Thursday, November 22, 2007

Charles Karelis: The Persistence of Povery

Author: Charles Karelis., a Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Title: The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor.
Publication: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-12090-7. 190 pages, hardbound, with 16 roman numeral pages as Preface. Eight chapters, three of which have their own internal appendices.

I recall a coworker friend (he was that) at my civilian Navy Department job around 1971 who used to make up intellectual paradigms to explain how we all try to maximize our pleasure. He had been a schoolteacher in Florida, but had gone to work for the government (ironically) to make more money.

So it is with this brief but expensive book, which for most of its course uses econometric analysis to describe why the poor behave the way they do. Some of it would befit a pre-calculus course.

He does prefix his discussion with an analytic recognition of the fact that “poor” is a somewhat variable term. In many areas of the world, poverty is endemic and, with no middle class, most people live at a subsistence level or less. But every society, even when an advanced culture, has its poor, and every religion accepts variation in wealth as inevitable and not necessarily wrong if it is shared voluntarily by people.

The basic behavior patterns of the poor have to do with not working (or with lack of work ethic), not staying in school, abusing alcohol and drugs, having children too early, and shortcuts – that is, crime. The poor, he says, are rational, but in a more basic sense of reward and “punishment.” There is a discontinuity and asymmetry in all of this. He criticizes the “reciprocity” in the “Epicurean Fallacy” and shows that lack of pain is not always pleasure. The poor do not see any visible personal gain in staying in school because the time horizons are just too long and the potential rewards not visible,

Toward the end of the book, in the last chapter, he returns to morality, or economic justice. There are two opposing pillars in most theories of economic morality. One promotes individualism and personal sovereignty: that is, one is entitled to what can earn with work or purchase as property and earn a return on, and trade with others. That is essentially capitalism on a personal level. He points out that artists (he uses a novelist as an example) may believe in their work but still have the problem of convincing others to pay for what they have produced. (I know that well. Call it salesmanship if you like.) The polar opposite is the Marxist proverb that we had fun with in Army barracks during the Vietnam period: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Karelis comes to the conclusion that we would all be better off if there were some orderly transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, so that the poor (after having enough to "get into the game") would find improving their behavior of more continuous and visible benefit to them, so that there would be more wealth for everyone.

Karelis has relatively little interest in personal moral theory. His observations would suggest, however, that many people need a paradigm of moral teaching (that is, differentiating right from wrong to the extend that the concept ventures beyond libertarian harmlessness and non-aggression) that is simple and easy to understand. That is why religious faith and practice appeals, and why the idea of “moral absolutes” become attractive to some people.

Generally, religious morality is quite concerned with how wealth is shared. More liberal Protestant churches today sometimes talk about “Kingdom economics,” recalling a socialistic concept of life-sharing understood among the early Christians. In different ways, the sharing of burdens concern both the far Left and far Right. The Left tends to be very indignant about unearned or inherited wealth and privilege, and the conservative Right tends to believe that family values, marriage, and sexual morality relate to justifying what people “have”. Karelis is rather uninterested in all of this. Family values and domestic partnerships (in his world) are morally neutral and arise out of personal choices and perhaps immutable biological drives. Economic values, however, have moral meaning in how they affect people in practice, and that is why his own version of “trickle down” is interesting.

When I was substitute teaching, I sometimes found, with lower income kids, that their perception of family values, blood loyalty, and the idea that people put in front of them as authority figures or role models should pay their dues, all to be very real and important to them. This hardly comports with a view of poverty and educational and job performance that is explained just in terms of econometrics. It stresses that people should deserve their station in life, and that paying heed to family values can be very important in practice, something that conservatives constantly point out when they talk about marriage. Karelis does mention a little of this, that the kids of the wealthy are sometimes asked to pay their dues, and that senior citizens sometimes working in fast food places. But in general Karelis seems to look at procreation and family life as a given that most people gravitate to (with some wide personal variation, because of intellectual or artistic disposition, and, of course, sexual orientation), and sees wealth or content generating work as a real challenge for most people; to get them to do it requires a much more level playing field (with more visible time-related benefits) that our culture of extreme capitalism offers.

The perception of personal benefit, pleasure, relief or pain from any situation resulting from any behavior depends on the cultural values of the community in which the person is able to live, as well as access to wealth. Many people live in cultures that emphasize blood loyalty or family honor, or the ability of men to care for families, even before having their own children. Since this is not shared by everyone, it is a source of tension that is hard for policymakers to discuss openly. This situation may make "biological" rewards seem more urgent than other rewards more familiar in modern liberal culture.

Also, part of the "wealth sharing" to essentially give what Bill Clinton always calls "a hand up, not a hand out" comprises personal attention -- from teachers and mentors. This is not a responsibility that should be thrown at people (it sounds tempting as part of the "national service" debate) but it's something that high school and college students can work themselves into; it's much harder for retirees unless they have encountered this in a personal way (whether or not in raising families of their own).

Picture: The "new" Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA, Thanksgiving Day, 2007.

1 comment:

Rana Rizwan Javed said...

I cannot in all honesty blame the government for their response. The global downturn only really got bad in September after the Lehman Brothers collapse, and from the Malaysian perspective, the real economy didn't start getting hit (through the trade channel) in October. Having a stimulus package in place by early November (before the 3Q numbers were even in yet) is pretty fast.