There’s a children’s tale about a king who pretended to be an ordinary peasant in order to check on his subjects. Unfortunately, the story took an unexpected turn, but that prompted the king to act in the most decisive way and make changes.
It’s just a fairy tale, but it defines our present-day reality. Today I will tell you a story that teaches us that problems should always be solved from within. Politicians shouldn’t act for the camera or recognition, but should rather aim at achieving results.
While the Census Bureau reports that in 2016 some 12.7% of Americans lived in poverty, it is impossible to reconcile this poverty rate, which has remained virtually unchanged over the last 50 years, with the fact that total inflation-adjusted government-transfer payments to low-income families have risen steadily. Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016.
.. Compared with what they pay in Social Security taxes, the lowest quintile of earners can receive as much as 10 times the lifetime benefits received by the highest quintile of earners and three times as much as the middle quintile... The measured poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged only because the Census Bureau doesn’t count most of the transfer payments created since the declaration of the War on Poverty. The bureau measures poverty using what it calls “money income,” which includes earned income and some transfer payments such as Social Security and unemployment insurance.
But it excludes food stamps, Medicaid, the portion of Medicare going to low-income families, Children’s Health Insurance, the refundable portion of the earned-income tax credit, at least 87 other means-tested federal payments to individuals, and most means-tested state payments. If government counted these missing $1.5 trillion in annual transfer payments, the poverty rate would be less than 3%.
Want to change the world? Don’t bother volunteering—get a real, ‘boring’ job.
If you’re volunteering at shelters or working for most nonprofits, that’s all very nice, but it’s one-off. You’re one of the privileged few who have the education to create lasting change. It may feel good to ladle soup to the hungry, but you’re wasting valuable brain waves that could be spent ushering in a future in which no one is hungry to begin with.
There’s a word that was probably never mentioned by your professors: Scale. No, not the stuff on the bottom of your bong or bathtub. It’s the concept of taking a small idea and finding ways to implement it for thousands, or millions, or even billions. Without scale, ideas are no more than hot air. Stop doing the one-off two-step. It’s time to scale up.\
Don’t spend all your time caring for the sick. Prevent disease. Gene therapy, early detection and immunotherapy can change the trajectory of disease because they scale. Don’t build temporary shelters. Figure out how to 3-D print real homes quickly and cheaply. Why tutor a few students when you can capture lessons from best-of-breed teachers and deliver them electronically to millions? That’s scale.
.. There is too much talk of sustainability, the fight over slices of a pie, zero-sum games. That’s the wrong framework. You need sustainability only if you stick to one-off moves.
.. detoxifying oppression
.. Channel that energy to change the stagnant status quo through scale in education, banking and especially government.
.. listen to Bono. As he told Georgetown students a few years ago, “Entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid.”
Everybody agrees society is in a bad way, but what exactly is the main cause of the badness?
Some people emphasize economic issues’
People like me emphasize cultural issues. If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomized, distrustful and divided.
Patrick Deneen .. new book, “Why Liberalism Failed,”
.. democracy has betrayed its promises.
- It was supposed to foster equality, but it has led to great inequality and a new aristocracy.
- It was supposed to give average people control over government, but average people feel alienated from government.
- It was supposed to foster liberty, but it creates a degraded popular culture in which consumers become slave to their appetites.
.. “Because we view humanity — and thus its institutions — as corrupt and selfish, the only person we can rely upon is our self. The only way we can avoid failure, being let down, and ultimately succumbing to the chaotic world around us, therefore, is to have the means (financial security) to rely only upon ourselves.”
.. Greek and medieval philosophies valued liberty, but they understood that before a person could help govern society, he had to be able to govern himself.
People had to be habituated in virtue by institutions they didn’t choose — family, religion, community, social norms.
.. Machiavelli and Locke, the men who founded our system made two fateful errors.
- First, they came to reject the classical and religious idea that people are political and relational creatures. Instead, they placed the autonomous, choosing individual at the center of their view of human nature.
- Furthermore, they decided you couldn’t base a system of government on something as unreliable as virtue. But you could base it on something low and steady like selfishness. You could pit interest against interest and create a stable machine. You didn’t have to worry about creating noble citizens; you could get by with rationally self-interested ones.
.. Liberalism claims to be neutral but it’s really anti-culture. It detaches people from nature, community, tradition and place. It detaches people from time. “Gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification.”
.. Once family and local community erode and social norms dissolve, individuals are left naked and unprotected. They seek solace in the state. They toggle between impersonal systems: globalized capitalism and the distant state. As the social order decays, people grasp for the security of authoritarianism.
“A signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness,” he observes. He urges people to dedicate themselves instead to local community — a sort of Wendell Berry agrarianism.
.. Every time Deneen writes about virtue it tastes like castor oil — self-denial and joylessness.
.. Yes, liberalism sometimes sits in tension with faith, tradition, family and community, which Deneen rightly cherishes. But liberalism is not their murderer.