Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Poor - Victims or Choices?

Are people poor due to circumstance or choices?  People on both sides of this debate claim that it can't even be debated!  The answer is, of course, a little of both.  One you have control over, the other, not.

When it comes to understanding poverty, people seem to fall into one of two camps.  On the Left, people argue that the poor are victims of circumstance - birthright or race - and that we should feel sorry for them as their plight is not of their own making.   And there is a nugget - a nugget - of truth to that.

On the Right, people correctly point out that one reason poor people remain poor is that they make insanely idiotic choices with their money - squandering instead of saving, buying bling and paying high interest rates for it. The folks on the Left castigate the Right for "blaming the poor" for their misfortunes.

"You heartless bastard!" they say, "How dare you!"

Sadly, this "shaming" technique does little to advance the debate, but just shuts down discussion, as those on the Left just accuse those on the Right as being "heartless bastards who hate the poor!" and discussion ends.

Similarly, on the Right, the argument used to stifle debate is that the Left just wants to "give away money to the poor" - usually to create a voting bloc to remain in power, and thus the Left is also shamed and discussion ended.  This is not helpful either.

And sadly, that is the level of discourse in this country today.  People do not want to sit down and rationally discuss issues - to listen to what the other side has to say - and then argue something on its merits.  Rather, we just hurl one-liners and insults at each other, as if actually stooping to listening or debating was beneath us.

This is why we have the new Donald Trump today - the Don Rickles-like insult comic, who just dismisses his opponents and their arguments with put-downs.   It is not debate.  It is not intellectual.  It is not Conservative or Liberal.  It is just school-yard taunting and name-calling.  It is trolling.

And sadly, perhaps this has always been true - people prefer to think emotionally rather than logically. The vaunted Gore Vidal v. William F. Buckley, Jr. debates of 1968 were little more than emotionally charged name-calling between the two men.  Very little of substance was said, but the insults flew back and forth.  I am not sure how it could have enlightened anyone.

Once again, I digress...
But it is not "blaming the poor" when you point out that raw economic deals which are voluntary are just shitty deals, period.   And we can't change the plight of the poor, if "discussion" is one-sided, closed-minded and uses shaming tactics to stifle debate.

And the real problem today with our "shrinking middle class" has more to do with poor economic choices than with being victims of circumstance.   Mr. & Mrs. Suburbia have a much higher standard of living - or higher expectation of a standard of living than our parent's did.  My Dad was an "upper middle class" executive and yet my Mom drove a Vega - the cheapest car sold in America.   We didn't even have a color television until 1975.

Oddly enough, my poor friends all had nicer cars and color TV's.  There is a pattern here, if you are willing to look for it.

Today the same deal may be true.  Middle-class families are making a lot of poor choices with cable televisions, new cars for everyone in the family, and of course, smart phones. Junior goes off to college and runs up huge student loan debts - and no one bothers to sit down and figure out whether any of it makes financial sense.

"Poor" choices are now being made by the middle class as well.  And folks on the Left say that they are victims, too.

But I digress, yet again.

The point is, which is it - predestination or personal choice?   Or do we have to make a choice here?  Aren't both factors part of the equation of poverty, and no one side is "right" in this debate?   Because if we buy only the arguments of the Left or only the arguments of the Right, then nothing is going to change.  Sadly, neither side seems to want to budge an inch in this discussion.

Because the reality is, it is a little of both.  Your birthright is important in determining your ultimate success. Donald Trump had a rich father in the Real Estate business. Not only did this help economically, but it also gave him the idea that "Hey, this is what one does - invest in Real Estate and make money!"   You see your Dad do it, it seems plausible.

Myself, yes, my upbringing in a middle-class home helped. My parents valued education as a way of keeping a tenuous grip on the rungs of the social ladder.  We were told, from an early age, that it was expected of us to do well in school.  My brother and I would read the encyclopedia, as a means of leisure.

The poor kids my Mother tried to help in a "head start" program had no books in the house at all, but two new snowmobiles and a wrecked Camaro on the front lawn of their trailer home. Different priorities by their parents tends to create a different outcome, because of environment and expectations.

But, personal choice makes all the difference in the world.  I knew plenty of kids from the country club, from prep school, and from college, who threw away these advantages and slid down the economic scale into poverty.  My late sister did this - stupidly renouncing "materialism" and marrying far below her economic status, and spending her short life struggling to pay bills and wondering why it all went so wrong.   A lot of middle-class kids do this - squander their birthright.

On the other side of the spectrum are kids from poor backgrounds who reinvent themselves and climb the social ladder. My own Father did this, coming from a lower-middle-class background (with a drunken, abusive father) and reinventing himself as an executive.  My Grandfather on my Mother's side did this as well, working his way through college and law school to move from Brooklyn (which was a working-class neighborhood back then) to become a partner in a law firm and mayor of Larchmont, New York.

And I know a number of people my age who did the same thing.  Moving from the South Side ghetto of Philadelphia to the elite Navy JAG corps.  Or from a trailer park in West Virginia to become a high-end designer in the big city.   It happens more than we think, and often the people who do this don't advertise their more plebeian roots.

This is not to say, of course, that everyone can or will do this.   Few can.  Most get depressed and sink to their lowest survivable level of existence.   Few people really try to excel in life.   And for those who try, there should be some reward.

But to say that your birthright determines your outcome in life is to deny freedom of choice, and no, freedom of choice is not "an illusion" - take that sad sack shit back to your basement bong lair, my friend! 

No, we cannot simply "choose wealth" or choose to be superstars.  But we can make better choices that better our lives.  And if we don't make these choices, that's OK, too.   But we can't posit ourselves as "victims" all the time when things don't go our way, particularly when we took an active role in making them not go our way.

So how does this affect your personal life?   Well, that is the part I harp on here in this blog.   You can't go back in time in choose different parents.  You can't re-live your childhood, nor are you "owed" a perfect one.   Your birthright is what it is, you can't change that.  Accept it and move on.  (A lot of people do the opposite - waste what little time we have on this planet obsessing about their upbringing and their parents - it is a pointless game).

But you can change personal choices - and to say you have no choices at all is a cop-out.   Yes, it is harder to come from a poor background.   That does not mean you have to give up trying.

And no, this doesn't mean that better choices will make you a billionaire overnight.   They will, however, make you happier and wealthier over time.  Maybe not super-rich, but at least something approaching a comfortable middle-class existence.

What is blatantly clear, however, is that making horrifically poor choices will make you very, very poor and miserable - or poorer and more unhappy.   If you get payday loans and title-pawn loans and rent-to-own furniture and whatnot, you will squander what little you have and end up in a world of woe.

For the middle-class person, the choices can often be even more horrific - massive student loan debt for ill-conceived college educations of no worth.    Serial leasing of cars while not funding your 401(k).   Running up credit card debts to get rewards miles and then serially refinancing your house to pay it off.   The middle class gets better interest rates than the poor, but they are enticed to borrow far, far more money.

Maybe you can't choose wealth very easily, but you can very easily choose abject poverty and misery by making a lot of financial mistakes, or at the very least, make yourself a lot poorer and feeling put-upon.

Those on the Left would argue (and I would agree) that some of these shoddy deals should be shut down.  Get rid of payday loan places - they serve no useful function in life.   High-interest consumer financing and pawn shops and rent-to-own furniture and bling-rims are just traps for the poor.

The problem with that argument is twofold.  First, it ain't gonna happen anytime soon.   Waiting for major changes in public policy to save your ass is a poor life plan.   Instead, you have to protect yourself in the interim.   Second, even if we outlawed the payday loan, a certain percentage of people would find other outlets (loan sharks, etc.) or the payday loan people would find new ways around the laws.

Usury laws are easy to circumvent.  Instead of selling furniture financed at 50% interest, you rent it for the equivalent monthly payment in a "rent to own" scheme.  That's why they do it - to fly under the radar.

A better solution is to make better personal choices which help you avoid these financial traps.

And it would help, too, if we all started saying, out loud, that these poor financial choices are indeed raw deals.

Because that is what really pisses me off about both the Left and the Right is that both want to stifle debate about this, so they can stick to their dogma.   The Leftists says that the problem isn't the poor financial deals being offered to the poor, but the fact they are "disadvantaged."   Thus, it is implied there is no point in shutting down these crooked operations or at least trying to educate people to warn them of the peril.   No, no, it is all determined at birth, so why bother trying?

The Rightists, on the other hand, don't want to see the payday loan place shut down because that is an example of free enterprise, and people should be allowed to make poor choices in a free economy.   No, they really think this, which is, of course, obscene.

The net result is, if you try to be rational about this and say, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't offer such shitty deals to the poor, and maybe the poor shouldn't be taking them!" - you get shouted down as an uncaring bastard by the Leftists and as a meddler in the free-market economy by the Rightists.

Here's an idea:  How about we stop letting extremists from the Left and the Right tell us what to think?

Just a crazy thought.