Friday, May 26, 2017

No One Is To Blame?

Is a blame-free society a good thing?

Ben Carson, who appears to be taking some sort of really relaxing drug most of the time, got into hot water the other day for mentioning in passing "the poverty mindset" which is a term that has been used by a lot of people in studying the causes of poverty.  Carson is no rocket scientist, to be sure, but the media's knee-jerk reaction to his comment is sort of sickening.   How dare he imply that the poor might be responsible in any way for their own plight?

This latter mantra seems to be a talisman of the far-Left - that poverty is like the weather, and is just something that "happens" to some folks for no reason at all - except the fault of big corporations, racism, or other outside actors.   People who have money obviously came into it through nefarious means or were just "lucky".   The only rational solution to this problem is to take money away from some people and give it to others.

While people are often victims of circumstance, often these circumstances are enhanced by their own folly.   You may be born into poverty, but you remain there because you take out payday loans or pay $25 to cash a check, or you rent $2000 rims for a $500 car or you rent a $200 television for $1000.   Making poor financial choices is often what keeps people in poverty.   Oddly enough, on many liberal media sites are articles defending these bad financial choices often for very specious reasons.   Using a payday loan is a "logical" choice, we are told, as the poor have no other means of juggling their finances.

On right-wing media sites, these institutions that exploit the poor are defended on other grounds - that they are "free enterprise" and the government should not interfere with private financial decisions, even if they are ruinous.   But of course, these are arguments made by the guy who owns the payday loan store, so you see where he is going with it.   And oddly enough, while he may vote Trump and decry "welfare", the right-winger secretly hopes that the government hands out more money to the poor, because this money will eventually end up in his hands.

Subsidies to the poor often end up as subsidies to the very rich.   Wal-Mart loves food stamps.  People buy things at their store with them, and their employees can be paid less because of them.   While the GOP talks a good game about ending government "handouts" I suspect that once these plans make their way through Congress, they will be diluted severely - not by Democrats, but by Republicans representing business interests.

But I digress.

The point is, we seem to be increasingly willing to let people skate on personal responsibility these days - or at least some people.    The poor are sainted and have special magickal powers (according to Hollywood) or at least are more "spiritual" than us middle-class people.   They are in no way responsible for their plight, and thus deserve our undivided sympathy.   To suggest anything else is to be a cruel, heartless, mean bastard.   After all, they are starving while we have plenty!

But of course, few are starving in this country other than children whose parents spend the WIC money on crack, and of course, supermodels.   We have the fattest poor people on the planet.   Oh, but right, the Left has an answer for that - they are "forced" to buy those high-carb foods at Wal-Mart because they don't know any better.   Well isn't not knowing any better at least partially their fault?

But it doesn't end with the poor.   Criminals - who by and large come from the impoverished class - are always worthy of our sympathy, no matter how many people they have robbed, maimed, raped, or killed.   Particularly if the crime happened "a long time ago" - like 10 years or so - we can forget about the victims and concentrate on how the criminal had a poor upbringing and thus his crimes were not his fault.

Even if the criminal had a privileged upbringing - and perhaps especially so - we can argue that his privilege skewed his mind so that his horrific crimes were not his fault.   This trend arguably started with the Leopold and Loeb trial, where Clarence Darrow made the then-novel argument that "society is to blame" and saved his clients from the electric chair.   Today, putting society on trail - along with the victim - is standard operating procedure for any defense attorney.   Being raised in poverty or by abusive parents excuses horrific behavior - and so does coming from a privileged background. 

But of course, this raises the question:  What about people who are raised in poverty or to abusive parents who end up not being serial killers?    For some reason, we assume that every person who has a bad background will inevitably have a bad outcome.   But some folks - most in fact - rise above these misfortunes and become successful, normal people.   I mentioned before how friends of mine, raised in a West Virginia trailer park or the ghetto of South Philadelphia, rose above their backgrounds and became successful designers and lawyers.   We negate free will when we posit that how you are raised determines how you will live, period.

The blame-free mentality, however, goes far beyond discussions about criminals and the poor, but has crept up into the ranks of the middle-class.   And this is where this topic intersects with this blog.   As I have mentioned time and time again, the point of my blog was not to discuss poverty - because quite frankly, the chronically poor will always remain so (topic for my next posting) exactly because of this poverty mindset that Carson alluded to.   What is tragic is the middle-class is sliding down the economic ladder into poverty these days, and the poverty mindset, or more precisely, the blame-free society is, I think a major cause of this problem.

We are told by the media that the middle-class is shrinking and that this is the fault of the very rich.   The only solution is to redistribute the wealth.   An interesting argument, and one made decades ago when discussing the very poor.   Wealth distribution has gone upscale, with the middle-class signing on to this form of socialism - something they would have been horrified to do in the past.   And maybe this victim-mentality is why the middle-class is rapidly losing out.

Take the housing crises, for example.   If you read the papers, you'd think this was the fault of Wall Street, the big banks, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, developers, and whatnot.   If you are an alt.right nutjob, you go out on a limb and claim that Bill Clinton planned the whole thing more than a decade earlier, through something called the "Community Reinvestment Act".   But you'd be a right-wing nutjob to think that, let me be clear.  Save the e-mails, I won't be convinced otherwise.

Nowhere in this equation, whether it is approached from the Left or the Right is the startling idea that people who signed loan documents on houses they could not afford were to blame for this problem.   No one makes the argument that people drive home prices from the bottom-up, not builders or real-estate agents from the top-down.   And if you still have trouble getting your head around this, ask yourself why home prices collapsed in 2008.   It wasn't that builders decided to cut their prices by 2/3 or more, it was lack of demand from the marketplace.   I mean, after all, why would a builder, developer or seller voluntarily lower their prices if they truly controlled the market?

People - yes people - signed loan documents on something called a "liar's loan" and wondered why it went bust.   People - you and I - paid more for a house than it would ever be worth, paying 2-3 times the market rent in monthly payments.   People were lead to believe that you could buy a house and it was so fucking precious that it would be worth 20-30% more than they paid for it, in a year or less.

People caused the housing meltdown, not huge corporations or banks or whatever.   You could argue that the banks facilitated the mess by offering "liar's loans" with no documentation.  You could argue that the real estate industry hyped these properties.   All of that would be true.  But it was individual buyers who bought into the con, one at a time.   Who do you blame when the snake-oil salesman comes into town?  The salesman, or the rubes who buy his worthless tonic?   When someone buys a timeshare, is the timeshare company guilty of fraud, or the buyer guilty of stupidity?

And what about people like me who saw this whole thing playing out and sold out of the market?   Was I exploited by the big banks?  Or was I an exploiter because someone came to me unsolicited and offered me double my money for properties I owned?

Or what about people who bought houses they could afford on rational 30-year fixed notes that had reasonable monthly payments?   How come we clamor to "bail out" the homeowner who bought the luxury home he could not afford - using the tax dollars of the guy who bought the house he could afford?  Aren't we punishing rational behavior and rewarding irrational behavior if we do this?

You see where this is going.  Increasingly, the middle-class is being told that their spendthrift behavior and lack of discipline are not the cause of their difficulties.   The union guy who demands 2-3 times prevailing wages for substandard work and goes out on strike for six years isn't culpable when the factory closes.   People who fail to save for retirement or fail to buy health insurance because they'd rather have a new motorcycle are not to blame for their predicament.   The family that racks up credit-card debt and pays it off with a succession of home-equity loans isn't to blame when it all comes tumbling down in bankruptcy.

It all has to be someone else's fault? right?   This is just human nature at work.   You see a small child spill their milk and then cry "unfair!  unfair!" as if someone else spilt their milk for them.   Here's a clue kid:  It was probably those evil 1%'s - the Illuminati likes to do shit like that to little kids!   Get a protest sign!  Mom will surely pour you another glass as a result!

No one, myself included, likes to look inwardly and say, "Gee, suppose I did something different?  Maybe my outcome would have been different?"

And that right there is why the blame-free model is harmful to society.  When we take away incentives to succeed and punishments for failure, we sink to the lowest common denominator in a culture.   Why bother trying when you can sit back and take no risks at all and still win?   And if you do try, well, when you win there will be no rewards.

We have to move away from this blame-free model of society.    We have to hold people at least partially responsible for the negative actions that lead them to where they are - and reward them for positive actions when appropriate.   And we have to completely rid our society of this mindset that certain groups of people are always blame-free for their situations in life and that to even question this premise is not allowed.

Otherwise, nothing will get better, on a personal level, or a national one.