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Monday, October 30, 2006

Jonah Goldberg: 'There are No Poor People in America'

You've got to wonder why anyone takes the National Review's Jonah Goldberg seriously. He starts following what may or may not be a reasonable argument and winds up smack dab in the middle of Crazytown. In the column I read yesterday, Goldberg begins by saying that the economy is a largely out of the hands of politicians. Not unreasonable, right?

Well, not until he gives an example, anyway. "The biggest picture is the one most obscured by our dated arguments," Goldberg tells us. "Poverty, as defined for millennia, is pretty much nonexistent in the United States." You read that right, there aren't any poor people in the US. To back this up, he quotes what amounts to sociological voodoo; "'If poverty today remains a serious problem," Christopher DeMuth noted in Commentary magazine nearly a decade ago, "'It is a problem of individual behavior, social organization and public policy. This was not so 50 years ago, or ever before."'

If poverty wasn't about 'individual behavior, social organization and public policy,' what did it used be about? And that really should be an 'or', not an 'and.' There are plenty of people for whom the social structure and public policy are the entire reason for their poverty, while behavior doesn't enter into it at all.

People who argue that poverty is the fault of the poor are missing a big chunk of reality. In their world, everyone working at a wage near the legal minimum has made a bad choice. But what they fail to see is that we need those people doing those jobs -- even Caesar needed someone to shovel out the stables. Their 'perfect' world would either have CEOs swabbing out their own executive bathrooms or toilet swabbies making $15/hour.

What they fail to see is that a free market has negative effects, as well as positive. But Goldberg and the 'poverty is the fault of the poor' crowd are so immersed in randian free market moonyism that they believe that market forces can only be positive. If the market demands that some people performing essential jobs are paid what amounts to a cheeseburger an hour, then someone's going to get stuck with the job and the pay.

Which is why the only answer is to dismiss poverty entirely, which Goldberg does with breathtaking hamhandedness:

To understand how subjective poverty in America is, one need only recognize the fact that most rich people from a century ago would be considered poor by today's standards and today's poor would be considered rich by the standards of 1900. In 1900, 2 percent of homes had electricity and 1 out of 10 homes had flush toilets. Today, pretty much all of them do. In other words, the tangible goods that defined wealth have been democratized.

Yeah, and compared to people of the second century, we're like living gods. But, to Goldberg's mind, saying that people have indoor plumbing means they aren't poor. He also argues that people in poverty have those fancy horseless carriages, so they can't really be impoverished. And he falls back on a recent rightwing talking point -- the so-called 'poor' are getting fat.

"In the 1970s, undernourishment still factored into poverty," Goldberg writes. "Today, obesity is a far bigger problem." Why is obesity a bigger problem now? Because food is made differently. I've dealt with this before, but here we go:

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

Many health disparities in the United States are linked to inequalities in education and income. This review focuses on the relation between obesity and diet quality, dietary energy density, and energy costs. Evidence is provided to support the following points. First, the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the least education. Second, there is an inverse relation between energy density (MJ/kg) and energy cost ($/MJ), such that energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats may represent the lowest-cost option to the consumer. Third, the high energy density and palatability of sweets and fats are associated with higher energy intakes, at least in clinical and laboratory studies. Fourth, poverty and food insecurity are associated with lower food expenditures, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower-quality diets. A reduction in diet costs in linear programming models leads to high-fat, energy-dense diets that are similar in composition to those consumed by low-income groups. Such diets are more affordable than are prudent diets based on lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit...

Let me put that in a nutshell for you -- cheap processed food isn't good for you. If all you eat is forty-five cent boxes of mac and cheese, you're going to get fat. Obesity doesn't necessarily mean you're living high on the hog, it often means the opposite. In any case, it'd be hard to find anyone who thinks it means you're healthy.

Goldberg also compares apples to oranges and declares them identical:

Meanwhile, the single most underreported good-news economic story of the 21st century so far is the explosion in American productivity. From 2000 to 2004, productivity in the United States grew by 17 percent. That is a staggering number that tells us more about the long-term health of the American economy than statistics about the GDP, unemployment or wage growth.

Here's the thing, increased productivity isn't exactly good for the worker. Every time productivity increases, it means fewer people are needed for the same job. This undercuts the value of labor by decreasing the demand for it -- if two people can do the job three people did yesterday, one person's out on the street and the other two don't get a raise because of it. That's why he dismisses GDP, unemployment, or wage growth -- all of those show no gains for wage earners. Increased production only helps business, not labor. You can argue that increased production keeps prices low and laborers are also consumers, but if you're losing ground to inflation then so what? Lower prices don't increase your buying power if you're making less and less in inflation adjusted dollars every year. And that's where the majority of americans find themselves today. Crowing about productivity doesn't make any sense when you're talking about jobs and poverty.

While Goldberg lives in an economic Fantasyland, the rest of us have to struggle along in reality. That's the problem with spin, it doesn't have any affect on the facts -- they remain factual no matter what you say about them. Poverty exists, productivity doesn't mean squat to workers, and having a flush toilet doesn't make you a king among men.


Technorati tags: ; ; ; according to , if you're a fat guy with a toilet, you can't be living in -- is he using himself as a model?


NewsBlog 5000 said...

I heard Ben Stein say much the same thing at the Republican lovefest in NYC 2 years ago.

For writing like that, he should be forced to do community service in a homeless shelter.

He can have hours of fun explaining his theories to the people who are there so they don't have to freeze.

Of course, he would just tell them that they should have moved south when it got cold.

JollyRoger said...

The elitist scum who got everything they have from inheritance all sign on to this stupid Social Darwinism, and that in and of itself is breathtaking in just the sheer stupidity of it.

Goldberg always manages to hit stupid right out of the park. And they pay him for it. I swear I've heard gas passing that made more sense and didn't smell as bad coming out.