Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Point On Poverty

Yesterday saw the release of the most recent Census Bureau findings which tell the increasingly pitiful and sad story of poverty in this the richest country on the planet.  Yet the the self-righteous right-wing fanatics of every stripe persist in their misrepresentations and hateful ideology.  We have all heard the silly criticisms and accusations they spew with such venom at the poor while idealizing and exalting the avarice, greed and gluttonous behavior of the rich. 

In case you're wondering, by rich I mean those folks the ring-wing says should not be expected to pay a reasonable tax rate as measured in historical terms, those folks the right-wing wrongly calls job creators, those folks currently sitting on more money than they ever have in history while creating no jobs at all.  And by poor I mean those unemployed or desperately low income workers whom the right- wing claims cannot ever be regarded as poor should we find they happen to have a cell phone, color tv, or air conditioning - and God knows don't dare let them have a car.

But let's see what Adam Smith, the fundamental icon of right-wing classical economics and philosophy, actually had to say about the definition of poor in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments and his 1776 Wealth of Nations.

'Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. The reason poverty causes pain is not just because it can leave people feeling hungry, cold and sick, but because it is associated with unfavourable regard.'

As he explains:

'The poor man … is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow–feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts; for though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel.'

Adam Smith correctly argued that poverty is not an absolute numerical measurement, but a social standard.  He said that to be poor is a function of the society in which one lives, not the degree of absolute deprivation.  Therefore, in the past, say during the Great Depression, old-timers report not having had a lot but not knowing they were poor, because no one else had much either.  Today is vastly different. Great and ostentatious wealth is on display everywhere, yet all but a tiny sliver of it is denied to the vast majority of folks, through the merciless operation of these right-wing dominated political and economic times.  The fact is many, many more are actually poor by Smith's definition than by the sterile but punishing enough numbers the Census reports.

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