Jan. 16, 2017

Poverty may come to me, that’s true,
But what care I–no,
I’ll get by as long as I have you.

The African-American jazz singer Billy Holliday helped make this song famous. She did have to worry about poverty as most African-Americans do. She knew about it from bitter experience with racial prejudice in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harlem, and all points west. She also knew about it from alcohol, drugs, divorce (she never practiced what she sang), and prison. And she died youn­g.

Poverty though is in retreat in this country and, as a matter of fact, in all the Modern Age world.

“Did you hear the breaking news? Yesterday, 138,000 people rose out of extreme poverty. Another 138,000 rose out of extreme poverty the day before. And the day before that, too. Of course you didn’t, because a plane crash or a terrorist attack is news, but slow and steady progress is not. Even 50 million people rising out of poverty in a single year is not news.

“Since 1990 when social critic Naomi Klein [a prominent Canadian member of what I call the clergy], claimed that capitalism had lapsed into its most savage form, the people who lived in extreme poverty–according to a $1.9-a-day poverty line adjusted for inflation and local purchasing power–has been reduced from 37% to less than 10%.

“If this does not sound like progress, you should note that in 1820 [when the Modern Age was in its infancy] the world only had approximately 60 million people who did not live in extreme poverty. Today more than 6.5 billion people do not live in extreme poverty. So the risk of living in poverty has been reduced from 94 per cent in 1820 to about 10 per cent today.

“This happens to be the most important story of our time: poverty, as we know it, is disappearing from our planet.”

So writes Johan Norberg, Swedish intellectual, in the December addition of the Spiked Review with excerpts in the Wall Street Journal. Norberg is a fellow of the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in this country.

My only quibble with Norberg is that he doesn’t identify the main culprits in this change–the Agricultural Age and the Hunting/Gathering Age. Combined they make up 110,000 years of human gene and meme history! We still carry with us genes and memes that are conservative in the extreme (memes that are often called green and progressive today by critics like Naomi Klein).

A rare surge and synergy of capitalism, science, and freedom of religion is responsible for this decline in poverty. As yet we can’t do much about the genes but it is the memes we inherited from previous ages are presently giving us fits. Especially the meme that tells us that wealth is fixed in land, gold, slaves. Poverty is lack of same. We can change memes and should. Promptly.

We made a good start in abolishing outmoded memes when this country was founded in 1776 with the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for everyone. Yes, the U.S. is exceptional because it has led the way into a Modern Age of rising opportunity and freedom with a rare synergy of Capitalism, Science, and Freedom of Religion.

Slaves are out of fashion today (we made a down payment on changing this mene with a terrible and very bloody civil war that abolished it in this country and so set the world standard). But we never got rid of the idea that wealth is fixed (we also never got rid of the idea that one religion was the only true religion but I will save that to discuss next week.) Countries still fight wars and politicians still get power when they promise to give citizens more wealth.  Often they mean literally more land and gold (usually disguised in the West as charitable welfare, social security, minimum wage laws, etc.).

The truth is that wealth, which is essential for progress, is never from “trickle down” charity, but wealth does come from profitable work. In modern times this above all means efficient work–the kind of work the “deplorable” partisans of Donald Trump are famous for: mining, drilling, fracking, manufacturing, transportation, construction, agriculture, the trades, and management of same. In short, work that makes profits.

This is the kind of work that China, India, and most of Southeast Asia have used to bring people out of extreme poverty. It is also the kind of work that is out of fashion in this and other rich countries–the kind of work few talented young people in rich countries are not much interested in pursuing. The kind of work I myself, a college graduate with an advanced degree in philosophy, find unappealing. (Like the clergy I criticize so freely I much prefer work in communications, social work, environment, health, teaching, research, politics, science, and the arts. This work has its place but is often hopelessly inefficient in producing profits and wealth.)

It is the Trump kind that is the kind of work that feeds and supports us. It is in large measure this work that is responsible for our wealth and our progress both economically and environmentally.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. My new book, Bill’s Blogs, is a prime example of the kind of work I am railing against in this blog. In this case I do think it has the potential to be revolutionary and powerful in that it explains how we got how we evolved to be where we are. It also offers hints on ways to abolish poverty both in this country and in the world.

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