Monday, December 13, 2010

Spirit Level

I've been reading a book called (for reasons not yet explained to me: did I miss something in the introduction?) The Spirit Level. It's a good book: it argues that economic inequality of itself causes many of the ills mistakenly attributed to poverty. I find its arguments as convincing as epidemiological arguments ever are,* but there was one sentence in it that appalled me. I don't have the book to hand, but the gist of it was, we must not entertain the idea that racial inferiority causes these problems we have been discussing, because that is a racist idea. No. No, a thousand times no. We must entertain it because many people think it's so, and we must dismiss it because it's false. That, or simply throw our credentials as scientists out the window.

In any case, this book increases my liking for the basic idea of a so-called “negative tax.” I dislike huge government programs as much as any Republican or Libertarian does: I think they're intrusive and coercive and inefficient. (The only one I really like is the food stamp program, which comes closest to my ideal of simply giving poor people what they most need -- to wit, money.) I keep voting for the parties that support huge programs, though, because they're the only wealth redistribution mechanisms that people will support, and a capitalist system without robust redistribution goes to hell in a handbasket. But I find it patronizing and heavy-handed. “Rule a large country,” said Lao Tzu, “as small fish are cooked.”

(But in any case, that's idle theorizing. What we need now are jobs, about twenty million of them, and we need them yesterday.)

I don't believe that most of the poor are poor because they're improvident or stupid or lazy. I think they're poor because they don't have enough money.

Democrats often wonder why the white poor so often vote with the Republicans, against their own interests. I think the answer is fairly simple: they know that the Democrats view them with even more contempt and condescension than the Republicans do. Many people would rather have respect than prosperity.

* I.e. not very. It's extremely difficult -- essentially impossible -- to isolate cause, as opposed to correlation, by way of epidemiological evidence. I think their hypothesis is probably true, though I don't think they have a knockdown argument for it. The correlation is indisputable.

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