Poverty and Success

Perhaps the most unpopular opinion I hold is that—in spite of the myriad obstacles to success instigated by the state—success is still achievable by a significant percentage of the population (>95%) and poverty is a result of one’s own choices in a similar percentage of cases.

I am not suggesting that everyone’s idea of success necessarily requires financial wealth or that poverty (a lack of financial wealth) is always an undesirable state of existence. Some people do indeed choose to prioritize other goals above wealth, and that is certainly their right. I also acknowledge that there are some people (<5%) in any population who, due to severe disability or state maleficence (typically through the so-called “criminal justice system“), have limited or no ability to achieve financial success.

Caveats aside, my basic thesis is that greater than 95 percent of people are capable of and have the opportunity to achieve financial success, but that many (and even a majority) do not take advantage of their opportunities. There are numerous decisions, reasons, and alternative priorities that explain this phenomenon and the following are far from an exhaustive list.

  1. Not taking advantage of educational opportunities. In the U.S. and most developed countries, basic education is available to all at no charge and higher education is available inexpensively or even at no charge to those who can demonstrate financial hardship. In addition, the information age has led to an unprecedented increase in the quantity and quality of educational materials available at little or even no charge. Nearly anyone can learn to do anything if they are willing to put in the effort. Those who choose to live their lives in ignorance have almost always chosen that path.
  2. Having children (they cannot afford) too young. This is another huge predictor of one’s likelihood of achieving financial success. Having children represents nearly a quarter-million dollars’ worth of expenses taken on which will have to be paid in a span of fewer than two decades. Why do people make this foolish choice? If your finances would not support the purchase of a Lamborghini Huracán, they also don’t support you having a child. Wait or abstain!
  3. An unwillingness to relocate. Here we see another significant problem that plagues the perpetually poor. Sometimes opportunity doesn’t knock on your door. Sometimes you have to go hunt for it. Cost of living is also a major factor here. The Apartment List National Rent Report found that the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City was $2,523. It was even higher at $2,621 in San Jose, CA. Compare that to Phoenix, AZ or Houston, TX where the averages were $1,061 and $1,024 respectively.

It is not just rent either; today, the average cost for a gallon of gas in San Jose, CA, is $3.27 while in Houston, TX, it’s $1.93. Play with a Cost Of Living Calculator and observe the difference. Right now, the cost of living is 44.33% lower in Houston than in the San Francisco area and 56.82% lower than in the Manhattan area. Why do poor people stay in expensive cities?

What about finding a job? The lowest unemployment in the country right now is in the Ames, IA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) at just 1.4 percent. That’s less than half the 3.6 percent unemployment rate in the New York MSA, and yet the cost of living in Ames, IA, is 59.19% lower than in Manhattan. If you are working full time earning $20 an hour (well above the minimum wage) in New York, you could move to Ames, IA, and take a job making $8.50 an hour and you would be better off ($8.17/hr. is the breakeven point.) Oh, and gas at Sam’s Club in Ames is going for $1.86 a gallon today.

So what is my point with all this information? My point is that if people would make smarter decisions—particularly about their education, when they have children, and where they live—they would have a far greater chance of achieving financial success. I’m not suggesting that it is always easy or that there are not obstacles to overcome, but I am suggesting that it is not nearly as difficult as some people claim. Poverty is not the fault of billionaires or of “greedy capitalists” or of some systemic injustice that keeps “po’ folks” down. Poverty is the natural and predictable result of ongoing poor choices, and until people realize this and start taking responsibility for their own culpability in their financial situations, we will continue to hear the growing chorus of complainers demanding political intervention to redistribute money from those who earned it to those who did not.

With few exceptions, it is fair to say that poor people make poor choices.

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A Conservative Confession

Few psychological results are as well-grounded as hedonic adaptation.  Human beings often have strong short-run reactions to even mild stimuli.  An ice cream cone can put a huge grin on our faces.  Missing a red light can make us scream with rage.  In the long-run, however, human beings’ emotional reactions to even extreme stimuli soften to a shocking degree.  If you won millions in the lottery, the thrill would soon fade.  If your girlfriend dumped you, the pain of that would soon fade, too.  Hedonic adaptation isn’t perfect, but it is a mighty psychological force.

I’m weird in many ways, but as far as I can tell, my hedonic adaptation is quite normal.  Indeed, my only visible abnormality is self-awareness.  I know that I’m going to hedonically adapt to most good and bad life events, so I place little stock in life events.  And I get impatient with people who refuse to do the same.

So what?  Well, all this leads to an uncomfortable epiphany.  Intellectually, I’m convinced that even liberal, democratic societies are deeply unjust.  Logically, for example, the analogy between Jim Crow and immigration restrictions seems apt.  But psychologically speaking, I can still get used to this injustice.  Indeed, I’ve long since done so.

So what politically aggravates me?  Change in the wrong direction.  Though I do my best to regulate my own emotions, I fall short of perfect Stoicism.

The upshot: Even though my political views are deeply unconservative, the honest truth is that if existing justices and injustices were locked in place for ever, I would personally be happier.  When the world stops changing, it’s easy to accept the world as it is.

What does this justify?  Nothing, of course.  But don’t say that I only feel this way because my life is fine.  Plenty of people with far more than me are filled with rage.  Plenty of people with vastly less than me live relaxed, care-free lives.  Why?  Epicurus elegantly explained it millennia ago: What inspires positive and negative emotion is not so much our situation, as the gap between our situation and our expectations.  The lower your standards, the better you’ll feel.

And that is my conservative confession.

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Open Borders as Global Justice: Sowell Edition

Immigration laws don’t merely allow discrimination; they require it.  As the result, such laws are deeply anti-meritocratic.  Employers may be allowed to hire the best citizen for the job, but not the best person.

Even more strikingly, the injustice ripples down through the generations.  When you trap a foreign-born father in a Third World country, you don’t just stunt his prospects; you stunt his children’s prospects as well.  Indeed, this physical and mental stunting is often plain as day.

These truisms came firmly to my mind when I recently re-read the title essay of Thomas Sowell’s Compassion Versus Guilt:

Many years ago, in a Third World country, I noticed by the side of the road a ragged and forlorn little boy, who bore an uncanny resemblance to my son.  It was a momentary but penetrating shock – followed by a sober realization that that was what my son might be like, if we had been born there instead of in the United States.

The essay continues:

Even the most ardent believer in individual merit must recognize that where you happen to have been born, how you were raised, or where you happen to have been located when opportunity or disaster came along, can make all the difference in the world.

Sowell then wisely warns that we should not let pity drive us to rash, counter-productive remedies:

People are different, and these differences have consequences… Many of our attempts to share our good fortune with others, at home and abroad, have undermined the very efforts, standards and values that make that good fortune possible.  Trying to ease our own guilt feelings is very different from trying to advance those less fortunate.

Many of Sowell’s fans will take this as a thinly-veiled critique of open borders.  Nowadays, Sowell himself might do the same.  But that’s an unreasonable reading of what he meant at the time.  No, Sowell’s top two worries were: (a) labor market regulations will disemploy the poor, and (b) redistribution will lead the poor to make bad long-run decisions.  Neither remotely applies to simply deregulating labor markets so the global poor are free to accept job offers in the First World.

Notice, moreover, that Sowell is pushing the classic libertarian/conservative argument that government intervention is ultimately bad for the poor themselves.  But when pressed, even the angriest critics of immigration usually admit that deregulation makes the immigrants themselves better off.  They just care a lot more about relatively poor natives than absolutely poor foreigners – and want government to enforce this perverse priority on our whole society.

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Bullying and Free Association

One of the biggest problems with discussions on “school bullying” is that we define bullying differently than we would in other situations. It makes it so we analyse it from a different perspective, a perspective that fundamentally disrespects the pain of children. If we called the murder of a white man ‘murder’, but we called the killing of a black man “smiggletickels” and taught that smiggletickels exist and is unfortunate, but black people need to learn to cope with it … there is no doubt that society will tolerate the murder of black people much more often than the murder of white people.

Bullying in the adult world is called; battery, assault, robbery, harassment, kidnapping, false imprisonment, etc. In the child world we call it, bullying … do you see a problem?

To dig further … if I were to ask you, who is better equipped to handle someone assaulting them, an adult, or a child? Which would you choose? Who has more resources to battle an injustice done to them, an adult, or a child? If anything … it should be considered and treated as a much bigger issue when a child is hurt than an adult.

However, all of this is merely a result of a much deeper issue. This is the natural consequence of more fundamental ideas in our culture that societies have faced on many different issues many different times in history.

When the fundamental structure of a society makes some people have control over another group of people, it is human nature to abuse that power. Even the person who cares about being just and fair will have bad days where it will be hard to consider every element of every situation to be able to decide the best treatment. Even knowing an individual has so much power and choosing not to exercise it provides a perverted sense of righteousness. Rather than feeling that you are giving a man his due, you feel generous and it will affect the relationship you have with him.

A hundred years ago, the husband that chooses not to beat his wife will tell his wife how lucky she is to have such a considerate man. Two hundred years ago, the slave owner who rarely physically beats his slaves will tell them how lucky they are to be in such a great situation. And I am talking about the nice husbands and slave owners, most often people weren’t such nice guys.

The situation that ended the abuse of woman and black people was not white men being more just rulers … rather, society ending the power disparity. When women and black people have the opportunity to walk away from people they don’t want to be around, society became much more fair. When society encouraged these people to get away from abusive situation (rather than moralized or condemned them) we found these people getting even better treatment.

There is no way for different forms of bullying to be eliminated when people are forced to be around people they choose not to be around. When people have no power over their teachers, classmates, family lives … bullying will occur. Sadly, that is the plight of human nature. We don’t get good treatment by the justness of our rulers, we get good treatment by the incentives erected by free association. People get good treatment only when we have to be good to people in order to have them be around us, and they leave us when they feel mistreated. Children must be provided with free association in order to end bullying … then it will be in everyone’s interest to protect the child, and the child will have the ability to protect himself.

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The Insidious Wiles of Foreign Influence: Trump, Bin Salman, and Netanyahu

Even if the Saudi monarchy or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular did not murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that regime is an especially evil one in both its domestic and international conduct. To see that, one need only consider the horrendous Saudi war against the people of Yemen, with the backing of the U.S. government starting with Barack Obama. That war, with its merciless killing of defenseless thousands and its inevitable benefits to al-Qaeda, is just the latest in a series Saudi atrocities.

Predictably, Donald Trump wants it all ways. He’s made the obligatory mild critical remarks at the same time as he floated his “theory” that Khashoggi’s death may have been carried out by rogue agents. But since that explanation, along with the “interrogation gone wrong” alternative, is hardly likely, Trump seems to be banking on his warm relationship with and confidence in the credibility of King Salman and the crown prince to reassure us. Actually, Trump has two things on his mind: arms sales and Iran.

He believes, first, that he can make the U.S. economy vibrant by being the country’s arms-trafficker-in-chief. He can throw multibillion-dollar figures around like confetti all day, but that he can’t erase the fact that a thriving arms industry is not the key to real and general prosperity. Quite the contrary, its products either destroy lives and wealth or rust. Real prosperity is not captured by aggregate numbers, whether they refer to military contractors’ profits, stock prices, or GDP. Real prosperity means regular people having increasingly easier access to the goods and services they believe will enhance their lives. As long as the laws of physics operate, scarcity — though, thanks to technology and innovation, not its severity — will be with us. So if people are devoting resources to making warplanes, killer drones, and bombs, they aren’t making things that you and I actually use. Arms-industry fatcats and their workers will make money, but they could be making money in ways that actually serve consumers instead of murderous and oppressive dictators, monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers.

Trump is wrong: this is not about the economy. His position is a dangerous mix of economic illiteracy fueled by nationalism and a hegemonic geopolitical vision according to which Iran is throttled and Israel is enabled, with Saudi Arabia as a beneficiary. Those objectives serve neither most Americans nor the rest of the world’s people.

The old admonition about permanent and entangling alliances still holds. As often as it’s been quoted, it’s worth quoting again — Washington’s Farewell Address, that is. Despite all its qualifications, Washington’s essential message is clear:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. [Emphasis added.]

While steering clear of alliances is good advice, we may still question why the American regime has, beginning long before Trump, chosen one government for an ally over another. Why, for example, is the U.S. government close to Saudi Arabia rather than Iran? It certainly is not the case that the former is more liberal than the latter. That would be a laughable proposition. To pick a random test, how close are centers of Riyadh and Tehran to the nearest synagogues? I wouldn’t want to live in either place, but if those were my only choices, please give me Tehran. As for Iran’s allegedly creeping hegemony in the Middle East, check your premises. George W. Bush made Iran influential in Iraq by invading and knocking off Iran’s nemesis Saddam Hussein. (Iraq invaded and waged a long war, using chemical weapons, against Iran in the 1980s — with U.S. help — not vice versa.) Then Bush and Obama brought Iran closer to Syria by their continued war in Iraq, giving birth of the Islamic State, and Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s declaring open season on Bashar al-Assad after the putative civil war broke out. Iran, no matter what Trump tells you, does not aspire and never has aspired to be a nuclear power. (See Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.) Nor does it aspire to attack the United States or Israel, though it does oppose Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Iran is not on the march.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable party to a great deal of mischief, including mischief involving al-Qaeda — you know, the organization that brought down the Twin Towers — throughout the greater region and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. friendship with Saudi Arabia has benefitted al-Qaeda and even worse offshoots in Syria.

Thus the demonization of Iran and the glorification of Saudi Arabia, whence Muslim extremism was born, has no rational basis.

And Israel? The self-declared State of the Jewish People (a label rejected by countless Jews worldwide) has forged an alliance with Saudi Arabia for the dual purpose of intimidating Iran and cowing the long-suffering Palestinians. America’s entangling alliance with Israel has amounted to a gross offense against humanity, blackening whatever reputation the United States once might have had as a beacon of freedom, justice, and goodwill. Furthermore, the partnership has endangered Americans by provoking a desire for revenge in those who identify with the Muslim victims of U.S.-Israeli policy.

One final matter: the question of whether the U.S. government should block arms sales to the Saudis. We can say for sure that the government should in no way facilitate the sales. That’s an easy one. But maybe the arms makers need neither government material help nor Trump’s salesmanship to close deals with the House of Saud. In refusing to come down too hard on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi disappearance, Trump said, “I will tell you up front, right now they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment. And if we don’t sell to them, they’ll say thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia or China.” (On the actual size of the deal, see this.)

Is Trump right that Russian or China might have gotten the deal? I don’t know, but if he is right, it raises interesting questions: did Trump make any side promises to close the deal; if so, what were they and would the deal have gone through without them? Most likely, any promises have involved things Trump and perhaps Israel would or would not do with respect to Iran and the Palestinians. We deserve answers.

Assuming American arms makers would sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other regimes without government help, we may complicate the matter further by pointing out that those firms are not actually private enterprises, no matter their appearance. Rather, they are creatures of the American state and deserve no respect from supporters of free enterprise. It’s unlikely they would exist in anything like their current form, if at all, were it not for the U.S. government, its captive taxpayers, and its global imperial apparatus, whose personnel rotate regularly between “national security” jobs and lucrative seats on defense contractors’ boards of directors. The upshot is that these nominally private firms are really state-held, that is, illegitimately held, property and could legitimately be liberated and turned to the production of goods for the consumers. In 1969 Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess wrote provocatively about when an apparently private entity is actually not private and what we might do about it. Some of their solutions are debatable, but Rothbard was surely correct when he wrote: “What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not ‘private’ property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property. It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus.”

The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (AECA) requires a president to ensure that arms sold to other governments are used for defensive purposes only. Obviously, this act is flouted every day. Imagine if it were applied to Saudi Arabia and Israel! It’s not that I’m a fan of the AECA: a president who wants to see arms sold to a repressive regime will find ways to give that regime a clean bill of health; the AECA would have no force in such a case. On the other hand, it has been used to harass exporters of encryption software to people who would use it to protect themselves from their oppressors’ prying eyes.

So what can we do? Our options are limited at this point. But one ought to do whatever one can to sow public hostility toward these “merchants of death”: public shaming, divestment campaigns, and the like. It’s the least we can do. At least let us make a loud noise!

If someone is going to sell arms to the Saudis and other regimes, I’d rather it be someone other than us Americans because I don’t want to be even remotely associated with the inevitable crimes against humanity that will follow.

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Victory Against Evil Is Never Final

I was talking with some church friends last night about the frustrating cycle of history found in the Biblical stories. People turn to violence and injustice and fall to violence and injustice again and again, cycle after cycle. It’s really depressing.

If you look more broadly, you can find the same cycle of failure and redemption and new failure in stories and in history. We see the same evils coming back again and again. And there is no guarantee that good done now will obviously last forever.

Might all our good works be destroyed by another world war, nuclear weapons, global warming, destructive robots, alien species, or totalitarianism? Or will more mundane destroyers do it: time, decay, loss of character, loss of memory? Any and all of those options seem possible at some point in the future. And this kind of worry can set you up for profound depression.

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien knows a thing or two about that. As someone who experienced one World War to-end-all-wars followed by a World War II just a few more than 20 years later (followed by a cold war with the threat of nuclear annihilation), Tolkien surely must have felt the apparent futility of fighting evil.

Maybe that’s why Lord of the Rings is so refreshing: it shows a clear triumph of good over evil. Frodo destroys the Ring (in a roundabout way), Aragorn becomes king and restores Gondor, and the dwarves, elves, men, and halflings of Middle Earth defeat the forces of evil. Many of us know (and love) this story for good reason.

Many people don’t know that Tolkien began work on a draft called The New Shadow in which a new worship of evil arises in Gondor during the reign of Aragorn’s son. This has always bothered me. Why undo all the heroism of The Lord of the Rings by showing another slide into moral decay? But as I’ve gained a little more perspective, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of what Tolkien was trying to communicate.

We may get a glimpse of Tolkien’s view of things from wise words of the wizard Gandalf, said toward the end of Return of the King. As the leaders of the free people of Middle Earth consider their final campaign against Sauron, Gandalf offers words of hope but also words that temper hope:

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

For Gandalf, this battle will not rid the world of evil once and for all. It does not mean that no new evil will arise. But it does mean that one generation will have done its part to clean up the evil of the past and the present, and to pass on a better future to the next generation.

What if this is the best that can be hoped for?

If we agree with Gandalf and Tolkien, we have a responsibility to fight the evil that we can fight. But we don’t have to let ourselves be consumed by worry about what that work might mean a hundred or a thousand years from now. That’s not our task. We have a part to play, and it’s to take on the evil that is right in front of us. Even if that evil will raise its head again 100 years or 1000 years or even 10 years from now, it’s still worth fighting – because “there’s some good in this world . . ., and it’s worth fighting for.”

This is a liberating thought.

You have to fight the evil of today, not the evil of all time. This is an enemy (which, even if still large) is defeatable. With any luck, your positive work now will mean a better world for you and those you love. And, though the next generation will have its own challenges in cultivating this world, they at least won’t have to dig up the same roots.

Focus on the presence of good now, not the absence of evil for all time. Trust that existence will take care of itself like it always has. Every generation will have its chance to transcend and grow and fight for the good. You can help that process along, but ultimately they will do it without you just like you have had to do it without help from your ancestors.

The past has seen evil after evil, but it has also raised hero after hero. This is what human beings *do* for a living (among other things). Our work now can ensure that our children and grandchildren can take the fight against evil further and deeper than us – but it won’t mean they won’t have to fight.


Intellectual credits: Many, but special shout-out to Robert Jordan of The Wheel of Time for introducing me to the concept of the “pattern” of life “choosing” and “raising” heroes to restore balance.

P.S. I actually do think it’s hypothetically possible to live in a world without evil (that’s another post), but not in a world without limitation or suffering. We’ll always have to struggle against something.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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