Po People

Poor me. A month or so ago, I received an email from a member of an online religious discussion group I enjoy. A prior post of mine had confused him because (in so many words) it expressed sympathy and compassion and he hadn't known that I could do that. In effect, his email was meant to encourage me in my softer side. I thanked him and responded to specific points he had made. Since I never heard from him again, I'm relatively certain that I offended him afresh and that my compassion has been safely filed in his mind among those things that happen occasionally out of the aberration of human personalities and that I remain as harsh a bastard as before.

Which happens a lot when the topic is poor people. That's because I'm a firm believer in individual responsibility and fiscal autonomy (if such a thing is possible). I think that people should work and that if they aren't making enough to support their families, that it is typically their own fault. Particular examples that came up in that discussion included a teacher who loved to teach and whose family had barely enough and the father spent time with the children, but they didn't have much materially (my opinion—good for him! He is fulfilling his duty to his family and doing so responsibly). And another example of a father who loved being in the Highway Patrol, but due to lousy wages he had to hold another (and sometimes two) job that kept him from his home (my opinion—the selfish jerk is sacrificing his family's interests just so he can work in a job he enjoys). And a single mother who lived so close to the bone that she didn't have a TV (in the U.S. where 98% of the population has a TV, this is a pretty extreme level of poverty) and lived in a house too small for her children and when her car broke she went to her bishop (equivalent to what ya'll might think of as pastor or priest—the head of a congregation) for help (which is what she should have done) who told her that she should be budgeting a little each month for just such emergencies (my opinion—the jerk bishop, you do not make such statements unless you first ensure that you are intimately familiar with the realities of her life and can give specific advice about things that she can/should change—information that it is his duty to obtain should he feel his advice is necessary).

You can see why someone might be confused. While talking in terms of principles, my position can be pretty harsh—people should shoulder their responsibilities and provide for their needs as much as possible. But when I talk about real people, I have no trouble admitting that sometimes the principle doesn't apply (as in the case of some single mothers). And in all my examples above, I'll freely admit that there are details that might mitigate, even reverse, my opinion. And my principles are harsh—personal responsibility often is.

The interesting thing is that the same principles that you apply to individuals can often be ported into the realm of nations. And again, my attitude is often described as harsh. Right now, poor countries are gathered together for an economic conference. In the past, this conference is mainly a meeting to discuss tariffs and so on. This year, just to change things up I guess, they decided to complain a bit about how globalization discriminates against them,

"The envisaged benefits have not materialised for most of the poor countries and even when they have, these are not equitably shared while the costs are borne by all," the statement said.

First, it's a stupid statement. I'm willing to bet that the costs aren't equitably shared, either. And frankly, anyone who gripes that, hey, I'm getting help but someone else is getting more, isn't going to get access to my heartstrings. Now, assume that their statements are true—they're still behaving like people in a downhill race without any gas who complain about bumps in their tires—smooth tires might help, but let's stop kidding ourselves. Poor countries don't have to be poor. And they aren't being kept poor by evil Americans.

The way to stop being a poor country is no longer a mystery—but it does take a lot of work and sacrifice by the people least likely to want to work or sacrifice in the country—the rulers. Fiscal responsibility, freedom, private property, the rule of law, and building an infrastructure of knowledge and innovation are how it's done. If you aren't willing to do the work, then you don't have a lot of call on my sympathy. Countries have pulled themselves up with nothing but rock or desert for natural resources—Singapore, Taiwan, and Israel to name a few. Turkey and Iran could be next if they can manage to get over the internal forces holding them back.

The problem is, though, that if I ever get popular enough for people to start listening to what I'm saying, I guarantee that I'll be called all kinds of bad names starting with mean and probably not ending until I withdraw. It's much more acceptable to sit back with a show of sympathy and maybe some weak token assistance. Well, the point I am trying to make here is that these shows of sympathy and even the money being given are not only not helping they are actively harming the people they claim to want to help. Assistance that is not accompanied by true concern and a willingness to confront harsh truths is waste and, worse, it builds dependence and undermines actions that bring lasting change.

The people of Iraq are poor, with inadequate health care, medicine, and sometimes food. But a lack of food and medicine is not the cause of their poverty. Now, some people have the audacious mendacity to claim that the cause of Iraq's problems is the U.S. embargo. As if everything was perfectly fine there until we imposed it (here's a clue: they weren't). Anybody with a lick of sense can see that the cause of the poverty is the ruler. Iraq is an easy case, but other countries aren't that hard to understand, either—provided you're willing to take a hard look and not assume that external factors can be found for every ill.

Which is why I am so unwilling to soften my principles. Weakness kills. Vacillating when lives are on the line is irresponsible and, just maybe, evil. Showing sympathy and giving pocket change to look good to your friends is selfish, immature, and wrong. And I'm tired of being yelled at about how mean I am when I'm the one who cares about the well-being of those in need.

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19. July 2002 13:38 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Family Sacrifice

The post-40 mother seems to be the topic of the day, particularly with Mother's Day so near. I watched a late-night women's issues show earlier this week and one topic they covered is the dangers of having babies post-40. They discussed how women don't seem to give enough weight to this difficulty and that they delay having children too long due to career and other achievements. Some of the women (the panel had a good mix of conservative and liberal women, actually--it was a good discussion) bemoaned the fact that men didn't have the same restrictions and could have children even as their careers flourished. Mention was made, of course, of Karen Hughes who recently resigned a high-powered post in the White House in order to be a parent for her teenage son. Supposedly, men don't ever do this--resign a position in order to spend more time with their families. Or at least, if they do, it isn't as extreme as pulling entirely out of the work force. I found a great treatment of the topic by Marianne Jennings. It's worth a look.

But I want to go into the whole man thing. You see, I'm personally in a position to attest that some men make career sacrifices for their families. I met this specifically when I worked at Jenkon. Unlike other programmers there, I went home at 5 or, at the latest, 6 every night. I did so to be with my family. This "lack of dedication" was noted. It came up in conversations with my boss. I'm convinced it played a role in my compensation. And really, it should play a role in my compensation because, frankly, it means that I'm arguably not as productive as I would otherwise be (I believe that I am more productive than other co-workers, and I believe that part of that is the rejuvenation I get with my family, but that's a belief and hardly proven). The call of family is an important one and having a family means making sacrifices. That's just the way it is.

Some claim to perceive the workings of Satan in this pressure on the family. While that may certainly be true (I'm one of those quaint religious people who actually believes in an active force in opposition to good), it is not the whole story. You see, this sacrifice hasn't always been an issue. In past centuries, a married man could out produce a single man on the job. That's due mainly to the amount of home manufacture that was required to maintain a household. Think of it in terms of making dinner and doing laundry. These activities had to be tackled in the home and took a significant amount of work. Eating a balanced, healthy meal required literally hours of preparation. Likewise clean food and healthy living conditions. In the absence of chemical soaps and automated washing processes, it took hours of care and a lot of hard work to ensure a clean home environment. It was weighted enough to the advantage of the married man that single men often congregated in boarding houses--thus pooling their resources and essentially "renting" domestic service.

And it wasn't just having the wife that helped out. Children were also a net asset to the household income with the average child bringing in close to 1,000 pounds net before leaving home--in the study I read about a year ago (I'd reference it if I could--I hate vague statistics thrown out like that, so I'm open to refutation or confirmation). Children worked farms and stores, they did chores, there were no child labor laws. Having children was more than just a personal joy in your offspring, it was a direct benefit to the home in specific material ways--and a form of retirement insurance as well. This dynamic exists still in poor countries. Population controls in countries with heavily agrarian economies is going to continue to run into road-blocks as long as children contribute to total household income. This is why you see the average number of children per household decline in developed countries and birth control initiatives run into brick walls in undeveloped countries.

Contrast all that to today. Home production is a thing of the past. A balanced meal can be had in five minutes and a microwave. Laundry is similarly streamlined and home maintenance is easier and cheaper than it has been in the past. Further, children are now a huge sacrifice on the part of parents costing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars before leaving home and requiring a huge amount of concentrated effort to rear--often incurring the double whammy of requiring the wife to stay at home in addition to their consumption of family resources. Which means that the strains on the family are as much economic as they are demonic. This economic pressure is real, it is harsh, and it requires sacrifice on the part of men and women if it is to be done right.

For me, the trick has been to accept that and move on. I decided to have children, not for their economic benefits, but because I believe that it is right for me to have children. It is a religious conviction for me. It is an explicit doctrine of my church. So I make the sacrifice. I don't achieve the peak of my profession and never will. I'm resigned to that. And I'm happy to support and applaud those others who resign from the full extent of their potential achievements in order to raise a family. So, I guess this is a Mother's Day post when it comes right down to it. Thanks Mom! You pioneered a difficult process and I hope I can live up to the standard you set.

9. May 2002 10:27 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Supreme Court

When Conservatives are Wrong

A lot has been said about some recent Supreme Court decisions. As plugged in to conservative activists as I am, I've received dozens of commentaries on the recent Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling that a community near Santa Fe, Texas cannot have student-directed prayer before football games. Naturally, the conservatives are outraged. Suppression of church!

I became intrigued by this case when it was mentioned by one commentator that the original case was brought against the school by two families. One Jewish. The other Mormon. Now, for the two of you who may be unaware of this, I'm Mormon. So wondering what could possess a nice Mormon family to press charges against prayer in school, I dug a little deeper into the facts of this case. I mean, they must be nuts or just calling themselves Mormon because religious freedom is actually a stated virtue in LDS tenets.

It turns out that they are, in fact, an active, believing and faithful Mormon family. They just happen to live in a community in Texas where the citizens overwhelmingly belong to a single congregation. This congregation has a pastor who is very much into denouncing other religions. This pastor and his congregation actively worked to express their, um, disapprobation of "sects" and jews.

And the "student-led prayers?" It turns out that the students were using this moment of prayer under direction of their religious leader as a platform to establish themselves as the only acceptable faith and that they were directly attacking other religions (specifically Mormons and Jews) in their 'christian' prayers. And they weren't using terms expressing hope for the salvation of the unbelievers, they were expressing sentiments designed to suppress and denigrate the beliefs of others not of their congregation.

I'm sorry, but I think I'm going to have to side with the Supremes on this one. Not because I'm Mormon and it is a Mormon family who brought the suit (that logic would mean that I'd have to like living in Utah and support Orrin Hatch--not gonna happen). I support the Supremes because I don't want even semi-official sanction of an activity designed specifically to exclude people from an activity based on religious delineations. The actions of these students is a movement by a prominent majority seeking to suppress the people they don't like. These prayers were being crafted with the deliberate intent to show exactly who was in charge and to make sure that the outsiders were fully aware of their pariah status.

A part of protecting freedom means protecting minorities from oppression by an intolerant majority. I think that this case really does speak to the establishment of a religion by the community.

19. July 2000 11:11 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

An Ex-libertarian

I Used to be a Libertarian

For some of you, it won't come as a great surprise that I carry a Libertarian Party ID. It might be new information to confirm it though. Just as it will likely be new to know that I was the party secretary for the SouthWest Washington Libertarian Party in Vancouver.

Like many in the party, I was initially sucked in by The World's Smallest Political Quiz. This quiz is remarkable because it introduces a new axis to give a two dimensional view of politics. You have the standard left-right, but you add a new dimension to give height. The designers of the quiz are very clever. Libertarian is on top of the grid, for example. Cleverer still, is the selection and phrasing of the questions. Three years ago, I scored strongly in the Libertarian spectrum. I think the only thing non-libertarian was my stance on the legalizing drugs question--which is important so bear that in mind.

So I felt pretty at home in the Libertarian Party. Libertarians are big on self-determination. Since I am pretty blessed in the abilities department, it's a comfortable ideology. And I'm comfortable accepting responsibility for my own charitable giving and feel strongly that government tends to get it dreadfully wrong when they get involved in 'helping' people. I still feel that way.

So why 'used to be' and not 'am'? Well, it has to do with that pesky drug question. At least, that was the start of it. It turns out that though it is only one question on the quiz, it's actually a large part of the party platform. Much of the effort of the Libertarian Party is centered around legalization of currently illegal drugs. I don't want heroin or LSD or cocaine legalized. I don't support the wildest excesses of the war on drugs, or some of the laws that violate the constitution (IMO) in the name of that war (some of the confiscatory laws are draconian). But I very much don't want that level of narcotic freely available to anyone who wants to use it.

In thinking this issue through, it forced me to figure out why I am so much dedicated to individualism but want to restrict individual choice in this instance. The problem is, my conclusions force me to abandon the Libertarian Party (leaving me party-less for those keeping score).

The problem with individualism (self-determination if you wish) is that we aren't lone individuals in this world. I wrote in an earlier post that the evil of money is that it obscures our dependency on each other. The same problem exists with un-checked individualism. Libertarianism denies the effects we have on each other. On the road, we are only as safe as the least safe driver. That's why we license the privilege to drive. While our personal lives aren't nearly so dangerous as the highways, we are dependent on each other for our comfort and upkeep--a relationship crash won't often kill you, but the long-term fallout can be as life-altering. We are bound to one another in an inexorable net of need.

Libertarians often ask what possible meaning it could have if someone chooses to destroy their life with drugs? Like the sulky teen, they are essentially saying 'It's my life, you stay out of it.' What they don't understand is that there is no such thing as an individual choice. All of our choices affect the people around us. Often deeply. The pregnant woman on crack is only the most obvious example of this dependency. It is obvious to me that certain forms of individual expression are damaging enough to warrant the intrusion on individual choice.

If you are at all religious (and I assure you I am), then you might believe that a large part of our test in mortality involves how well we make our choices to uplift those around us. My religion puts a strong emphasis on 'moral agency' for example. We are on the Earth to learn to choose what is right--informing our choice in the Spirit of God and our love for each other. We also believe that God goes to great length to protect this freedom to choose, going so far as to sacrifice his Son to pay for the spiritual consequences of our failures.

Some would say that in order for choice to have meaning, the chance to choose wrong has to be available. Certainly, history shows that much harm comes when good people attempt to force others to choose good. Many libertarians choose to interpret this historical force as a mandate against using force in any situation, and ask us to implement punishment for wrongs rather than prevention.

Obviously, I disagree. Some actions are so obviously wrong that they should be prevented. If there were a way to prevent murder, I would strongly advocate for it. So yes, there are times when government needs to step up and say that we can't do certain things. I don't think it is good to try to force people to do good. But I do think that it is imperative that we actively prevent people from committing irreparable harm.

The founding fathers acknowledge the benefits of enlightened self-interest. Not unhindered selfishness.

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18. July 2000 13:09 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

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