The Success Delusion

poverty snareHow did the social safety net turn into a poverty trap? It was a victim of the success of the job as an economic force.

Psychologists call it “the success delusion.” You do something and get a result you like, so you keep doing it, expecting more of the same. It keeps working until one day it doesn’t. Do you try something new? No, you double down — it worked before, surely it will work again. You keep doubling down until you’ve made a mess.

You’re a victim of your own success. If you could listen, hindsight would tell you that there was more to it than what you were doing, that a lot of what happened was you being in the right place at the right time. You might believe that or not, but what matters now is that the times changed and you didn’t.

That’s what happened to social welfare. 40 years of post-WWII economic success positioned the steady job as the cornerstone of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Then, in the 80’s and 90’s, about the time the job was starting to lose its economic vitality, policy-makers doubled down on it:  work had raised the welfare of the whole world since the days of the telegraph and railroad, and surely it was still the best route out of poverty. So now we had workfare instead of welfare, and, as we saw last time, social welfare became “a system of suspicion and shame.”

get-a-job

Standin’ in line marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old lady’s eyes
Just for fun he says, “Get a job.”

That’s The Way It Is”
Bruce Hornsby and the Range

Rutger Bregman sums it up this way:

“We’re saddled with a welfare state from a bygone era when the breadwinners were still mostly men and people spent their whole lives working at the same company. The pension system and employment protection rules are still keyed to those fortunate to have a steady job, public assistance is rooted in the misconception that we can rely on the economy to generate enough jobs, and welfare benefits are often not a trampoline, but a trap.”

Utopia for Realists (2017)

Guy Standing explains it this way:

“The period from the nineteenth century to the 1970’s saw what Karl Polanyi, in his famous 1944 book, dubbed “The Great Transformation.”

“The essence of labourism was that labour rights — more correctly , entitlements — should be provided to those (mostly men) who performed labour and to their spouses and children.

“Those in full-time jobs obtained rising real wages, a growing array of ‘contributory’ non-wage benefits, and entitlements to social security for themselves and their family. As workers previously had little security, this was a progressive step.

“Labourism promoted the view that the more labour people did, the more privileged they should be, and the less they did the less privileged they should be. The ultimate fetishism was Lenin’s dictate, enshrined in the Soviet constitution, that anybody who did not labour should not eat.

“The labourist model frayed in the 1980’s, as labour markets became more flexible and increasing numbers of people moved from job to job and in and of employment.

“To defend labour-based welfare, social democratic governments turned to means testing, targeting benefits on those deemed the deserving poor.

“The shift to means testing was fatal. As previous generations of social democrats had understood, benefits designed only for the poor are invariably poor benefits and stand to lose support among the rest of society.

“Ironically, it was mainly social democratic parties that shifted policy towards workfare, requiring the unemployed to apply for non-existent or unsuitable jobs, or to do menial, dead-end jobs or phony training courses  in return for increasingly meagre benefits.

“Today, we are living in a Second Gilded Age — with one significant difference. In the first, which ended in the Great Crash of 1929, inequality grew sharply but wages on average rose as well. The Second Gilded Age has also involved growing inequality, but this time real wages on average have stagnated or fallen. Meanwhile, those relying on state benefits have fallen further behind, many pushed into homelessness, penury and dependence on inadequate private charity.

“Since the 1980s, the share of income going to labour has shrunk, globally and in most countries of economic significance… The labour share fell in the USA from 53 per cent in 1970 to 43.5 per cent in 2013. Most dramatically, it slid by over twenty percentage points in China and also dropped steeply in the rising industrial giant of South Korea.

“Besides falling wages, there has been an increase in wage differentials and a less-documented decline in the share of people receiving non-wage benefits, such as occupational pensions, paid holidays, sick leave or medical coverage. Thus worker compensation, in terms of ‘social income,’ has fallen by more than revealed by wages alone.

“As a consequence of these developments, ‘in-work poverty’ has rocketed. In some OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — 34 industrialized member countries], including Britain, the USA, Spain and Poland, a majority of those in poverty live in households where at least one person has a job.

“The mantra that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is simply false.”

The Corruption of Capitalism (2017)

Not only are jobs doing a poor job at social welfare — for both employed and unemployed alike — but they are themselves an endangered species. More to come…

Poverty Gets Personal

poverty

“In the sixties we waged a war on poverty and poverty won.” – Ronald Reagan

Poverty is a “personality defect.” – Margaret Thatcher

The Gipper was referring to LBJ and his Great Society, but he got it wrong:  the Great Society failed to eliminate poverty because it never got all the way to dealing with it. Instead it took a more politically acceptable path focused on education and community involvement — not bad things, but there’s a difference. As for the Iron Lady, there’s actually some truth in what she said (we’ll look at that in a moment), but I suspect not in the way she probably meant it. She was more likely voicing the common attitude that the poor are intellectually impaired, morally flawed, prone to bad lifestyle choices, and criminally inclined, and therefore worthy of only the most grudging kind of help. That attitude and the Great Society’s reputed loss[1] in its War on Poverty explain a lot about today’s prevailing approach to poverty relief.

Rutger Bregman tackles this tough subject in his book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017):

“A world without poverty– it might be the oldest utopia around. But anybody who takes this dream seriously must inevitably face a few tough questions. Why are the poor more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many dumb decisions?”

He continues with more tough questions:

“What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges [toward self-help and away from government assistance] only make the situation worse?”

He then profiles the work of Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, and Sendhill Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, who formulated a theory of poverty based on the concept of “scarcity mentality.” Their research shows that the chronic poor are really good at scrambling after short term solutions, but tend to be inept at sustainable long-term thinking. It’s a matter of mental bandwidth:  today’s urgency gets all the attention, leaving other matters to go begging (sometimes literally). In fact, their research estimates that poverty costs a person about 13-14 IQ points. In other words, living in a chronic state of being poor can eventually rewire the human brain to the point where clear thinking and prudent behavior are challenged.

Hence the grain of truth in Margaret Thatcher’s comment.

One problem with that attitude, though, is that it uses the terms “poor” and “poverty” interchangeably. But not everyone who’s poor is also impoverished. At the simplest level, the poor are poor because they lack money. But poverty goes further:  it’s a chronic condition that generates a specific outlook and way of approaching life. When that condition is shared, it  becomes a culture. You know it when you’re around poverty; you might not know it when you’re around poor.

Government assistance programs don’t make that distinction. As a result, as Bregman states, social welfare has “devolved into a behemoth of control and humiliation.”

“An army of social services workers is needed to guide people through the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures… The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame.”

Is it really that bad? Try applying for food stamps sometime.

Our bank account was thin after a business failure and some health issues. Following the advice of family. my wife applied for food stamps. Her experience was everything Bregman describes. Case in point: after two mandatory daylong job search classes (how to write a resume, set up a LinkedIn page, use the internet to check out online job postings…), she had to prove her willingness to work by reporting for 8 hours per week of wall-washing duty at a church community center. She washed the same walls every week — the same walls that other people were also washing every week — the cleanest walls in Denver. Washing walls — pointlessly, needlessly, endlessly — to prove you’re not a slacker.

Help with the grocery bill was bittersweet for a couple months, then we opted out. It’s easy to intellectualize and debate about “all the information and education” and “the jungle of eligibility, application, approval, and recapture procedures.” It’s not so easy when they get personal. We were poor but not impoverished, and the system was just too demoralizing to continue. Maybe that was the point.

Plus, earning money reduces or eliminates benefits — a result which economist Guy Standing calculates is equivalent to the imposition of a 80% tax. The quandary is obvious:  earn money or opt out of the system– either way, you pay the tax. Most people — even the cognitively-impaired — wouldn’t agree to a deal like that.

How did “Brother, can you spare a dime?” turn into this? Curiously, the current welfare system derived from the same post-WWII economic surge that rewarded working people. We’ll look at how that happened next week. In the meantime, have a listen:

brother can you spare a dime

This week’s post uses portions of a LinkedIn Pulse article I wrote last year about poverty, crime, and homelessness. Next week’s post will also tap that source. You might like to jump ahead and read the article:  Why Don’t We Just solve Some Problems For a Change?

[1] Not everyone agrees that we lost the War on Poverty. See this article that considers both sides.

Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.

Utopia For Realists

“Progress is the realization of utopias.”

Oscar Wilde

utopia for realistsDutchman Rutger Bregman is a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2017. He’s written four books on history, philosophy, and economics. In his book Utopia for Realists (2016), he recognizes the dangers of utopian thinking:

“True, history is full of horrifying forms of utopianism — fascism, communism, Nazism — just as every religion has also spawned fanatical sects.

“According to the cliché, dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. Utopias are a breeding ground for discord, violence, even genocide. Utopias ultimately become dystopias.”

Having faced up to the dangers, however, he presses on:

“Let’s start with a little history lesson:  In the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly. As recently as the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) described life as one giant vale of tears. ‘Humanity is great,’ he wrote, ‘because it knows itself to be wretched.’ In Britain, fellow philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) concurred that human life was basically, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

“But in the last 200 years, all that has changed. In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful.[1]

“Welcome, in other words, to the Land of Plenty. To the good life, where almost everyone is rich, safe, and healthy. Where there’s only one thing we lack:  a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Because, after all, you can’t really improve on paradise. Back in 1989, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama already noted that we had arrived in an era where life has been reduced to ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’[2]

“Notching up our purchasing power another percentage point, or shaving a couple off our carbon emissions; perhaps a new gadget — that’s about the extent of our vision. We live in an era of wealth and overabundance, but how bleak it is. There is ‘neither art nor philosophy,’ Fukuyama says. All that’s left is the ‘perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’

 “According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehoist the sails. ‘Progress is the realization of utopias,’ he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing this rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead.

“In fact, most people in wealthy countries believe children will actually be worse off than their parents. According to the World Health Organization, depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens and will be the number-one cause of illness worldwide by 2030.[3]

“It’s a vicious cycle. Never before have so many young people been seeing a psychiatrist. Never before have there been so many early career burnouts. And we’re popping antidepressants like never before. Time and again, we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. If success is a choice, so is failure. Lost your job? You should have worked harder. Sick? You must not be leading a healthy lifestyle. Unhappy? Take a pill.

“No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better. We can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got. The real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.[4]

After this assessment, Bregman shifts gears. “The widespread nostalgia, the yearning for a past that really never was,” he says, “suggest that we still have ideals, even if we have buried them alive.” From there, he distinguishes the kind of utopian thinking we do well to avoid from the kind we might dare to embrace. We’ll follow him into that discussion next time.

[1] For a detailed (1,000 pages total) history of this economic growth from general nastiness to the standard of living we enjoy now, I’ll refer you again to two books I plugged a couple weeks ago:  Americana:  A 400 Year History Of American Capitalism and The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

[2] See here and here for a sampling of updates/opinions providing a current assessment of Fukuyama’s 1989 article.

[3]  World Health Organization, Health for the World’s Adolescents, June 2014. See this executive summary.

[4] This Tech Bubble is Different, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 14, 2011