It Was Never Easy for Me. I Was Born a Poor Black Child.

I don’t have time go give Gene Marks’ asinine column the kicking around I’d like to. Suffice to say that if you’re white, you probably don’t want to write a column on what you’d do if you were a poor black child. It’s not going to end well.

If you do want to read a nice, thorough, and well-written takedown, may I direct you to Elon James White’s piece over at The Root? Because it’s full of win, and touches on what I think is the most important thing to remember about Marks’ post:

Now, in the midst of this overall attack on poor black children, Mr. Gene Marks comes along as an ignorant wolf wearing “I just want to help those poor Negroes!” clothing. Mr. Gene isn’t trying to be condescending or anything. He just wants to postulate the best way to fix poor Negro children, is all.

This isn’t him being an ass — this is simply what he might do as a middle-class, middle-aged white dude if all of a sudden he were attacked by Voldemort, a spell was cast and he was turned into a poor black child.

He just wants to give some advice to the poor black children … in Forbes magazine.

That’s reasonable, right?

We Negroes are familiar with this particular brand of help. The #WhiteLove™ style of caring. Movies love to show how, when a white person with an open mind shows up and deals with poor blacks, their lives aremagically changed. As I read this piece, I sighed to myself and mumbled, “White liberals.”

Yup. It’s “Nice White Lady” syndrome — the idea that if only those poor black kids understood the value of hard work and book learning, why, they’d all be rich! And who better to explain it to them than a white person — there being no African Americans who understand learning or work.

Even when it’s delivered with the best of intentions, it’s obnoxious and offensive. When it’s delivered, as Marks did, with utter cluelessness (hey, poor kids, buy computers!), it goes up to the next level.

White people? We can empathize with African Americans, but we can’t really understand what it’s like to be black in America, because we aren’t. As always, we need to talk less and listen more. Which is why I strongly recommend you read all of White’s article.

This entry posted in Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

21 Responses to It Was Never Easy for Me. I Was Born a Poor Black Child.

  1. 1
    Sebastian H says:

    Megan McCardle has a pretty good response to the article here. She is of a bent that you won’t wholly agree with, but the basic gist of it is that just because some people, some of the time, can get out of poverty doesn’t mean that the systemic issues keeping them in poverty are non-existent or unimportant or crippling.

    The two best parts are :

    “They could be middle class if they made a series of hard choices. But those choices are really hard–much harder than they are for the people who are already there. Chances are, you would also have a hard time making those choices.”;

    “Lack of capital is really expensive. If you have to keep buying a $1,000 car every six months because your last $1,000 car broke down, you end up spending a lot more than if you could have bought a $5,000 car. If you don’t have the money for an apartment deposit, you end up living in a much more expensive motel. Buying in bulk from Costco is cheaper than buying in small lots from a corner store. Etc.”;

    And somewhere in the comments where I can’t find it now someone made the same point I make to people about friends who were sexually abused early in their lives: the coping mechanisms which make it possible for them to survive, interfere with their ability to thrive later.

  2. 2
    Robert says:

    He’s definitely patronizing and in full-blown Look At How Wise I Am, Poor Black Children mode.

    But calling his piece an attack is absurd. A well-meaning patronizing doofus might piss you off, but when he’s presenting his life knowledge that he thinks you need to hear and don’t have, that isn’t an attack.

    I had a sociology class as part of my business degree (SOP these days) and our prof, a woman of color who had in fact pulled herself out of poverty the hard way, by schooling herself then seeking more schooling then getting into academia (and she was quite good at it) made an excellent point in a class discussion about race and poverty. Our class was mostly white, some Hispanics, mostly middle class, a few poor folks but they tended to be the older nontraditional students who were clawing their way into the educational system and more interested in listening than in talking.

    She told us that one of the biggest, but submerged and invisible, problems facing young minority kids (she said black but she was referring to anyone in a suboptimal social and economic climate) was that when poor black people achieve modest but generally attainable-through-hard-work levels of success, they move away from their poor neighborhoods. The guy who makes it as a mechanic moves to the suburbs – sometimes white suburbs, sometimes mixed or black suburbs. The woman who gets her degree in accounting and starts a 20 year career in the DMV’s auditing department buys a tiny condo in the nice part of downtown. The black doctor definitely moves to the suburbs, might even live in the same neighborhood as the mechanic. And so forth. She herself had gotten married to a military guy and moved onto base housing in her early career, and a very nice place out in the country in her later years. (She was 59 or 60.)

    This is pernicious for underprivileged black youth who remain in the underprivileged communities, not because it’s evil to want to improve your environment (which for most people means moving into a better area), but because human beings, particularly young human beings, have a very difficult time conceptualizing possibilities or setting goals that they don’t have concrete, immediate examples for. If your neighbors are auto mechanics and nurses and file clerks and teachers and doctors, your young “what do I want to do with my life” brain has no difficulty whatsoever in thinking “I could be a doctor, or a teacher, or…”

    But if your neighbors are all drug dealers and prostitutes and welfare recipients, with maybe a cannery worker at the peak of the respectability pyramid, then pretty much the best realistic thing that you will believe it possible for you to become is a cannery worker. (Nothing wrong with being a cannery worker, or a deserving welfare recipient for that matter, but I imagine that we can all agree that people who can do more with their talents ought to.)

    In many black communities, she went on, kids see two things: low-functional or dysfunctional people in their immediate neighborhood, and superstars and celebrities on the TV. Since few people honestly aspire to a low- or non-functional life, the kids with anything going for them at all instead aspire to be what they see on TV; I’m gonna be Michael Jordan, I’m gonna be Oprah, I’m gonna be a rock star or a hip-hop artist, or what have you. And again, there’s nothing wrong with those aspirations either.

    But most people don’t have the talent to be Michael Jordan or the drive to be Oprah or the artistic creativity to be the next hip-hop artist of the year. The realistic aspirations, the realistic goals, the things that even a pretty racist and oppressive society can expect its underprivileged young members to try to achieve for themselves, are almost invisible to the kids who are worst off, because they simply aren’t around in daily life and they aren’t usually heavily shown in the media, either. Privileged kids have the same “problem” when it comes to media representations – there aren’t many shows about cool accountants – but privileged kids generally have their monkey-see-monkey-do models living up the street or in the same household. They think “I’ll go to college and be an architect” without a second thought; Uncle Dave is an architect and he seems to like it and he drives a neat car.

    Some people can overcome the rolemodel deficit. They have great imagination, or tremendous drive, or get lucky and meet their Aunt Rhoda who got that job as a dental technician and worked her way up to office manager and moved to the other side of town or to San Francisco or wherever. It’s possible to bootstrap even without support and affirmation that your choice is real, it’s just way harder. So there’s always some people succeeding, from the modest success of becoming an HVAC expert to the vast success of an Oprah or Michael. But most of the realistic models for success aren’t visible to the kids who really need to know that it is possible to be a dental technician or a dentist or a dental entrepreneur with clinics on every corner.

    Her suggested remedies were twofold: one, the media ought to be pressured to show in realistic but optimistic and affirmative ways, minority figures succeeding in modest and attainable careers. Two, people of privilege who have achieved modest or great levels of success, whether white or black or brown, ought to spend some time in the poor communities. Not necessarily living there, although that would provide a big passive benefit, but volunteering in the schools, mentoring kids, teaching classes at the rec center, being a Scout leader, and so forth. Not because the wonderfulness of the wise white lawyer or the charismatic black pizza tycoon is magical, but just because sharing the life experience and the EXAMPLE of the life experience is of tremendous, if not always highly visible, value to the kids who are exposed to it, and who widen the list of life paths that they can personally visualize and work towards.

    So all that said, I am afraid that I see this gentleman’s article, however grating or even offensive his tone, as a very good effort in the direction of giving counsel to poor black kids that they might not be hearing anywhere else. Much of the motivation and encouragement we give kids in bad situations is pretty rah-rah – you can do it, you can achieve, don’t let anyone stop you, etc. And that is valuable stuff and certainly worth letting the kids hear.

    But specifics about “here’s how I used technology in my life to do better for myself, and how I think you can do the same thing”…that’s valuable. That’s gonna help some kid who reads this in the paper he finds at the bus stop while waiting to ride in to school or to visit his friends. And so I think it can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed quite so cavalierly as is being done here.

  3. 3
    Susan says:

    My foster son was a poor black child. Most of his sibs are in and out of prison. Drugs, mostly. Dysfunctional parents? Please, they invented it.

    He himself is now an orthopedic surgeon making $760,000+ a year. Hard work, being really really smart, smarter than everyone else for miles around, unusual drive, more hard work, all that. (Not a good man to oppose when he wants something!) Also he has the talent of getting the allegiance of wealthy white people. (Who knows, who knows, what he really thinks of us, even of me…he will never tell! To top it off, he thinks I don’t know this….!)

    That said, this is an extraordinary individual, right? James Baldwin said, long ago (free quote, don’t have time to look it up): “That some exceptional individuals have risen means nothing. Exceptional individuals have risen against regimes far more repressive than we can imagine. Not all these people, it is well worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. Like everyone else, some Negroes are exceptional, most are not.”

    People who can rise above impossible odds will always exist, in every population, and they will rise above impossible odds, no surprises there. They don’t need our help, by the way.

    What we need is a situation where you don’t have to be exceptional to do reasonably well.

    One wonders how Gene Marks, who strikes me as being fairly ordinary (certainly, in comparison with my foster son!) would have fared under these circumstances.

    Moving right along…

    She told us that one of the biggest, but submerged and invisible, problems facing young minority kids (she said black but she was referring to anyone in a suboptimal social and economic climate) was that when poor black people achieve modest but generally attainable-through-hard-work levels of success, they move away from their poor neighborhoods.

    My son does not live in a disadvantaged area. Hardly!! He’s in a very fancy house in the Los Angeles suburbs, a house considerably more fancy than my own. He considers this his due.

    Does he have some kind of obligation to move to the slums? If I said that to him (of course I am the last person with credentials to say that) he’d give me a blank look.

    Don’t you get it, Mom? This is why I worked so hard, up to the point of breaking, don’t you remember, Mom? So I can live here!!

    Sure. I get it. And I remember. Who am I to say you should move back to the slums?

    Especially since I don’t live there myself.


    I really don’t know how helpful this post is. I am dealing with an exceptional individual, not only in his intelligence, but in his drive. I’m almost certainly not as exceptional as he is.

    The rest of us, of all colors and backgrounds, we deserve a fair shot too.

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    Yes, I understand that. It’s totally natural to not want to live in the slum. I sure as hell always live in the nicest environment I possibly can.

    But she was addressing a question that had been asked (which I should have mentioned in the original post) by a sweet young thing distressed by social inequities and poverty along the lines of “what can I do”.

    And her point wasn’t “move to the slum”, though if you can do that and are called to it, it just might help. It was “be available to these kids, put yourself out there to these kids”.

    If your son who makes high six figures doesn’t move to the slum that’s hardly an indictment of him; if I made $760,000 a year I’d be living on a yacht and periodically sending my assassins to eliminate people who annoy me on the Internet. (I’ll teach Barry to surpass my score at Scrabble…fucker…)

    “What we need is a situation where you don’t have to be exceptional to do reasonably well.”

    Yes, that was the entire point of her speech that day, and of my comment. And that kind of nonexceptional, achievable, success is fostered greatly by having real-world examples that kids can talk to, live near, get lessons from, etc.

  5. 5
    hf says:

    But specifics about “here’s how I used technology in my life to do better for myself, and how I think you can do the same thing”…that’s valuable. That’s gonna help some kid who reads this in the paper

    No, it won’t.

    First, the Po Black Kids in the inner city already knew this. If you have ever gone to an inner city library you would know that they know it. If you go to the library in the inner city before it opens on the weekends you’ll see this line of Po Black Kids outside and around the block, regardless of weather, waiting to get into the library. There, they are herded into waiting areas by the library staff and eventually given access to the computers, several at once, for limited periods of time.

    Reality one: They know this and are doing it. Reality two: The 1%, in all their wisdom, have worked the system so that libraries around the country are generally closing, not expanding. The anti-tax lobby has shut down library after library. There is more and more need for what you are telling the Po Black Kids to make use of, and less and less of those resources to go around.

    And Robert, the OP already pointed this out.

  6. 7
    hf says:

    And that kind of nonexceptional, achievable, success is fostered greatly by having real-world examples that kids can talk to, live near, get lessons from, etc.

    And if the lesson for these kids is, ‘Be born with exceptional natural talents and drive,’ even for what you think of as non-exceptional success? What exactly do you think should happen to everyone else, in that situation?

  7. 8
    Robert says:

    It doesn’t matter what I think should happen, because what I think should happen bears no connection to what will happen.

    What matters is what the environment is for the kids, what opportunities they create for themselves, what opportunities are created for them whether intentionally or as a byproduct of other people’s actions, what actions they take in life, and so forth.

    I’m sorry you’re pessimistic about people’s ability to improve their life, but I don’t think the historical record provides it with much buttressing, and I don’t think crying about the mean rich people who close down libraries for fun makes a damn bit of contribution to anyone at all. Open your own library if you’re a person of privilege, or organize a community one that pools the resources of people who are striving if you aren’t. The opportunities a hundred years ago were crap compared to what people can do today, and somehow people managed to develop themselves – sometimes on their own, more often with the help and bootstrap lending services provided by people who had it better and did something about it, instead of bitching at how the other rich people weren’t doing enough.

  8. 9
    hf says:

    So, Robert, to review:

    You gifted us with a three-page comment on how to help poor African-Americans, but you don’t think your recommendations or actions affect the outcome.

    You don’t believe a middle-class income requires exceptional talents for Gene Marks’ supposed audience, though what you said about technology re: his article seems objectively false.

    People in 1912 somehow developed themselves — enough to get themselves lynched, in at least sixty-one cases that year. Booker T. Washington even got an invitation to the White House in 1901 (one hundred and five known lynchings).

    This is somehow relevant to Marks’ degree of clue-fulness.

  9. 10
    Robert says:

    I think my actions affect the outcome a lot. It isn’t much, but I go out of my way to make employment opportunities available to people who don’t often get a shot at the kind of work I do, and whose formal qualifications don’t put them in line for the work. I get burned a fairly large percentage of the time; very occasionally by a scammer, much more often by someone who just bit off more than they could manage. But I don’t get burned more than I can afford, because I don’t “move into the ghetto” – I figure what I can afford to lose (which really just means doing the work over myself), I figure what the general loss ratio has been recently, and I go from there. And every once in a while I find a diamond in the rough and train that person to do excellent work. Sometimes they stay with me for a while and I callously exploit their labor by turning an evil capitalist profit; sometimes they find more stable employment in related fields (I mainly use contractors) and move on with mutual blessings and regard.

    What I don’t think affects the outcome in any way is “What exactly do you think should happen to everyone else, in that situation?”

    Let’s make sure, though.

    OK, I think people in that situation (people whose circumstances are so bad that they have to do extraordinary levels of effort to get an outcome that people in better circumstances would take for granted as being just regular) should be whisked off to the Rainbow Unicorn Planet and given an eternity of free oral sex and big-screen plasma TVs.

    What’s that I hear in the background? Why, it’s the sound of the Unicorn Transport Valkryie Force, not swooping down on Watts and lifting those folks up to their new happy destiny in the sky, and the very distinctive sound of millions of people not being orally pleasured. (I’d know it anywhere, it’s just like the sound in my bedroom but magnified many times.)

    Maybe I asked for something too implausible. Let’s go all 1901 on their asses. I think those people should all be rounded up and shot by white supremacists, and their houses burned to the ground and their children ground up for hamburger.

    Going over to my window and looking down the big avenue about five miles to the really bad part of Colorado Springs where many such disadvantaged live, I hear no gunshots, no happy crackling roar of the cleansing fire, no screams of the children as the chipper does its grisly work. Weird.

    Why, it’s almost as though “what I think should happen” is completely irrelevant and a total waste of time to discuss, because my wishes don’t control reality, as I said before! How odd. Perhaps, then, the question might be more constructively phrased as, what can you do to get better outcomes, Robert, and what should other people do?

    Well, I’ve told you what I do. I do a few other things too but that’s the Big Contribution I make. And as a general principle, I try to provide mentoring and counseling type advice, from my position as the Infinitely Wise White Man Of Infinite Virtue, to the people I run across in daily life, some of whom are recognizably disadvantaged or in a bad situation and others of whom present as being Just Folks. Seems to me that I run my mouth all the time anyway, so if I just blather on regardless of who is in front of me, whatever benefit can be derived from that will be derived and I don’t have to worry over the details.

    What should other people do? Why, I think there are a lot of nifty things they can do, and like you undoubtedly astutely noticed before the Blinding Sarcasm Cloud came down and stung your eyes, I spent three pages detailing the very practical suggestion made by my sociology professor, a lady who has spent her life thinking about this stuff and who would think, I strongly suspect, that Mr. Wise White Man in this article was a bit asinine and pretty naive, but that much of his advice was applicable. I’m not much of one for the argument from authority, but she was a woman of color with a PhD from a pretty decent school who clawed her way out of the ghetto on raw guts and made an excellent life for herself, her family, and many of the people in her old community, and you are a set of initials who I sometimes see making snarky comments on a blog. Maybe you have fifty times the credibility that she does; it beats the shit out of me. If you have a website I haven’t read it; my offhand recollections of your contributions here are that you’re a fairly standard lefty with a fairly standard set of observations and personal stories, often of some utility or making some contribution to the conversations, but further deponent knoweth not. I know her, I don’t know you, I know she’s credible, I know (to 99% certainty) that while she would undoubtedly have wiser and more penetrating insights than I do simply because she knows more, that her view of this guy’s suggestions – even if you think that black people who get jobs will be lynched and that one percenters are engaged in a conspiracy to shut down the city library to keep the black man down – would be reasonably positive, probably with a lot of constructive criticism to help him do better next time.

    It’s weird, but in my four plus decades shuffling around this muddy dirtball we all live on, I have known a lot of people from all walks of life, rich, poor, black, white, straight, gay, piscisexual, ugly, handsome, smart, dumb, Dennis Kucinichish and Ron Paulite alike. And I’ve noticed two things:

    1) People who are socially or culturally oppressed, who are in the minority or are disliked for whatever reason by the majority, seem to have at all times and in most places, a reduced chance of achieving success compared to their (in this context) white middle-class brethren and sistren, for the same quanta of effort. Ain’t no denying it. One of my best professors in college was a retired former chief master sergeant of the Air Force, who now does leadership development and teaches some rah-rah-enthusiasm-is-great classes at the state U. One of our fresh-scrubbed white suburban brothers asked him, quite earnestly, why so many black and Hispanic people were in the military. I think he expected a standard the-white-man-takes-their-jobs-so-its-the-only-option answer, and Chief Vasquez (we just called him the Chief), who is pretty liberal but no orthodox lefty, surprised him greatly by touching on that point, but then saying that the real big driver for the go-getters of the minority races that he personally knew was the fact that, while there was still discrimination and non-fair-shakes, in the services the guys quickly discovered that their performance was rewarded and they got promoted about the same as the white guys, because the system is formal and procedural and there isn’t nearly as much room for “we don’t want no chicano managers” among the bigoted white officers as there was in civilian life. And the word gets out and the smart black kid with ambition and the smart Hispanic lady who wants a career give more consideration to the service than a similarly-gifted white kid, because the white kid has more options outside. Ain’t fair, but is so. (And good on the services, and good on my favorite Democrat of all time, Harry Truman, for kicking some bigot ass and making them move in the right direction a long time before the rest of the country started doing so.)

    2. Despite the utter and massive truth of #1, the level of success experienced by people of the minority races and the oppressed socioeconomic classes, whose quanta of effort is miniscule or zero, is zero.

    So. I’m not gonna grouse if a black guy wants to tell me how rough the world is for him and his brothers, or if a woman of color is convinced she cannot get a fair shake from the [Corporate Stooges Name Here] because of her race. I’m not convinced he or she is wrong; I’ve lived in Mississippi, I’ve seen the poisonous open racism down there and the better-concealed venoms that flow around in the non-confederate states. And even if the person happens to be wrong on the immediate circumstance, as does happen what with black and brown people being human like everybody else and thus getting things wrong sometimes, the odds are very damn high that they’re right, or at the very least, that this particular misplaced batch of “man this sucks you guys are so racist” is simply taking the place of a legitimate load that got delivered but not signed for; the people getting the shaft sometimes get the shaft and think it’s just random or it was a fair shake; “well, that white lady really did know a lot about insurance and had more experience than me, I bet it wasn’t race that drove the hiring decision.” But it was. Oops. OK, well, shit happens.

    But even though it is totally MEAN and UNFAIR that people from bad circumstances have to do 3X work to get 1X reward – or maybe, in a super duper progressive institution like the armed forces, they have to do 1.5X work to get 1X reward – when compared to whitey, my outrage isn’t going to change that, nor is my desire for all peoples to visit the magical rainbow planet of eternal slurping going to make that happen either. We are where we are on the hill. Should we move further up? Hell yes. I’ve said my (lengthy) piece about what I can do and what other people can do, and I’m always glad to read more. The higher we get up the hill, the fairer the shake for everybody. Definitely, let’s all climb.

    And maybe bitching about how the last stage was totally unfair and the white guys only moved us eight feet up while the white women did eleven feet but the blacks and Hispanics lifted us eighty feet, is productive for the people who need to do it and need to hear it. Maybe that gives them the strength or the motivation to work hard on the next stage of the climb. It isn’t for me to say.

    I can say, though, that nobody has ever climbed a hill with their mouth. The mouth might cool the brain and the mouth might encourage the legs, but the legs gotta walk, or the body doesn’t move. Not even Mick Jagger’s muscled jaw is hauling 200 pounds up a damn hill; that takes effort. Unfair effort, sure. Effort that often goes unrewarded, sure. Effort that some real bastards out here go out of their way to block or subvert or redirect, yep.

    Changes nothing, the effort has to be made if the hill is to be climbed.

  10. 11
    Dianne says:

    Changes nothing, the effort has to be made if the hill is to be climbed.

    And if you change nothing, the effort will continue to have to be made. So let’s start changing things. Unglamorous things like improving schools and disconnecting health care from employment. People will find their own plasma screens eventually.

  11. 12
    Ampersand says:

    Just to clarify, Robert, do you actually oppose the idea of publicly funded libraries, with internet access, in poor neighborhoods? (I favor them in all neighborhoods, but I think they’re probably more needed in poor neighborhoods.)

  12. 13
    Robert says:

    Good lord no. Libraries are the most magnificent excuse erasers of all time. Even if they were funded by stealing the first dollars from adolescent entrepreneurs starting their first lemon stand and that money went directly to the Communist Library Fund of Amerika, I would be behind them. Even if they did nothing good that I approved of, they would be magnificent just for their utility in rhetorical arguments with left-wingers.

    I don’t know where hf lives, but my town has a very wide range of income levels including Extreme Poverty Red Alert Mode, and my state has ongoing and severe budget problems, and I do not notice either massive library closures, or, in the poor areas of town, lines surrounding the block, the streets choked with eager poor children jostling for the limited places at the computers while in the background, Scrooge McOnepercent shakes his fist in impotent rage and vows to get this pernicious bastion of income equalization torn down.

    Sometimes the computer room does get filled up, especially in the small branch places that are out in the country, and you have to wait your turn. But the in-city facilities are big and running at around their designed capacity. The places that overflow (there are a couple) are usually the small-town branches that get a lot of retiree traffic. Geezers got nowhere else to be, apparently.

    Maybe hf just lives in a place with an incompetent government and/or library system.

  13. 14
    hf says:

    I take it you missed the link to Greg Laden?

  14. 15
    Robert says:

    No, I read it. It’s unimpressive, defeatist, gets many facts wrong, cites nothing but the writer’s personal experience and that selectively, is economically ignorant in the irritatingly vague way that hard left and hard right collectivists perpetually fall into, and in general adds nothing to the debate except the author’s bitterness that his Harvard PhD in anthropology has somehow mysteriously failed to keep him economically solvent.

    In addition, he seriously posits that young urban kids cannot possibly have any opportunity in the world, with the primary argument advanced in support of the theory being the fact that he, the wonderful Mr. Laden, can’t find work. Yes, because 15 year old urban youth and middle-aged atheist anthropologists are totally competing in the same sector. Similarly, back in 2000 when I was searching for work in the collapsing software development world, it must have been impossible for people in retail management to find work, because I had more education than they did. The author of the riginal article Jeff critiqued had a good solid serving of “my world is the entire world” going on; this guy has served up an entire rich banquet.

    On top of this melange of mediocre and mendacious mentation, he spoons rich creamy helpings of the tired and long-discredited Marxist ideas about how economies work, with wealth concentration in the hands of a few somehow making it impossible for other people to have opportunity or economic activity of any sort. Bill Gates has all the things, you see, and therefore the people opening taco stands in my neighborhood (and doing pretty well) cannot possibly be creating wealth through their own labor; wealth can only be stolen by the rich from the poor, or distributed back to the poor by the state. There is no creation, there is no innovation, there is only theft and exploitation and benevolent state power making things better.

    The guy’s a buffoon, his article is crap, and I think less of you for linking to it as a support for any argument and seriously thinking that it has persuasive power as anything other than boilerplate agitprop for people already hopelessly in the throes of a particular, and pernicious, ideological worldview.

  15. 16
    Emily says:

    The question Robert refuses to acknowledge is – what should the standard of living be for people born in this country into terrible circumstances who are not lucky or able enough to be extraordinary? He says it’s “irrelevant” because all that matters is what any individual can do in the society we have. Well, most commenters here do not agree. We think it’s relevant to discuss what we as a society should be willing to do for the least of these. What should life look like for a mentally retarded adult male who grew up in extreme poverty and whose family of origin is unable or unwilling to take care of him? Yes, creating opportunities for social mobility of the capable is valuable, but it does not answer the question of what happens to the un-extraordinary. And Robert just says it’s “irrelevant” what happens to them because they as individuals are not capable of “making it” in our society as currently configured. This is why I tend to avoid all political discussion with “Libertarians”TM

  16. 17
    Robert says:

    Please don’t characterize me as saying things that I don’t say. If you’re able to quote me only one word at a time, odds are high that you’re mischaracterizing.

    “The question Robert refuses to acknowledge is – what should the standard of living be for people born in this country into terrible circumstances who are not lucky or able enough to be extraordinary?”

    The same as the standard of living for everyone else: the value of what they produce. Being born into poverty, or born into a race which has a history of being treated badly by the majority, or being born with personal handicaps, does not excuse anyone from the universal truth that what you make is what you have. This is not “fair”; few people can even define “fair” in any way that is coherent or meaningful, let alone figure out ways in which to attempt to produce outcomes that are “fair”.

    Then on top of that, as a society we may choose to augment the standard of living of people who are very poor to bring them up to a floor level. We do not do this because we seek to be “fair”, we do it for a variety of reasons of which most are explicitly or implicitly selfish.

    People who cannot feed themselves or their children may engage in violent social unrest or personal crime; because we do not wish to live with violent social unrest or suffer from crime, we take steps to make food available. People who cannot afford to educate their children or themselves are less economically productive and drag down the communities around them with ignorance; because we do not wish to be surrounded by ignorant and impoverished people, we make the provision of education a community priority. People who cannot afford basic medical care spread plague and disease; because we do not wish to be infected with plague and disease, we make collective sanitary provisions and make basic health care “free” to the very poorest. People who are poor to the point of homelessness and unemployable to the point of permanent idleness clutter the public areas, seek excessive levels of intoxication to pass the time, and annoy passersby with requests or demands for aid; because we do not wish to step over the dirty bodies of drunken layabouts, we provide resources to attempt to rehabilitate the fraction of this group which can be rehabilitated, and to shelter and segregate the fraction which cannot or do not wish to be.

    We do not do these things in a perfect fashion, and many of the provisions we attempt to make are less than optimally successful because they are resisted by the people who we are trying to help; some are simply too pathological in their problems to be susceptible to help, some simply prefer pathological behavior and lifestyle, and some of our efforts to help are, through poor foresight or bad ideological commitments, iatrogenic in their effect. But on balance we attempt to raise the poorest among us to a floor level that soothes humanitarian consciences and mitigates the negative impacts of the less functional people among us.

    However, with all that said, and despite the gloomy views of commenters like hf and commentators like Mr. “Give Me A Cushy Job Spouting Opinions Or Your Society Is Evil” Nagen, relatively few people who are born into poverty, born into a mistreated racial group, or even born with major genetic or environmental handicaps to their abilities, find these disadvantages to be so crushing that they are unable to feed their families or dispose of their waste or learn to read or find gainful employment. The vast majority of people born into the United States of America find that they are able to find some kind of productive labor with which to meet their needs and the needs of their children, with only the (admittedly substantial) assistance provided by our decisions to collectively administer many areas of social life (i.e., public schools, public sanitation, etc.)

    What instead becomes the issue is the fact that, quite unjustly, the efforts and labor of some people in society are less productive per quanta of effort than the efforts of other people. Some of this injustice appears to be organic and effectively unremediable; Bill Gates makes more money per quanta of effort than I do both because he had more advantages and privileges than I did, and also because he is smarter than I am and has made better decisions than I have.

    Few people, but alas not no people, believe that there is anything to be done about the advantages of intellect and superiority of planning that Mr. Gates has over me; somewhat more but still only a small minority of people believe that there is anything to be done about the similar advantages that I might have over someone born into poverty or an oppressed racial group. And the things which could be done to mitigate those differences have had such appallingly awful side effects that even many of the people who wish they could be mitigated recognize that to attempt that mitigation would be a bad decision.

    Which leaves us with the advantages and privileges that can be mitigated, those of social preference, of discrimination, of inequitable distribution of public funds, and so on. There is a fertile and productive discussion to be had about how best to manage those differences and to build a society, generation by generation, in which those disadvantages become smaller. Despite the rhetorical extremism of the hf-Nagen camp, those differences are significantly smaller than they have been in past generations, in part due to extraordinary efforts on the part of the disadvantaged people to improve their own lot, and in part due to less strenuous but still praiseworthy efforts on the part of the advantaged people to make the systems that they dominate more fair and more open to the entire society.

    That productive discussion, however, is effectively impossible to have with people who believe that the fact that a black man who gets an education and works hard will make only 75% of the salary of a white man with the same gifts and effort, mean that black people are permanently and forever crushed into a dire poverty and total dysfunctionality that can be remedied only through radical revolution and total upheaval of the social and economic systems that have developed and been improved for centuries. People who insist on characterizing the budgetary losses caused by recession as being the deliberate handiwork of an evil cabal of oligarchs are not susceptible to reason, and to date, reason (seasoned with a dose of human empathy and compassion for the less fortunate) is the sole tool which has been shown to lead to improvements in the human condition.

  17. 19
    Slugger says:

    This article appeared in a magazine called Forbes.
    Let’s do a thought experiment: on one track we have a bright talented hard-working kid born into poverty; on the track we have a guy named Steve Forbes whose only talent was negotiating his mother’s birth canal. Who has more wealth and power by age 45? Any bets out there?

  18. 20
    Emily says:

    Robert, I now understand what you believe. You can say “we” all you want, but I for one completely disagree with all of your premises of what someone’s standard of living “should” be and why “we” might subsidize that paltry and inhumane level for some subset of our fellow human beings. I don’t appreciate your setting out you beliefs as some sort of objective description of “the way things are.”. It’s condescending and inhibits actual dialogue.

  19. 21
    Robert says:

    I do not choose to lard my already Cyclopean comments with the quantity of weasel words, qualifiers, modifiers, parenthetical notations of alternative points of view, and other modifications and emendations that would be required to make anyone’s personal viewpoint, let alone one as mind-numbingly verbose as mine, compatible with your standards for non-condescending and/or “dialogue”-enhancing expressions.

    I speak as clearly as I can and express myself as forthrightly as I am capable. You may phrase your own viewpoints with whatever assumptions of divinely-inspired correctness or cringingly-tentative language structures you wish; you’re in charge of that department.

    If I am wrong on the facts or present bad data, I am prepared to accept and to solicit corrections, additional information, and even chastisement, should it become evident to intelligent people of good will that a false statement on reality was made by me maliciously or through ignorance so profound as to be inexcusable in a person venturing to express his understanding in public.

    But your disagreement with my premises, where those premises seem to me quite solidly based on historical fact and the actual collective views of large majorities of the people in the society in question, is an issue which calls out for you to correct me with data, not with expressions of your discomfort at my failure to sufficiently endorse whatever worldview you espouse.