Sunday, May 4, 2014

Those ‘tough’ social problems

Poverty is a social issue that usually attracts the label ‘tough problem’. Sometimes, when a bit of flair is in order, it is labelled 'complex' or 'multi-dimensional'. This strikes me as a major cop out.

Reducing or eliminating poverty is not ‘tough’ in any technical sense. The ‘tough’ part is our moral baggage - the distorted moral lens through which we see the problem - which provides an excuse not to make the necessary sacrifices required for change.

For example, it is simple enough to imagine a developed country without poverty. Even using a purely relative metric of poverty that is a direct function of the median income (such as 30% of median income), poverty can be eliminated through appropriate redistribution of wealth. Through either welfare payments, transfers of assets, a national job guarantee, minimum wages, or any other sets of institutions, we can get the resulting distribution of income that means poverty is all but eliminated.

It really is that simple from a technical point of view.

In case you are still skeptical of the simplicity of the solution, imagine for a minute that you are the head of a wealthy household. One of your adult children has, for some reason, flittered away their life savings, been kicked out of their apartment, and has no where to turn.

What do you do?

You invite them home. House them. Feed them. Clothe them. Give them money to help them start rebuilding their life. You probably even call in favours to help them find work.

This investment by the head of the family immediately solves that family’s poverty and homelessness problem.

Maybe this solution is temporary. Maybe this child of yours never seems to grow up. They get caught up with the wrong crowd again, and two years later you are back to square one. You invite them home. Feed them. Clothe them. Give them money.

If it makes sense to do this for your family, why doesn’t it make sense to do it more generally for fellow human beings?

It wasn’t hard. It just required a little sacrifice from the wealthy.

If we think about our country, or dare I say our world, as our extended family, our tribe, then it also makes perfect sense for the wealthiest members of the tribe to support the needy.

What makes these social problems ‘tough’ is our moral baggage. When we see a family member in need we we assume the best - that underneath they are good people, and that their situation is a product on a series of unfortunate circumstances. But when those in need are ‘outsiders’, we seem to assume the worst - that their poverty is a choice, and their poor choices reflect some innate ‘bad’ personality trait, and hence they are undeserving of support.

Poverty wouldn’t be such a ‘tough’ social problem if there were only deserving poor.

Unfortunately the most wealthy in our tribe are also politically active and socially influential, and they fear losing their ‘deserved’ wealth to these ‘underserving’ poor. The media is their weapon, and they reinforce the moral message of the undeserving poor at every opportunity.

Removing our morality goggles makes it clear that ‘tough’ social problems are technically not so tough at all, and that much of society is pretending that is the case in order to protect their own interests, and using warped morality to justify their position.

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