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Quit Telling the Poor What They Need

[ 99 ] September 18, 2013 |

The world’s poor indeed want to have fun and perhaps they want to have fun more than they want indoor plumbing, especially if the latter is hard to imagine. In any case, I agree with the op-ed that the spread of the internet to the developing world leading to more fun is in itself a great thing and that people need to stop telling the poor what they should want with their lives.

Comments (99)

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  1. Dana Houle says:

    Technology providing access to information about markets is fairly orthodox economic theory. I’m not sure who with any sense would argue against that.

    • Dana Houle says:

      And it’s not either/or. Hell, I use the internet to look up things about plumbing, and relatively low-cost improvements in my life are nowhere near as consequential as they could be for people in rural India. I remember as a kid visiting the “family farm” in Canada. My great uncle had just recently gotten electricity–they never got indoor plumbing–and yeah, what he seemed most pleased with wasn’t the ability to use electrical lighting to listen to the commodity prices and read seed catalogues, but that they could watch TV. But I’m sure they benefitted from the other stuff too.

  2. wengler says:

    But if we don’t tell the poor what to do, what will Republicans do all day?

  3. joshua buhs says:

    Can I say that they need more money?

  4. LeeEsq says:

    Humans have an interesting relationship with fun and play. Its a human need but a lot of us really don’t like acknowledging it as such. As far as I can tell, practically every culture developed a puritanical strain that looked down upon entertainment. We see this in Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, the monotheistic religions, the Dharma religions, Confucianism, and various political ideologies on the Right and the Left. Its not even necessarily about maintaining social control because a lot of elites seemed determined to deny themselves fun to and saw an austere personality and lifestyle as a sign of their superiority.

    • LeeEsq says:

      Note, I’m not taking about now but in the past various elites have at least idealized an austere lifestyle for themselves.

      • Karen says:

        I wouldn’t limit yourself. I’ve known plenty of extremely wealthy people who pride themselves on what I, personally, think are chintzy habits. I also think of the preference among the extremely rich for obsessive dieting — Madonna apparently never eats anything made from milk — and extreme exercising. Asceticism is still with us and still annoying.

        • Strong Thermos says:

          You know, I agree with everything you said, but the Madonna example is a poor one. I don’t eat anything made from milk (more commonly known as dairy products) because I am lactose intolerant, and would just rather consumer soy milk than lactaid milk and don’t like taking lactaid pills with my everywhere so that I don’t shit myself when I eat a pizza. Hardly decadent.

          • Strong Thermos says:

            Goddamn phone. Sorry for the typos.

            • Karen says:

              1. No biggie on the typos.

              2. Madonna’s dairy avoidance was just the first obscenely rich person I could think of who brags about what she doesn’t eat.

              • Strong Thermos says:

                Yeah I guess I just took it a little too personally. Dairy really does kill me though. Ugh.

                • JoyfulA says:

                  I’m lactose-intolerant, too, but I have no trouble with hard cheeses or butter. Milk, ice cream, or cottage cheese bloats me into misery.

                  I used to take lactaid to drink skim milk, but then skim milk was enhanced to have the mouth feel and appearance of whole milk, so I don’t bother. And soy milk is even denser and more cloying. (My husband’s whole family drinks it, and I have no idea why; two family factions prefer two different brands.)

                • Dana Houle says:

                  Why don’t you use lactose-free milk? I don’t drink Horizon, but I’d been drinking Nature’s Valley milk when I discovered last year I’m intolerant, and I just shifted over to their lactose free stuff. Unlike Horizon it’s organic and from pasture-raised cows, and is produced by a cooperative. You can’t find it as easily as Horizon (which I think tastes crappy), but you may not have to go to a Whole Foods to buy it; big supermarkets in large metro areas with a good selection of organic or “good for you and raised ethically” food often have it. It’s a bit sweeter than regular milk, but other than that it’s perfectly fine. We even use it for sherbet. [BTW, Breyers makes lactose-free vanilla ice cream, and it's the same price as their regular ice cream.]

                • Johnny Sack says:

                  I used to drink Lactaid. I just don’t like regular milk. And I do occasionally eat hard cheeses. My real point (not well articulated, sorry) was that not consuming dairy, whether or not you are lactose intolerant, is hardly some obsessive dieting thing that’s the exclusive province of rich people. I got by just great without dairy through years of being broke.

            • Karen says:

              FWIW, you have my sympathy on the digestive problem. I work with a woman who has celiac disease, and it is decidedly not easy to avoid gluten. Lactose intolerance, I would imagine, is just as bad and just as hard to work around. I’ll be more careful with my examples in the future.

          • Jordan says:

            Right. The majority of people in the world are “lactose intolerant.” But not most white people!

            • ajay says:

              The majority of people in the world are “lactose intolerant.” But not most white people!

              Or, interestingly, a lot of East Africans. Or, of course, all babies.

              IIRC there’s evidence that the mutation allowing lactase persistence into adulthood arose several times independently; once in the Middle East and several times in East Africa. So from one source you get all us cheese-eating Arabs and Europeans and Indians, and from the other you get East African herding cultures.

              • Dana Houle says:

                Some Indians. Pakistanis and Northern Indians, yes, but Southern Indians, Bengalis and SE Asians are likely lactose-intolerant.

                Interestingly, the gene for Celiac’s is not found in Southern Indians/Sri Lankans etc. It IS found in Northern Indians, where people have traditionally consumed wheat, but not in those places where they did not.

          • DocAmazing says:

            If the pizza’s good enough…

            • Strong Thermos says:

              Believe me, sometimes I give in when I see other people drinking milkshakes or pass by the Mellow Mushroom by my apartment. Oh man, that pizza is so good but it just destroys me every time.

              • Rigby Reardon says:

                The temptation value of the Mellow Mushroom depends strongly on what city you’re in. Asheville, Savannah and Austin are the ones that always pull me in. Tampa, not so much …

    • EH says:

      You’re making a hasty generalization in attributing that tendency to “humans.” It’s only certain religious denominations that have set the traditions for a desire for play being a luxury or an outright failing.

    • njorl says:

      Evolutionary systems tend to produce useful traits which are not useful all of the time. Fuddy-duddies can prove useful in moderation, and even in large doses in dire circumstances. A society that develops a reserve of moral scolds who are largely ignored has them if they become useful. There is the risk of moral scolds taking over and reducing productivity and creativity, but that doesn’t usually last.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been working in programs for the uninsured for years (so this is not news to me), and have recently started working in government, non-profit boards, and medical school. It’s mind boggling how NOONE sees the aid recipient / constituent / patient as “the client” or thinks their opinion matters.

  6. DrDick says:

    Come on now, Erik! Everyone knows that the poor have to suffer for their fecklessness and slothful ways. If they were truly virtuous and industrious, they would all be rich!

  7. LFC says:

    I must say this op-ed about the poor and fun puts me in a rather bad mood.

    According to UNICEF, almost 18,000 children under age 5 died every day in 2012 — the vast majority of those being no doubt preventable poverty-related deaths.

    Don’t have child mortality figures for India specifically to hand, but a blurb for Dreze and Sen’s new bk on India says that half its children remain profoundly malnourished. Despite its ec growth, emergence of a middle class etc, extreme poverty is still a big problem.

    In light of which I find it hard to cheer this op-ed criticizing some fairly anodyne comments about possible uses of the internet in developing countries. (Not that I know one way or the other whether the internet is going to do all that much to alleviate poverty, but that’s not the point.)

    • hamletta says:

      The point.

      You.

      • LFC says:

        I agree with the pro-autonomy message/aspect of the post. But the notion that a technology executive’s remarks about the possible social uses of the Internet in developing countries are somehow depriving the poor of agency strikes me as a bit wacky. The op-ed leaves a bad taste, at least for me. YMMV obvs.

        I don’t actually know what your “the point. you” means exactly but I guess it’s a sort of fairly typical LGM comment of one variety … snappy and devoid of much substance.

        • hamletta says:

          I don’t actually know what your “the point. you” means exactly but I guess it’s a sort of fairly typical LGM comment of one variety … snappy and devoid of much substance.

          It means the point sailed right over your pecksniffian head, you pious schmuck.

          • Ronan says:

            Eh no. Not telling people what to do is indeed good advice
            This columnist appears to be some sort of Indian Tom Friedman though
            Therefore,I agree with LFC

            • Dana Houle says:

              Yeah, I think the key word in LFC’s comment is “anodyne,” which makes the Friedman comparison apt.

              It’s probably more fun to not be hungry and not have Candy Crush than to have Candy Crush but also have a distended stomach.

    • tt says:

      The op-ed feels a little misdirected, because the reason tech execs talk about health care, education, jobs, etc. isn’t to condescend to the poor (they aren’t the audience), as most of the comments here imply, it’s to convince other rich people to support their efforts. And the author is very unclear about what “mistakes” he thinks might be made as a result of this marketing strategy. If you give poor people internet, they will use it for porn and gossip just like everyone else. And it probably won’t help much on the health or jobs front, because lack of access to information really isn’t the problem in most places in the world.

  8. Come, come, don’t be so close minded. I’m sure this is full of valuable, well-intended, not-at-all condescending and completely based in reality information those silly poors simply never would have thought on if some saintly member of the blessed elite didn’t tell them. You know, being poor and all, they really don’t know how to cut it out there in the Real World, poor dears.

  9. Major Kong says:

    They could put the internet to good use and look up the instructions for building tumbrels and guillotines.

    • CaptBackslap says:

      In 7th grade, I took a class in “communications technology” taught by our shop teacher, and for one project a group of students decided they’d build a “mouse guillotine” for an ad project. They planned to execute a live mouse in it, but the teacher wisely decided to ask permission rather than beg forgiveness, and the principal nixed the mouse snuff film.

      Not to be deterred, the teacher found a dead mouse in the school (which, in retrospect, is fairly alarming in itself) and brought it to the classroom to be beheaded. This basically grossed everyone out of existence, and the ad had to go without a realistic demonstration.

    • Shakezula says:

      They can read my new blog: How to Serve the Rich.
      It will cover everything from hunting to plating.

    • ajay says:

      They could put the internet to good use and look up the instructions for building tumbrels and guillotines.

      It’s a persistent and deeply held belief that the way to improve the lot of the poor is to start a civil war, and the belief persists in defiance of all the evidence against it.

      • MPAVictoria says:

        I love ya Ajay but the only way the poor have ever gotten anything is by fighting for it.

        • ajay says:

          I was just reading about what determines standard of living improvements in different countries in Africa, and the most important one by far is “not having a civil war going on in your country”.

          Saying things like “the only way the poor have ever gotten anything is by fighting for it” sounds good if you don’t think about it, but it’s really only true if under “fighting for it” you include things like protests and boycotts and strike action and petitions and demonstrations and massive lobbying efforts as well as starting civil wars. We got universal free health care without having to have a civil war. We got unemployment benefit without having to have a civil war. We got redistributive taxation without having to have a civil war. Affordable council housing: not the result of a civil war. And so on.

          • sibusisodan says:

            Revolution (or the threat of one) =! civil war.

            • ajay says:

              Revolution (or the threat of one) =! civil war.

              A violent revolution is by definition a civil war. It’s two (or more) armed factions contesting the government of the state. And if you have a peaceful revolution, then there won’t be any fighting involved.

              • sibusisodan says:

                A violent revolution is by definition a civil war.

                No it isn’t. There are froodles of revolutions which do not get labelled as ‘Civil War’, although they share plenty of elements in common.

                But the more fruitful question is whether significant social change can ever occur without the threat of violence of some kind on those who hold the levers of power?

                None of the changes in your list of British social history happened purely altruistically. They were – if my judgement is accurate – largely the result of those in power judging it better for them to cede it a little than to bear the cost of not ceding it.

                Consider, for example, the Reform Acts of the C19th, and what happened after the Lords rejected one of the readings.

                • DrDick says:

                  But the more fruitful question is whether significant social change can ever occur without the threat of violence of some kind on those who hold the levers of power?

                  I think the clear evidence from history is no. The powerful never relinquish anything without the threat of losing far more.

                • ajay says:

                  But the more fruitful question is whether significant social change can ever occur without the threat of violence of some kind on those who hold the levers of power?

                  Please to be explaining exactly what threats of violence were used by the gay rights movement in order to achieve first the legalisation of homosexuality and then the legalisation of gay marriage.

                • ajay says:

                  No it isn’t. There are froodles of revolutions which do not get labelled as ‘Civil War’, although they share plenty of elements in common.

                  By the same argument, a horse stops being a horse if you attach a label to its side reading “COW”.

                • Origami Isopod says:

                  Ajay, have you never heard of Stonewall? Or of ACT-UP?

          • Ronan says:

            Didnt you get universal free health care b/c of WW2? Which was a civl (intra German) ciil war in a some ways

            • ajay says:

              Didnt you get universal free health care b/c of WW2?

              Kind of but not really. We finally got universal national health care after WW2, but it really goes back to the National Insurance Act in 1911 and the other Lloyd George reforms – as people realised at the time. And even just for the NHS, it is dubious to say that it happened because of the war. Labour was in a position to get the Beveridge Report written because they were part of the National Government. But really it was more a reaction to the hungry twenties…


              Which was a civil (intra German) war in some ways

              No, it wasn’t.

              • JoyfulA says:

                House of Hanover?

                • Dana Houle says:

                  For the Nazis, the UK and the House of Hanover was a sideshow compared to what mattered to them and where through 1944 most of the war was fought: Poland, the Ukraine, Bessarabia, Belarus and the Baltics.

                • Ronan says:

                  The British German rivalry has always been an internal battle over which Germanic faction will dominate Europe

                • Hogan says:

                  When did Britain want to dominate Europe? After about the fourteenth century, I mean. Their policy was generally to keep anyone from dominating Europe and promote a balance of continental power that would let them enjoy their empire in peace, barring the occasional colonial uprising. That’s why they cooperated with German states against Louis XIV and Napoleon.

                • Ronan says:

                  The germanic faction based in Britain wanted to control europe by proxy, developing a global empire and then starving the continent through restriction of access to global markets all the while moving towards a negotiated compromise which would put the continent under british control.
                  The faction based in Germany wanted to do it directly through wars of occupation.
                  The french were caught between these two oppossing tribes trying to keep the peace

                • ajay says:

                  The germanic faction based in Britain wanted to control europe by proxy, developing a global empire and then starving the continent through restriction of access to global markets all the while moving towards a negotiated compromise which would put the continent under british control.

                  This is some of the nuttiest stuff I have ever read in my life, and believe me the competition is not weak in this category.

              • Ronan says:

                “The English are basically Germans, geneticists at London university have discovered. The Telegraph reports:”

                http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/edwest/100093184/are-the-english-really-germans-or-spaniards/

                • Dana Houle says:

                  No offense to the Brits, but the Nazis were defeated by millions of Siberians who stopped them at the Volga and marched over their corpses all the way to Berlin.

                • Ronan says:

                  Absolutely. You wont get any argument from me

                • sibusisodan says:

                  Nor here.

                • Hogan says:

                  You wont get any argument from me

                  He already did. You’re the one arguing that WWII was a civil war fought between the German British and the German Germans.

                • Ronan says:

                  He wont get any argument with me over that specific point. ie

                  “but the Nazis were defeated by millions of Siberians who stopped them at the Volga and marched over their corpses all the way to Berlin.”

                  Rather than the german faction based in Britain

                • Dana Houle says:

                  This “Germanic faction in Britain” has a “the Rothschilds control everything” feel to it, but with “Germanic” types taking the place of Jews in the conspiracy.

                • djw says:

                  20th century nationalism has very, very little to do with ancient genetic origins, absent a cultural story to go with them about their significance. The “WWII as German Civil War” thing is the most nonsensical, bizarre theory you’ve ever advanced on this blog.

                • Dana Houle says:

                  I agree with djw; this is getting LaRouchian.

                • ajay says:

                  No offense to the Brits, but the Nazis were defeated empowered by millions of Siberians who stopped them at the Volga sold them all the oil, grain and metals they needed to build the Wehrmacht and marched over their corpses all the way to Berlin. collaborated with them to butcher tens of thousands of Poles.

                  FTFY

                • Ronan says:

                  I guess since gavin menzies blew.our.minds there’s no room for a revisionist histiography anymore

                • rea says:

                  As the article linked by Ronan indicates, the notion that Britons are genetically German is very much a minority view–most geneticists think modern Britons are largely descendants of an aboriginal population that migrated to the British Isles from Iberia at the end of the last ice age.

          • MPAVictoria says:

            “you include things like protests and boycotts and strike action and petitions and demonstrations and massive lobbying efforts as well as starting civil wars.”

            I do include all those things.

            • ajay says:

              Well, yes, if “fighting” means “any political effort, violent or non-violent, to get what you want” then indeed the poor have never got anything without fighting for it.

          • SIS says:

            The working and middle classes got a lot of those benefits because of the Great Depression and the elite fear of revolution happening in the US as it had happened elsewhere. Bismark, one of the originators of a lot of these types of social insurance programs in Europe understood that elites needed to soften the misery of the masses, or risk ending up like the Ancien Regime. Without the fear of violence stemming from misery an inequality those programs would have never been enacted. And there was still plenty of violence, as the ongoing posts on Labor history in this blog make clear.

      • njorl says:

        I don’t think you can justify correlation with causation here. While poverty might correlate with civil war, it might also correlate with intransigent, dictatorial government which will not change its ways without war.

        Also, most civil wars are not between “the poor” and “the rich”. They are between groups which have power. They are fought for the benefit of faction leaders while impoverishing their nations.

        So even if poverty correlates with civil war, that does not necessarily mean that violent struggle is not in the interest of the poor.

  10. anthrofred says:

    Worth keeping on hand for next time someone slams you with a link to a technocratic TED talk (but I repeat myself there).

  11. MikeJake says:

    My freshman year of HS was my first exposure to the internet, in the school library. I remember coming home and telling my dad about this exciting new technology. It had this thing called a search engine, and you could type in the word “poop”, and you’d get hundreds of results related to poop!

    Later that fall a school levy vote failed and I had to start walking to school because they took my bus away. I never did ask my dad how he voted.

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