Monday, January 11, 2016

This Is What Comes from Reading the Comments

I know, I know, don’t read the comments. It’s usually good advice. But there are times when a comment, even if I disagree with it (or especially if I disagree with it), can make me think more deeply about why I believe what I believe.

The comment in question this time was on an old post of Matt Bruenig’s, The Single Mother, Child Poverty Myth. In it, Bruenig makes the case that single mothers don't cause child poverty; government policy does. It's clear, since there are several countries with single-motherhood rates the same or higher than ours who have much lower child poverty rates. And even in married-couple families, American children have higher poverty rates than single-parent families in some countries. So marriage is not the key element.

The last commenter on Bruenig's post identifies herself as Jennifer Smith, who comes from a "long line of poor white Southern folk on both sides." She writes:

[I] have seen up close the choices that lead to a life of run down trailer parks and cars up on blocks versus a life where there is more stability and money to take care of the basics and then some.

The first thing was education and brains. They are not always related, but the cousins who left high school (or did not finish) and thought that a job at McDonalds or the local Piggly Wiggly was all that was needed for happiness traveled down a different road than those who either went to college or junior college or a trade school to graduate with a skill that would enable them to find good employment.

The second thing was reproduction. The dumber and/or less educated the cousin, the earlier and faster the babies came. That is not an opinion, that is the truth. And it did not matter that the man was already married or an alcoholic or whatever--love overcomes all! As for the male cousins, they would have children with multiple women and then complain that those bitches were always whining for more money. What is a man to do? He can't keep himself in beer and cigarettes AND child support. A true conundrum.

The 3rd thing was attitude--my aunts, uncles, and cousins who ended up broke and stayed broke felt that they were the most misunderstood people in the world, always trying so hard and never being appreciated or respected for it. Yet those who did better knew that doing what the boss says is how you keep your job, and the rules really are meant for everyone, not just people who are not me.
In a way, Jennifer is acting as a derailer. Bruenig is talking about society-level effects of a type of public policy we don't have in this country, so Jennifer's relatives' ways of living within our current system are not relevant to the topic. She has no idea what the counterfactual reality of her relatives' lives would have been like if we lived in a country that tries hard to make sure poverty doesn't exist, and whose kids then grow up without the stress and hopelessness that accompany it. (Let alone the lead poisoning and other environmental effects that disproportionately affect the poor.)

Jennifer is exhibiting edge case thinking: She wants to set public policy to control the worst edge cases, no matter what the effect is on the majority of people. She uses all of her moral outrage against the relatively small number of free riders, no matter what the effect is on everyone else. Not saving any moral outrage for the people who make money off corporate welfare.

We have to get used to the fact that humans vary. Some are smart, some are not. Some have debilitating physical or mental problems that make them less able to do work someone is willing to pay for. Nobody likes a free rider, including me; it's in our genes. But we can't let that stop us from doing what will work best.

The question is, what is the best overall system for dealing with the reality of human variation? What system will be most likely to lead to individual self-actualization and the greatest good to the greatest number of people?

I'm willing to bet that something like the Scandinavian system wins in the long run.

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