Poor People Suck

The must-read article of the month is Michael Lewis’ “The End of Wall Street’s Boom.” It is a superb account of our economic crisis and how we got here, as seen through the eyes of a handful of people who predicted it. I thought about quoting snippets, but decided I’d end up quoting most of the piece: it’s really good. After reading this article I went and also read Lewis’ 1989 book Liar’s Poker, the story of his four successful years at Saloman Brothers up to and around the 1987 crash. Though 20 years old by now, it still felt fresh in light of today’s recession.

Lewis’ Portfolio article also serves an unintended purpose: sufficient refutation of the notion that stupid, greedy, lower-to-middle class homebuyers are primarily to blame for our present troubles. This, of course, has been a persistent theme during the last six months and represents standard class prejudice. America hates its poor.

It’s curiously uncouth to speak of classes in America, yet the roots of this “war on the poor” go quite deep. That Christians openly espouse these views seems bothersome — and ironic considering its historical ties to Social Darwinism and men like Herbert Spencer and William G. Sumner. Our shared consciousness has constantly affirmed: money is a sign of Divine blessing.

Ivan Boesky call greed good in 1986, but he was merely echoing an old sentiment: “You cannot help wanting to possess, [for] to want to possess is the finger mark of your divine origin.” This, from a Presbyterian minister in the late 19th century. Writing about this time period, Mark Summer expresses the prevailing view:

“The gospel of self-improvement was based on the idea that not just brains but moral character determined who rose and who fell. And more: it assumed that moral character itself could be shaped, and would turn out best when a person learned to depend on himself… Personal responsibility was the first, necessary step toward moral and material advance.”

If contemporary common social sense usually obliges us to mask open contempt for the poor, it hasn’t always been so. Howard Zinn quotes Russell Conwell, another minister from the late 1800s:

“I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich… The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the commmunity… Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich… I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins… is to do wrong… let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.”

Nowadays such overt prejudice is a little less common, though Prosperity Gospel preachers are doing their best to keep this myth alive. Latent animosity, on the other hand, is standard fare in some circles. You’ll find hints of it, for example, in the latest Cedars in a bizarre article by a CU history professor. More commonly the struggle between haves and have-nots — that “merry war [with its] dance of skeletons bathed in human tears” (Eugene Debs) — is acted out in the byzantine theater of macroeconomics: a war on the poor (not just “poverty”) of which few are concerned. The insidious enactment of anti-poor policy & legislation is not always obvious (in the way that, say, bombing Iraqi civilians is), but is no less devastating. I’ve always been extremely fond of Andre Gunder Frank’s strong term for this: “Economic genocide.”

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