than from satisfying myths.

Changing Poverty

Don’t know much about poverty.

I’ve never had to live in poverty, nor spent much time around desperately poor people. So, I’m certainly no expert about what it means or is like.

I know it makes me sad to contemplate people who are unable (or barely able) to obtain minimal standards of nutrition, shelter, sanitation, health, etc. I would very much like all people to meet these needs easily, and have time and resources to pursue other projects and goals. So, as for poverty, I’m willing to go out on a limb and take a strong stand against it.

My impression is that there are still many people living in this kind of poverty around the world (although that has been improving steadily), and very few in the United States. As wealth grows, I expect this trend to continue, and (with the exception of cleptocracies that make it impossible for aid to reach the people and for the people to create and keep wealth) poverty will approach zero.

But, some people don’t agree with my impression, that poverty is an absolute situation that has been decreasing. They see it as a condition that can be defined in terms of relative economic success, and think we’ll always have a great deal of poverty as long as we have inequality of economic results.

Lately, I’ve been seeing references to a new measure of poverty from the Obama administration (for example, here, here, and here). I didn’t see a direct link to a description of the measure, but I think it’s the one described here. The current measurement is along the lines of triple the amount required to buy adequate food (adjusted for family size), while the new measure is tied to the spending on food, clothing, shelter, and utilities by those at the 33rd percentile in such spending. It may be that this is indeed just another indicator rather than a replacement for purposes of benefit calculation, but I tend to agree with some of the critics that it indicates an unfortunate aspect of the administration’s ideology.

As Robert Samuelson writes:

What produces this outcome is a different view of poverty. The  resent concept is an absolute one: The poverty threshold reflects the amount estimated to meet basic needs. By contrast, the supplemental measure embraces a relative notion of poverty: People are automatically poor if they’re a given distance from the top, even if their incomes are increasing. The idea is that they suffer psychological deprivation by being far outside the mainstream. The math of this relative definition makes it hard for people at the bottom ever to escape “poverty.”

This isn’t anything like my intuitive idea of poverty. This is imbuing the definition of poverty with an egalitarian slant, that makes it more of a measure of inequality than one of poverty. Even if everybody were ten times as wealthy tomorrow morning, this definition of poverty would still include many people who live better than kings did a few hundred years ago. Egalitarians would like the distribution of wealth to be something closer to what I like to think of as the kindergarten model: where everybody shares everything, and nobody has a lot while somebody else has much less. But, I think reaching this outcome requires using force to change what would otherwise be the natural outcome of people exercising their choices freely. So, rather than enhancing justice, I think it would violate justice.

Also, I think this captures the guilt of some of the better off more than it captures the perceived poverty of the less well off. Because, many of those who meet the current definition of poverty in the US are Hispanic immigrants. I think it’s usually better to judge people’s opinions by their actions rather than their words. As Don Boudreaux notes:

If being relatively poor were truly a devastating psychological experience for most people, Hispanics would remain in Latin America instead of immigrating to – and remaining in – the United States  here, in their relative poverty here, they are “far outside the mainstream.”

This pattern of immigration counsels skepticism of those who assert that people care so overwhelmingly about their relative economic positions that the typical poor person would prefer that the rich be made poorer today rather than the poor have access to opportunities to grow rich tomorrow.

I don’t think that wealth outcomes of market activity are unequal because some people are stealing from others (for the most part). They’re unequal because people’s capabilities and preferences are different. Some people are more productive or are willing to devote more of their time and energies to their careers and seek to maximize their wealth. Others prefer simpler lifestyles and would rather spend most of their time pursuing other projects (e.g., art, charity, learning, open source projects, family activity, etc.). You may disagree with the choices, or dislike the outcome. If so, you’re welcome to offer your advice or contribute your own wealth to those who are worse off
economically and to urge others to do likewise. But, if you impose coercion to equalize the results I don’t think what you’re doing is righting a wrong. I think you’re doing wrong.

A war on this new kind of poverty is more of a war on human nature, freedom, and arithmetic.

I’m against it.