Tuesday, October 02, 2012


My old buddy Matt, a highly intelligent, ethical, right-leaning moderate inspires me to lots of wordage on a facebook thread for this Real Art post I recycled on the social network:

Matt Seriously, we're talking about Americans enduring that uniquely American version of poverty where you have a color TV and are stressed about which medical treatments you can afford that the rest of the world doesn't even have access to? I'm not putting it down but seriously we're not talking about Americans suddenly living in Brazil-like slums, just not having line workers in factory making $100k+ a year. I know I sound tongue in cheek but this is a serious question. In addition, what if the policies needed to shore up our lower class impinge on our innovation as an economy which usually raises the living standard globally?

Ronald "Americans enduring that uniquely American version of poverty where you have a color TV and are stressed about which medical treatments you can afford that the rest of the world doesn't even have access to"

We should be more specific about what this means. A 2009 Harvard study found that 45,000 Americans die every year due to lack of access to health care:


Obamacare will, of course, start to kick in for real over the next few years, but I'm not filled with hope--indeed, the president's health care overhaul has been likened to trying to solve the homeless problem by requiring people to buy houses. But I guess we'll see.

It's also important to point out that those color televisions are relatively cheap, within the reach of McDonald's burger flippers. Electronic gadgets produced in mass quantity are, in any case, a very poor way to judge quality of life. Think of it this way: my life was just awful, but then I bought a nice television, and now it's fine. Just doesn't work that way. Further, and this notion comes in direct response to conservative arguments about defending the shift from good unionized jobs to shitty service sector jobs, inexpensive consumer goods are a pretty bad tradeoff for low wages and no benefits. That is, Walmart's low prices have not come even close to solving the problem that its employment policies helped to create.

The real financial problems facing the poor, and increasingly people who only a couple of years ago thought of themselves as middle class, are the soaring cost of health care and the ever increasing cost of housing--indeed, a quarter of a century ago, housing, on average, took up some twenty five percent of an individual or family's income; today it eats up nearly half. Cheap TV's, video games, low, low, low prices at Walmart, none of it pays the rent or provides health insurance; conversely, foregoing the cheap gadgets won't save nearly enough money to do the trick. So, yeah, it's nice to have television, which, in the end, isn't much more than a sophisticated marketing device, anyway, but this just has nothing to do with keeping a roof over your head or being able to get your appendix out if it's killing you.

So I think that the "our poor are much better off than their poor" argument, one I've been hearing for years, is much less of an argument than it is an attempt at justifying predatory economic policy that ever squeezes the poor and middle class. Actually, it's not an argument at all, in that it ignores and sweeps the most important issues under the rug. Forty five thousand deaths a year is significant. And "our poor don't live in shacks without running water on the outskirts of Sao Paulo" is setting an extraordinarily low bar. We can and ought to do better.

But all of the above is just a warmup.

Ronald "In addition, what if the policies needed to shore up our lower class impinge on our innovation as an economy which usually raises the living standard globally?"

In fact, it's the reverse. Current economic policy clearly serves to choke economic innovation.

As you know, I've gone through the secondary education certification process in Texas. This opened up some new worlds of thought for me, cognitive and educational psychology, sociology, issues associated with poverty, ethnic and racial diversity, and the like. In what was a mostly dull curriculum, these topics stood out because they're particularly interesting, which is why I've kind of kept up with them in my internet reading since then. So when I say that the entire public discourse on education right now - teacher unions protecting "bad" teachers, attempts to quantify educational outcomes solely in terms of standardized tests, charter schools, vouchers, school choice, and on and on - is almost totally misguided, understand that I'm coming from a point of view supported by reams and reams of actual data and research, support which, unfortunately, doesn't appear to have much bearing on the political debate.

That is, if you remove from consideration schools serving students living in or near poverty, American schools are, by multiple standards, among the best in the world. In short, it's not a bad teacher problem, not a rigid government organizational structure problem, not a "choice" problem: it's a poverty problem, plain and simple.

And this makes complete sense in terms of my own studies. When you characterize American poverty as being not so bad, you're ignoring a host of issues that greatly complicate your position. Living in poverty means dealing with all the problems it creates. If you're poor, you're probably living in a bad neighborhood, where just making it to the school building is dangerous. There are gangs. Drugs are omnipresent. There's a good chance that your parents, or single parent as the case often is, are suffering from some kind of dysfunctionality, like drug addiction, or other destructive behaviors. That means there's a very good chance that your parents are playing no role whatsoever in your educational life. That also means that survival must necessarily take priority over education. Survival often means joining a gang. Survival often means selling drugs. Or it means working the graveyard shift at Burger King and then just trying to stay awake all day in school. If you managed to make it that day. In short, even though a small few manage to find educational success with the deck stacked against them in this way, the vast majority just can't. It's too much. The school system assumes that students have a relatively healthy home life. That they are well fed, rested, psychologically well adjusted, and ready to learn. That school is their most important focus.

In other words, the schools operate on assumptions that simply aren't true for kids coming from poverty. So we create an entire class of people who begin life with an intellectual disadvantage.

But wait. It gets better. And by "better," I mean "worse."

Current neuroscience is now physically verifying what psychologists have asserted for years: the developmental process for the brains of children is extremely sensitive to environmental factors. An addiction specialist whose work I've read, Gabor Mate, puts it like this. Most mammals' brains develop in vitro. That's why you see colts starting to gallop within only a few hours of birth. Humans, however, end up with relatively enormous brains inside relatively enormous heads. In order to get those heads outside the uterus, we are all, compared to other mammals, born prematurely. Consequently, a great deal of brain development that would otherwise have occurred in the safe space of the womb happens out in the open, in the big bad world. That's why, in addition to simple moral reasons, children must be protected and nurtured until they are grown up. To do otherwise is to literally damage the process of brain development.

You see where I'm going with this? Even though children from affluent backgrounds can have their heads fucked up by their family experiences, this is totally rare when compared to what happens to children at ground zero in the struggle to survive conditions of poverty. That is, poverty alters brain development in bad ways. And this is a now established fact.

So. The schools are simply not set up to serve children in poverty. And poverty fucks up brain development. An easy conclusion to make is that we, as a nation, are simply not serious about the concept of "equal opportunity." If we were, we'd be doing something about poverty, but we're not. We treat it as an economic condition rather than the human condition it actually is. And the entire train of thought I've gone through above is not a part of the national discussion on economics, education, or anything. We like to keep the poor out of sight and out of mind, where their pesky reality won't impinge on people making lots of money.

And that takes me back to your question about poverty eradication standing in the way of economic growth. To make a joke of "equal opportunity" the way we have is tantamount to robbing large groups of our population from ever having the ability to make an economic contribution. How many scientists have we lost in this way? How many potential entrepreneurs? How many writers, businessmen, lawyers, accountants have we flushed down the toilet? US economic policy quashes huge amounts of economic potential, simply by quashing huge amounts of human potential.
Ordinarily, I would not expect what I've written to be terribly persuasive to anybody who strongly supports laissez faire capitalism, but Matt's a different story.  Like I said, he's really smart, and is definitely open to new ideas.  A sort of old school conservative who thinks the left might very well be onto something from time to time.  I await his response.