PARTY OF BIG IDEAS WATCH.

PARTY OF BIG IDEAS WATCH. A colleague sends word of what should be quite an interesting lecture next month:

The Poverty Issue at the End of History

Lawrence M. Mead, New York University

Monday, January 8, 2007, 5:30 � 7:00 p.m.

Wohlstetter Conference Center, Twelfth Floor, AEI

1150 Seventeenth Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036

Please register for this event at www.aei.org/event1374

The politics of poverty have shaped -- and been shaped by -- the end of history, meaning Francis Fukuyama�s idea that divisions of principle have faded from Western politics. While partisan rivalry remains, it no longer rests on opposed world views to the extent it used to. The end of deep ideological differences over capitalism and race in the 1960s helped to create poverty as an issue in need of attention. Poverty as such could only be addressed once the essential claims of unionists and civil rights marchers had been granted. At the same time, poverty disproved the idea that the market economy was a threat to society requiring government protections. The heart of that fear was that there would not be enough jobs available for all willing workers. But research and experience showed that poverty was mostly due to failure to take available jobs, not a lack of jobs or low wages. In the future, poverty will be debated in terms of morality, not ideology. The question will then be how to achieve good behavior, not attain a good society. This type of moralistic politics is less threatening than ideological conflict, yet more disturbing. No longer do we confront deep differences only in political values, but also in the ability of people to live constructive lives.

This is quite a paragraph -- the "we're smarter" gang at its finest. Savor its unique mix of bigotry, ignorance, and intellectual pretension. There is, of course, the central statement of fact -- indeed, the only remotely testable proposition in the paragraph: "Research and experience showed that poverty was mostly due to failure to take available jobs, not a lack of jobs or low wages." That is, take an Archie Bunkerish prejudice -- "How can people be poor when the Help Wanted section is so thick?" -- pad it with a phrase like "research and experience showed that...," and you have what passes for intellectual argument.

The rest is weirder: There's the vacuous and simplistic invocation of "The End of History," an interesting essay at its time, but its time, as I think its author has admitted, was two decades ago. As for the rest, one can only guess at what sentences like this --."Poverty as such could only be addressed once the essential claims of unionists and civil rights marchers had been granted" -- might mean.

Or, "In the future, poverty will be debated in terms of morality, not ideology." It's one thing to say that the great ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism is over, which of course it is. No one much proposes that the answer to poverty is state ownership of the means of production and all that. But in the U.S., they never did. It was always about a safety net, about security from the inevitable failure of the market to maintain a full-employment economy at high enough wages to keep everyone above an adequate level, about education and training that will qualify workers to do the jobs that are available, and about generating economic growth in areas where there aren't jobs, which "research and experience shows" are found in many parts of the "two Americas." To say that poverty won't be debated in terms of pre-end-of-history ideology is a far cry from saying it's entirely a matter of individual morality, that is, get up off your ass and go get a job. (A full-time job at minimum wage does not lift a family of three above the poverty line, by the way, even with the Earned Income Tax Credit.)

But maybe I'm taking this all too seriously. It's just bigotry and self-righteousness dressed up in fancy intellectual clothes, the same formula from the same people who brought us the Iraq War.

--Mark Schmitt

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