Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Poverty Of Wealth

I harbor a secret fantasy: that one day everyone will look at poverty through the "attributionalist" lens, thereby eradicating poverty. That is, people won't moralize poverty as a character flaw, as a personal failure; rather, they will see it for what it is, a dereliction not of individual duty but of wider society, particularly the elite glomming onto the levers of power.

It's worth letting your mind roam free, to build castles in the sky, because the state in which we live is filled with so many bad ideas, like the idea that poverty is natural or an ontological given.

We need new ideas. Data sets, hard science, good old empiricism is validating the attributionalist stance, promising to push my daydream through the portals of reality. Someday.

I'll quote poverty expert Shamus Khan at length in his excellent piece at Aljazeera America, "The Marriage of Poverty and Inequality":

In the attributionalist’s view, people are poor because of personal traits — especially their moral failings. In order to relieve poverty, we must make poor people into better human beings, by essentially regulating their behavior. The opposing “relationalist” view contends that economic positions are largely explained by relationships between groups, and that we all share a responsibility to alleviate poverty because the experiences and behaviors of those who aren’t poor have an effect on the lives of those who are.
We can debate these points theoretically, but we can also look directly to evidence of the relationship between poverty and inequality to evaluate whether the relationalist or attributionalist stance makes more sense in the real world. The rich have become richer in the United States, but they haven’t done so simply by creating new economic value through their own hard work. Instead, they have seized considerable value created by others.

Look, for example, at the relationship between productivity and wages. From the 1950s through the 1970s, productivity increases and wage gains kept pace with one another. Workers took home much of the value created by their increased output. But starting in the late 1970s, the relationship between wages and productivity began to diverge. American workers continued to be more productive, but they didn’t enjoy anywhere near the wage increases they once did. As economist Lawrence Mishel has shown, productivity from 1973 to 2010 increased about 80.4 percent, but wages increased by only 11 percent over the same period.

If workers became so much more productive, what happened to the extra value they were creating? The answer is simple: Executives and shareholders took it for themselves. This is evidence that supports the relationalist point of view. The rich aren’t getting richer just because of their personal attributes; they’re getting richer because they’ve been able to appropriate the value created by others.

All of this points to a conveniently overlooked truth: the real moochers are the wealthy, not the poor. Khan continues:

There is an irony to their stance. The rich credit their own attributes — hard work, skill, discipline and intelligence — for their good fortune. They shame the poor, painting them as immoral and lazy no-gooders waiting for the next handout. But who really lives off the gains of others? Who really reaps the rewards of economic gains for which they are not responsible?

And the scary part? NASA, yes NASA, concurs. And even goes a step further in a recent study it commissioned, stating that the "Elite" - with a truly creepy capital E - are hastening the collapse of modern civilization:

By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity"; and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]" These social phenomena have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all such cases over "the last five thousand years."
Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with "Elites" based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:
"... accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels."

Thanks Wall Street.

Intersex Rights

If we take reality into consideration, namely biological variation and the reality of intersex babies, then we have to admit to ourselves that assigning tiny humans with either a male or female designation at birth is, at bottom, a social determination, not an obligation or necessity dictated by nature.

Approximately one in every fifteen hundred to two thousand children born each year is diagnosed with a disorder or difference of sexual development. (Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, because it is difficult to measure degrees of physical and hormonal difference, and because many, like Ambrose, may not know they were diagnosed as such.) Some advocates believe the numbers are even higher: by the broadest measurement, one out of every hundred children has some subtle form of “sex anatomy variation.” Parents whose newborn babies have indeterminate genitalia typically follow what has long been the standard medical advice, to have doctors perform surgery to help the child conform to one or the other fixed gender category. Traditionally, the choice has been which gender to assign to the baby, not whether to put a baby through invasive surgery at all.
(Picture credit: New York Times Magazine)