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Zippy Little Codes

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So, while I’ve been sick, the whole world seems to have exploded over Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which I think I brought up here a few weeks ago.

And by now I’ve read it, and I find myself in the same  sort of bemused state I often get when Murray publishes a book.

There is the obvious–liberal critics of Murray’s ideas do pretty much the same knee-jerk caterwauling as they always do, and on the way they miss much of the point.

The caterwauling was pretty well illustrated by Paul Krugman in today’s NYT–Here’s Murray talking about morals, and what’s really wrong is income inequality!

“Income inequality” seems to be the fashionable phrase of the moment,  so that, in and of itself is  no surprise.  Krugman goes forth and “proves” his point by saying that since good jobs with good pay and benefits have dried up for men with high school educations or less, that’s all we need to explain the rise in criminality, idleness, responsibility and a host of other things among the white working poor.

The problem is that this won’t work if we look at the situation historically.  Before WWII, poverty in the US was close to 50%, more than double what it is today.  Jobs that would have fit Krugman’s definition of “good” were few and far between.  And “income inequality” was at least as wide as it is now, if not wider.

But out of wedlock births were in the single digits, men who fathered families they did not then support were few and far between, and most people left the doors of their houses unlocked and walked the streets at night even in the poorest neighborhoods.

Obviously, “income inequality” by itself is not enough to explain what’s going on. 

For what it’s worth, I think that this kind of response–Krugman’s kind of response–to Murray’s book is similar to the same people’s responses to other of his books:  mostly an attempt to throw up a lot of debris so that nobody gets around to talking about the real issue.

In this book, there are actually two such issues.

One is the increasing inability of anybody with any sense to go on insisting that public policy does not have unwanted side effects. 

A few years ago, I was participating on an Internet forum and we had a discussion about whether unemployment benefits encourage some people to remain unemployed. 

This turned into an enormous shouting match, where one side insisted that nobody would ever do that and that those of us who thought they would were actually just using code speak for race and calling black people lazy and irresponsible.

At the same time that discussion was going on, however, there was another going on.  That second discussion had to do with a gentleman from, I think, Australia, who was explaining how he worked long enough to build up X amount of employment insurance, then got himself laid off so that he could live off that for a while.  Then, when that ran out, he went back to work and…

In other words, he was doing exactly what we said people would be tempted to do.

I have had people on this forum tell me that even liberals who support a vastly expanded welfare state understand the free rider problem and want to do something about it, but I don’t think they do.

Understand it, I mean. 

For one thing, calling it “the free rider problem” makes the entire issue unnecessarily remote.

The actual formulation is this:  you get more of what you pay for and less of what you tax.

I’ve pointed out here several times that the significant attribute of my most remedial kids and their families is not stupidity (lots of them are bright enough), or even lack of moral fiber–it’s passivitiy, and that passivity is learned.

The simple fact of the matter is that at certain levels of this society, passivity pays better than anything else does. 

Taking responsibility for the world around you gets you very little in most poor rural and inner city neighborhoods, and it will positively annoy the hell out of your social worker, who holds the keys to things like food stamps, welfare payments, and disability pensions. 

You’ll do much better–in the short run–by shrugging your shoulders and saying you just can’t do anything about anything, by appearing as dysfunctional as possible in as many different ways, by redefining yourself as “disabled” in some vague and fuzzy way.

I’ve called this, before, the process of turning citizens into patients–of medicalizing all behavior so that it becomes not only not the person’s own responsiblity, but requires “treatment” and “support” in many different ways.

It is under no circumstances the case that this phenomenon is restricted to some out of sight underclass.  Get your kid “diagnosed” as “learning disabled,” and he gets all kinds of things–Ritalin (which will  make ANYBODY’S brain work better–legal dosing!), extra time to take exams and standardized tests, special help and tutoring from the local school.

Wham! We’ve got an epidemic of ADHD in high-income suburbs where parents desperately search for any advantage to help their kids get into elite colleges.

There are, of course, two problems with this.

Looking at my remedial kids, the most obvious one is that what seems to work well in the short run doesn’t work well in the long, and doesn’t even work all that well in the short.

Wander out to the neighborhoods where my kids live and you see garbage on the front porches, broken windows not even boarded up, old pieces of furniture cluttering up the yards.  Wander into one of their houses or trailers or apartments, and you’ll find garbage on the living room floor,  broken light bulbs nobody has bothered to change in months, dishes piled in the sink for weeks at a time.

It’s possible to argue that this is just a matter of poor people getting fewer services than richer people do–in a better apartment building, that bulb would get fixed much more quickly.

But this doesn’t quite cut it.  Other people–even other poor people–typically respond to seeing something wrong by trying to alleviate or fix it.  And they tend to become exasperated by neighbors who insist on railing at officialdom for things that can be taken care of in a few seconds on the ground.

In fact, I think most people find it natural to assume that they should take responsibility not only for their immediate selves or the life of their families, but for all kinds of other things.  The food pantries in the towns around me aren’t operated by the government.  They were founded and continue to be run by local organizations.  That’s true as well of many of the libraries around here, which are not public libraries but “free library associations” that were founded by local groups and continue to be run by such groups.

A neighborhood where people take personal responsibility for themselves and the world around them is a better place to live than a neighborhood where people don’t. 

And you don’t have to be rich, and neither do your neighbors, to behave that way.

If I was going to have a nervous breakdown about any of these things, it wouldn’t be “income inequality” or “moral hazard” in social programs, it would be the way learned passivity is being expanded throughout the classes.

Welcome to the “anti-bullying” campaigns–if you take responsibility for your situation and fight back, we will punish you just as severely as we punish the person who attacked you.  Your only “correct” response is to sit patiently and wait for officialdom to solve the problem.  If officialdom doesn’t, you’re just screwed.

Yes, I know.  The anti-bullying thing has become my latest bete noir.

But there’s another issue here, and I think it’s the more important one, the one that really  gets to people like Krugman–the increasing isolation of the upper middle class from everybody and everything around it.

And the important thing about that is this:  it’s almost a sure bet that Krugman is part of that self-isolating upper middle class, that he lives in an area well cushioned against any intrusion into it by the other classes, that he has his kids (if he has them) either in private schools or in the kind of upscale-suburb public schools that outprivate the privates.

What’s more, if “income inequality” were to end tomorrow, it would not bring an end to that self-isolation–because the self-isolation is the point.

Strident denunciations of “income inequality” are not meant to help the poor–the issue is largely bogus–but to provide cover for people who have no intention of living among their fellow citizens any time soon. 

And there are reasons for that, but we’ll have to leave it for another day.

It seems to be time for me to go somewhere and do something.

Written by janeh

February 10th, 2012 at 10:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Zippy Little Codes'

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  1. Self-isolation is the point of what, exactly?? The only advantages I can recall people I’ve asked about gated communities, good suburbs etc etc are (1) fear – some people seem to have exaggerated fears of the people who live in places I, for example, have mostly lived and (2) money (which is sort of like ‘fear’, except of economic insecurity instead of people). Your property values won’t go down (well, they weren’t supposed to!) and part of ‘fitting in’ and appearing upwardly mobile and therefore being considered for the promotions that make one upwardly mobile is living in a certain kind of house in a certain kind of place. That part may make sense; I don’t know. I’m not upwardly mobile and don’t aspire to be.

    I grew up in a small company town in which everyone, from the manager’s children to the janitor’s children, attended the same schools (sorted by religion, RC/general Protestantism), shopped in the same places and went to the same bars and other social events. Even with the cliquishness that can arise in small towns, you COULDN’T self-isolate.

    Of course, we also had a limited number of classes to socialized with – anyone unemployed (and not a child or spouse of an employee) or retired couldn’t stay. Maybe that sort of this is what you think they are looking for. Company towns are so passee, and besides, I hated the one I knew. But lots of people love them.


    10 Feb 12 at 12:06 pm

  2. I notice you don’t mention Nick Kristof’s reaction to the book:


    It’s the one I forwarded to Facebook, rather than the Krugman, which I disagree with on similar grounds to you.

    But Kristof is way on the left with me, and I have said the same things. The left is not monolithic.

    Cathy F


    10 Feb 12 at 2:13 pm

  3. Isn’t he basically saying that marriage and family have had a beneficial effect in the past, so we now need social programs instead to cure problems partly associated with the lack of the stability associated with marriage and families?

    The financial devastation caused by the collapse of good-paying jobs in primary and secondary industries can be helped a bit by short-term, job-oriented education programs, although there will always be those who won’t want to leave the rural hometowns, grieve their loss, and never manage to get enough money together to live comfortably again. Sometimes their children can benefit from a move to a larger centre when they can’t. Unemployed youth in a rural area with no job opportunities create trouble for themselves and others.

    Basically, the rural poor need to (a) create work (tourists, local services or various boondoggles) or (b) leave everything they’ve ever known, including the only house they’ll ever own, and become low-paid but honest workers elsewhere (or send off one or two members to do same) with or without subsidized re-training or (c) turn to drugs, alcohol, and use social assistance to pay for it all.

    As a side note, besides those who deliberately cheat EI programs, you get those who work in primary industries in areas in which there is no other work, or at least not enought to employ them. So if you want to eat fish or buy lumber, you need to expect to pay out EI when it is the wrong time of year for work. Or so I hear.


    10 Feb 12 at 3:22 pm

  4. I was impressed with Murray’s diagnosis–a little less so with his proposed solution. And you’re quite right: there are people who will go to great lengths to miss his main point. THE BELL CURVE also described social isolation and its consequences, though in less detail. He spent a lot more time on it than he did on race and IQ, but guess which one attracted the attention?

    Because while there are lots of good points to the sort of self-imposed segregation Murray describes–never being seriously challenged in your beliefs is one–exposing it seriously undercuts “Belmont’s” presumed right to rule others. They simply don’t have the experience needed to rule wisely. And to say that an undergraduate degree in Political Science and a law degree both from prestigious schools are not sufficient to let someone make wise law for those with high school diplomas is to walk into the court of Louis XIV and deny the divine right of kings. Murray’s lucky being burned at the stake is out of fashion this year.

    And Cheryl, the previous response to seasonal work, before the era of enlightenment, was to keep a home somewhere for the family, but to go where the work was, sleep in dormitories and send home checks–or budget to live on six or nine months’ work. No one is required to deliver work to your home town. I shall continue to buy lumber and even to eat fish, and continue to regard a healthy adult who collects unemployment insurance without seeking work to be a freeloader, thank you.


    10 Feb 12 at 4:36 pm

  5. Re seasonal work. And a lot of local workers do that (travel to the mines or oil rigs or distant fisheries to support the family back home). There are lots of variations. But some people argue for the ‘EI as a subsidy to the X industry’ thing. They’re not NOT working. They work when they can. Of course, because of where they live, often they can’t work.

    Their not-so-distant ancestors took different jobs at different times of the year, but that’s not so practical now when you need all kinds of expensive licenses and equipment to be a commercial fisherman and the logging industry is far less labour-intensive than it used to be and the sealing industry has been essentially destroyed by bad publicity and it’s probably cheaper to buy potatos in the supermarket than it is to grow them.

    What’s happening is that rural communities are being destroyed by massive migration to the cities where the jobs are. It’s happened before; it’ll happen again, but it’s still pretty rough on many of the people involved. Nevertheless, most of the local ones seem to get by eventually, using a variety of strategies. Some don’t, and I guess they’re the ‘underclass’. That seems too grand a name for them.


    10 Feb 12 at 7:35 pm

  6. Mique

    10 Feb 12 at 9:25 pm

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