Most people are economically precarious, but it’s your fault

If you teach someone to fish, you might enable that person to feed themselves for life, but if you fence off the lake you can keep all the fish yourself. And fishing might well become a prerequisite for eating, given the growing economic tribulations many find themselves in.

Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary for a survey to inform us of the obvious, a report by the normally staid Associated Press news service reveals that four out of every five United States adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.” The AP report, based on research to be published by the Oxford University Press next year, finds that 79 percent of U.S. adults experience at least one of these three by age 60: unemployment at some point in their lives, a year or more of reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income less than 150 percent of the poverty line.

Photo by Alex Proimos,  Sydney, Australia

Photo by Alex Proimos, Sydney, Australia

The report cites corporate globalization, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs. And although poverty and economic insecurity are higher among People of Color — 90 percent of whom will experience one of the three above criteria for economic insecurity — poverty is increasing faster among Whites, of whom 76 percent will experience economic insecurity, according to the AP report.

Indeed, a sinking boat ultimately drowns everybody in it. Back to the fish story at the beginning of this post — one of the more ridiculous sayings people in the United States have foisted upon them is that if you give someone a fish you feed them for a day but if you teach them to fish they can feed themselves forever. Right-wingers are especially fond of this vaporous couplet, but a much more accurate depiction of Right-wing thought in action would be that one person should own the lake or river and keep it all for themselves, unless they charitably decide to sell some of its bounty. Can’t pay? Too bad, you don’t eat. The market speaks!

A series of reports have found that fewer people in the United States move from lower economic rungs to the higher rungs than in any other advanced capitalist country. The U.S. and Britain were found to be the countries with the least social mobility among nine North American and Western European countries in a 2006 study and another 2006 survey of the U.S., Britain and Scandinavian countries also found the U.S. dead last in social mobility.

The U.S. has less of a social safety net, greater income inequality, lesser unionization, and greater disparity in primary and secondary education than other advanced capitalist countries. Another factor is geographical dispersion. A study by researchers at the University of California and Harvard University, coincidentally also released in July 2013, found significant variations in social mobility among U.S. cities. Cities with the least mobility, such as Atlanta and Milwaukee, have lower rates of mobility than any developed country, the researchers said. Summarizing their findings, they wrote:

“We found significant correlations between intergenerational mobility and income inequality, economic and racial residential segregation, measures of K-12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area). In particular, areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility.”

The authors caution that the above are correlational and should not be interpreted as causal effects — there are multiple reasons for such dismal U.S. results that interact with one another. Nonetheless, the concentration of disadvantaged people often far from jobs in a city center, and their difficulty in getting to jobs due to substandard or non-existent mass transit — a common situation in U.S. cities — is a significant factor in lack of mobility. So is inequality.

The most common measure of inequality is the “gini co-efficient,” which measures the distribution of income among national populations. Among the more than 30 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (a club of the world’s advanced capitalist countries and the largest developing countries), the U.S. has the fourth-highest measure of inequality, with only Chile, Mexico and Turkey having worse gini co-efficient scores (after taxes and transfers). Moreover, only New Zealand has had a greater increase in inequality since 1985.

Almost every country has experienced an increase in inequality since 1985; the primary exceptions are found in Latin America. To put it in plain language, if a handful of people are taking everything, there is less for everybody else and the subsequent difficulties in maintaining an adequate standard of living increase.

Individualist propaganda would have it that it is your fault. But how can it be individuals’ fault if four out of five in the richest and most powerful country on Earth struggle to be able to eat properly and keep a roof over their heads? And this the model being imposed on the rest of the world.

Capitalist ideology equates “freedom” with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for the rich is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who?

“Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media and the institutions of the corporate elite. That we have to live this way is indeed a fish story.

22 comments on “Most people are economically precarious, but it’s your fault

  1. Alcuin says:

    “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. – Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, ca. 1885

    Who, I wondered, was Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie? A quick perusal of the Wikipedia entry on her revealed that she was the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, who was the only child of Richmond Thackeray. She married her cousin, Sir Richmond Thackeray Willougby Ritchie. Sir Richmond was knighted in 1907. Interestingly enough, Richmond Thackeray (not Richmond Ritchie – it gets so confusing, doesn’t it?) was the secretary of the Board of Revenue of the British East India Company in Calcutta, India. His mother’s father, John Harman Becher, was also a secretary for the British East India Company. As Shakespeare wrote, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.”

    Now that we know a little bit about the origins of the phrase, it becomes more understandable, doesn’t it? Capitalists have had contempt for the working class all the way back to Adam Smith. I’m trying to find the time to read a most interesting exposé of the classical political economists by Michael Perelman in his book, The Invention of Capitalism.

    • Thanks for digging up the original quote. Yes, it surely comes into even sharper focus once we know the source.

      A bit of historical irony is that Adam Smith himself didn’t have contempt for working people the way that his followers do, although he did believe that capitalists should be given outsized rewards. David McNally’s Against the Market provides a nuanced analysis of Smith but, as you can guess from the title, the book does ultimately explode the myths of the market. I’ve only read portions of The Invention of Capitalism, but based on what I’ve read, I would very much recommend it for its exploration of the force and violence that accompanied the rise of the capitalist system.

      • Alcuin says:

        “This book may be controversial in that it contradicts the commonly
        accepted theory that classical political economy offered its unconditional
        support for the doctrine of laissez-faire. It questions the relative importance
        of the almost universally admired Smith and makes the case that
        Smith and other classical authors sought to promote the process of primitive
        accumulation. This rereading suggests that classical political economy followed a different project, one that contradicts the standard interpretation of classical political economy.” (Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism, pp. 11-12.

        I’m reading a witty repartee to almost every authority, now. It’s entitled Potlach: Considering the Rough and the Smooth and it’s by Synge Fendersën Yngvaalsën, which is quite obviously a pseudonym. You might not like the site – it might be a tad too anarchic for you, but this article is just plain fun to read! The author gores everyone’s sacred cows.

  2. Iyobosa says:

    Great read, you write eloquently on such an important issue. The worst thing is, the disparity between rich and poor is increasing more and more everyday, yet people seem to just go along with it. Check this out, I reckon you’ll like it

    • Thanks for sharing, lyobosa. I should point out, however, that as welcome as the New Deal was, it only ameliorated the effects of the Great Depression in the United States. It was actually the unprecedented spending on World War II that pulled the U.S. out of depression. Since then, overspending on the military has become a serious drag on the economy, necessitating further cuts in needed social spending. Round and round we go.

      • Alcuin says:

        Well, that’s one way of looking at it, but where is the Marxist reply that I expected? Enormous profits from war materiel production, more from rebuilding what was destroyed and now, since war is a bit harder to get the masses behind, there is no place to invest said profits. The cuts are coming because accumulation will not be denied to the capitalist class, through debt repayment, not because of excessive “defense” spending.

      • Iyobosa says:

        I do agree that the war effort pulled the US out of the recession and Marshall Aid propelled the economy into a period of substantial growth, but my point was active governments reap the benefits. Also, there was some growth because of the New Deal, just the War effort allowed full growth to be restored.

        • Ah, a tough crowd! In my own defense, I had a very busy day yesterday and didn’t have time to provide a proper Marxist response. Indeed, the war destroyed a great deal of productive capacity at the same time it dramatically stimulated demand. Following the war, there was pent-up consumer demand and a need for producer goods; the Marshall Plan was implemented so that the U.S. would have a large market for its uniquely untouched productive capacity.

          As preferable as Keynesian programs would be over Chicago School-inspired austerity, Keynesianism is only a temporary balm and, unfortunately, it stabilizes and strengthens capitalists so that they can go on to re-impose their preferred policies. I have already written a summary of all this in one of my earliest posts: “The Keynesian past is past: Nostalgia is not the future.”

          It is true there was some growth because of the New Deal, but far from enough — even that level of government spending was inadequate because of the depth of the Great Depression. Advanced capitalist countries have alternated Keynesian policies and austerity policies depending on how strong social movements are. But people can’t stay in the streets forever; when movements fade, capitalists resume their offensives against working people.

          We aren’t suffering from austerity because government officials inexplicably make bad decisions. It is because when profits begin to drop, capitalists move to cut costs (wages in particular) and destroy productive capacity until such time as profitability is restored. That process is still in progress. Government is not an abstract entity floating above society; it is a reflection of the interests of the most powerful in a given society. In a capitalist society, those are the largest industrialists and financiers. They have the power and the means to impose their preferred policies and their aggregate interests constitutes the “market.”

          A mass social movement tips the scales for a while in a different direction, but however welcome reforms are, they will be, and are, taken back if the system is left intact. The present-day austerity is a taking back of all the gains of the 20th century. If we want an economic system that provides for all people and based on democratic accountability to larger communities, we’ll have to replace the capitalist system.

      • Alcuin says:

        Ahhhhhh ….. much better! As I’ve written previously, you can’t repeat the message often enough. It’s very hard to penetrate the conditioning that we have accumulated from birth in a country that celebrates individualism, pays lip service to community, and vociferously defends capitalism.

        Tough crowd? You should be gratified that we are reading and learning! I hope your work load lessens so that you can continue to write such penetrating analyses of current events.

  3. Pavlos says:

    The problem with the fish, as you say, is that the world is already owned and what isn’t yet is being claimed at a rapid rate. Libertarian ideals work in a world that is boundless so that anyone who’s dissatisfied with their lot can go fish elsewhere. The technology economy is somewhat like that, absent patents, because new virtual territory is constantly being unveiled. That’s not the real world where almost everyone lives. Attitudes that employment is a luxury or that no-one is owed healthcare or social security are, at best, romantic and fall down completely if the world is bounded and its resources are already claimed.

    • Privatization is a new closing of the commons, and with profitability under stress corporations are seeking new lines of business, even if previously in the public domain. But when all the fish are eaten, they won’t be able to eat money.

    • Alcuin says:

      Are you aware that Murray Rothbard stole the word “libertarian” from the “left-wing anarchists”?

      ” ‘One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, “our side,” had captured a crucial word from the enemy . . . “Libertari­ans” . . . had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over. . .’ [The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83]”

      What was called “left-wing anarchism” is now called “libertarian socialism”, to differentiate it from right libertarianism, whose core principle is the defense of private property, the polar opposite of Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Bakunin. You might find this article interesting reading. The Murray Rothbard quote is in the article.

  4. Vassilis says:

    Spot on post! May I add from personal experience, that working with a lousy salary and unemployment are the same thing, since they both leave you without time and energy to protest. So I guess their new tool, is to keep people on a tight rope, so that they can fulfill the rest of their plans. Unfortunately, it seems that reform and change can not come peacefully. And of course with the advancements in technology, there is no marxist reply, it is all about greed.

    • Greed and control, indeed. But people can only take so much before everything explodes.

    • Alcuin says:

      My understanding of the “marxist reply” to “advancements in technology” is that Marx and Engles saw the implementation of technology leading to a situation where workers wouldn’t have to work so hard. I believe that that was Andre Gorź’s position, too. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. We are still slaves to the machine, the most interesting of which is how wi-fi technology is harnessing us to the capitalists yet again. For an interesting look at that, read How Will We Reclaim and Shape the Ambient Commons? on David Bollier’s blog. In particular, read the linked article at the New York Times. Fascinating.

  5. Alcuin says:

    David Bollier uploaded a nice poster about fishing on his blog …

    • The David Bollier post you linked to was very interesting. He writes: “there is a video screen on the [gasoline] pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.” Ouch! I haven’t owned a car in many years and rent one maybe a couple of times a year, so I have never encountered that, and hope I never will.

      I’m not one for “consumerist” solutions, but here is one case where drivers should refuse to gas up at such places and tell the parent company why. That dovetails with the in-store tracking discussed in the New York Times article, which I had read. We are indeed slaves to the machine, on the job and as “consumers.” Technology enabling us to work less, as Marx and Engels foresaw, certainly should be our experience but isn’t because of the relations of production — i.e., capitalism’s sharp delineation between bosses and workers, and that the bosses’ profits come from extracting surplus value out of the employees.

      We must face the fact that we can’t substantially change of this under the capitalist system. We possess ever more reasons why we need to create a better world built on economic and political democracy, and the latter is impossible without the former.

  6. You state above: “Government is not an abstract entity floating above society; it is a reflection of the interests of the most powerful in a given society.”

    This is an essential truth that the plutocracy’s relentless propagandists strive to conceal. Sadly, at least as far as my Republican-dominated district in Florida is concerned, they have achieved a great deal of success.

    Over and over again, we are told that a nebulous, malevolent force is sending down from the heavens destructive thunderbolts of regulation that ruin the lives of honest, hard-working, God-fearing business people. And much like that other nebulous, malevolent, and supremely distracting threat to America, Al Qaeda, government hates us for our freedoms.

    Interestingly, though, this “government as independent entity” narrative has been spiced up a little with an even more hostile attempt at explaining causation. Government behaves the way it does, we are told, because politicians bribe the voters with promises of more toys and freebies. This newer meme is doubly offensive, for it does not merely conceal the role of money and power in capturing government; it actively shifts blame away from the real causes and places it on the shoulders of the victims of that capture.

    • It actively shifts blame away from the real causes and places it on the shoulders of the victims of that capture.” That says it all and, as you implied, is the point. Funny, ain’t it, that working people getting a little bone thrown to them is a “special interest” that is bad but endless piles of money in subsidies to the already wealthy is an “investment” in the economy. Funny enough to make a grown blogger cry.

  7. doi_neo says:

    I would like to add to what Systemic Disorder said earlier …. “So much to read, so little time …” Here it goes. So much to read, to watch, to understand, so little time and so few of us. I believe changing the system or the order of things would not have any effect in the long run since the greatest impediment and later on the recurrence of the all too familiar social and political system are human beings themselves. Each of us is so different from each other and each of us want different things in life that even though we might act together to bring in a new system, we would eventually end up with cracks and faults in the new system, simply because we human beings wouldn’t be able to come to a consensus over a period of time. As it is human nature to crave for power, power struggles would be rife in any type of system or government we establish. But, nevertheless we must continue to fight.

    • Continuing to struggle and fight we must. If your point is that there is no future utopia awaiting us, I am certainly in agreement. We’ll never create a perfected system of government but we can do better than what we have. Many, but far from all, human beings strive for power, but two thoughts as a caveat.

      First, human beings have struggled for power not simply because it is a part of human nature but because capitalism, feudalism, slave societies and most every other society has been based on power imbalances, exploitation and scarcity. When we have to struggle just to survive and so much is grabbed by the elite (whoever that elite may be), inevitably people are going to be at each other’s throats. In a society where everybody has their basic necessities covered and which is based on equality, democracy, and economic rewards aligned with effort, I think there would be less fighting for power.

      Second, human personalities contain a mix of so many characteristics. Yes, competitiveness is one of them. But cooperation is another, and one I think is just as present, allowing for the different mixes in different personalities. Systems of inequality promotes fighting and competitiveness because those qualities are rewarded. A cooperative economy would reward different qualities. I agree that power struggles would exist in any system and a cooperative, truly democratic economy/society would continue to have politics, but a system that rewards cooperation is going to allow different personality types to come forward.

      Assuming that an economy is established that is based on cooperation, with a diffusion of power and an ethic of egalitarianism —— that is, we have transcended capitalism and created a better world —— surely problems would arise that we can’t anticipate or even conceive. A new struggle, on a higher plane, to create something still better would arise. Today’s tools would have become obsolete, but the dialectic will remain with us.

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