Fun point

Nevertheless, many self-described left-wing academics of my acquaintance, though earning in the very highest percentiles of the income distribution, believe they are underpaid and ought to get more. This belief, I submit, is in practice inconsistent with even sophisticated egalitarianisms, and supports the view that they are more right-wing than they fancy themselves to be.

Chris Bertram.

This is on that point that\’s been going around, that many self-defined left wingers are in fact a great deal more right wing than they think themselves to be.

What amuses me rather (about the entire point, not just this part of it from Bertram) is that I consider myself hugely more left wing than others perceive me to be. While equality isn\’t really something I worry about (I think there\’s a great deal too much absolute poverty out there for us to be concerned overly much about relative poverty within a rich society) all the other lefty bits I sign up for. You know, let\’s make the poor rich and so on.

I just disagree vehemently about the best way to reach these goals, that\’s all.

43 thoughts on “Fun point”

  1. I think there’s a great deal too much absolute poverty out there for us to be concerned overly much about relative poverty within a rich society

    I don’t see why you can’t worry about both. I can’t see why improving things within rich countries is going to retard progress away from absolute poverty in poor countries (although I can see some potential areas of conflict, they’re not terribly important or pervasive).

    I find it hard to understand how you can look at the lives of people in the worst bits of the UK and think: “nothing to worry about there”. Isn’t it obvious that absolute material poverty is only part of what determines welfare?

    I’m optimistic that I could persuade you, given some time and effort, to upgrade your level of concern about relative poverty. I think the key is to think about what inequality does to relative prices (both actual money prices and metaphorical ones) and how steeper mountains are harder to climb. (that sketch isn’t going to persuade you, I know)

    Tim adds: Ah, but if it’s globalisation driving the rise in relative poverty within country (which I am reasonably convinced of) and globalisation driving the falling of absolute poverty (which I am absolutely convinced of) then of course the two are intimately related.

  2. Luis, I think we could persuade you that the attempts to impose equality (eg by taking money from one group of people and just giving it to another) causes poverty. One doesn’t have to look very hard at workless families to see this.

    I also fail to see how Roman Abramovich or Bill Gates coming to live here makes me poorer. It makes me jealous, maybe, but socialists have spent decades denying that the equality agenda is one of base jealousy.

    Anyway, Tim’s stance on liberty and freedom puts him firmly alongside left-wingers (until he talks about economic freedom, at least).

  3. Tim,

    yes globalisation is the source of a trade-off I was thinking of, but there’s still plenty of variables that operate on the within-rich country dimension without touching the trading-with-poor-countries side.

    I don’t understand how you can have concern for those in absolute poverty but not be concerned about people struggling at the bottom of rich countries. Is is that you don’t believe they’re really having a rotten life, or that they could change if they wanted to hence deserve it?

    Kay Tie, yes I am aware of the disincentive effects of badly designed redistribution. Have you thought about its quantitative importance alongside all the other causes of poverty?

    I don’t see anybody here claiming that Roman Abramovich has made you poorer. I am claiming that inequality has a range of undesirable consequences that Tim might be persuaded to care about. I don’t hold out the same hope for you.

  4. The issue is indeed not just what we want but how we see it coming about and, just as importantly, maintained.

    To me it comes down to the divide between a Libertarian view of plurality or a more general left view of Totalitarianism, even if some will not admit it even to themselves about how comfortable they are with Totalitarianism when they think they are correct.

  5. But having a priviliged elite who not only make important decisions but who get more money than almost everyone else is how left-wing societies usually operate in practice.

  6. Luis, one reason why I can’t get excited about ‘relative poverty’/inequality in the UK is that the poorest in the UK have riches beyond the dreams of avarice compared with much of the world’s population – or even the UK population as it was within living memory. Everyone in the UK has ‘free’ heathcare, ‘free’ basic education, a welfare safety net, job and training opportunities, and access to a wide range of goods and services even on a very limited income, which strongly suggests that most UK poverty is a lifestyle choice.

    Kay Tie: “Tim’s stance on liberty and freedom puts him firmly alongside left-wingers”. Really? Some left-wingers, perhaps; but most favour bossiness, regulation and state intervention in all aspects of life, not just the economic one.

  7. most UK poverty is a lifestyle choice

    astonishing.

    I have no problem with the idea that some people have only themselves to blame, but to use the word “most” … I can hardly believe you can really look at the lives of, for sake of argument, the poorest quintile in the UK and think that most of them are their of their own fault.

  8. Tank, I should remind you that at least within the largest practical experiments of state socialism, like the USSR, the issue really wasn’t that the elite got more money than the non-elite. Same applies to the PR China.

    In the USSR, people had money (local currency). What they were lacking was things to buy with this money. The meat shop wasn’t where you got meat, the clothes shop wasn’t where you got clothes. (However, in the bread shop there was bread, and that was what kept things running for so many years.)

    Thus, there was the queue culture: if you saw a queue forming up, you wanted to join because there was going to be something valuable available there. It could be pork cutlets, or it could be rubber boots, or wall papers, but once you got hold of the stuff, you could barter. Money was not essential.

    Hard currency was another thing.

    The elite in USSR was elite not because it had lots of money, but because it had connections, privileges and positions that allowed its members to get something for their money, or even without money.

    BTW, you could say similar things about other elites. I think Barack Obama has a salary of $400,000 – that isn’t very large. His actual spending power is considerably more than that, because he has various resources at his disposal, without the need to use money.

  9. As noted in the comment above, in countries where a great degree of monetary equality has been established it hasn’t made a great deal of difference. It’s simply made money an irrelevance.

    At the moment, in our society, great wealth will buy you nicer rather than fundamentally different things. I think that’s why people have a hard time taking relative poverty seriously – how much better is a rolex than a casio? These nice things are either naturally limited or are limited as a condition of their being nice. If they are naturally limited we can’t all have them and if it’s simply keeping up with Joneses, then giving them to everyone will destroy their meaning. I’m not sure that keeping up with the Joneses is so socially destructive as to be worth the effort.

    Of course, money will also buy you influence – but so will many things. Is the influence won by a genius businessman’s millions fundamentally different to the influence won by a silver tongued speaker – a religious leader or politician? A particularly intelligent person?
    There is no reason to be more jealous of the one than the other and no way in which we can equalize the amount of influence that people have on each other. We should of course be wary about how they use their influence – but I don’t see where relative poverty would come into this.

  10. I think it’s a big mistake to think about relative poverty as if it’s a question of whether it matters if some people have rolexes whilst everybody else has casios.

    My worries about about inequality don’t have anything to do with iniquities of material wealth.

    Why is relative poverty a problem? Well, think about what your life is like if you are relatively poor. What happens if you are born into the bottom 10% of UK households?

    What is the neighborhood you’re going to live in like?

    What are you parents like? Your neighbours, your friends, your school mates?

    What’s the local school like?

    What habits will you acquire, what will you accent sound like? What are your job prospects?

    some of these things are partially in control of the individual, but rather than thinking “you could still do something about that”, think empirically about what happens to the average person in these circumstances, what the distribution of outcomes is.

    My objections to inequality and my concerns about relative poverty are based on the idea that there are real disadvantages to relatively poverty that make the chances of you living a miserable life much higher. My worries about inequality are based on the idea that inequality steepens the gradient, increases the scale of disadvantages (which are a relative thing – you are competing on the job market), and generally increases the degree of separation between the lives of the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

    In our capitalist societies, these things are closely related to income – as some people say above, the relevant inequalities are not necessarily monetary.

    Tim adds: Well, to start….neighbourhood….if you’re in the bottom 10% it’s gonna be council housing, innit? Gosh, how wonderful government attempts to reduce inequality are!

    Parents? Rilly? You want to argue that bad parenting by the lumenproletariat perpetuates poverty? So we should abandon welfare then and insist that that the children of the poor be given to the middle classes to raise?

    Local school….beneficient government again, eh?

    Accent? Take elocution lessons like my grandparents did. Of course, if government schools didn’t insist that not being able to converse was OK then this wouldn’t be necessary, would it?

    But back to the major point. I think an increase in relative poverty is an entirely acceptable price to pay for a reduction in absolute poverty. As an opinion that’s not actually open to refutation…..

  11. Tim’s initial response to Luis has it right; globalisation has, in some respects, created a global market for people of certain talents, such as good CEOs, scientists and so on, and this arguably increases inequalities in particular nations, but is part of a process that is also, so the pro-capitalists like me argue, lifting up absolute levels of income around the world.

  12. JP

    OK, but he’s merely identified one area in which concern about within rich country relative poverty may conflict with concern about poor countries. I’m not denying that.

    But that’s a long way from demonstrating that concerns about rich country relative poverty must be set aside. Globalization is not the only thing going on.

    Tim adds: Not even I say they should be set aside. I only insist that both sides of the same coin be considered when considering the validity of said coin. You can absolutely say that relative poverty in country is something to be considered. But I insist that you also consider the (near) abolition of absolute poverty as well.

    Start from where I do….both are caused by the same thing. It is then a balance of the costs (that increased in country inequality) and the benefits (decreased absolute poverty).

    Now there’s two ways out of my insistence. You can insist that both are not caused by the same thing: in which case I will laugh at you. Or you can insist that relative, in country, poverty is a greater problem than absolute poverty in which case I shall scream blue bloody murder and, cordially of course, invite you to do that insert penis into anal ring thing without the aid of another’s anal ring.

    And yes, I am being polite here, for someone not as engaged in the real arguments as you Luis I wouldn’t use that circumlotion that I just did.

  13. “My objections to inequality and my concerns about relative poverty are based on the idea that there are real disadvantages to relatively poverty that make the chances of you living a miserable life much higher.”

    You gave a long list of things that “poor” people suffer from (including accent!). I still see nothing in your analysis that ties this to money, although I see a correlation (poor life choices lead to monetary poverty is one causal explanation).

    Without an understanding of relative poverty, I see no point in trying to do anything about it.
    The New Labour approach of simply giving money to people has made it worse not better. Anyone who observes the career of professional footballers could see what was going to happen: give a chav a million and the sexual assaults merely take place in Park Lane rather than a towerblock lift.

  14. accent solely because it matters on the job market.

    You see nothing that ties the neighbourhood you can afford to live in to how much money you have?

    People get born into these situations Kay Tie, they don’t start in the middle and head downwards.

  15. Luis:
    “You see nothing that ties the neighbourhood you can afford to live in to how much money you have?”

    Social housing does tend to be dismal. But not because of the houses, but because of the other social tenants you have to live next to. Any house can be made cosy, cheerful, neat, tidy. A big tin of paint costs less than a tenner.

    But look around your nearest housing project and you will note that the only paint that has been applied was the stuff out of aerosol cans, artfully depicting a giant willy, on the outside wall of the GP Surgery. (Presumably so they can consult the diagram if they ever lose their copy of Gray’s Anatomy.)

    One local young mother told me how delighted she was to get a house with a garden, and then she turned the place into an absolute tip. The council had to go in to clean it up. If you could somehow get rid of all the owner occupiers in my area, and give away all the properties to council tenants, the smart areas would turn into Soweto within six months. And they would still be miserable.

  16. “You see nothing that ties the neighbourhood you can afford to live in to how much money you have?”

    The neighbourhood is just people. If the bible poor were decent people, the neighbourhood would be nice. But the reality is otherwise. Giving people money to move out merely means that nice areas can be brought low with burned out cars on the haha and soiled mattresses in the gazebo.

    I say this from experience when a chav couple moved in next door to friends of mine. The chavs were trying to escape a bad neighbourhood. Yet as soon as they arrived they assaulted one neighbour, keyed another’s car, and caused the council to be called in over noise.

    Are you seriously suggesting that giving money to chavs stops them being chavs? All that happens is you give more opportunity to fuck up lives (theirs and their new neighbours).

    The story of my friends ended badly/well: the chavs left, saying it wasn’t as friendly as where they came from (I assume that punching someone in the face is a chav form of affection, Biffa Bacon style).

  17. Luis –
    If status and the effects of status are the concern, shouldn’t we be equally concerned about forms of status other than income? What is the special property of money?

    I think it’s a bit of a mistake to assume that the adoption of middle class culture is an automatic reaction to finding yourself within whatever percentage of median income. I also think it’s a mistake to think that if the once poor do not broadly share middle class values and behaviours that people will treat them as middle class, no matter how much money they have.
    In vast swathes of British society there is a virulent anti-intellectual, anti-school ethos and anti-beauty culture. I’m not sure that money will change this.

    Also, there has to come a point where redistribution from the haves to the have-nots, not on the basis of need or power, but on the basis of combating jealousy or snobishness will be counter productive – it will simply underline the importance of money as status.
    Trying to encourage people not to worry about it might be more effective.

  18. Monty / Kay Tie

    Do you actually believe all poor people are arseholes? Is that it? Is that why you don’t give two shits about them – they’re all arseholes as far as you’re concerned.

    I’m baffled by these responses. I’m not suggesting that simple redistribution is the answer to everything. I’m not denying that much of the disadvantage in being born into the bottom rung stems from the characteristics of the people you will be surrounded by. I am merely arguing that relative poverty is a valid concern (it’s not difficult to understand: where would you rather be born, into relative poverty or into a middle class household? Where you would prefer to see your kids end up?) and that income inequality has something to do with the prevalence and severity of social ills, and the degree to which being relatively poor makes for a miserable life. Countries that manage to be rich and more income-equal (say Denmark) don’t have such a steep social gradient (with, as some of you would have it, marauding tribes of sub-human chavs at the bottom) and relatively poverty in those countries isn’t such a concern and that is, it seems obvious to me, better, desirable. Increasing the sum of human happiness.

    (I also find it worrying that there’s no acknowledgement that the poorest people in rich countries can still have real difficulties making ends meet and have miserable lives).

    Tim

    Well thank you for chivalry.

    Of course I consider the abolition of absolute poverty the priority. (you know this – you have seen me write ‘in defence of sweatshop’ type comments, etc.) so I escape your convoluted anal/penis instructions.

    Does that leave me trapped on the other prong of your fork? Are you going to laugh at me for saying both are not caused by the same thing? No, I think I escape there too. There is more than one cause. Globalisation might be lifting people out of absolute poverty in poor countries and putting people in relative poverty in rich. But there are many causes of absolute poverty and of relative poverty, and even while globalisation is at work there’s lots of scope to address both via other means.

    So your observation that relative poverty in rich countries is the other side of the absolute poverty coin doesn’t explain why you aren’t concerned by relative poverty in rich countries. I’m sure an inventive mind like yours could think of lots of things to be done about relative poverty and inequality in rich countries without impeding poverty reduction in poor countries. Yet every time I see you writing about relative poverty in rich countries it is to pour scorn on concerns. So I ask you again: is it because you don’t believe the relatively poor are (on average, etc.) having rotten lives, or is it because you think they deserve their lot?

    Your responses to my comments 10 simply duck the substantive points I was trying to make about why relative poverty might concern you.

    Fine, you don’t think council housing is any good. Are you sure then bottom 10% would be living in better neighbourhoods if housing was solely private sector? Like where?

    Yes I think parenting plays a role in perpetuating poverty, including things like expectation formation, habits, non-cognitive skills etc. No I don’t think this means children should be taken away from poor households and given to middle class parents.

    Yes I appreciate it’s possible to learn how to speak nicely. You seem to have missed where I wrote: some of these things are partially in control of the individual, but rather than thinking “you could still do something about that”, think empirically about what happens to the average person in these circumstances, what the distribution of outcomes is.

    Tim adds: “So your observation that relative poverty in rich countries is the other side of the absolute poverty coin doesn’t explain why you aren’t concerned by relative poverty in rich countries.”

    It does. The rise in inequality (relative poverty) in rich countries is entirely (OK, near entirely) driven by the soaring away of the top 0.1% incomes. We can actually see this in the US figures, the only ones that seem to have the required granularity. the 90-99% lot aren’t pulling away from the 0-89% lot in any appreciable manner. It really is the very tippy top only that is seeing hugely rising incomes. So:

    a) No, I don’t care that there are some tiny number getting fatter and richer off globalisation. That some 30,000 people (0.1% of UK taxpayers) are getting tens of millions a year while the rest of us carry on with the 2-3 % in general rise in living standards each year that capitalism provides over the decades and centuries.

    b) I absolutely do care that we do nothing to damage the flip side of this creation of a tiny elite: that hundreds of millions rise up out of absolute poverty elsewhere.

    Now, if it were that 30/50/99 % of the population in hte UK were becoming absolutely worse off as a result of those new plutocrats, yes, my opinion would be different. But that isn’t the case. We’re all still getting ruicher (recessions allowed for of course) just that some are getting richer faster than others. And no, they’re not getting richer faster at our expense. They’re picking up pennies from billions of people, not 50 p a head from us.

    It’s not inequality per se that I don’t care about (or at least not here). It’s the type and cause of inequality that we’re getting that I don’t care about. So, 30,000 households have hot and cold running Ferarris. So damn what, what the hell difference does that make to my life, your life or the lives of 6 million in relative poverty? And given that it does and has made a difference to the lives of hundresds of millions in absolute poverty then frankly I’m all in favour of it.

  19. “most UK poverty is a lifestyle choice

    astonishing.

    I have no problem with the idea that some people have only themselves to blame, but to use the word “most” … I can hardly believe you can really look at the lives of, for sake of argument, the poorest quintile in the UK and think that most of them are their of their own fault.”

    Welfare dependency is a lifestyle choice for most, Luis.

    I have a member of staff in the poorest quintile who receives tax credits and benefits. She recently received a legacy from her late grandmother. Her reaction? Spend it now, or she would lose some of her benefits. OK, on a course to increase her earning power? On a car to increase the distance she can travel to work? No. She’s going to “get my tits done”.

    I also have a young husband and wife – he a semi-skilled factory worker, she an unskilled worker – who both lost their jobs in the recession. They are poor and have two children. They were desperate for work and I was able to give them a few hours a week on the NMW. They are inspiring with their cheerfulness, honesty and commitment. I can probably offer her a full-time job on a decent rate in a few months. At the very least, he’ll get an excellent reference. My guess is that they’ll be off benefits within six months…

  20. Are we genuinely talking at cross purposes, or do you keep ducking the question?

    I’ll try and make this as unambiguous as possible.

    Yes I understand how you see the process of globalization working. You see it as raising up the third world’s poor whilst incidentally showering a tiny minority in rich countries with incredible riches.

    Now as it happens I think that account of recent trends in inequality is missing quite a lot, nor am I as sure that having super rich 1% is quite as innocuous as you think, but nowhere have I disputed this argument and I can’t really understand why you are presenting me with it again.

    I have been asking you why you apparently aren’t concerned by relative poverty in rich countries. Relative poverty, rather than absolute poverty, is what’s experienced by, let’s say, those living on below 60% of the median in a rich country. Note the median is not moved by changes to the top 1%. The kind of stuff left-wing anti-poverty campaigners worry about, to your eternal scorn. I’m asking you why, as far as I can see, you show little concern for the welfare of the individuals in that section of rich societies. I thought my meaning would be quite plain from, say, comments #1, 10.

    I’m not asking you to respond to people who worry about an increase in the gini coefficient caused by Julian getting 10 more Ferraris. Yes, the actual pattern of inequality matters, but I have been talking about inequality per se (I thought that was plain too) and about how steep the gradient is up from the poorest, through the not-so-poor, middle-income, to well-off.

    I guess we are at cross-purposes because you response so far “oh that’s just the other side of the coin that’s raising the Indian masses out of poverty”, as if we could not do anything to try and reduce the numbers living on sub-60% of median, or to flatten the income distribution (or quality of life distribution), without somehow impeding progress in the 3rd world, would be daft in response to the question I am actually asking you.

    Tim adds: “I have been asking you why you apparently aren’t concerned by relative poverty in rich countries. Relative poverty, rather than absolute poverty, is what’s experienced by, let’s say, those living on below 60% of the median in a rich country.”

    Nope, doesn’t bother or interest me at all. People stuck on 10% or 20% of median might but 60%? Nah. Better things to worry about.

  21. paul,

    Don’t be stupid. Your ancedotes do nothing at all to justify your claim “most UK poverty is a lifestyle choice”

  22. The Pedant-General

    Luis,

    “where would you rather be born, into relative poverty or into a middle class household? ”

    You’re missing the point here.

    In short, your view – and I hope this isn’t a gross charicature – is that the poor life quality is a result of the inequality.

    Tim’s/Kay Tie’s/My view is that the poor life quality AND the inequality are caused by something else: the life choices.

    Whilst we grant that the life choices are hugely affected by the monetary inequality, our contention is that solving the inequality won’t correct the problem.

    Here’s why: it’s a really simple two-by-two.

    If you start middle class and:
    – make middle class choices, you remain middle class
    – make bad life choices, you will become poor in a generation or less

    If you start poor and:
    – make middle class choices, you will become middle class in a generation or less
    – make bad life choices, you will remain poor.

    It’s the choices that matter, not where you start.

    The problem is that if you start middle class, you are much more likely to make “middle class” choices and vice versa.

    The solution to this is very obviously NOT simply to give those who make bad life choices money: it is to do something about the life choices.

    Currently, however, we have got this utterly and completely and totally disastrously wrong and arse-about-face: the welfare state gives money and not only does nothing about life choices, it actively promotes poor life choices. >90% marginal tax rates at the bottom mean that you have to be fantastically motivated – far more than the middle classes – to improve your lot: it’s just not worth it.

    THAT is the injustice: the do-gooders who worry about relative poverty are persisting the problem, not reducing it. But then they are also the same people who benefit from it as a result of the client state. cui bono?

  23. The Pedant-General

    Oh and whilst we are it, Luis, if you really really want us to take you seriously, you are going to have to deal with those on your side of the fence who argue that giving such poor benighted people ambition is merely setting them up for a fall, most particularly, Polly Toynbee.

    Can you at least agree that doing something about poor life choices is in fact important as a means to improve the lot of the poor?

  24. Actually living on the 60% threshold ( for example £115 per week for single adult with no dependent children, after housing costs) wouldn’t be a lot of fun. Not much left after food and utilities.

    But that’s the upper bound of the set we are talking about. Looking at the full distribution within that set (roughly 22% of UK population), and at the lives experienced therein … well I’m surprised to hear you say you’re not bothered or interested at all . I was expecting a different response.

    It makes me wonder how much attention you pay to what life’s like in that section of society, and why you don’t have more sympathy (do you think they deserve it? How do you respond when you read an account of what a struggle life is for people at the bottom of the heap- do you always think “on your bike” and never, hell, that is shitty isn’t it, I wish things were different?).

    I reckon in a society as rich as ours, it’s pretty scandalous that the bottom 25% haven’t been raised higher, and doing something about it, rather than being not at all interesting, ought to be at the top of politicians’ priority list (regardless of whether you think the solution is less or more government).

    Tim adds: “Actually living on the 60% threshold ( for example £115 per week for single adult with no dependent children, after housing costs) wouldn’t be a lot of fun. Not much left after food and utilities. ”

    I’m not bothered or interested because I’ve lived on less than that myself. I know very well how to make the most out of a low income…haunt the butchers at 4.30 on a saturday afternoon. Buy going out of date food. Cook large stews and pots of stuff (mince for example), freshen up by serving with potatoes once, spaghetti the second etc. Jumpers not heaters. Libraries to read the newspapers. Washing up liquid (own brand of course) washes hair just as well as shampoo (although you should dilute it first).

    I’ve been there, done that and no, it’s not terrible.

    If someone ever wanted to remake that Matthew Parris show where they stick him in a flat on the dole I’d be game to do it. Piss easy to be honest.

    Probably my biggest error in such a show would be to go off and find a job….yes, I’ve been a pot washer, slopped beer to thugs and chavs, waited table, served coffee, slung burgers and all the rest of it.

    In fact, here’s an offer if there are any TV peeps out there. Stick me in any major city in the country (say, 100,000 or more people) on the dole with housing paid. Bed/table/chair/cooker/fridge, £30 to start off the kitchen (oil, salt, pepper, etc). I’ll do just fine for money and within a couple of weeks I’ll have part time (cash in hand) work and within two months be off the dole and HB. Without, of course, going back to writing bits for the paper about how I’m living on the dole. Yes, I am 47 and yes, I can do that.

    You’d have to make it worth my while of course….

  25. PG, you are attributing positions to me that I do not hold. Yes choices matter and are part of what explains outcomes, yes if it were possible to improve choices that would be helpful. Yes the incentives created by the welfare state as is, can be unhelpful. I do spend rather of lot of time arguing with left wingers and being received as a right winger.

  26. The Pedant-General

    Sorry, to be clear, we must compare and contrast “a lifestyle choice” and “life choices”

    A life style choice is a deliberate choice to choose a particular outcome – “The state will pick up the tab for me so I can’t be bothered to work”

    Life choices lead inexorably to the outcome, but the outcome itself is not necessarily desired.
    Most particularly:
    – Failing to work hard/get qualifications at school
    – Leaving school early
    – doing drugs
    – having children without first being married
    – having children before the age of ~25 or so

    People who make those sorts of choices are not (necessarily) thinking “The outcome of this choice is that I will never get or hold a decent job, but that doesn’t matter because the state will pick up the tab”.

    They make those choices because, well, they can’t see the immediate upside of taking a different course.

    Into this mess jumps the welfare state and the relative poverty do-gooders who then remove the dis-incentives of such behaviour, making it MUCH MORE LIKELY that these poor life choices become actual lifestyle choices – people see others having the state pick up the tab so they can’t see a downside to the immediate upside.

  27. The Pedant-General

    Comments crossed there.

    Luis,

    I must admit that I was surprised at this argument because your view in 27 is more where I thgouht you would be coming from.

    Ok so: behaviour is a factor and the welfare state is making this worse. Good: gald we;ve got that agreed.

    So the questions now are:
    – will any solution work that does NOT address the behaviour?
    – Is there any situation where correcting/discouraging/refusing to pick up the tab for the behaviour will NOT work?

  28. The Pedant-General

    And assuming the answers to both of those questions is “no”, can you see why we are arguing from where we are?

    And that therefore dealing with ABSOLUTE poverty is in fact MILES more important than relative poverty?

  29. PG

    you can change which option people choose, without changing the options on offer, but you can also try to change the options on offer too.

    the problem with “get tough” welfare policies is that they will (probably) lead to a deterioration in the lives of a sufficient quantity of people to be politically unacceptable, regardless of morality.

    Ideally it would be possible to redesign welfare to improve incentives whilst still helping the worst-off (hence Chris Dillow’s support for a basic income), but suspect there’s always going to be a trade off, where helping the badly off will also distort their incentives to some extent.

    I don’t have the answers (but I do still think that relative poverty in rich countries merits concern)

  30. The Pedant-General

    “but I do still think that relative poverty in rich countries merits concern”

    But so far you’ve advanced little to support that position – the relative poverty is the result, not the cause.

    Next, if we agree that helping the worst off often undermines incentives, then we need to shout very loudly and very clearly about exactly that. Banging on about relative poverty is a MASSIVE distraction.

  31. Luis Enrique // Aug 4, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Monty / Kay Tie

    Do you actually believe all poor people are arseholes? Is that it?
    ———

    Most of them are, yes.

    At any one time, there are three classes of people in a state of poverty.

    Class 1: the transiently poor. They are the people who are looking for jobs, working hard, trying to better themselves, so they will ultimately get out of poverty, and into successively better paid jobs. You help them, by giving them opportunities.

    Class 2: The people who are permanently poor through disability or handicap, who will never be able to rise above that. You help them by providing accomodation, and benefits.

    Class 3: The people who are permanently poor because they won’t lift a finger to help themselves. They form by far the largest, and most troublesome group in the welfare system. Throwing money at them is like threatening a school truant with expulsion from school, he thinks it’s great. This is by far the toughest group to deal with, but it is the most urgent and important.

  32. ‘paul,
    Don’t be stupid. Your ancedotes do nothing at all to justify your claim “most UK poverty is a lifestyle choice”’

    My anecdotes show an example of fecklessness and an example of personal responsibility. Both are choices freely made by the individuals concerned. As a result of their choices, the feckless woman will stay in relative poverty and the couple will most likely improve their situation. Those choices are lifestyle choices.

    So it is surely unreasonable on your part to deny that the anecdotes provide some albeit limited support for my claim that relative poverty is a lifestyle choice in a society as wealthy and opportunity-rich as the UK .

    I once worked in a coal-mining area badly hit by pit closures. Some miners took their redundancy money and used it to re-train or buy a small business; others spent it and moaned that the government should bring jobs to them. Those with get-up-and-go got up and went. The others sank into poverty and welfare-dependency. But (apart from the old and the chronically sick etc) they all had a free choice – ie they could have done otherwise than they did.

  33. Tim,

    yes very clever. I could live on that money too and if I found myself in that situation I’d get myself out of it sharpish. Good for you, good for me. Aren’t we marvelous.

    now, how about the lives of the actually existing bottom 25%, all those that do not find life such a picnic. I think I can conclude that a) you don’t think their lives are so bad and b) if they are, it’s their own fault because getting yourself out of it is child’s play.

  34. The Pedant-General

    And if I may Luis, that’s not my position.

    My position is that 60 years of the welfare state undermining incentives has created a huge body of the population who, to use your categories
    a) have a pretty shit life BUT don’t see that there is really that much is worth their while to try and do anything about it
    and
    b) have indeed made the choices that led them to this juncture BUT have been guided into those choices by 1) the perverse incentives of the welfare state and 2) the fact that those choices were partly made for them by their parents who were operating under a) and b) 1).

    Note what I said above: if you make the right choices, you will lift yourself out of poverty in a generation or less.

    The welfare state has bequeathed us a huge section of society that is dysfunctional and which passes this onto its children. We have to break that cycle and that has to start with the behaviour that we subsidise and hence encourage.

    We really do need to be able to say that if you:
    – Fail to work hard/get qualifications at school
    – Leave school early
    – do drugs
    – have children without first being married
    – have children before the age of ~25 or so
    that, yes, your life will be shit and yes, it IS your fault.

    If you don’t, you won’t ever begin to address the problem.

    Treating relative poverty as even remotely interesting, let alone treating it as a cause not a symptom, is stopping us from doing so.

  35. PG

    In a system that replicates itself, the distinction between cause and symptom isn’t clear, and what I’m calling relative poverty is probably both. Part of the reason why I think relative poverty and inequality matter, is that I think reducing the two will reduce the severity of the self-replication of bad choices (to use your term) and miserable lives.

    I’d caution you against focusing solely on the disincentive effects of the welfare system, and only on the negatives. There are other causes of the bad outcomes we’re talking about, some of them potentially more important. Perhaps keeping the welfare system as it is, fewer people would drop out of school etc. if the bottom end of the job market offered better, higher paid jobs?

    I’d also ask you to think those at the bottom of the distributions when it comes to attributes like intelligence, non-cognitive skills, ‘get up and go’, some of which may be explained by luck of the genetic draw, some of which may be explained by being born into families at the bottom of the pile (the self-replicating thing). What kind of life do you think these people ought to have?

    I agree with the importance of a making the right choices, as you have it, (well, not actually all the examples you pick), but in any feasible society, even with you in charge of the welfare system, millions of people are going to make poor choices. Shouldn’t we care about what happens to them?

    I agree, things may go wrong trying to provide people who make bad choices with better lives. But isn’t that why things like the number of people in relative poverty, the degree of social inequality, might matter? Perhaps in more equal societies, people make better choices because those choices are more attractive. Is low inequality the effect that Denmark caused by having a tougher welfare system (which I’m not aware it does have) and simply by somehow having people make better choices, or is having a more equal society the cause that helped reduce the effect of the proportion of people making bad choices?

  36. “I’d also ask you to think those at the bottom of the distributions when it comes to attributes like intelligence, non-cognitive skills, ‘get up and go’, some of which may be explained by luck of the genetic draw, some of which may be explained by being born into families at the bottom of the pile (the self-replicating thing). What kind of life do you think these people ought to have? ”

    Isn’t their quality of life a problem of absolute rather than relative poverty (where we have set our standards of what constitutes absolute poverty rather above starving to death)? In what way does having some arbitrary percentage of median income improve the life of someone with a lack of intelligence or crummy personality?

  37. The Pedant-General

    “In a system that replicates itself, the distinction between cause and symptom isn’t clear, and what I’m calling relative poverty is probably both. ”

    Not true. We’ve discussed this above. As soon as we stop subsidising and/or soft-soaping the poor decisions – i.e. we deal with the poor decisions – and the problem is going to clear up very quickly.

    Deal only with the “inequality” and the situation will revert to the status quo very quickly.

    If you have good decisions and
    – inequality, you don’t necessarily have a problem
    – no inequality, you have no issue at all

    If you have poor decisions and;
    – inequality, you have what we have now
    – no inequality, you very soon will have.

    The cause and effect is therefore clear. The inequality and poor decisions are perpetuated not by inequality but by poor decisions. It’s not circular or self-reinforcing.

    the only reason it appears to be is that the focus on inequality is stopping us from focussing on the poor decisions.

    “What kind of life do you think these people ought to have? ”
    Whatever life they are happy to have. I’m just expecting people to make a reasonable attempt to fund whatever life they want to have.

    “Shouldn’t we care about what happens to them? ”
    Care has been outsourced to the state that takes at gunpoint the money that I have worked very hardto earn – all my life, including being diligent at school and generally deferring gratitude in myriad other ways – and gives it to people who haven’t earned it.

    Even then, care is not done by the state because it operates at the level of “these people”.

    If you want me to care, show me an individual and let me ascertain how much support he is deserving of. If he is consistently making poor decisions, he is not going to be deserving of it.

    Any change is going to take a generation because we’ve had 3 or 4 generations of do-gooders fouling it up. That is not a reason not to start at all.

  38. Locke,

    I agree – (in part!)

    When I worry about relative poverty and inequality, I’m not worrying about a direct effect. For instance I don’t suppose that adding or removing people from the top of the distribution (and hence shifting around the degree of inequality, and the line that determine who’s classified as “relatively” poor) is going to achieve anything.

    My point is that a society with a lot of people below 60% of the poverty line, or with a steep gradient from poor through to well-off, will be one where these people have a much rougher life than a more equal one, and for deep reasons that (probably) wouldn’t be fixed just by superficial measures like taking some money from the top and handing it to the bottom.

    Think about advantage and disadvantage. Almost by definition, the degree of disadvantage may be causing the degree of absolute poverty to for the worst off to be greater than it might otherwise be. It’s possible to argue that quality of life does have a lot to do with relative positioning, status etc. but I’m not really touching those arguments.

    Imagine some different possible societies, holding constant the level of absolute poverty, in the bottom 25%, but varying other things. In a very equal society, there might not really be such a thing as really bad neighbourhoods where kids pick up bad habits and become unemployable, where you are born might not have much to do with your job prospects. In a very unequal one, with bad neighbourhoods populated by households at the bottom of a very steep income distribution, that’s a lot harder to escape. Plus maybe inequalities create concentrations that do bad things, maybe too many bad apples in one place and suddenly they takeover, everybody’s life is made a misery, and suddenly decent people don’t dare leave their flats on an evening. Non-linear effects.

    So when I say it makes sense to be concerned that some people are leading very much worse lives than others in rich countries, it’s partially because of their level of absolute poverty, but also because I think that inequalities can amplify and entrench bad dynamics, make “good choices” more costly, less rewarding, less rational, to make etc. and actually because part of the constellation of causes of bad outcomes.

  39. “but also because I think that inequalities can amplify and entrench bad dynamics”

    That’s nicely phrased. It looks as though unequal societies, for whatever reason – and I won’t attempt to get into issues of causation because I don’t understand them – have corroded social relations right across the wealth distribution. People at all levels worry more about losing income and status (the penalties are harsher). Those higher up the wealth hierarchy have less respect and / or concern for those lower down.

    (Anecdotally: we – as architects – have begun to see commissions for things like airport terminals for private jets. We expend time and effort on visually complicated and luxurious-looking designs for relatively small and unimportant buildings such as this, but we don’t always get paid. Institutional clients are better at paying, that’s for sure. They also have more interest in the technical aspects. Again, as I say: anecdotal.)

    Tim adds: Well, yes, so have commissions from those omniscient and only concerned with the general welfare bureaucrats caused certain architectural problems. You know, those vertical slums like Ronan Point?

    At which point we might come back to one of my basic points. Sure, employing architects is clearly and obviously a bad idea but doing so where they influence what rich bastards see when coming off rich bastards’ planes seems less obviously terrible than using them to blow up poor people in their homes.

    🙂

  40. Fair enough Luis, I also agree that a vastly unequal society is not a good thing – it’s just that I’m not convinced that beyond a certain stage of development and once a certain basic standard of living has been established, income or wealth are particularly relevant ways of measuring such inequality.
    Having said that, I do take your point about the bad-egg critical mass effect potentially having a deleterious impact on the culture of a neighbourhood. How will the idea of relative poverty help us combat this effect? If we assume that changes in status don’t have any effect on a persons mind or behaviour, that the physical quality of housing likewise won’t have an effect, we are still going to have the same number of fundamentally bad apples. Assuming that some areas are going to be more desirable than others, we’re going to have cheaper areas. Aren’t the bad apples always just going to end up living in those cheap areas? And surely there is no point in helping some escape from bad neighbourhoods if someone else still has to live there. I’ve got a feeling that there may well be a cheaper and more effective way of establishing the rule of law for everyone than concerning ourselves with relative poverty.
    Basically, I’m not convinced that there isn’t something else going on here, and that there are some other cultural effects in the background of those countries in which a greater degree of equality appears to create a more harmonious society. (I also believe there might be some statistics which show increases in absolute wealth, a police force and life within the market system reduce crime fairly well by themselves.)

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