Fred Clark: Unemployed in the Affluent Society

Fred Clark, of Slacktivist fame, quotes some passages from John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society” that are apparently dated, but which ring very true.

Galbraith discusses the Puritan origins of a moral imperative to work. Goods were vitally necessary; the loss of available labor to produce those goods was extremely detrimental to society; and, therefore, the penalty – deprivation of all or most of an individual’s income – was appropriate. The penalty was so justified that there was no moral obligation to help someone who wasn’t helping themselves by working.

Now, in a world awash with goods, the loss of an individual’s productive capacity is incidental but the penalty remains almost equally severe – even where the failure to work isn’t through sloth but through lack of obvious opportunities. And, yet, the quest continues for a moral justification to allow the affluent to settle into a comfortable disregard for those not sharing in society’s affluence.

More influential is the argument that stresses the inefficiency of government and sees its costs and taxes (those for defense apart) as a threat to liberty. From this comes the philosophical basis for resistance to government help to the poor. … Such doctrine, once again, allows the affluent to relax not with the ostentatious cruelty of Social Darwinism, but nonetheless in the contented belief that no ameliorative action is possible or socially wise.


  1. says

    Show me a poor person, and I will show you someone who has not obtained an education, is not married, has children out of wedlock, is involved in the criminal justice system, and uses drugs, in addition to not working.

    How is it that I, one of the “affluent”, should be forced to “share” with someone who doesn’t even do the most basic things needed to help him or herself?

    What I find most despicable is that you, Doug, are educated, married, law abiding, and (I assume) not a drug user, yet refuse to hold others to this sensible standard.

    This country started going downhill when people like you thought it “judgy” to hold people to basic standards of civilization.

  2. says

    On the other hand, being poor in the USA isn’t at all as harrowing as it was 100 years ago here, or as it is in other parts of the world.

    You mentioned a ‘penalty’. Tell me: Who issues it?

  3. Doug says

    “Despicable” always makes me think of Sylvester the Cat.

    It’s a cleaner world where we hold our fate in our own hands and rise and fall according to our merits and morality. But things are messier than that. Lots of people do fail because they make bad, “be happy now, screw the future” decisions. But it’s not all that simple. And I do judge. Green Day has a song that speaks of “the deadbeats and the losers.” In my debt collection practice, I figured one of my jobs was to distinguish between the two. The deadbeats were worth pounding on a little; because some effort on their part might get the bill paid. The losers were just getting beaten around by life and more personal initiative probably wasn’t going to do a thing to increase their net worth to where I could get at it.

    The quoted material speaks to, I think, where these notions of work and morality come from and questions whether those underlying conditions have changed such that we ought to be reconsidering our assumptions. I hear you, loud and clear, as saying “no need to re-evaluate anything.” I’m not as certain. You’re free to find such uncertainty despicable if it makes you happier.

  4. Doug says

    You mentioned a ‘penalty’. Tell me: Who issues it?

    Typically the police, courts, and other branches of government we have created to enforce laws we’ve adopted concerning property.

  5. says

    What is despicable, Doug, is that you benefit from the standards that you hold yourself to. Let’s call them for the sake of argument “Middle Class Values” (MCV). But, for whatever reason, you don’t appreciate what MCV have done for you, or to what extent the lack of MCV is really the root cause of the plight of the American poor.

    Tell me, what percentage of the deadbeats that you deal with are college educated people who are married, never divorced, and have had all their kids in wedlock? The percentage is minuscule.

    We used to know this, as a society. We created social structures such that we transmitted MCV to the poor. But people like you destroyed those social structures, and it is the poor that suffer because of it.

  6. says

    Also, to hit you from a different angle, you could have massive redistribution, pumping the incomes of the poor up to middle class standards, and they would still have all the problems that the poor have: violence and crime, family problems, obesity, etc. etc.

    Poverty is not an economic phenomenon, it is just one other negative aspect of certain peoples’ poor future time orientation.

  7. says


    It’s always seemed to me that a major difference between between being wealthy (wealthier) and being poor(er) is the number of mistakes you can afford to make.

    How do people know that an education is important when they grow up in a family where the big priorities are getting through the day, where no one in the household has finished high school, and when they attend schools where they are met with low expectations? I’m not saying that all poor kids grow up in this kind of environment, but a lot do, and I just don’t think it is reasonable for large numbers of people with such a background to become entrepreneurial research scientists.

    At a certain point, most of us become our parents. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that is bad.

    Personally, I have had the enormous benefit of two loving, hard-working parents who modelled education, professional commitment/work ethic, and volunteer commitment/service to their community. If I slack off, Buzzcut, you are completely justified in telling me how terrible I am. But I have a problem with criticizing people for behaving the way the were raised.

  8. says

    Buzz, I know people that were making $100k a year, married, not drug users that have never been arrested that had to visit the church food pantry because they were out of work.
    I used to assume it was all as black & white as you’re describing, but it isn’t.

  9. Donna says

    …and I know a young teen girl whose main energies every day are devoted to keeping her unmarried mom’s various boyfriends out of her own bedroom. Is this girl responsible for the situation she’s in? Is it fair to turn our backs on her because the adults in her life are hideous? Or is it better to risk some “undeserving” people getting to freeload if the ones who truly it the help can then access help?

  10. says

    My bias is actually against the kids who don’t value education. Because they teased me in middle school for using big words. Fortunately, I recognize that good policy doesn’t necessarily coincide with my adolescent hang-ups.

  11. says

    With the recession, there are of course more folks who meet my “deserving poor” criteria, and I have no problem giving them help (and I do so).

    But if you think that that is who most of the poor are, you’re crazy. The data is pretty clear on that.

    I am also sympathetic to the children of the poor, and that’s why I’m glad they have programs like free school breakfasts and lunches.

    But, again, I submit that we could implement Doug’s dream of total income redistribution, making everyone have a middle class income, and the dysfunctions of the poor would still be there. You have to address the behavior, and we know what it takes not to be poor in America: get an education (graduating high school is a good start), don’t have kids out of wedlock, don’t get involved in crime. Do that, and your probability of being poor is quite low.

  12. Thomas says

    Personally I’ve always preferred the whole “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “Do unto others…” as opposed to the whole Hobbes philosophy which Buzz seems to espouse. I’d rather try to give the poor a hand up whether they take it or slap it away. In the end, there are a lot more of “them” than there are of the rich and middle class and the hand that isn’t offered today may well find its neck in the guillotine in the future (just ask the French).

  13. says

    You know, there is a long philosophical history on this subject, particularly from a theological point of view. The corruption of the morals of the poor due to charity used to be something that people cared very much about.

    These days, we only care about The One Commandment: Thou shalt not judge.

  14. says

    Also, y’all who revel in the self description, “Reality Based Community” should ask yourself the efficacy of these social programs. How many actually help the poor.

    But that’s not really what welfare and charity are all about, they’re really about making liberals feel good about themselves. They’re not “judgy”, they care, yada, yada, yada.

  15. Donna says

    Buzzcut there is definitely waste in government social programs, as in ALL programs of any scale. I think everyone is in agreement that government spending can pretty much always be used more efficiently, and some nasty people will always take advantage of any system for personal gain.

    But: greed and selfishness isn’t limited to public social programs, and privatization of these programs has PLENTY of examples of undeserving receivers. NPR is in the middle of a series of investigative reports into South Dakota’s handling of foster Native American children: it seems there is lots of Federal money to be made by taking, specifically, Native American children from their families and putting them in privately run foster homes. Similarly, there is a judge in Pennsylvania who discovered the more juvenile offenders he sent to a privately operated prison, the more kickbacks he could make from the prison owners.

    Of course I’d much rather fix the existing system and have clean, reliable, workable social safety nets that actually help people move OUT of poverty rather than keep them in it. But given the system we have now, I’d rather feed one truly hungry child or save one from domestic abuse even if it means simultaneously lining the pockets of 10 corrupt government workers and 10 undeserving welfare cheats. Corruption, waste, embezzlement, kickbacks for personal gain, etc. all need to be dealt with as CRIMINAL acts, without penalizing the people who actually need help.

    But we are an exceptionally wealthy society: there is no excuse for us to not provide all people with an education and ethos that allows them to flourish. “Giving” everyone a middle class income won’t solve anything, you’re right (did Doug actually suggest that?). But giving people the ability to have and achieve goals – to work in a productive capacity, and then model that behavior for their children – would be an enormous change in the options for the poor in our country.

  16. says

    I’m a dumb ass. No question about it. I allowed myself to barely skate by in high school (in the top 5% of my class, but should have been in the top 3 students). I bombed out of college because I preferred being in a band and selling hallucinogens on the side…life was good. But once I fucked myself into a corner, it still took me 10 years to get to the point where I knew what was going on….how to do it “right.”

    I understand why certain people…because of their upbringing or whatever…never figure “it” out. They never need to. They can plod along, begging for handouts…the modern-day version of shame-free panhandling.

    All of the anecdotes in the world don’t gloss over the fact that people need to pull their heads out of their asses and individually progress. Buzz has it right. Perhaps his PC radar has failed, but he’s on track. Political correctness never solved any problems, it only saved a few ego bruises. Take it from a guy who knows, those bruises can put a doomed ship on course.

  17. says

    I understand that folks will disagree, but just so you know where I’m coming from: my desire to equal out the income distribution in this country to some degree (not entirely – before that strawman comes out to play) is not because of some sense of political correctness or because I feel sorry for anyone or because I’m envious of anyone.

    Buzz has me pegged as someone making the arguments that I do because poor people make me sad, or something. Or maybe those fat cats make me mad because they have a bunch of cool stuff and I don’t. Truly, no.

    I think our price points are out of whack. I don’t think any hedge fund trader is producing thousands of times more value than the guy working in the mine, digging a ditch, or even pushing a broom. And, yet, compensation is disparate at those levels. And, even then, so what? Am I making these arguments as a fancy way of stomping my feet and raging that “It’s not fair!” It’s easy to say so, but, again, no.

    It’s that I don’t think our economy functions very well when its “winner-takes-all” aspect gets too pronounced. Our neighborhoods and towns get shabbier as all the wealth leaves. Our families get dysfunctional when mom and dad both have to work to pay the mortgage and provide health care. It’s harder for people to save up enough to strike out on their own and start their own businesses. People don’t have as much time or money to contribute to volunteer efforts in their communities. You do get more people looking to cheat the system the less rewarding work becomes.

    And, it would be one thing if there was simply no wealth in the economy or if we were producing less. But that’s not what is going on. More and more, the wealth being produced by our economy is going to fewer and fewer people. That’s like all the power is going to one engine. We need to adjust the machine a little bit to get all of the engines cranking as efficiently as possible.

    Disagree with my analysis if you want; but know that I’m not coming at this from an angle of jealousy or empathy.

  18. says

    Doug, your post is guilt of the zero sum fallacy. Hedge Funders have absolutely nothing to do with you and me. Their gain is not your loss, because the economy is not a zero sum game.

    Now, there is no question that the economy is not what it used to be. But I think that this is more a function of globalization and automation. There isn’t much use for ditch diggers anymore (to use your example), one guy with a backhoe can do the job of literally hundreds of ditch diggers (and wait until that backhoe is fully automated, that day is coming).

    And if you did need a ditch digger, most likely you could find an illegal immigrant to do it for less than a native.

    And most likely that ditch is needed in a foreign country, for a new factory over there that takes advantage of overseas markets and cheaper labor.

    I’m not unsympathetic to anti-Wall Street arguments. Clearly, there is crony capitalism going on there (how did Rahm Emmanuel get so much money from Goldman Sachs anyway?) But to say that that has anything to do with the poor in this country is a stretch, at best.

  19. varangianguard says

    So who used the word “conscientiousness”? The researchers, or the cherry-picker whose site you sent us to? The site affixes some simplistic conclusion based wholly upon his own interpretation of this book, I’m thinking.

    Did he read all of it? Browse a review? Just “knows” because he’s a smart fellow)?

    There are few facts here (a right-winger’s dream, I’m guessing), and an unsupported interpretation by an economist (not a social scientist).

    Don’t know jack about history or psychology (at a minimum), and everything you know about sociology you learned from an economist.

    I can theorize something about all of that, but I imagine you don’t want to hear it.

  20. says

    Uh… economists are social scientists. And Bryan Caplan is one of the best.

    And, yes, economists seem to be the social scientists who best integrate multiple disciplines, whether it be behavioral economics (psychology, or more precisely, brain science), or history.

    So don’t argue the conclusions based on the excerpts or anything.

  21. varangianguard says

    Geographers best integrate multiple disciplines. But that, is an argument for another time and (more importantly) place.

    I was arguing that Prof. Caplan didn’t seem to discuss how he arrived at his (own) conclusions. So, either he didn’t get there via conventional means, or he doesn’t seem to think that his readers care.

  22. says

    OK, I get it. I’m obviously a disciple of that blog, and know Caplan’s past posts on the subject. I can see how seeing it for the first time could elicit your reaction.

    And it is a blog post, not a thesis dissertation.

    Caplan is the author of “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”. He’s pretty much a social science tour de force (as are pretty much everybody at the George Mason University economics department: Thomas Sowell, Bryan Caplan, Tyler Cowen, Alex Tarabok, and especially Robin Hanson).

  23. varangianguard says

    I’m not looking for a thesis (from this guy)*, but I would like to be treated as if I’m smarter than the average bear (or at least capable of following someone else’s train of thought – when described).

    OK. I give you that Economics is a Social Science. But, the current description is rather broad (as it includes Law). ;)

    * I am interested in a thesis dissertation from several people. The current Indianapolis Public Safety Director, “Dr. Straub”. Some guy who purported himself to have a Ph.D in history from Columbia (turns out it was Columbia Pacific instead. Can one say “diploma mill”?) And, anyone else who demands to be addressed as “Doctor”, with a Ph.D.


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