Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How should secular people fight poverty

Debbie Goddard wrote an interesting piece last week that says promoting education should be an important goal of the secular movement.

I want to see the movement do more than pay lip service to the value of education. I’ve talked about this before, but I am frustrated that we-the-movement only seem to get involved with public education when a teacher puts Bible quotes on the walls of her classroom, when a football coach leads his high school team in prayer, when a science teacher spends time promoting intelligent design, when an administration prevents a student from starting an atheist club, or when a high school graduation is scheduled to take place in a church. Then we swoop in with our science advocates and Wall of Separation to make everything right…but don’t seem to worry about the fact that the high school’s graduation rate might be less than 50% and the shared science textbooks are older than the students.

I've previously criticized demands* for skeptics, atheists and secular people to engage in mission creep, such as to shift their focus away from their central themes and towards other causes that already have support movements. There's no need to retrace those steps, and Goddard did reiterate a good point from Walker Bristol that the black church gains a lot of its power from presenting itself as a force to combat poverty* and it is in the interest of secular groups to copy that approach..

So assuming secular groups should fight poverty what approaches should they use?

Bristol's concentration was on the Why and not the How, so he didn't name any specific approaches the way Goddard spoke of funding education scholarships. Unfortunately both* of them endorsed a piece in the fringe leftist publication CounterPunch written by philosophy professor David Hoelscher about class problems in atheist circles.

To be fair, I do remember thinking when I signed up for my first TAM, the biggest conference of the skeptics movement, that the high registration fees assume that everyone is rich.

Hoelscher started his sprawling essay with a quote from Karl Marx, which should hint at the quality of the rest of the piece. He later quotes Noam Chomsky favorably* as saying "'the new atheism should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship' such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism." Later he wrote:

As the Marxist Terry Eagleton observes, there is something egregiously amiss when “[atheist] avatars of liberal Enlightenment like Hitchens, Dawkins, Martin Amis, Salmon Rushdie, and Ian McEwan have much less to say about the evils of global capitalism as opposed to the evils of radical Islam” and “most of them hardly mention the word ‘capitalism’ at all.”

So what are we to make of this, should secular groups who want to fight poverty spend their time fighting capitalism? Instead of asking a shallow philosophy professor, why don't we hear what economist Milton Friedman had to say on the subject:

...the question is how can we as people exercise our responsibility to our fellow man most effectively? That is the problem. So far as poverty is concerned, there has never in history been a more effective machine for eliminating poverty than the free enterprise system and the free-market.

But let's not kid ourselves, secular people who don't study mainstream economics are hostile to capitalism and market-based solutions and reject Friedman. It doesn't seem to matter that economists like Cass Sunstein have convinced modern progressives like President Barack Obama to view markets as an effect tool for organizing society. For example, in last night's State of the Union Address the president advocated market-based solutions to climate change. When it comes to economics, there are far too many secular people on the fringe.

It's also true that capitalism hasn't worked as a magic panacea everywhere, such as in the former USSR and chaotic poor nations. It has, however, worked to eliminate a lot of poverty in famous cases like Hong Kong, Sweden, Estonia, Singapore and Denmark. It even worked when brutal dictators tried it while keeping the rest of the country locked down in China and Chile. Compare West Germany with East Germany or South Korea with North Korea to see the difference between capitalist and anti-capitalist approaches.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for eliminating poverty. If we knew of one beyond all uncertainty then academic economists would be advocating its adoption. With no sure-thing to advocate, here are some positions and actions for secular groups that I believe will reduce poverty:

* Promoting financial literacy for poor people. This could take the form of luring adults to free classes with free food, or raising money for public schools in poor districts to require a personal finance class.

*Addressing condom fatigue. I know that sex education is important for reducing unwanted pregnancies, which are a poverty-creating machine, but we can't keep looking at poor people as too stupid to understand how pregnancy works. Americans have access to cheap contraceptives and know plenty about them but many choose not to use them.

*Help increase the purchasing power of the poor through housing zoning deregulation, ending rent control laws, fighting price cartels like barber licensing and increasing access to affordable food.

*Promote international trade as a way to bring lower prices to poor consumers and increase the standard of living for poor foreign workers. For the exact same reasons, promote free and open immigration.

* Stop listening to economic know-nothings like David Hoelscher. Seriously, just close the browser window when he comes up. You have nothing to learn from him about economics except efficient ways to kill poor people.

We should never make zero-sum assumptions and think wealth in one place causes poverty in another. Poverty is the natural state of the world and it is through innovation and human cooperation that we are able to eliminate it. Some places just haven't had as much growth and have been left behind. Those of us who know about growth owe it to everyone else to share what our civilization has learned.

Adamantium Claws: I received messages from Goddard, Walker and even Hoelscher pointing out details I got wrong. I chose to preserve and asterisk them and the clarifications, responses and  admissions of errors are found here. None of these issues challenge or change my thesis in any way.


  1. Point of clarification: I never said the "black church gains a lot of its power from presenting itself as a force to combat poverty." I said that in low-income communities, that because of our intensely racialized class hierarchy are often predominately black, oftentimes the local church is the cornerstone of the community. My point was that in fighting poverty, we ought to align ourselves with those churches, rather than dismiss them for having different beliefs than ours. From my piece: "In working towards a socially just society, aligning oneself with communities and organizations that have already shown tremendous strength in fighting injustice would seem essential." This was me addressing the How.

    Also I can't quite tell if you agree with me or Hoelscher on the class problem in the movement. I don't think fighting for class equality is necessarily anti-capitalist, so do you think the movement has an internal problem with classism, and a grand strategy that is unjustly focused on the overclass?

    Last thing: "Poverty is the natural state of the world and it is through innovation and human cooperation that we are able to eliminate it." I'm skeptical of the first part of that statement, but even so: do you think this necessitates capitalism?

  2. So, according to you Michael I quote "Noam Chomsky favorably as saying 'the new atheism should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism.'" If you're going to have the gracelessness to call somebody names ("shallow," "know-nothing") you should at least get your facts straight. I quoted that line from Chomsky in order to criticize it. Interested readers who'd like to see more of my reactions to your mean-spirited comments can check out my facebook page.

  3. Gentlemen, I direct your attention to the link in the addendum.

    As for Walker's follow-up question, no, I don't buy that there is an underlying class problem. Certainly not in the era of cheap computers, blogs and free podcasts where the public has the same access to information everyone else does.

    As for poverty being the natural state of the world, look at what poverty is, a lack of resources, goods, services and comforts. The world was created. This is well understood.

    The evidence of history is crystal-clear that no other system has lead to better improvements for the entire population than capitalism. All other systems have lead to greater inequality and a lack of human rights. It's a system that has been under constant attack from both philosophers who wanted faster growth for the poor and from greedy businessmen who don't want to play by the rules.

    Accepting and embracing capitalism is the only reality-based approach.