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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Problem With Caring for the Poor

Ok, here's the major economic problem that no one seems to want to deal with.

1) We want the poor person to have his physical needs properly cared for.
2) We want the worker who produces goods to be properly compensated for his labor.

The two goals are mutually exclusive.

It is easier to properly care for the poor if the cost of goods is low. Thus, those who care for the poor want us to donate things so they can give them away, either for free, or at very low cost, so that the poor can afford to pay whatever the very low cost is.

BUT, someone has to produce those goods. If I buy the product for less, I am paying less. The only way I can justifiably pay less is if the goods are worth less. But if the goods are worth less, then the work of the one who produced them is - by definition - worth less. Indeed, if the goods are given away for free, then the work of the one who produced it is - again, by definition - actually worthless.

We cannot both properly compensate someone for the work they do AND properly care for the poor. Someone is going to get it in the neck.

Automation allows us to drive down the price because the worker is no longer producing anything at all. In fact, he isn't even working. Instead, the producer has purchased a machine, a tool, and the producer's tool is working 24x7, producing goods. Human work is expensive. The goods are inexpensive precisely because there is no human worker involved.

To feed, clothe, and house the poor, I have to remove as much expense from production as I can. Human workers will always be the first aspects of the production cycle to go.

On the downside, insofar as humans have no work, they do not receive a wage, and therefore become part of the mass of the poor. On the bright side, because the goods they need are now extremely inexpensive, we can much more easily feed, clothe and house them.

Machines eat up the low-skill jobs first because those are the cheapest to automate. Seven men can lift a burden, or I can use a machine, a lever, and lift it myself. By using the lever, I have put seven men on the unemployment line. But it is not a sin to use a lever, or any other machine, in order to streamline production and reduce the cost of goods, especially if my goal in reducing the cost of goods is to make it more affordable for the poor.

I don't know how to resolve this problem.
I'm not sure it can be resolved.

Someone is likely to answer "distributism", but that is no answer at all.

The Church hasn't figured out how to handle the problem represented by automation and the proliferation of machines, the proliferation of tools. In all of human history, we've never quite had the problem we now face - a culture so inundated with machines that the need for human labor is actually disappearing even as the human population continues to rise.

Pope Francis is trying to articulate the problem, but it isn't clear that he fully recognizes what is going on. To be fair, it's not clear many people do. Certainly those who oppose Francis or see him as some kind of socialist have no appreciation for the difficulties he is trying to articulate to us. No one knows what to do here. Our biggest problem right now is to clearly articulate the full extent of the problem. Any assistance anyone can give in this direction would be most helpful.


Tony said...

Is this a trick question. Voluntary charity is how we do it. It maintains property rights helps the poor meet their needs and is good for the giver.

Sean W. said...

Tony, charitable giving solves the material needs of the poor but it doesn't do much else. People don't just need work to provide for their needs but also because work dignifies them, gives them a clear and valuable role in social order, etc. This is a real need people have: to be "useful"; and it isn't just the result of social/economic pressures, because people can satisfy that need through economically unproductive means.

Mr. Kellmeyer, I wonder if you are familiar with two books by Peter Drucker.... The End of Economic Man, then the Future of Industrial Man. Drucker's anthropology is flawed in a lot of respects, especially from a Catholic viewpoint, but he has some interest and relevant insights nonetheless, and explores them especially with respect to the pressing issue of his day -- the rise of totalitarianism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Great stuff, Steve.

Paint my house. Fix my car. Teach my kid how to do math. weed my garden. We stopped talking to each other, providing services to each other, being useful to each other.

I was a musician, and not a bad one. I could sing for my supper, at least until I got to Los Angeles. ;-)

A job got inextricable from government, I suppose with the institution of the income tax, certainly now with Obamacare if I work for you more than 29 hours a week.

You're on so the right track, and yes, robots are replacing manual labor. Still, the Earned Income Tax Credit is a work of genius. It just has to be set up that the more you work, the more you make--instead of the perverse system now that penalizes working more.

I guess Uber is where you want to go with this. For those who aren't, frankly, worth a day's pay at any real job, the economy has to devolve to where they too can be useful enough to some other human being to earn something.

Is "earn" the operative dynamic here? I think that's where you're going with this, the dignity of work.

As always, Mr. Kellmeyer, you wail. Hit me up sometime.

pel said...

Mr Van Dyke,

I think you've put your finger on it with the "Uber" thought. A healthy dose of subsidiarity to technology would surely introduce opportunity for work and social engagement to a class that, in the institutional world of big business capitalism, would be otherwise relegated to front line fast food service and call center script reading.

A curious observation by Father Malachi Martin I read or heard years ago has stuck with me. His eschatology and Vatican insider stories were always controversial and wild, but I was greatly interested in his observations on the Society of Jesus. He commented on how the Jesuits used to be a loyal Catholic order at the vanguard of advancements in science and human thought.

He lamented the modern Society and was disappointed they were nowhere to be seen with the rise of the internet. I believe the comment was something like, "The Jesuits of Ignatius' time would have engaged the internet and Christianized it. But where are we Catholics now? Barely present, and hiding in our chat rooms and web sites."

I feel like technology and these innovations could and should be marshaled and organized to give people a third way.