Friday, December 22, 2006

The problem of the poor

Bruce Western, author of Punishment and Inequality in America, discusses the fact that 2/3rds of young black male high school dropouts have prison records. Bruce notes the uneasy truth that the prison system has the sort of effect upon the lives of the poor here in America that the welfare state has upon the lives of the poor in Europe. But what Bruce doesn't do is go the next logical step: acknowledge that Prison State America has substituted prison for welfare as the solution for "what do we do about all those jobless young black males?".

Now, the question is, "why do we need to do something as a society about the poor anyhow?" Well, there is a basic problem: human beings will not voluntarily starve to death simply because there is no economic niche for them. Marie Antoinette found that out the hard way... the peasants who had been shoved off of the land by the lords of the manors as less labor-intensive methods of agriculture were developed were not going to voluntarily starve to death simply because there was no place for them in the new economy, and instead offed the heads of Marie Antoinette and all those lords who had said "Let them eat cake" when presented with the problem of a starving peasantry. Given that the poor are not going to voluntarily starve themselves to death, that leaves these alternatives:

  1. Extermination. Killing all of those who no longer have an economic niche in our new economy will eliminate the threat to those of wealth and power. Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot liked this one. But in the long term, it's hard to carry out, because economies are constantly changing and thus there will always be those who lack the skills or ability to compete in whatever the current economy is. Just ask the Shah of Iran just how the end game of this one works out.
  2. Imprisonment. There are two ways to imprison people. The first is to place them in actual physical prisons. The second is to place them into geographic locations from which it is difficult from them to transport themselves to the geographic locations where those of wealth and power live. Thus ghettos, credit check requirements for "better" apartments (i.e., those not in the ghetto) to keep out the "ghetto" people, and "mass transit" systems that, in most of the nation, will not take you anywhere that anybody in the upper income quartile lives. We're doing a lot of this.
  3. Welfare and television. This is the "bread and circuses" option -- feed and entertain the poor to keep them from rampaging and cutting off the heads of those of wealth and means. This is what LBJ and Richard Nixon put into place when the black ghettos exploded in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., they were afraid that the residents of those ghettos were going to go Marie Antoinette their constituency, and thus created a large number of welfare programs. This option is currently out of vogue, because it is not as profitable (for the men of wealth and power) as the imprisonment option, which gives many more opportunities to siphon taxpayer money into the pockets of the rich and powerful.
  4. Put them to work. You have idle men sitting around doing nothing in a threatening manner? Find them some jobs. If they lack the skills to contribute meaningfully to the economy, well, find them jobs doing things that need doing, but currently aren't being done because it'd require raising taxes to do them -- things like, say, cleaning all that f'ing trash out of the medians of our freeways (I swear, so many freeways look like trash dumps nowdays!). Or maintaining trails in parks, building park benches out of stones and mortar, whatever. Just keep'em busy. This was the option that FDR chose in the 1930's. It is currently out of vogue because it does not give profit to the rich and powerful, who would prefer to have government pay them to do this stuff.
Or, there is the 5th option: Do nothing, and find out that in Darwinian Libertopia, those who lack the skills to sustain themselves will not peaceably die -- they will come take what they need to survive. And those of us who do have property will end up dead.

One thing is clear: The prison option is horribly expensive and isn't going to be economically feasible in the long term, especially as the baby boomers retire and a sizeable chunk of the economy gets diverted to welfare for unproductive old farts. We can't both divert a huge portion of the economy to imprisoning poor people, and divert a huge part to sustaining unproductive old farts. Something is going to give. And the old farts will no more allow themselves to be starved to death than the poor will, they may not have the reflexes of young people, but they have something more important than that: an unwarranted sense of entitlement that would allow them to pull the trigger to take what they need to survive without a single moral qualm. There's a reason why old farts are the only unproductive people in America who are supported by a functioning welfare system. It is because old farts value what little remains of their life above all else, and if you get between them and what they need in order to finish out their lives comfortably, you are going to be dead.

The problem is that government as currently comprised in America is utterly incapable of taking any kind of actions. Paralysis is the norm. Excuses are the lingua franca. "It can't be done" is the chant. The days when a President could stand up, say "We will go to the moon by the end of the decade", and then *do* it, are gone. We are no longer "can-do America". We are, instead, "can't-do America". We can't provide health care to all our people because blah blah blah. We can't provide jobs rather than prison to young black men because blah blah blah. We can't do this, we can't do that, we can't do anything, because that would require us to, like, exert ourself or something.

But something is going to break if we don't change the current system. And when the economic collapse happens because so much of the economy has been diverted into prisons and supporting unproductive old farts... well, hopefully I will be rowing my iceberg far to sea by that time. Hey, a penguin can dream, eh?

-- Badtux the not-poor Penguin

11 comments:

  1. Good post. You're pretty right on. I know that, as an old fart, should anyone attempt to take what I have spent my life working for, they will be met with a .357 hollowpoint to the forehead.

    Still, there are two other factors which add to what I call the Race to the Bottom we now find ourselves in, Outsourcing and Insourcing.

    Many of the jobs that the last generation of middle-class kids broke their asses for have been sent to other countries in the Corporations' pursuit of cheaper labor. I speak particularly of the IT fields. Those jobs that remained, the jobs Bush claims Americans don't want to do, are now being torpedoed by illegal immigrants who are being abused by Employers becasue they can't complain to anyone. Many of these jobs have been in the "Trades", particularly construction. My neighbor is a small General Contractor who employs his three best buddies from High School. He has always tried to pay them a living wage, perhaps because they are his friends. The other day he confided in me that he is up against the wall. He just can't compete with other contractors who are paying only 5 or 6 dollars an hour, while he pays 18 -20 per hour. Not all of the illegals are Mexican either, the Asians are right up there in numbers, you just don't hear about them.

    Corporations love this, look at Swift, Tyson Foods and others. Cheap labor. Now most poor folks have always been able to rely on the trades to lift themselves out of poverty. Sure the work is hard, but it's honest, gives one a sense of fulfillment and used to pay well.

    The problem with this is that at some point, wages will be so low that no-one will be able to afford anything, no matter how cheap Walmart gets stuff for.

    Before someone accuses me of not having compassion for illegals who are only trying to better themselves, let me say this, I do have compassion. Only my compassion is for the American citizens who are losing their opportunity at the American Dream because of this. Why would anyone want to work for $6/hour when welfare or unemployment offers the same amount with no effort?

    I'm going to post on this extensively after the New Year and I expect to take a lot of hits from friend and foe alike. But the situation is real and must be dealt with if the American Working Family is to ever have a chance at the American Dream. Right now it has become the American Nightmare.

    Happy Holidays!

    d.

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  2. Option 6: the poor, marginalized folks make common cause with a hella lotta "not so bad off yet" folks who look ahead and see grim prospects the way things are going, they get organized, and...you mentioned Marie Antoinette?

    You also mentioned Stalin.

    I suggest that y'all "not-so-poor" folks get ahead of this particular parade then so you can hope to lead it.

    And consider that all the other options have been laid out in a historical pattern dictated by a ruling class that has never totally forgotten to watch out for Option 6. Or maybe they have, now, which is pretty much what Marx predicted they inevitably would do--being busy carving up the whole world and all and squeezing us hoi polloi right out.

    This seems to be subversive socialist dream day in my admittedly limited Net circles.

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  3. BT, as always, you paint a convincing picture, albeit especially dark this time. The understanding that Swift is not really your literary idol deepens the abyss between hope, expectation and result.

    The fact that self-interest requires the solving of the have-not problem before the implacable logic of Darwin and Malthus impose a solution has escaped a lot of those who are allegedly “guiding” our civilization. A pessimist would think the cause is that only the superficial and the voraciously greedy rise to the top in America and it’s true that capitalism is inherently predatory in many aspects.

    It isn’t logical to “blame” corporations either, since they are inanimate objects, intellectual creations that were brought into existence solely to provide a mantle of liability protection to rapacious entrepreneurs. However, being constructs of the legal system, they are capable of taming by the same system. It just requires the realization by the bipeds of their impending doom. In the corporation as sanctified under the 21st century American system there is but one rule: larger profits (and hence larger managerial bonuses for managers) in each succeeding quarter.

    What do you call a political system that puts the needs of the individual citizenry before the needs of corporate profit? And why is that system considered inherently evil

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  4. Thank Ford teh proles are ignorant. There could be trouble.

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  5. It was never safe to assume that the American dream would last forever. It was a flawed dream anyway.

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  6. from the december 25 entry of jim kunstler's clusterfuck nation he's been writing about the growing inequality between those who have everything and those who have nothing. i was telling folks in california twelve years ago that we were rapidly heading toward a society where we have ultra-rich, prison gaurds and prisoners. nothing else.

    Somewhere in this nation, perhaps on a midwestern university campus, or toiling on the receiving dock of a Best Buy store, there are sharp young people who are not failing to notice the stupendous economic injustice that saturates the system as it is currently running. These young people may emerge as the Dantons, Robespierres, and Saint-Justs of the 21st century. It's not a happy prospect.

    Today, the New York Times reported that a new hyper-exclusive resort for the "ultra-rich" called Unlimited Speed is being developed in Georgia (where else?) featuring a private Nascar-quality race track where Goldman Sachs bonus boys and other such grandees can get their rocks off. They'd better fortify the place well. They'd better put a wall around it with an electrified fence and a death strip, because otherwise, sooner or later, if the regulatory authorities do not act, some very pissed off and energetic young Americans are going to steal into places like this and deal out some rough justice.
    Merry Christmas everybody.

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  7. A good article here, but one thing about those old farts you may have overlooked-- they have amassed more resources at their command than the young.
    The end of the old is to be flooded out. I've seen it happen it trade unions. You probably saw high-profile cases like Delphi around.
    The process:
    Old vote in lower wages for young.
    Young, unable to afford their health insurance on the lower wages, vote out some of the perks of age, such as low-cost health care.
    Such as the state of Missouri doing away with MedicAid.
    Then the old, unable to afford their medicine, will die off as atonement for their inability to work toward anything other than their own gain.
    And so, the universe struggles toward an equalibrium....

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  8. *pulls up with ice chest* Got room on that 'berg?

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  9. nice - nice...and i think the urban warfare that has been downplayed since our iraq war is exactly what our poverty has created...drugs are money!

    i have so many thoughts when i rad this...so many -- thanks!!

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  10. If a Revolution is what it takes, a Revolution is what they'll get. I'm not that old that I can't put 20 rounds in the black at 500 yards with the right glasses on.

    They trained us, used us, now they'll have to deal with us.

    d.

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  11. "...well, hopefully I will be rowing my iceberg far to sea by that time."

    Provided there's any ice left in the ocean by the time Der Tag arrives.

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