Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.

However many ‘o’s you want to use.

However many ‘o’s you want to use.

The sad death of Harry Dunn has given me cause for thought. This young, 19 year old, man was killed when his motorcycle was struck by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. Annie Sacoolas was the woman driving the car and she left Britain, before police had completed their enquiries, claiming diplomatic immunity. Attempts to coax her to return to Britain and take part in the investigation have so far proven fruitless.

This case is obviously sad : a young man has lost his life, his family have been left bereft and the investigation into this event has been stymied. The feelings of hurt his family must be feeling must be great. It is likely that now there are unnecessary feelings of anger and frustration which have been laid on top of this family’s already considerable suffering.

Anne Sacoolas may think she is avoiding hurt to herself by using the cloak of diplomatic immunity to flee from further involvement in this case but sadly this may not be the case. Were this a tragic accident with no culpability then an enquiry may have revealed this. By thwarting the enquiry she has removed the chance that she herself could ever be exonerated. Indeed, she has ensured that there will always be a cloud of suspicion around her; that not only was she involved in Mr Dunn’s death but perhaps she was implicated and in some way responsible or culpable. There will always be the doubt that she has evaded justice.

I would like to think that most people carry their moral code with them as part of their psyche as an integral part of their personality. When we do wrong we feel guilt and need to atone and make amends. We don’t see justice as something external to us, as something we can avoid, we need to own our own actions (good and bad) and to live with them. Mrs Sacoolas may feel that if she avoids the enquiry she might not be found culpable but I think it is very likely that this will not help her avoid feelings of guilt, though it may impair her ability to make amends. I presume Mrs Sacoolas has read the American classic Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”; she should then know that we can never flee our conscience, if we have one.

This is part of a utilitarian trend in our society to see our morals and ethical code as something separate from us. As if it were a tool to be used in the calculations of whether we will take certain courses of action. It is not strictly whether something is right or wrong which matters (whether it accords with our inner, integral moral code) but rather whether the action will benefit us or harm us, whether we will be caught and punished or if we may get off scot-free. It is often not fear of feeling guilty (an awareness of failing our own code of ethics) but fear of capture and punishment which curtail our baser instincts.

There is often a clamour for more visible policing, and stiffer sentencing of those found committing criminal acts, in the hope that this tougher justice will keep us better in line. But this is rather putting the cart in front of the horse. We shouldn’t ask to have more guardians of our behaviour we should be asking how can we change our selves and society so we have less need of them.

Poverty has always played a role in the genesis of crime. Hunger and want can drive people to do things they themselves hold as wrong, but thankfully absolute poverty is declining in the developed world (although problems of inequity are probably growing). But moral poverty, not having an adequate internal moral code to rely on, is growing. Our increasingly affluent but unequal society, fostering avarice and greed, has tended break up small communities and traditional family models which did help foster the development of morally aware individuals.

The basis for a better society in the future is to promote better individuals. We have progressed as a species and have learnt to control some of our bloodthirsty, rapine and debauched tendencies. We have done this by accepting, and internalizing, a moral code. Indeed, the whole history of man’s religious thought and actions probably reflect our growing understanding of morality and of the issues of right and wrong. We need to continue to foster and expend this if we want our society, and species, to prosper.

We can’t run away from this. We need an internal vision of how we view the world and decide which of our actions would be right and proper, and which would not, so that we can act without needing a policeman or guardian to tell us. Other people telling us what to do is for children. When we are mature, we take that onus upon ourselves and try to pass on our learning to our children in return. We all need an inner knowledge and vision of the good, no matter how many ‘o’s you spell that with.

What are you for ?

What are you for ?

Sometimes it is simple things which encourage the deepest contemplation within us. Last night I went walking while my wife took the larger of the two dogs to their dog training class. As I walked around the town I was struck by the similarity of it to the many towns I recalled from Scotland, before our relocation to Wales. This similarity brought home to me what they meant by the “flyover country“. Although this term was initially American in origin it is equally applicable to swathes of the United Kingdom. The name relates to patches of the country, on which people might look down through their aeroplane window, as they fly from one major city to another, and are areas of the country of which they have no real knowledge.

The central belt of Scotland, where I grew up, and north Wales, where I now live, have very many towns like this. In Scotland they had grown around the pit-head while in Wales they grow around the slate quarries. The only reason these towns were where they were, often in the middle of beautiful countryside, was the natural resources buried under the ground. In Wales it was the slate and gold, in Scotland the coal and iron. I grew up in these coal mining towns and remember them fondly. They were, during my childhood, vibrant communities buzzing with industry. The towns had everything one needed to live well. The town centres had shops, banks, schools and churches. Professional services of doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers were all available. The society was boosted by the presence of churches and chapels and communal life improved by the working men’s and miners’ institutes which did so much to improve the communal life of the area.

During my working life I had watched these towns in Scotland die and had mistakenly thought it was a localised problem; a facet of the death of the UK coal industry. However, as I walked around the ghost town, while my wife was at her class, I realised that this town was exactly the same as the ones I had left, and also the same as towns I visit in northern England when we visit our son and his family. It is not one industry that has fallen, it is all heavy industry that has gone. I had personally seen the effects of the death of coal, now I watch the effects locally of the death of the slate industry, and on my travels it is the death of the steel industry, or ship or car building. Whatever the industry the effects are always the same.

These towns are sad reminders of our industrial past. Often a government money has been used to try and use the scars of heavy industry as exhibits for a new heritage industry. As I walked around there were signs describing the powerhouse that previously had been here and old pieces of heavy machinery were pressed into service as art for the benefit of tourists who rarely call. The shop fronts were mostly empty, a mini-market or corner shop might survive but all the banks have closed. There are no drapers, butchers, bakers, or ironmongers. The only shop fronts lit at night on the high street are the fast food take-aways; there are no restaurants and very few pubs. During the day it is left to the charity and second-hand shops to try and give a semblance of commerce in the main street. The only professionals still represented on the high street are the funeral directors as people continue to die. The working men’s clubs and churches are derelict or, if lucky, pressed into service as storage units. If one looks up at the door-frames and lintels, if one looks closely at the heavy stone architecture, you can still see the buildings that once stood imposing and grand. These buildings designed to stand proud as symbols of permanence and importance look especially depressing. It is hard not to think of the proud lady descended into harlotry when one looks at the marble and granite frontage of the building society now framing the take-away for kebabs and chips.

However, the most striking similarity between this old slate town, and the deserted coal towns I knew, was the change in the population. Those able to work, the young and the fit, have moved to find it. The elderly are left behind as are the disabled and ill. As one walks around the time the levels of disability are visibly high. If your income is limited to welfare benefits then there is less cause to move, indeed as a cruel twist of fate it is possible that collapsed property prices and lower rental rates may make your staying in the town make economic sense. The poor are hindered in leaving by the disparity in property values which mean they can not either sell their property, or afford higher rents, and move to where there may be work. The streets of cheap property and vacant houses also acts as an attraction for others who are less economically able to move into the area.

One has the feeling, as one meets people, as if everyone is in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the old times to return or waiting for the young people who left to come back with news of plans for a better future. There are no signs of faith or optimism. We have exported our wage poverty to Asia. People there now work for low pay doing the work of heavy industry in the factories or mines. But that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of poverty. While there is plenty of food diets are poor and unhealthy with an epidemic of diabetes coming in its wake. Likewise, while there is plenty of “entertainment”, with round the clock television and internet, but it is rarely uplifting or improving. There is plenty of medication, both prescribed and self-organised, but still the rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise. We have inherited a poverty of the spirit. No amount of fast food, video games, nor reality television will plug the hole left by having no job. No amount of opiates, or other psychotropics, will remove the feelings which arise from having no purpose in life. People often talked of the dignity of labour and its importance is now becoming horribly clear – this type of ‘life of leisure’ will suck people down into despair and depression.

Agriculture in these areas no longer provides the levels of employment needed to support these towns. The raison d’ếtre of these towns has now gone and can’t easily be replaced by other industries. The new light industries and digital economy thrives best in cities where the mass of people and connections help them grow. These towns need to find a way to return to being villages with the quality of life that can offer its inhabitants The hardship faced by people living through this change needs to be understood. Ignoring their worries about unemployment, the destruction of their communities and their dislike of damaging cultural change needs to be recognised. If we fail to do so then these towns, which make up a large fraction of our population, will be easy targets for extremists peddling glib and easy answers.

I don’t know what the answers are. How do we restructure our economy ? How do we regain optimism and faith in the future? How do we support communities which thrive and prosper? But I do know what is the major questions we must face : “How do we ensure people have purpose in life ?” Our pleasures and material needs are important, but above these we all need to feel that there is something we must do, otherwise what are we for?

Foodbanks; sign of failure and of hope.

Foodbanks; sign of failure and of hope.

 

 

Today’s daily prompt, about the egg, got me thinking about food and the basics of life. In particular, it made me think about the furore over foodbanks in Britain. These charitable concerns were set up, initially, by church groups such as the Trussell Trust, in order to help the poor and hungry in our society and to allow its members to do the most important thing that we can do as people – to look after our fellows.

It is a shame, therefore,  that foodbanks have become the current political football. Rarely are they mentioned but to complain about there presence – “There should be no need for charity in a rich country like ours” – is the common refrain. The existence of foodbanks is used in many political debates as a stick to beat the opponent as a symbol of their failings. However, I would contest that it is heart-warming to see the growth of charity and people trying to help their brothers. Voluntary, local organizations such as this are better than centralised government agencies.

Man is a social animal, it is in his nature to help his fellows. Left to his own devices he is cooperative and adventurous and works in groups to increase the wellbeing of his group. An integral part of this is charity. 150 years ago there was boom in self-help and mutual aid organisations (mutual societies, friendly societies, insurance schemes, religious and trade groups) and over three quarters of working men had some form of health and unemployment insurance. These growth of these schemes was seriously hampered by the development of the current welfare state which rapidly became the monopoly provider (with all the consequent problems that monopoly providers have).

I would guess that we would all agree that we want to help those less fortunate than ourselves for whatever cause and it was this desire which promoted the developments of those schemes. Unfortunately, there has been the development of very negative views on the left and on the right of the poorer in our society. On the right there are concerns that they might be indolent or reckless and need some punitive element to their assistance to try and correct what they see as bad behaviour. On the left the poorer are seen as incompetent, unable to organize and requiring central planning to take over. The left also tend to view us all as egocentric and greedy who would not look after our neighbours were we not compelled to by act of law and threat of punishment.

Both of these views have damaged societies abilities to develop better local schemes. The welfare state has created a gap between donor and recipient, which is poor for both parties – donors can not easily influence how their assistance is used and recipients become increasingly seen as “the other”, something outside of society – apart and lesser. (However, as an aside, I have to say I am grateful of this gap when it allows me not to feel too close to the decision to use my tax payments to kill some Yemeni child.)

Welfare states may not make people lazy, there is really no evidence for this, but they do often cause dependency, and apathy, and often can have perverse incentives which reduce the ability of individuals to return to work and sometimes damage family structures. Welfare states, by their national basis, are often the reasons for people’s dislike of free movement – incomers are seen as jumping into a scheme they and their families had not established (thus felt to be receiving benefits without entitlement) rather than being viewed as possible new partners with whom to work and grow (all studies find immigration strengthens economic growth).

As we now use the term “poverty” to define a group a specific distance from the mean wealth of the population we will always have people in poverty – unless there was no deviation whatsoever in incomes (an unlikely scenario) there will always be the relatively poor and we will always need and want to aid them. All the great religions and philosophies have seen this as a cardinal act of humanity (“If anyone with earthly possessions sees his brother in need, but withholds his compassion from him, how can the love of God abide in him?” in the Bible and the Koran’s recognition that there is a “” to our wealth”) Those, often religious groups, who wish to do this through foodbanks should be applauded for their actions. We should not give all power and planning for assistance away, the less charity there is in a society the less human, less cooperative and less kind our society becomes.


Via : Daily Prompt – Egg

When I was young, millions of years ago .. ..

via Daily Prompt: Millions

I can understand nostalgia. I can understand looking back to a time when I was younger, fitter, faster, thinner, more attractive, more self assured and thinking it was better then. All those years ago I had been lied to less often, I had experienced cheating less often and had been disappointed less often, so perhaps it is not surprising these times have a rosy glow of the ‘good old days’. But although I remember those times fondly I am also aware that there were, in many significant ways worse.

As a baby boomer my early life was spend in the 60’s and 70’s and it was substantially different to that of my children’s. In those days many fewer of us went into tertiary education, foreign travel was an exotic figment of our imagination, central heating was known only to the wealthy. Television and car ownership had spread to the populace but cars were primitive compared to our current models and “one car families” were the norm as were television sets which could  provide our three, or later four, broadcast channels.  Ideas such as personal computers, digital photography, mobile phones, satellite navigation, and the internet were still science fiction. So although I may be nostalgic for my young self I am not nostalgic, in any true sense, for that period of time.

the-evil-of-capitalism-in-one-chart-foundation-for-economic-education

Individually my life was certainly less materially wealthy than my children’s and much less so than my own life now. But on a bigger scale there have been much more important changes with life changing effects.

In America last year 3,500,000 fewer Americans were in poverty according to the national census  (1). In China millions have been pulled out of poverty especially in the urban centres (2). Across the globe, with varying degrees of success, absolute poverty is declining. Between 1990 and 2010, millions of people were taken out of extreme poverty when this was halved according to the World Bank (3). These changes would seem to relate to our growing trade and, as a consequence, wealth. This growth in trade has also been associated with a reduction in deaths from violence. We are less likely to be  killed or injured by others of our own species (4). Millions more of us now live free from actual  violence, whether personal assault or as a consequence of war.  Diseases which used to kill millions are now plagues of the past and part of history. Recall that smallpox, a killer of billions,  was declared eradicated in 1980 (5).

It is unusual then, in the face off all these numbers and in the face of our own personal experience we are still so pessimistic and nostalgic. All our experience is that life has got better both for ourselves and for others. We can all see that materially we are much more affluent than generations before us. Our life expectancy figures let us know that we are less plagued by illness and early death than before. We may not know it but we are freer from violence and live in a more sociable society with less crime than before and the figures are quite clear on this – despite our perception

 

But despite all of this, still only 30% of us think life has improved and 43% of us feel Britain has changed for the worse (6). While recently 44% worried for the future (7) when all our experience is that things tend to get better.

Were this nostalgia and pessimism merely a pleasant  fondness for our youth passed the there would be no problem. Unfortunately, however, we often believe life was better, rather then were better, those days ago. This leads us to make mistakes. It makes us hanker for old certainties, to look back at old ways of doing things, when what we need to do is to continue the progress we have made. It sometimes makes us fear the future and change. For example our fear of GM crops, and “golden rice” in particular, will consign 2 million children to an avoidable early death next year(8).  We have not run out of challenges facing mankind and there is no good reason to try and put the brakes on progress.

Our rose tinted spectacles can also mislead us into reactionary, or backward looking, politics; wistfully thinking back of times of national pride and fearing globalisation. The future problems we will have to overcome will require continued trade, continued free movement of people, continued intermingling of peoples and knowledge. To think otherwise will lead us to miss opportunities which will consign present generations to experience  unnecessary illness, hardship or violence. If we want a bright and optimistic future we will have to believe it possible and  work to make it. We should not give up hope or wallow in nostalgia. In the wise words of Abraham Lincoln “The best way to predict your future is to create it

 


Millions

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/26/business/economy/millions-in-us-climb-out-of-poverty-at-long-last.html

(2) https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2015/aug/19/china-poverty-inequality-development-goals

(3) http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature

(5)http://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/en/

(6) https://yougov.co.uk/news/2012/02/07/britains-nostalgic-pessimism/

(7) http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/after-brexit-vote-44-employees-uk-are-pessimistic-about-future-cipd-survey-shows-1573215

(8) http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/nobel-laureate-gmo-letter_rjr.html

 

 

 

Survival of the fattest

 

The inscripweb-bloggertion on sculpture “Survival of the Fattest” reads ‘I’m sitting on the back of a man. He is sinking under the burden. I would do anything to help him, except stepping down from his back.’ It is a powerful statement about the growing gulf between the rich and poor.

Today even the poorest in our western societies lead lives that would be considered lives of impossible material luxury by those of a century ago. Light and heat at the flick of a switch, literature and music available to all, telephones you can carry in your pocket. In comparative terms we are materially much richer, and, in the developed West we seem to be living in the post-scarcity world. Our problems now, are rarely those of inadequate supplies of essentials such as food, energy, or shelter. Indeed, many of our problems relate to those of excess, for example the problems of obesity or excessive fuel usage and global warming, and unfair distribution of resources.

This unfairness occurs at home and abroad. At home, we in the developed world, have witnessed increasing inequality with extreme wealth concentrated in a few hands. The gap between rich and poor seems to have grown at an alarming rate. Abroad even greater disparity is apparent. There are still areas of the developing world where the basics for subsistence are missing and problems of famine, drought, hunger and thirst still exist and kill people daily.

What can we do to tackle these problems ? We know that the global expansion of wealth arose from the success of the market economy and voluntary cooperation, with the aid of the ‘hidden hand‘ in developing new  processes and products. However, this is a consequence of ‘free markets‘ where individuals working on their own initiative, and in their own interest, compete to make goods and services which are desirable and useful to others.

The market economy has many intrinsic safeguards. Production of undesirable or unwanted goods  will fail;  providers of better goods and services will prosper at the expense of poorer providers; the system itself (by the influence of supply and demand on the price of a good)  guides development and there is no need for any central planning agency. Further, competition tends to drive profit down. Competition benefits the consumer  and is a spur to the producer. Indeed, it has been said that extreme wealth, or very high profits, are a sign that there is not a free market economy and that something is wrong (1). A recent report by Oxfam clearly suggested that most extreme wealth is not “meritocratic” but rather the consequence of rent-seeking activities an over close relationships between capital and the political class (2).

Free trade should also help the developing world. Were trade free,then these countries which are often wealthy in natural resources would be able to benefit from them. Our history of imperialism, when nation states rejected trade with these countries in favour of subjugation and theft, has left a legacy of poverty. Even today, the European Union acts as a trade group to benefit the farmers and producers within the Union at the expense of those outside its borders.

Everywhere we look, the political class works with business to limit free trade and to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few. We need to promote the free market to tackle poverty, to encourage trade and competition to drive down profit and excess and be clearly pro-market but not pro-business, to be pro-market but anti-capitalist (3).


(1) Are billionairesfat cats or deserving entrepreneurs ?

(2) Extreme wealth is not merited

(3) Free Market Anti-Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal