A response to the argument that the best way to help the poor is to stop helping them.
By Ben Bull
Published November 04, 2008
I completely agree that globalization is a horrible idea.
And so began another acrimonious give and take on RTH's commentary roll. The rebuke was posted last Friday by regular RTH commentator 'A Smith'. It was in response to my blog about globalization and its discontents.
I thought about responding to it directly, but decided I had a lot more to say.
The context of Mr. Smith's remark, and the commentary that preceded it, was that low skilled workers should pay their way. "Average income Canadians could begin shouldering a higher percentage of the tax burden," suggested Smith, adding, "the universe rewards people who give to others."
This is a bit harsh, I thought to myself when I read it. It doesn't seem right at all.
So I re-read my blog. The post was a cobbled together commentary about how low-skilled jobs are going abroad. "In a global economy where the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and nobody in the 'civilized world' seems to make anything anymore," I wrote. "You have to wonder where all this is heading."
A Smith was obviously not impressed.
"Since the universe rewards people who give to others," he countered, "I believe the loss of good paying jobs for average Canadians can be tied directly to the decrease in their contributions to the government coffers.
"If anyone doesn't believe in the power of giving to others, I ask them to try it out. I bet as soon as you do, you will recognize that the universe always rewards good works and generosity."
I don't like ideologies. My reaction is to coil away whenever I sense them coming - they're like a bad smell. I used to be an ideologist. When I was younger, living in the UK, I was all about Margaret Thatcher and her right-wing policies. I used to think that her free-market mantra was the solution to all of England's ills.
Let the market run its course, I thought, and everything will fall into place. But, as we've seen over the years, it didn't, and it hasn't, and today we are facing the consequences of a free market gone mad.
I'm not averse to simple logic like Smith's. I am always looking for the easy answer, but the truth is - there very rarely is one. And having principles is all well and good, but you have to be able to see beyond your own sphere of influence, to look at the problem through other people's eyes.
I didn't feel that A Smith was doing that.
So I reflected a little, on his ideas. His stated principle of pulling back and allowing people to help themselves is one I've adhered to myself, and written about, too, but in this instance it just didn't seem right. And so I crafted my response.
A Smith, you seem to be ideologically attached to the notion that less is more. That by holding back our helping hand for folks who are struggling to get ahead, we will somehow enable them to reach higher and succeed. After some reflection I've come to the conclusion that this is simplistic and naïve - It won't work.
While your notion is reasonable in principle - it is only by giving of ourselves that we obtain rewards, and all that - it is far too general when it comes to shaping our economy.
Why do I say this? Well, let's look first at the engine of our economy - the work force.
I believe there are two types of people in the workforce: Shirkers and Workers.
Shirkers can be rich or poor, as can Workers. Shirkers feel that the world owes them a living. They have either inherited a sense of entitlement from their parents or their environment, or a sense of hopelessness instead. They have no motivation to do any real work and they look for short-cuts and handouts wherever they can. We all know a Shirker or two.
Poor Shirkers subsist on government handouts and generous relatives. They do everything they can to avoid paying anything back. Rich Shirkers laze around at work and complain when they get fired. The only reason they work at all is because they have to, to pay the bills, or because they fear the stigma of being unemployed.
Rich Shirkers are able to work because their parents forced them to get an education and a skill and so they could find work. Rich Shirkers are never really 'rich' at all, as they never have the motivation to achieve anything. They simply get by.
Workers make up the rest of us. We are rich or poor, sometimes resourceful, and generally able to find a way to make a living, even if it's not what we really want to do.
Getting Shirkers to contribute to society - pay taxes, provide a meaningful contribution at work - is a tricky task. I've worked with a lot of them and managed one or two, and I know - these are hard people to motivate. I agree with you that, to some extent, the only help that Shirkers need is to help themselves.
But enabling Workers is a harder task. There are all kinds of Workers. Some are highly resourceful and blessed with infinite energy and optimism. But many are more easily discouraged. Looking for work, retraining, grinding it out in the wrong job can be a hard slog (I've been there many times). Many of the programs offered by the government today simply keep hard working people in a holding pattern - enabling them to get part-time, low paying jobs and penalizing them whenever they try to work their way up.
Your notion that the government should do less for people like this is not going to help them because, like I say, many of them are already worn down. By abandoning these folks we risk leaving them on the scrap heap for a long time. And that's a waste - a costly one. Because Workers are what keeps our economy humming and these people need to be encouraged to get back into the right job as soon as possible.
You also seem to subscribe to the logic that workers should be paid according to their skill set. Nobody's arguing with that. But you go further, saying that, if all the menial jobs are going oversees because of our open markets then, so be it, let the folks at home retrain, get some more skills and do some more interesting work.
But it's not that simple. Firstly, many societies - ours included - have a subset of workers who are unskilled for a reason. Perhaps they skipped school, or just landed from some foreign country with few recognized qualifications. Perhaps they are in between jobs or working their way through school towards a better job.
Perhaps they have skills, maybe even a degree, but there's just no demand for their services right now. Whatever the reasons the fact is we need low skilled jobs as part of our economy. Low skilled jobs are necessary, and low skilled workers will always be there.
How many people do you know whose parents worked in the local factory all their lives and watched their kids go off to school to get better jobs and make better lives for themselves and their families? This is not a temporary phenomenon. It's a cycle, and the cycle goes on. If we take away these 'good' low skilled jobs then we are relegating these hard working folks to a lifetime of driving taxis and working in Wal-Mart. Crappy, low paying, no-benefit jobs.
So, instead of growing up with a moderate income, benefits, and the feeling of security, the children of these workers are faced with a serious set of challenges. The sort of challenges that come with a low income status like this: never seeing Mum or Dad because they're always at work, witnessing the effects of stress on their parents, watching their parents break up, eating poorly, moving house all the time to keep on top of the bills.
Your logic of abandoning low paid, hard working people so they can 'pull themselves up' is naïve, simplistic and heartless. Principles like this are not a solution; they're an excuse for you to feel better about doing nothing, for offering no concrete suggestions of your own.
I might apply these principles to Shirkers, sure - if it were at all possible to identify them - but I believe that most folks are Workers at heart and should be given the opportunity to work their way into a better standard of living. But the fact is it's hard to do that when you're working at Wal-Mart, and it's even harder when the government is slapping you in the face.
What globalization has done, and is doing, is shipping all these 'good' jobs abroad.
On the subject of outsourcing, you contend that poor people in other countries should be allowed to take on our menial jobs, "Imagine, allowing people in poor countries the opportunity to be lifted out of poverty by giving them a job" you suggest, again sarcastically, "How dare they want to share in our prosperity"
Well of course, they dare. Many of them have no choice. But the problem is that other countries don't play by the same rules. Many of these countries treat their workers like crap, paying them poor salaries for ridiculous hours. Some of these countries employ kids to take on our unwanted jobs. Some countries have virtually no regard for the environment of the local community, polluting the local water supply and putting workers' health at risk. Some countries utilize protectionist measures such as export subsidies, and import tariffs. What is the benefit of this? I wonder. To them, to us, to the planet?
The general principle suggested by one of the Star letter writers I referenced in my blog, is that we should try to retain more of our manufacturing jobs here at home. Sure the goods may be a little pricier, but if we work towards creating more of these 'good' types of jobs, then people will be better able to exercise their discretionary spending, better able to afford the cost of locally produced, and ethically produced, goods and better able to support themselves and their families.
Makes sense to me.
On top of that I believe we need to start looking at ways of improving the conditions for our other low skilled sectors, such as retail, warehousing and the like. If we want our low skilled workers to contribute to our tax coffers as you propose, we need to ensure that all of our low skilled jobs pay well. You can't get something out of nothing. When your whole income cycle revolves around not eating, short term loans at high rates of interest, and working triple shifts - making life harder is not the solution.
You state, in your response, that, 'Perhaps we should take it (the argument) a step further and all go back to producing everything for ourselves. We could all become our own doctor, farmer, plumber, electrician, cook...' In a sense that's exactly what I am saying. I am asking, 'what is the cost of our current globalized outsource everything approach?' Is it possible for us to do more for ourselves?'
In the bare bones version of capitalism we came from, countries amassed their wealth by leveraging their unique resources. Brazil shipped bananas, India made tea, but we seem to have drifted away from that. These days we import apples from China and sell them our telecommunications consulting services. We buy cars from Japan and send teams of auditors to scrutinize their banks.
For sure we still sell oil, lumber and other resources, and our intellectual capital is as much an 'asset' as anything else, but it seems to me that we have to start evaluating the cost of letting go these once prized portions of our home grown economy, or else face the consequences.
Another question we need to ask is - are we really helping these outsourcer suppliers? Is Indonesia any better off for making our shirts? Mexico for making our cars? China for making our loot bags? How many decades of worker and environmental exploitation will it take for these countries to start doing things right? And how much will cost us all, before they do?
I appreciate your comments, and all the comments we receive at RTH, because it forces me to think things through. This discussion has helped me divorce myself further from my Thatcherite ideologies and realize that globalization should not be seen as something that has to evolve, on its own, with minimal governmental intervention.
The rules around global trade do not create some kind of magical self-correcting organism that makes everything better, for everyone, eventually. Global trade should be better now. There is no moral, environmental or long-term economic excuse for pursuing the same outsourced economic model we are pursuing today. After all, we can all see the effects, and they aren't good.
No, instead we should be looking to keep more of what we own, make more for ourselves and insist that our trading partners play by a new set of rules. If we take a look at where our globalized economy has brought us today: rising unemployment, the loss of high paying jobs, the planet dying, third world countries fighting and starving, the rich getting richer, more of us getting poorer...we have to wonder: if we do nothing to change it, how much worse it is going to get?
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