Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Playing the Fiddle, Empire Burning Down Edition

When empires fall, the signs are there, but everyone ignores them. Consider this Facebook conversation with a highly educated woman (from one of the best liberal arts colleges on the West Coast) in her mid-20's:

Teacher: [posts article titled, "Global finance ignores world's poor."]

Me: this isn't anything new--the world has always had extremely poor people, and now it's getting worse. People who favor increasing the minimum wage or increasing salaries for lower level jobs in the U.S. make it harder for us to accept poorer immigrants. For many poor immigrants. their only hope is coming to America (and working in jobs most native-born citizens don't want). The best way to assist poorer people is to lower inflation and provide better social services such as cost-effective access to healthcare and top-level education.

You may also want to think about why we've had success incorporating immigrants into our society even as France has become virulently Islamophobic; Sweden has voted in a party with Nazi origins; and the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg, Germany. If you treat poor people as unfortunate things to be helped instead of people who deserve jobs and financial independence from the government, then their existence is dependent on the majority population's benevolence and willingness to spend tax dollars. As we've seen, in recessions, majority populations tend to get conservative very, very quickly unless their minority populations contribute economically.

The greatest thing about being a naturalized American citizen who owns a small business is my independence. The corollary of that individual independence is that my country seeks my love based on voluntary, not coercive terms. My family came here, worked hard, paid taxes, helped raise property values for our neighbors, and succeeded based on merit. It's a shame that so many Americans support inflationary economic policies that make it harder for immigrants and poorer people to achieve independence based on merit rather than unstable, short-term charity.

Teacher: Money is great and wonderful and helpful, but it's still just money. If you really want to help change the lives of the poor, you have to help to empower them, help them help themselves. For example, Surin Farmer Support works with farmers here in Thailand who once were victims of the government taking advantage of them. They were given free fertilizer samples and, once used, their crops became dependent on it. In the end, they were spending just as much on fertilizer as they were yielding extra crops, except with a bunch of health issues as well. With the help of the NGO, the people of Surin have been able to learn about their issues more thoroughly and take action. Their rice is now sold in markets throughout the US.

you said: "If you really want to help change the lives of the poor, you have to help to empower them, help them help themselves."

I agree. A job that involves hard work and income based on merit empowers an individual and gives him/her money, which leads to independence.

And thank you for the article on microfinance. (Surowiecki is one of my favorite writers, BTW.) The article declares that "Microloans make poor borrowers better off. But, on their own, they often don’t do much to make poor countries richer" because the amounts loaned are too small to create a large increase in the number of available jobs. In other words, your article indicates that the problem is not enough money and not enough mid-sized to larger corporations. Do you agree that stronger corporations and more money are goals that most free market, pro-business capitalists seek to attain?

It is our ability to give people jobs that has made us one of the greatest nations in the world. When you give someone a private sector job, you allow them to save money, become independent, become a net financial contributor to society (unlike gov workers or welfare recipients), and provide a future for his/her children. No abstract social policy can provide the opportunities that come from a job; therefore, the greatest help you can give to a poor person (or any person) is a job and low inflation.

Most people get jobs through businesses and corporations, so if you're anti-corporation or anti-business, you're automatically anti-immigrant and anti-individual. Social policies often see human beings as things in need of charity from their superiors, not individuals yearning for independence. Making matters worse, many social policies require bigger government, which requires the gov to print more money, which risks higher inflation. Yet, the #1 enemy of a person's ability to save for the future and support his/her children is inflation. By supporting policies that lead to bigger government, many well-meaning people are actually hurting the people they intend to help. Unlike most social rights, economic rights and policies directly affect inflation and therefore have severe potential consequences for poor people and immigrants. For this reason, whenever anyone says economic rights are the same as social rights; that economics is just a guessing game; or that jobs are "just money," you should be very, very skeptical. Most likely, that person supports economic policies that hurt the poor despite wanting to help them.

Teacher: I think a better way than giving an individual money is to educate them in order for a group of individuals to organize themselves. For example, the scavenging community that I've worked with. Better than giving one of them money so they can buy a motorbike and increase their scavenging revenue would be to help them realize why they're having the issues they're having and ways to fix them. Maybe then they can organize as a group and fight for their rights as scavengers. Or they could find a way to raise money as a community and start to process their own recycling center and cutting out the middle man. It's not just about the individual, it's about the greater good. And the more that people work together, the more people will see a positive result.

Me: it sounds like you're saying unionization is the way to go. But unionization and organized group efforts are futile in an economy that does not create many jobs or that lacks larger businesses. How does unionizing six people help them unless the company is growing and has good growth prospects? Perhaps you mean co-ops, where a group of people pool together their resources to minimize costs and increase their ability to save. That makes more sense, but even co-ops can't do much unless they have jobs and some way to make money. Again, it all comes back to jobs, not the "greater good." The "greater good" is really the ability of a society to give its people jobs, low inflation, and money that doesn't lose its purchasing power. All of these, of course, are economic issues. (BTW, whenever I hear about the "greater good," I think of Chairman Mao :-)

Also, the goal isn't "giving an individual money" but helping him/her earn it. Big difference. Someone who thinks jobs and money are things to be "given" is someone who a) will not hesitate to use the printing press, which will lead to inflation; and b) doesn't understand the difference between gov jobs and private sector jobs. In the private sector, jobs aren't given; ideally, they are created by hard working, innovative individuals who create new products and who compete with others to ensure their products are the best on the market.

Teacher: Let me ask you this. Why is there such a big need for economic reform? And I don't mean the circumstantial things that lead to it, but the real root of it. What has caused this huge divide between the rich and poor? Why are there so many people in the world who don't have jobs? I think unless we (the world) can really understand the root of the problem, it's all just bandages.

Me: I can't provide a short answer to your question about the reasons people are so poor all over the world at 3:30AM :-) But ask yourself these four questions:

1) why is America so much more successful than most other countries when it comes to average and median levels of affluence?

2) why aren't most immigrants clamoring to go to Europe, China, Cuba, etc.?

3) why has America been more successful at assimilating immigrants than any other country in modern history?

4) Why do countries where leaders try to create their version of the "greater good" usually experience net outflows of their own people? (see China, Iran, Cuba, etc.)

Teacher: [ignores all of my questions] There isn't a short answer to my question. That's the point. I don't think you or I could answer it. It's an incredibly complex problem. And I think people, in general, are too quick to find an answer to things, leading to a misunderstanding of the question/problem they're trying to answer. I do it as well, which is one of the things I'm trying to work on in my current position. The point of my asking wasn't for you to give me an answer. The point is to try and sit with the question a bit. Really, really think about it, in a way that maybe you haven't before. Go outside of your gut reaction. It's a really big world out there and there are a lot of things we don't know. Also, I think there's a big difference between what a dictator sees as the "greater good" and a group of people working together in order to create harmony. I also don't think that average to median levels of affluence should be the goal. At least, it's not my goal. I personally think there's a lot that gets lost in the way of human connection when you're trying to attain affluence.

Me: you said, "I think there's a big difference between what a dictator sees as the 'greater good' and a group of people working together in order to create harmony."

You do realize all dictators and their henchmen sincerely believe they are working together to create their own version of harmony, right? Or do you think Hitler/Mao/Khomeni/Palin woke up each morning thinking, "Today, I will be the baddest, most evil person on the planet and destroy harmony"? :-)

See, that's what I've been trying to say--one group's version of harmony is another person's nightmare. That's the reason countries need checks and balances, respect for property and jobs, and a currency that has purchasing power. Once you lose either of those three things, lots of groups of people try to create their own version of "harmony" and people are so desperate, they will vote based on rhetoric and irrelevant factors.

Think about it: if you have a vision of harmony and a group of people stood between you and your vision, wouldn't you take out the group if you could? Of course you would--you might not kill them (initially), but if they're enough of a pain in the arse, and if you really believe they are harming your vision, they will become expendable once you attain power (assuming no checks and balances or a strong judiciary or some other way of legally stopping you from implementing your "harmony" plan).

The quest for the "greater good" has caused so much evil in the world. No one starts out thinking, "I want to be evil." But evil tends to happen when a group of people believe their vision is superior to someone else's, and their vision is based on subjective values and disrespect for property rights.

The same man who once wanted to carry out a "promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited" is the same man who later said, "The executions [without due process] by firing squads are not only a necessity for the people of Cuba, but also an imposition of the people."

Teacher: I've never been a fan of Che.

What working for the greater good of people means to me is understand the needs of others and not trying to impose your own agenda on them. It's not about gaining power and taking people out. It's about working with people and realizing that if we see the world as a bunch of individuals that we will treat each other as such and continue to f*ck everyone else over. I personally am doing the best in my life to stop thinking about myself, stop thinking about my family, stop thinking about my country, and see us all as people who are all equally important.

You don't think your vision is superior to others? Because the feeling I've gotten through these conversations is that you believe you know what's right and that everyone else who isn't doing that is acting irrationally (and therefore in an inferior way). Does that make you evil?

I work with mostly boys. But, the whole point of my job is to help them become more educated and better members of society. People who truly know themselves and are compassionate. Not people who believe that getting a job and money is the most they can get out of life. Education shouldn't just be about preparing people for the work force. It's about exploration and preparing people for life.

One of my goals in life is to continue to always increase my compassion and understand for everyone, including those I don't agree with.

I remember once watching a clip of someone from the Westboro Church talking. It's so against everything I believe in, and I can't help but see it as hate. But, at the same time, here's someone who so strongly believes what she's doing is right. That she is trying her hardest to save people she believes are going to have to infer the wrath of God. She believes these ideas in her heart just as much as I believe mine. And for that, I can understand.

Another example stems from my reaction to the documentary Stevie. It's about a man who is arrested for child molestation. But, you see his story and begin to understand the pain this man was forced to experience while growing up. His childhood was ruined and led him exactly to the place he ended up. How much of that is his fault? I can understand.

Me: I do believe my theory of economic rights is superior to other theories, but my theory is different from yours because it has inherent checks and balances and is based on logic and history, not subjective feelings. [Earlier, in a lengthy Facebook debate with multiple people] I demonstrated why economic rights are superior to non-economic rights, and the only objections I saw were that my questions and theories were "unfair" or presented "false choices"--objections based on subjective feelings, not logic. (I continue to be amazed that anyone would say that food and money are equal to abstract rights divorced from economic considerations.)

Also, as stated above, my theory of economic rights contains inherent checks and balances against overreaching and evil in its respect for individual liberty, low inflation, and property rights. Your theory, based on subjective ideas such as compassion and exploration, is exactly the opposite of mine--it has no inherent check against overreaching or coercion, and it actually seems to disrespect property rights by looking down on jobs and money instead of holding these values in the highest regard.

Any theory based on some subjective worldview and the idea that we are all equal (instead of the idea that we are unequal but should be given equal opportunities to succeed and accept the unequal results) is bound to lead to a disrespect of property rights and individual liberty.

BTW, if Thailand's economy fails to grow, the English skills you are teaching your students will make them very marketable in the black market and tourism industry. You'd better hope Thailand produces enough legit jobs for your students. If Thailand fails to prioritize its economy and instead pursues compassion, exploration, or some other subjective goal, some of your boys may grow up to be intermediaries between affluent English speakers and their own people. In other words, their destiny will be linked to outsiders. And they will have you to thank.

As I've already explained, for most poor people, economic rights take precedence over social rights. It's interesting to see relatively rich white people railing against the idea that "getting a job and money" isn't the most important thing in life and saying that "education shouldn't just be about preparing people for the work force." You almost never see any actual poor person making similar statements. Perhaps it's because poor people hate being poor and want to be (relatively) rich like us.

Teacher: I've heard poor people make statements like that. They were people fighting to preserve the right to keep their culture that was being taken away by large scale development projects. Development projects that would offer jobs, but also take away the way of life that they hold very dear. They chose culture and have been fighting the battle for over 10 years.

And, just so you know, you come off as an offensive know it all.

Me: like most Californians, you've been fed bromides through our public school system. In order for you to grasp the concepts I'm trying to impart, you must first accept that your education was incomplete. It is very, very hard for anyone to accept that s/he has an incomplete education. It's a lot easier to think the guy who disagrees with you is just an offensive a-hole. (And that's why most idealists who lack respect for property rights and who come bearing visions of harmony wipe out dissidents when they gain power.)

The problem with you and most Americans is that they have too much unjustified self-confidence and can't humble themselves long enough to learn something outside of their own field. But rather than tell themselves, "I don't understand anything about economics and should learn more," most Americans instead seek to unleash their subjective visions of harmony on the world. In doing so, they are harming the very people they seek to help.

Teacher: You are more than welcome to believe that. I'm confident in my personal assessments of my strengths and weaknesses. Have fun fighting your fight.

Me: if you really want to test your strengths and weaknesses, read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. I know you read a lot, and this book will take you maybe three hours to read at most. Let me know if you ever do read the book.

[She later deleted me as a friend on Facebook. No word on whether she read Mr. Friedman's book.]

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