Friday, February 25, 2005

FLOW Ideals and the Poor

If FLOW is to remain true to its first principles, then it is not consistent with a welfare state vision. Insofar as a welfare state vision is the key to the ideals of most on the Left and, indeed, most in the Democratic Party, FLOW faces an uphill battle insofar as de-spirited Democrats are a potential market for FLOW ideals. FDR’s attempt to create a welfare state mark him as the greatest Democratic hero in history; polls of historians place him among the most highly respected of presidents.

Indeed, most political idealists find it difficult or impossible to imagine a political idealism that isn’t based on some type of socialism.

Common Political Ideals

The old dominant political ideal: A society that takes care of its poor, a society that leaves no one behind.

This was the communist ideal and the welfare state ideal. It proved very inspiring for many people in much of the world, though less universally so in the U.S.

Environmentalist ideals: Back to a pristine state of nature; the wilderness as sacred, to be protected at all cost, violating nature is wrong. These ideals are currently very motivating to those who identify as “Green” and, to a lesser extent, they are motivating for well-intentioned people who are seeking some way to make the world a better place. These ideals do not help the poor and often imply policies that are harmful to the poor.

Libertarian ideals: Freedom for freedom’s sake, freedom to let “the market” do whatever it will. This has not proven to be an inspiring set of ideals for most people. Indeed, they strike many as a stupid and immoral set of ideals.

Voluntaristic Caring Communities as an Ideal

The welfare state is a violation of the first FLOW principle, “Voluntary, freely-chosen, rule-based solutions rather than coercive, government-imposed, command-and-control solutions.”

For me, the Golden Rule clearly obliges us to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. I also think that only each of us individually can best know how to do this. For some people, the noblest way for them to help those who are less fortunate would be to engage in capitalist behavior that results in the creation of a great enterprise. It is clear to me that Michael Milken, strictly in his role as junk-bond king (i.e. excluding his subsequent philanthropic work), did more to make the world a better place than did Mother Theresa throughout her lifetime. Trying to force or even convince Milken to be a Mother Theresa would have been counterproductive. We need to let Milken be Milken and Mother Theresa be Mother Theresa.

Tribal social norms, our evolutionary heritage, insist that we conform to the norms of our tribe, that we support our tribe. The “good” people in the tribe help to enforce the norms of the tribe. In some tribes, helping the poor and the weak of the tribe, leaving no one behind, is the norm (in other tribes, the weak and infirm are left to die). It is from this atavistic perspective that Mother Theresa is a “good person” and Michael Milken (at least prior to his philanthropic stage) was a “bad person.”

Some of us, who may think of ourselves as “good people,” may wish to belong to a political entity in which everyone is committed to, and contributes to, the common good. Fair enough. Is it necessary for these entities to be coercive entities? Why can’t we voluntarily choose which “good” entities to which we belong?

FLOW will allow for, and encourage, voluntaristic societies that take care of their own. Private welfare associations are to be encouraged. It is simply that we do not believe that the coercive apparatus of the state should be used to force people to help others. People are more willing to support caring communities when they feel some bond or commonality with those whom they are helping.

When eco-leftists fantasize about breaking California, Oregon, and Washington off from the U.S. to create an Ecotopia, or to join Canada, as they did after the recent elections, they aspire to re-align their nationalistic caring community with a different nationalistic community (see http://www.truthout.org/docs_04/112504X.shtml). They want the right to voluntarily choose which caring community to which they belong: An imagined Ecotopia or Canada. They thereby implicitly endorse voluntarism as the basis for membership in a particular caring community.

It is important to realize that there are non-nationalistic norms of caring. All indigenous tribes are non-nationalistic units for caring. Religious communities, which may be geographically-dispersed, are non-nationalistic caring communities: Mormons helping Mormons, Catholics helping Catholics, etc. Ethnic and immigrant communities, again sometimes widely dispersed, are non-nationalistic caring communities.

FLOW idealism is passionately committed to the creation of non-nationalistic, voluntary caring communities. Insofar as FLOW appeals particularly to cultural creatives, we will encourage the cultural creatives to think in terms of creating their own caring communities rather than enforce welfare state policies (and taxes) on everyone.

The Nationalistic Welfare State as Gated Community

Welfare states that are defined by national boundaries are the moral equivalent of gated communities. Gated communities, like Denmark, provide wonderful benefits to those within the boundaries of those communities but they fence off outsiders to prevent those outsiders from taking advantage of the community benefits. Gated communities in the U.S. and nation-state welfare states are morally equivalent. Those on the Left who are interested in FLOW must learn to give up the notion that European (and Canadian) welfare states are somehow “morally superior” to the United States.

From a moral perspective, the single biggest problem with the creation of a welfare state is that it increases the incentives that a nation has to exclude foreigners. As is, limits on immigration are one of the greatest moral crimes that a nation can commit against the poor of the world. Access to the legal and economic systems of developed nations, by means of free immigration, may be the most effective means of “distributing” wealth in existence. The foreign aid that is provided even by the most generous Scandinavian nations is a small fraction of the wealth that would be “distributed” to those in the developing world if the developed world had more liberal immigration laws.

“Distributing” is in scare quotes because immigration is not a matter of distributing wealth: It is, in fact, a matter of creating dramatically larger quantities of wealth. Our legal/economic system is a fantastic cash cow with the marvelous characteristic that the more it is milked the more it produces. This is why immigrants repeatedly risk death by trying to enter our nations. The comparison of people dying to enter our country should always be contrasted with that of people dying to leave East Germany; both species of sealed borders are immoral. By allowing immigrants into our country, we increase the wealth of existing citizens while also vastly increasing the wealth of the immigrants (and their families to whom they send remittances).

Populist politicians have always appealed to nationalistic sentiment to limit immigration. The creation of costly welfare states creates an additional reason to limit immigration: each additional citizen is more likely to be costly to the state. And, indeed, resentment towards immigrants is often justified by the claims that “they are costing us money, they are straining our social service systems.” As proud as most Europeans are of their social welfare systems, they rarely acknowledge that those systems create an incentive to limit immigration. The European welfare states are gated communities that have managed to obtain a patina of moral credibility because they are generous to those within the gates.

The last few years have seen a steady increase in racist nationalism among many European peoples. I predict that, to the extent that Europe becomes as multi-racial and multi-cultural as is the U.S., Europe will experience racism that will be as pervasive and ugly as was racism in the U.S. forty years ago. European welfare states were founded on cultural homogeneity: Norwegians wanted to help Norwegians, Fins wanted to help Fins. (Note that this is really no different from Mormons wanting to help Mormons or Catholics wanting to help Catholics). As members of the European dominant cultures increasingly feel threatened by “the other,” racism in Europe will continue to increase and support for the welfare states in Europe is likely to evaporate.

We can wish that it were otherwise, but this is not an issue in which exhortation is adequate as long as there is an economic foundation to the resentments. And despite the overall benefits of immigration and free trade, low-skill, low-wage workers in every nation are those who are most threatened by immigrants and free trade.

As we approach a global situation in which 6 billion people are competing with each other to produce goods and services for other people, the grinding poverty currently being experienced by the 4 billion or so in the developing world will gradually be re-distributed to the 1 billion or so lowest skilled workers on earth. Many of those will reside in developed countries. In a world of economic freedom, in another forty years most people on earth would no longer be in poverty: This would be a glorious achievement, worth celebrating. But an increasing percentage of those who remain poor would include those in developed countries who can’t compete adequately with the more capable and motivated from the developing world.

From a global perspective, the moral course of action would clearly be to relieve the 4 billion destitute through globalization and open borders in exchange for a mere 1 billion of those who would be “poor” by the much wealthier first-world standard. What is to be done with the 1 billion or so losers in the global competition?

A Different Education for the Benefit of the “Working Poor”

Once again, for this reason educational freedom is our most urgent cause. An educational market will develop thousands of different ways to help people add value to their abilities, to invest in their own human capital. Again, our existing K-12 education system is designed to reward those who enter with habits and attitudes compatible with those of the upper-middle class who designed the system. It is harmful and impoverishing for those who happen to come from sub-cultures that are not compatible with the upper-middle class designers of the system.

By forcing young people with the wrong cultural pre-requisites to compete in a dull, meaningless system which they intuitively know does not enhance their lifetime learning prospects, government education steals tens of thousands of dollars in opportunity costs from the children of the working poor. The six years of useless secondary school represents thousands of hours of valuable time that could be used to earn income and invest in valuable additions to their human capital. Government-managed secondary education combines the experience of prison with the reality of publicly-sanctioned theft from the children of the poor. We need to quit stealing their time while teaching them bad habits.

I come from a working class family, some of whom have succeeded in the world and others of whom remain stuck in low-wage tracks. Everyone that I know who is stuck in a low-wage track is intellectually capable of earning a lot more money. The difference between the winners and losers is usually a matter of habits rather than academic skills. Beyond the basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills that should be learned by 6th grade, secondary school as we know it is a harmful waste of time for most students. Just as the former communist regimes devastated the human capital of those regimes by training people to be shirkers and clock-watchers, so too does public education devastate the human capital of those students for whom the system is not appropriate.

Instead of learning self-discipline, initiative, civility, salesmanship, teamwork, optimism, and other crucial life skills, they passively go through the motions of memorizing material that they will soon forget while developing habits and attitudes from school-as-prison that will damage their lifetime earning opportunities. As an educator, I know that these lifes kills cannot be taught by means of a traditional content-based curriculum; they must be taught by means of habituation, and we have no system in place for creating schools that consistently transmit good habits. (see my essay “Why We Don’t Have a Silicon Valley in Education” for more on this).

If people have good work habits, are frugal and avoid addictive behaviors, and if they have positive social skills, they do well in life, regardless of academic ability. See “The Millionaire Next Door,”:

“What are the top five factors most often mentioned by millionaires as being very important in explaining their economic success? . . .

Integrity – being honest with all people
Discipline – applying self control
Social skills – getting along with people
A supportive spouse
Hard work – more than most people”

Anyone who saves $3 per day from their teens onwards and invests it in an index fund will be a multi-millionaire when they retire. Almost anyone with a bit of self-discipline can become rich and create a legacy to pass on to their children.

If people have bad work habits, are spendthrifts, are engaged in addictive and destructive behaviors, and lack social skills, then they usually do poorly, regardless of academic ability. Credentialism masks this truism to some extent by legally preventing those who lack academic training from entering most high-income fields. Schools that focused on the real pre-requisites to success, rather than trying to force students to master meaningless academics, would disproportionately benefit the children of the working poor. (See Deperle’s recent book, “The American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare” for detail on how terrible life skills doom women to ongoing poverty).

In the absence of such schools, life for those with weak skills and poor habits will become increasingly grim over time due to global competition. Global market competition will be blamed for the distortions in life caused by a government education system designed by the elites for the elites. In a competitive education market, entrepreneurs would create niche schools for the working class that would provide them with superb preparation for life.

With the right preparation, everyone can be valuable (very nearly). The best personal trainers, hair dressers, masseuses, personal assistants, gardeners, auto mechanics, etc. earn good incomes. Providing high-end personal services to those with high incomes is a rapidly growing niche. No academic aptitude is required at all. Even those at the bottom of the IQ spectrum, if they are capable of, say, excellent therapeutic bodywork, can earn decent incomes (as long as the credential-demons don’t use government force to require years of education for entry).


Housing for the Working Poor

In the meantime, until we have educational freedom, we need to simultaneously work on other ways to help the poor.

FLOW needs to advocate for low-cost housing options. Slow-growth policies, zoning laws, building codes, and union labor costs in construction are the primary factors resulting in high housing costs. Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels, which used to provide low-cost housing options in the inner-city, have mostly been zoned out of existence across the U.S. We need to promote brilliant design solutions that result in low-cost housing options combined with the legal changes required to make those low-cost housing options widely available.

The Japanese have sleeping closets that can be rented cheaply over night. They are as small and tight as a coffin. At present American society would resist such options. But is it better to be homeless or better to sleep in a warm, safe, quiet, tiny, sleeping closet? There have been numerous points in my life at which I would have happily saved hundreds (or thousands) of dollars per month in rent in order to sleep in a sleeping closet had such an option been available. I have slept in a homeless shelter; while not awful, I would have preferred a sleeping closet.

I recently considered renting an apartment in inner-city D.C.; it was $400 per month. The space could easily have fit 20 sleeping closets, which works out to a per-closet cost of $20 per month. Sleeping closets would require an investment and perhaps a supervisor, which would add cost. That said, the economics of the situation appear to provide for the possibility of an entrepreneurial opportunity whereby housing was available for well under $5 per night.

Although cheap sleeping closets would not be appropriate for women with children, this is an example of the kind of creative thinking that ought to be happening regarding housing issues. There is an entire movement among designers to solve human problems by means of design. See Bruce Mau’s “Massive Change project” for a FLOW-like initiative by a designer to make the world a better place, http://www.brucemaudesign.com/massivechange1.html. Creative designers are working on a variety of living solutions for those in the developing world; with appropriate legal changes, they could work on creative design solutions for 1st world poor.

Inculcating Good Habits Among the Poor

Behavioral issues (including drunkenness, mental illness, and a lack of adequate frugality and industry) are an integral problem with many of the chronic poor (while the issues are complex, I think that Thomas Szasz’s “The Myth of Mental Illness” is worth considering regarding the relationship between bad emotional habits and some “mental illness”). Instead of supporting bad habits, we need an entrepreneurial system that provides cheap, innovative solutions to behavioral changes. One of the biggest reasons for the lack of support for the welfare state in the U.S. is the fact that responsible Americans don’t want to support those whom they consider to be irresponsible and improvident.

The various free 12 step programs and existing church (yes, “faith-based”) programs are one option. For the cultural creatives among us, instead of reflexively rejecting “faith-based” programs as Bush-speak, consider the notion that in our voluntaristic Cultural Creative caring communities we may want to require certain courses or behavioral requirements for those who are not capable of managing their own lives. If the cultural creatives had to pay voluntarily for welfare service for those within their community (instead of voting for welfare programs that forced all Americans to pay for the poor), they would face a serious incentive to cultivate and enforce improved behavioral norms among the poor. Just as many traditional religious organizations supply welfare services to the poor in exchange for behavioral changes, so too would the cultural creatives supply welfare services in exchange for behavioral changes.

There are at present ten-day Vipassana meditation courses available across the country; participants only pay what they can after the course. I took one this summer; they are terrific training in self-discipline. One wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning and meditates, with a few short breaks, until 9:30 p.m. each night. There are two vegetarian meals per day before noon and only fruit is allowed in the evening. One is not allowed to leave the premises during the training. No books or writing, music or musical instruments, computers, games, televisions, radios, or electronic devices are allowed. Only simple, baggy clothing is allowed. One does not speak for ten days nor does one look another human being in the eye or gesture toward another human being. One is forced to strictly to be with oneself in a very demanding regimen of personal change for ten straight days. Educated people flock to this type of experience. It is a wonderful opportunity to change one’s mental and emotional habits in profound ways. The meditation training itself is not mere “reflection;” it is systematic training designed to help one break one’s previous programming and to learn to control one’s consciousness in a manner that develops greater focus and happiness.

It seems obvious to me that people whose lives are out of control should be required to take such a course prior to being allowed into certain housing opportunities. Perhaps they should be required to take such a course several times per year while our Cultural Creative housing community is providing low-cost housing for them. Those who were willing to commit themselves to such discipline would be better neighbors for their impoverished compatriots who also had committed themselves to such discipline. Those who were not willing to commit themselves to such discipline might be required to live in much less desirable free housing. It is unfair for those working poor who do have self-discipline to be forced to live amongst the poor who lack self-discipline. Those who had developed a regular commitment to Vipassana self-discipline would belong to a caring community who would support them in building better lives.

Part of our entrepreneurial effort needs to be to create entire communities that provide effective ways of living for those who are currently capable of earning only a few dollars per hour. The housing suggestions and Vipassana self-discipline sketch above are the beginning of such a vision. By means of such a vision, I can imagine steady improvements in the well-being of the poorest among us. It is hard for me to get excited by more welfare programs simply because, while they help some deserving poor, in other cases they sustain and feed deplorable ways of living that only increase human misery in the long run. Jo Anne Baird’s comment about students who pee on the floor if they don’t like a teacher is all too real; for an extended grim account, read “How I Joined Teach for American and Got Sued for $20 million”,
http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_1_how_i_joined.html.

FLOW ideals and the Poor vs. the Welfare State “Ideal”

Our current policies towards the urban poor cannot and should not inspire anyone, and the expansion of proposed welfare state policies, in the absence of any effective means of transforming dysfunctional cultural patterns, is horribly, horribly wrong.

The combination of:

-Voluntaristic caring communities based on particular cultural principles and beliefs.
-A market in education that allowed the children of the poor to pursue better lives.
-Creative, low-cost housing design solutions.
-Systematic approaches to changing habits, such as the Vipassana self-discipline training described above.

form the beginning of practical, effective, ever-improving possibilities for the poorest among us.

By the means sketched out above, I can see a steadily more beautiful, noble, and wonderful world coming into existence. By contrast, even though I feel badly about the poor in the U.S. at present, I can’t manage to get excited or inspired by the thought of expanding the welfare state.

Sometimes when one is climbing a peak, one discovers that the route that one is on will not allow one to reach the top. One may have to go back down for a while before one can begin climbing back up. I feel as if this is the situation in which we are in regarding our approach to helping the poor. The welfare state approach, despite whatever positive effects it may have had, will no longer allow us to move towards the top. We must change course and discover a new route. In order to do so, it may appear at times as if we must go back downhill. But that is the only way to begin again on a route that will allow us to reach the top.

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12:34 AM  
Blogger Good Stuff said...

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9:55 PM  
Blogger who2244 said...

Hi Michael Strong, it’s late in the evening, quiet and peaceful. This is good computer time for me. I thought I would check on Be Your Own Boss and see what came up. FLOW Ideals and the Poor is something that is interesting to many people. I will also spend a little time checking on Be Your Own Boss. Getting late, have a good evening.

2:25 PM  
Blogger research guy said...

Hello Michael Strong, been looking for the latest info on business notes and found FLOW Ideals and the Poor. Though not exactly what I was searching for, it did get my attention. Interesting post, thanks for a great read.

2:58 PM  
Blogger eagle36 said...

Hi Michael Strong, taking a little time today to see what Increase Cash Flow will send me to that is interesting. FLOW Ideals and the Poor looks interesting and is a great read. Will also try Increase Cash Flow in my e-travels. Have a super day!

10:28 PM  
Blogger who2244 said...

Hi Michael Strong, it’s late in the evening, quiet and peaceful. This is good computer time for me. I thought I would check on Be Your Own Boss and see what came up. FLOW Ideals and the Poor is something that is interesting to many people. I will also spend a little time checking on Be Your Own Boss. Getting late, have a good evening.

12:29 PM  
Blogger crow3678 said...

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4:45 PM  
Blogger crow3678 said...

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7:21 PM  
Blogger crow3678 said...

Hi Michael Strong, taking a little time today to see what Increase Cash Flow will send me to that is interesting. FLOW Ideals and the Poor looks interesting and is a great read. Will also try Increase Cash Flow in my e-travels. Have a super day!

3:47 AM  
Blogger Chirp88 said...

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9:44 AM  
Blogger Good Stuff said...

Hi there Michael Strong, I had been out looking for some new information on notenetwork when I found your site and FLOW Ideals and the Poor. Though not just what I was searching for, it drew my attention. An interesting post and I thank you for it.

8:40 PM  

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