Posts Tagged ‘poor’

Student-debt

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During last night’s discussion of capitalism verusus Catholicism, I made the point that everyone—rich and poor—is negatively affected by capitalist inequality.

My argument was that poor people are put at a distinct disadvantage within an “economy of exclusion,” because they are denied the basic material conditions necessary to sustain not only their individual lives, but also their participation in the wider society. But, I went on, rich people are also hurt by inequality, in the sense that are forced to act in selfish and unethical ways in order to maintain their positions of privilege.

I then referred to the psychological literature on the behavioral effects of inequality, about which I’ve written before (here and here). The latest contribution to this literature was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Social Class, Power, and Selfishness: When and Why Upper and Lower Class Individuals Behave Unethically,” by David Dubois, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky. The authors set out to disentangle the differences between unethical and self-serving behavior in relation to social class. Here’s what they found:

Both higher and lower social class individuals can engage in unethical behavior, but the target of that behavior might often differ: The unethical behavior of upper class individuals is more likely to be self-beneficial, whereas the unethical behavior of lower class individuals is more likely to be other-beneficial. This parsimonious account complements and qualifies recent work on social class and unethical behavior (Piff et al., 2012) by advancing the argument that the link between upper social class and unethical behavior occurs primarily for self-beneficial reasons.

As I’ve argued before, the point is not that rich people per se display behavioral pathologies—or, for that matter, that poor people are noble. It is fascinating that there are systematic differences in the target of their unethical behavior. But I’m more interested in the idea that both groups, within a highly unequal society, are forced to behave in ways many of us would consider unethical, whether self-serving or altruistic.

What I had in mind when I made my remarks was, of course, Marx’s statement “that the capitalist is just as enslaved by the relationships of capitalism as is his opposite pole, the worker, albeit in a quite different manner.”

But after the fact, as I was driving home from the discussion, I had another thought: what if that is the true content of the preferential option for the poor? We often think of the preferential option as a kind of basic moral test, in the sense of judging the adequacy of current economic arrangements in terms of how the most vulnerable members of society are faring. But what if there is a somewhat different interpretation—that changing society to eliminate poverty will benefit not only the formerly poor but also everyone else? In other words, creating institutions that eliminate the kinds of grotesque inequalities that characterize contemporary capitalism will benefit even those who are not poor, since they will no longer be forced to lose or undermine or otherwise forsake their humanity by engaging in unethical self-serving behaviors. Thus, eliminating capitalist inequality can be seeing as restoring humanity to everyone, both poor and rich.

In that sense, the poor and vulnerable represent a universal class—not because of some kind of inherent nobility, but because eliminating the conditions of poverty and vulnerability will benefit not only themselves, but all others in a capitalist society.

That—and not pity or charity or individual instances of social mobility—may be the truly radical content of the preferential option for the poor.

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One of the persistent narratives about the 2008 financial crash is that low-income people (with help from the government) took out mortgages to buy homes they couldn’t afford. And when they inevitably defaulted on their mortgage payments (and government-sponsored lending agencies were declared bankrupt), the entire financial system came tumbling down. In other words, poor people  caused the crash.

Uh, no!

New research by Manuel Adelino, Antoinette Schoar, and Felipe Severino serves to bury that myth. According to the authors,

The large majority of mortgage dollars originated between 2002 and 2006 are obtained by middle income and high income borrowers (not the poor). While there was a rapid expansion in overall mortgage origination during this time period, the fraction of new mortgage dollars going to each income group was stable. In other words, the poor did not represent a higher fraction of the mortgage loans originated over the period. In addition, borrowers in the middle and top of the distribution are the ones that contributed most significantly to the increase in mortgages in default after 2007.

In other words, the mortgage crisis that provoked the crash was not caused by poor people “living beyond their means.”

So, let’s stop blaming poor people for a crisis that originated elsewhere—among lenders and borrowers at the other end of the distribution of income whose “irrational exuberance” led them to get caught up in a spiral of increasing levels of mortgage debt premised on an unsustainable increase in housing prices that served as the basis of an intricate web of financial derivatives.

A bubble, which had nothing to do with poor people, that inevitably burst.

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Another distressing, but not particularly surprising, result from the study by the Pew Research Center I wrote about yesterday: most of America’s financially secure citizens (54 percent at the very top, and 57 percent just below) believe the “poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” They also think we can’t afford to do more for those in need.

America’s least financially secure, meanwhile, vehemently disagree; nearly 70 percent say the poor have hard lives because the benefits “don’t go far enough.” And, according to those at the bottom, we should do more for the needy, “even if it means more debt.”

A clearer divergence in political views between the most and least financially secure Americans won’t be found in the entire survey.

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The other day, in preparing my thoughts for a BBC interview on the end of quantitative easing in the United States, I wish I’d had Steve Waldman’s pithy summary in front of me:

you can see why a QE-only approach to demand stimulus embeds a troubling political economy. The only way to improve the circumstances of the un- or precariously employed is to first make the rich richer. The poor become human shields for the rich: if we let the price of stocks or houses drop, you are all out of a job. A high relative price of housing versus other goods, a high number of the S&P 500 stock index, carry no immutable connection to the welfare or employment of the poor. We have constructed that connection by constraining our choices. Deconstructing that connection would be profoundly threatening, to elites across political lines