Poverty and Choice

Self-interest and altruism lead to same results more often than we assume. Because we have not internalised this basic truth we frequently go wrong. Exhibit A in this respect is the Trump administration with its religion of America First. Did that bring America happiness? I think not. 

Fortunately, we are now in a new era. Yet, we continue making the mistake. The competition for vaccines between countries is Exhibit B. Not only are we getting suboptimal results when we compete in the way we do in the rich world, but by leaving the developing world high and dry we are not only inhuman but also undercutting our own efforts. Leaving India and Africa as labs for the corona virus to establish new variants that can defeat our warp speed vaccines is hardly a great idea even if looked at purely from the egoistic perspective.

What we are doing in this situation, as in so many others, is that we are leveraging our wealth of options against the dearth of options of the developing world. The downside of having few options is that you have few possibilities to improve your lot. But a downside of having many options is that that you have a good chance of exercising them wrongly. Given a choice, you would certainly always go with having many options despite the exposure to own stupidity in exercising them. Nevertheless, what is poorly understood is that to achieve best results and most happiness there should be a reasonable balance of options access, be it within a country or between countries. Imbalance is not only a source of tension, but undermines the power of the options of the privileged. There is no point in being able to buy a Bentley if not enough people have the option of buying cars so that proper roads can be built.

Very often the rich and the poor do not compete for the same resources, of course. The poor are nevertheless left in dire straits because of our ignorance, arrogance, neglect. They are left destitute because the rich do not understand that it is in their interest to lift the poor out poverty. It is a wry old Marxist insight that the bourgeoisie is better off with a robust underclass that can produce and consume. Although the recent wealth of the West can be ascribed largely to the empowerment of the lower middle class, the working class, we are racing headlong for disaster because we have again forgotten this truth. The current gaping inequality is testament to our forgetfulness.

Ethical behaviour should be an imperative, but it is shocking that we also ignore a most fundamental win-win. With the number of options increasing exponentially in virtually every domain of human endeavour we risk creating a much larger and more desperate proletariat if we do not make sure that everybody has both the means and the capability to exploit all that choice. 

The idea of a universal basic income has a lot of wind in its sails – hot on the heels of the first inadvertent experiments in this direction in the United States, where coronavirus stimulus cheques were sent to a very broad swath of the population. Universal basic income may not be the only way to ensure that all have the means to benefit from the options revolution, but it is certainly one way, particularly if we are able to achieve such universal basic income on a truly universal scale, that is, in all countries. When the objection comes up in response that this is unaffordable the bourgeoisie should remember the usefulness for capitalism of the above Marxist insight.

As to the capability to benefit from the mass of options, the only way forward is, of course, much better education, both within the rich world and without. Elites have been very complacent in this regard for half a century. They assumed that the education task was achieved with the right to go to school. However, the next step should have been to introduce a process of continuing improvement of the quality of teaching. The rich have, of course, achieved this for themselves but have left the poor to sink. The desolate state of many underprivileged schools has been an important driver of inequality, and will continue being so unless something is done. That ‘something’ should include the revival to former glory of the social status of teachers in the rich world. Accordingly, the starvation wages paid to the teachers of our children at their most impressionable age must become a thing of the past. The professors of Stanford should perhaps be paid less, the teachers in poor East Palo Alto certainly more. 

In the developing world the remedies in this respect are more complicated, yet the optional society has shown how new tools are invented when compelling educational needs so dictate. Zoom teaching is now commonplace in the West because of corona.  If we would understand the needs of developing countries as being equally compelling, the world could, without being patronising, put the same creative mechanisms to use in order to meet their requirements.  Think about the potential of digital avatars as teaching buddies to help overcome teacher shortages.  The result of such efforts would be that we would turn the deprived into effective participants in society. That is not only right but also our self-interest!

2 thoughts on “Poverty and Choice

  1. Tryggvi Edwald

    I agree with you that the only way forward is much improved education. But how?
    And if anything good comes out of the pandemic, it will be the spread of online teaching.
    In the early days of online courses (MOOCs), a decade ago, a good technical course
    could pull in over a hundred thousand registrants, an almost unthinkably fantastic result.
    Once created, the distribution of the material is unrelated to the number of participants,
    and participation has low barriers of entry. Further, with online courses, students are not
    limited to local availability or mediocrity of courses. Nor are they limited by local, state, or
    federal laws that prohibit the teaching of ‘uncomfortable’ material, as is once again increasingly
    popular in fascistic states and countries -even as recently as last week (!) in the US state of Texas.
    It is unfortunate that fascism comes along with a glorification of stupidity, and all kinds of
    limitations on education and intellectual activity (I am not entirely sure which is cause and which is effect, here).
    Of course, the solution of online courses has the same curse as online material in general, that
    75% of it is pure rubbish, which will probably grow asymptotically to 100% in the next few years.

    Like

    1. Dear Tryggvi,
      Good questions, some of which are sought answered in a new book that I have wriiten with a friend and former colleague, Marco Aliberti. Will come out in Oct/November!

      Like

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