Sunday, March 30, 2008

Who Has Robbed You Most Recently? by Anthony McCarthy

Trying to imagine how someone could steal, cheat and swindle their way into poverty, trying to come up with examples, I can’t come up with anything. I can tell you of people who, as a result of getting caught and imprisoned, went from middle class to a lower economic status but their fall resulted from them being caught and punished. They almost always couldn’t afford the best lawyers. Of course, once you lift the rug the crimes of the rich get swept under every day, you can name lots of people who have joined the elite through theft. And there are many among the stinkin’ rich who have never been anything but crooks. If you need an example of flourishing by grand larceny - at taxpayer’s expense, even - you have no farther to look than the First Family.

It’s rather remarkable how successful the cover up of the crimes of the rich has been, considering that everyone knows it. In polite society the agreement is that it is one of those things that isn’t mentioned. Part of the cover up is achieved by our vaunted government of laws simply making many of the favorite methods of theft invented on behalf of the wealthy un-illegal. If someone can explain to me how most of the forms of “new financial instruments” are different from the kinds of things that con men on the sidewalk can get jailed for, it would be most interesting. That is the form, the major distinction between sidewalk shell game hustlers and blue chip hustlers is that the swells are the world class swindlers. Theft by the rich is and just about always has been legal. None of this is news, though. Not because it couldn’t be but because in just about every case nowadays among most of the English Speaking Peoples the “news” in on the scam.

Considering their lack of success as thieves and swindlers, you’d think people wouldn’t be so worried about poor people in that way. Even with their huge numbers they steal a tiny fraction of what just those at the heads of the banking and insurance industries do. And they get punished for it when they get caught in ways the rich almost never are.

Here is a rather odd article about the poor and new thinking about why they are poor. It is a sort of review of Charles Karelis book, "The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor,". I haven’t read the book, but it’s going on the list. Consider this:

In the community of people dedicated to analyzing poverty, one of the sharpest debates is over why some poor people act in ways that ensure their continued indigence. Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.

To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale.

Could it be that the reason for drug use among the poor is exactly the same as it is for the rich and middle-class? That some people like to be snoggered? Could the difference be that the rich can generally get the money to pay for whatever drug they choose? That if caught that they can get out of it with no or lesser penalties than those meted out to others on an inverse scale to their ability to hire wealthy lawyers? Maybe the class aspirations of judges and District Attorneys plays a role in prosecution, would you be surprised if it was revealed that it was? In short, is the hypocrisy of our legal system as it is applied to drug use all that different from its treatment of the methods of theft used among the various classes? The issues of legal pharmaceuticals that are even more dangerous and produce more negative results than illegal drugs, but which make those who deal in them filthy rich is even more enlightening to consider from this point of view.

When economics and other social sciences turn from the attempt to understanding and promoting the democratic distribution of sustenance and a livable society to the chorus of elite-class praise singers it so often becomes, it is less than useless. As the article points out much of economics has turned into a means of convincing people that the poor are subhuman and so undeserving of assistance.

In her great book* “Mother Country” Marilynne Robinson gives a history of the hatred of the poor in England which is not like anything I’ve seen before. Her exposure of the pervasive disdain for the poor throughout English history, so deep that it is the basis of a lot of the policy of British “socialism”, is life changing. Every single step of the way, it is assumed that “the poor” are crooks, cheats, swindlers, loafers,... If you didn’t know who was being talked about you might think they meant the aristocracy.

Robinson's essay has the power to overturn a lifetime of thinking, driving me from “socialism” even farther on to socialism as if people mattered as individuals. That is the ground level of the problem, looking past people as classifications to see them as individuals. That is a luxury preserved for the wealthy in all class based societies. It is also something that published scholarship both will not and, perhaps, cannot do**. If you stop looking at poor people that way you learn things about them that you’ll never know from all the academic study that doesn’t.

* I’m re-reading the book just now, it’s the kind of book that once you’ve read it you keep going back. It is not a perfect book, as her critics will point out. Many of them have had a financial interest in covering up much of what she exposes. It is, like all important books, imperfect but it is one of the most important books published in the last quarter century. For this one book Robinson stands as one of the great intellectual figures alive today.

** In challenging decades of poverty research, Karelis draws on some economic data and some sociological research. But, more than that, he makes his case as a philosopher, arguing by analogy and induction. This approach means that he remains relatively unknown, even among poverty researchers.

Having been charged with the crime of reasoning by induction last year, it got me wondering more about the consequences and limits of the exclusive respectability given to deductive reasoning in our official scholarship. All systematic methods exclude, as a part of their practices. I suspect that a lot of the reason that much of the scholarship of social problems is such a notable failure is due to its aping math and the physical sciences when it’s subject matter can’t be limited without distorting it out of a relevant existence.