27 November 2014

Through the Looking Glass: A Journey into the Fantasy World of Thomas Sowell (3)


The political left has long claimed the role of protector of "the poor." It is one of their central moral claims to political power. But how valid is this claim?

Leaders of the left in many countries have promoted policies that enable the poor to be more comfortable in their poverty. But that raises a fundamental question: Just who are "the poor"?

If you use a bureaucratic definition of poverty as including all individuals or families below some arbitrary income level set by the government, then it is easy to get the kinds of statistics about "the poor" that are thrown around in the media and in politics. But do those statistics have much relationship to reality?

"Poverty" once had some concrete meaning – not enough food to eat or not enough clothing or shelter to protect you from the elements, for example. Today it means whatever the government bureaucrats, who set up the statistical criteria, choose to make it mean. And they have every incentive to define poverty in a way that includes enough people to justify welfare state spending.


Poverty is defined according to the standards a society sets. It is defined by social consensus. If we live in a society in which having electricity is normative, then not having it is reckoned to be in a state of poverty.

Not so, says Sowell. This is where Sowell once again exhibits the fact that he really hasn't thought very deeply about these issues. This is a great failing of Capitalists. They fail to reckon the moral costs of their system. They fail to wrestle with the moral issues of economics. For them the market creates its own morality. Even they have their limits, but for Sowell a non-market morality is only activated when someone is starving.

But he doesn't realize for most of society if you live in conditions above starvation but below the societal standard you're reckoned poor. And if you're a parent, then there's a real moral component to your status. You've failed to provide, you've failed to be successful. As a Christian I might not care about the latter, but I'd be fool to try and function in this society without realizing the people I interact with look at life with these equations in mind.

What's the cost of the failure? They might take your kids away. That's another problem in the realm of government and society but it's a practical one that's rooted in a morality Sowell cannot understand. I'm all for the abolishment of Social Services but rarely do I find anyone who doesn't think there are times where removing children is warranted. If it's appropriate, then we're not arguing the principle, merely the criteria.

And I've written elsewhere about it but it warrants mentioning again. While Sowell curses those who receive government subsidies, the reality is he should be thankful for the programmes. Many businesses can get by paying their employees a less than living wage because the worker can now sign up for a subsidy and continue living.

They're not getting anywhere. They're merely treading water and often living but one step away from catastrophe. But it allows them to keep going another week or month.

If those programmes didn't exist, either other companies would step in who would pay more...in which case Sowell's friends would be out of business or more likely, we would have an explosion of third world shanty towns. Either way it's survival of the fittest, Social Darwinism applied to economics. How far will man in his depravity go? How far will he exploit others to beat out a competitor? Sowell can't even begin to address this question and like so many in his school of thought, his Pollyanna view of human nature blinds him to reality.

Just minutes from the border of the United States you can find shanty towns spread out over hillsides and canyons in Tijuana. People are living in shack cities. These people are not invested in their society. Society has cast them out and rejected them. Not all of them grew up in poverty, but they live in a society without a safety net, so when you fall, you crash.

Poverty breeds a host of problems. And Sowell is right, government can't really solve a lot of these problems. And he's right many people exacerbate their problems through poor choices and immoral decisions. Without Christ I cannot blame a person for embracing despair. I probably would too.

He would do well to read Barbara Ehrenreich's 'Nickel and Dimed' for a start but I doubt he would benefit from it. It's a good book but I will attest to the fact that she could have probed a lot deeper. Even her surface level treatment of the issues surrounding poverty should enlighten many.

In such a society these people have nothing to lose. Crime will skyrocket, for in desperation people will become involved in crime. If you think you're exempt then try and imagine your children starving. Frankly most of us cannot. But if they were, you would do some things that would amaze and astonish you. If you weren't a Christian, you'd probably do almost anything.

Sowell should visit Brazil or South Africa where the societies have imploded. There are two classes of people...rich and poor. The rich live in compounds and have private security guards. The poor try and survive and the worst and most desperate try and prey on the rich.

I'm sure Sowell does well enough as an academic at Stanford and he's certainly sold a lot of books. But I doubt he's made enough to pay for a compound with armed guards. I guess he better have a gun, because if the poor in this country can't get food stamps, heating assistance and in the most extreme cases housing and medical assistance they would be homeless and desperate.

So who benefits? Our economic model is corrupt and unsustainable and often morally obscene. So these people are thrown a few crumbs and Sowell begrudges them even that. He should be thankful that the 'proles' are too stupid to realize how they're being exploited. He should be thankful that his corporate allies have created a powerful consumer culture that keeps people stupid and entertained. If the bread and circuses ever stopped, the mob will rise up. Policy makers and even some of the bureaucrats realize this because even their detached world is more in touch with reality than the ivory tower Sowell inhabits.


Most Americans with incomes below the official poverty level have air-conditioning, television, own a motor vehicle and, far from being hungry, are more likely than other Americans to be overweight. But an arbitrary definition of words and numbers gives them access to the taxpayers' money.


This is classic Sowell. First of all I don't know many people on welfare who can afford to run an air conditioner. Recently he's upgraded this line to saying that most of the poor have not only A/C but Central Air. Right. I suppose some people who live in a public housing complex might have it, but I still doubt they can afford to run it. Outside of that context I know of very few poor people who live in houses or apartments with central air. We finally broke down and purchased a window unit a couple of years ago but I didn't run it once this year. I can't afford it.

Secondly, shouldn't Sowell praise the market that has brought down the price of air conditioners so that now you can pick up a cheap window unit for under $200? Thirty years ago they cost a lot more and were an unthinkable luxury for many in the middle class. Sure that poor person could have skipped the air conditioner and paid a couple of bills, but for many of them since they can't afford to do anything other than sit at home, I suppose I can't blame them for wanting to be reasonably comfortable... especially if they live south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Television. Well considering I can buy a used one for under $100 dollars and a new one for not much more...again, why is it such a big deal? They take that money and pay an electric bill. Great. Now they're not any further ahead than they were and they can sit and stare at the walls.

Now I will grant that's not what I would do. I don't care about television, but Sowell's socio-economic system has to bear some responsibility for the culture it has created. His friends have done very well by it. Yes they've produced a society of zombies, but that's where people are at.

It's a separate issue.

Now is Sowell thinking of things as they were 30 years ago when a regular television was $800 and a VCR was $600? And this back when the minimum wage was $3 an hour?

In today's terms a television would almost $2000 and a DVD player would $1500.

I guarantee if that were the case then you would see far fewer people having them in their homes.

Globalization has allowed the American economic fantasy to perpetuate for another generation or so. With inflation, wages have dropped but people live under the illusion that they're getting by because many common goods (or more rightly cheap junk) are within reach.

But now we're talking economics...something Sowell evidently knows nothing about!

Dozens of books have been written about the poor and obesity and I don't need to revisit it here. Many in urban areas don't have access to foods. Just this evening on my way home I stopped at a convenience store and noticed they had placed some apples next to the coffee. They were $1.25 each and I guarantee they're not fresh. I don't know about you, but I love apples if they're fresh but find them disgusting if they're not.

Now if I am really hungry am I going to buy an apple to snack on...that I have no means to wash if I'm out and about...or am I going to buy the $1 bag of chips?

We could also talk about the food industry and sugar. We could talk about a lot of things but if I do that Sowell will call me a liberal.

You see he's always right and if you disagree with him, then you're a liberal.

Ideally people could get ahead and improve themselves but the Republicans have for years passed numerous restrictions so that the minute a person is actually getting somewhere, saving a little money, on the verge of financial independence...the rug is ripped out from under them. They lose the assistance, begin to struggle and within a short time are forced to reapply for the subsidies.

If Sowell would talk to a few social workers he would find this out. They would be happy to tell him all about it. People are trapped.

Now as far as access to government money we could talk about the thousands of businesses that profit very nicely and survive on government funding. There are numerous road construction companies that have regional monopolies. The task is privatized but because the company is local no one can compete. They get every contract and make a fortune. Sowell would say they're producing something. But in many cases they're producing a product that quickly fails. Visit Pennsylvania if you doubt me. If they were subjected to market forces they would quickly be out of business but that's one of Capitalism's rubs. It's self defeating. It's based on competition but so often competition is eliminated and monopolies rule the roost.

What about the misnamed defense industry? They use tax dollars to produce weapons systems which they then sell to other countries. Granted this is part of American policy and a key tool of the American Imperial project, but the profits are privatized. They use government funding to build their product, the government works with them to design it...but then they make tremendous profits. For those at the top of this pyramid, they've done absolutely nothing concrete to earn it. They've simply made a phone call to a broker and made a fortune.

It's welfare for the rich. The same is true of sports stadiums, many utility projects, tax credits and the list goes on.

In the construction industry how many times have I heard businessmen rail against government regulation and programmes but then are quick to snatch up grant funds for storefront refurbishing, Main Street revitalization projects? They're more than happy to take tax money to pay for facade renovations, new windows, and HVAC updates.

Would Sowell say they deserve it because they're producing? I've worked for these people. Some of them are smart, and at times they'll put in the hours but work in an office environment is not the same as in the blue collar world or in retail. Office people are pretty relaxed. There's a tremendous amount of wasted time and meaningless conversations. The lack of productivity at times is pretty surprising.

They wouldn't last long in a factory or on a construction site. They would go into meltdown even working at a busy convenience store. It's far too intense.

I've shared it before but I know several people who are unable to secure full time employment...another issue that could be discussed. So they work two or more part time jobs. Sometimes they have to work both jobs the same day...12-16 hours of work plus driving time etc...

Consequently they literally do not get a day off. The one lady I know takes a couple of vacation days a month just to get some time off.

Is she lazy? Hardly. But she is pretty poor.

There are plenty of freeloaders and people scamming the system. There are also tremendous amounts of hardworking people who either lack education or in some cases the intelligence to get ahead. Others have suffered difficulties...previous job loss, medical bills, family catastrophes.

I know some freeloaders and people who are taking advantage of the system. But most of the poor people I know are working.