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January 21, 2004

State of the union. The great feminist science fiction author Joanna Russ once remarked to me, “Homophobia isn’t there to keep homosexuals in line. Homophobia is there to keep everyone else in line.”

Caroline Payne is in her condition in order to keep the rest of us in line. [12:37 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on State of the union.:

James Veitch ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 02:50 AM:

There but for the grace of God go I.
I can look and see many times during my childhood where my parents could have made a decision, or just not been lucky enough, to have ended up the same way as Caroline Payne and it was a close enough thing at that. Perhaps the only major difference is that sometime when my mom was the age I am now she had her Road to Damascus moment, figured out what she wanted, worked for it and held fast. As a result, she's just a few years away from getting her doctorate.
As I've been thinking hard about what I want and how to get there, this article will haunt me for quite a while.

bob mcmanus ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 10:59 AM:

Impressed to meet someone who has met Joanna Russ.
I am easily impressed.

I have used her anecdote about the King of Denmark wearing the Star of David ("Yes, I am a homosexual") several times in straight groups to an amazingly great effect. It has always elicited compassion that surprised even the professed homophobes themselves.

Thank you, Joanna

Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 11:23 AM:

I don't understand what you mean when you say she's there to keep us in line. Care to expand?

Jaquandor ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 11:25 AM:

"The rich in this country do none of the work, and pay none of the taxes. The middle class does most of the work, and pays all of the taxes. The poor are there just to scare the shit out of the middle class. Keep 'em showing up at those 'jobs'."

-George Carlin, several years ago.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 11:50 AM:

One of the paragraphs that just cut through me:

Indeed, this solemn regard for the employer as untouchable and beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law permeates the culture of American antipoverty efforts, with only a few exceptions. The most socially minded physicians and psychologists who treat malnourished children, for example, will advocate vigorously with government agencies to provide food stamps, health insurance, housing and the like. But when they are asked if they ever urge the parents' employers to raise wages enough to pay for nutritious food, the doctors express surprise at the notion. First, it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless. Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.

I guess I am just a crypto-Marxist interested in fomenting class war -- or someone whose current politics were once considered just barely left of center. Seems to be the same thing these days. I do believe in market economies, and have done quite well in one. But I have no doubt as to how fortunate I was to get the parents I had and how close my wife and I came at a couple of points to just not making it at all, no matter how hard we worked. Maybe that's why Dorothy Day informs my politics more these days than Adam Smith.

Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 12:32 PM:

A commenter at the Poor Man found this link. My first thought was that it was a really well done parody site:

And for Godís sake, girl, bite the bullet (as it were) and wear those teeth! You look awful!

A little further on, there's this:

I think Carolineís problems run a little deeper than the economic

Missing a final period, IME often a sign of objecting a leetle too strenuously. 'Cause, you know:

Iíve made a lot of mistakes in life myself, indeed more than my share.

Indeed.

C.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 12:59 PM:

I haven't actually seen Joanna Russ in over twenty years, but I understand she's still alive and quite happy; just not writing any more, alas. Even if she'd never written The Female Man, she'd deserve a place in SF history as one of the genre's finest writers. "Nobody's Home" is on my personal list of the greatest SF stories ever written, and I've always been fond of We Who Are About To..., that utterly bleak and rational demolition of every lost-spacecraft survivalist fantasy ever written.

"I don't understand what you mean when you say she's there to keep us in line. Care to expand?"

Okay. I mean that it's very much in the interests of the kinds of people who increasingly run America that there should be more poverty, that it should be scarier, and that larger numbers of people in the middle class should feel not too far from falling into it. When people don't feel scared enough, they tend not to automatically do everything the boss demands. Frightened people are malleable people.

Conservatives know that you can't engineer all chance of misfortune and self-created calamity out of society without distorting things so badly that everyone's miserable. Libertarians know that the people who volunteer to be social engineers often harbor teapot-tyrant tendencies of their own. But liberals know that a deep pool of human misery is a recipe for the domination of society by the worst kind of pointy-haired bosses, and they're not wrong.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 01:13 PM:

Carlos, would the Independent Women's Forum were a parody. In the words of Bill Berkowitz at Media Transparency:

The Independent Women's Forum is neither Independent nor a Forum. Not independent because it is largely funded by the conservative movement. Not a forum, because it merely serves up women who mouth the conservative movement party line.

Check out their report on IWF.

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 01:13 PM:

I'm surprised that someone hasn't already popped in with a comment along the lines of "Well, if you care so much about her condition, why don't you send her some money?" After all, why would we want to fight the disease itself on a national level when private citizens can just stretch themselves ever thinner to help treat the symptoms?

Sigh.

Shit, I am a capitalist, I own a small business, and reading about things like this (and Wal-Mart's fifteen millionth crime against human dignity) makes my spine ache. Sorta like Teresa's tin-foil hat comment... I deeply resent the way the myopic greedfuckers (and their myrmidons) behind Wal-Mart, Enron, etc. make me feel revulsion at so much as handling the same currency they do.


Simon ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 01:25 PM:

I found Ms. Russ's and Mr. Nielsen Hayden's wisdom as gnomic as Kris Hasson-Jones did, and appreciate the elaboration.

What reading the article mostly brought to my mind was a wise saying by a person I cannot recall: "Being poor is a full-time job."

Varia ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 01:25 PM:

Scott:

I hear that line--about how I should be out providing jobs for "these people" if I care so much--pretty much every time I talk politics with my family. I hear ya.

What gets me is what a weird hybrid argument it is. Like, in school, I used to hear it not just from Republican types, but also from far-left Green Party and beyond types. That because I live in a capitalist system, it's my fault too. It always made my eyes cross to hear it come from both ends.

And yeah, to some degree, it is (the fault of all of us). The endless drive for cheaper products has spawned the Wal-Mart movement; but there's an element of corporate responsibility too. Executives can in fact refuse to treat their workers like slime. They can refuse to structure pay scales to go home millionaires, and leaving their workers penniless.

I think it was on this blog somewhere, a few weeks back, that someone mentioned the wage disparity between execs and their peons increasing from somewhere in the 80x to >300x over the last decade? I'd like to know where the statistic is from, but assuming it's valid, it also points out another counterargument to the "you are part of the problem" Meme Of Doom:

It doesn't have to be this bad.

Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 01:41 PM:

My 14-year-old son is in his 2nd year of university, several years ahead of the pack. He had to watch the State of the Onion speech for his Communications class, his only non-techie courses this quarter (the others being Calculus II, Physics II With Calculus, Physics Lab, and Object-Oriented Programming II).

His first comment was cited in my posting a couple of minutes ago on the "Spaceship Machiavelli" thread.

He was fascinated by the audience reaction. The two high points of those were when Bush warned that The Patriot Act (no, not what got New England to the Superbowl) was going to * gasp* expire in six months unless steps were taken. The audience (Dems AND true conservative Repubs) cheered. Bush's mono-eyebrow turned into a scowl. Then he remembered to refresh his default smug grin.

Second, when he rambled about how Iraq actually had WMD-related programs to start projects of related activities, and Teddy Kennedy mugged a "I can't believe this idiot is even saying this drivel" hand-to-mouth look of pain.

Look, Emperor Bush I lost, in part, for not countering criticism. Emperor Bush II, not wanting to repeat the mistake, pre-emptively defended himself against unnamed detractors.
It is a good sign that he has to be on the defensive. But, hey, didn't Bush-43 just win HIS Iowa caucus? He was preaching to his Scudderite core constituency, and trying to further confuse the nominally undecided.

Give him a "gentleman's C" as they say at Yale...

Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 02:08 PM:

They can refuse to structure pay scales to go home millionaires, and leaving their workers penniless.

A few years back, I read a newspaper article about a gravel company owner who realized tens of millions of dollars in profits from the sale of his company. He kept a relatively small chunk for himself to retire on, and he split the rest up among all of the workers at the company, pro-rated based on their years of service. Some of his old hands became minor millionaires. I wish I could offer a direct citation, but I didn't think to keep the article.

Anyhow, half of the piece was devoted to the cries of amazement from analysts and business-types, at how odd and unusual it was for a company owner to actually reward creatures as lowly as the people who'd done all the work over the years.

I think that's one of the things that irks me the most-- the pernicious idea that owners and stockholders are owed damn near everything, the customers are owed a bit, and the market requires that the rank-and-file employees can go fuck themselves.

Jon Sobel ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 02:34 PM:

This statement:

"Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal."

is (in my experience working for companies of various sizes) much less true of small businesses. What we need are more small businesses. The Republicans pay lip service to the importance of small businesses, but don't actually care about them. Do the Democrats? I'm not sure. But it reminds me of when I was a child, puzzling over the election news of the time. I asked my father what was the difference between a Democrat and a Republican. He said, "Republicans care about the rich people, and Democrats care about the poor people." Years later in college I remembered that, and felt resentful that he had "programmed" my wee mind with such a simplistic statement. Years later yet again, I came to realize that he was actually dead on.

Tina ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 02:36 PM:

I can't cite actual references for the ratio of executive:peon compensation increasing, but I can say that every time Time or Newsweek or some similar publication features an article on CEO salaries, the gap seems larger to me.

One of the more recent was $6 million/year compensation for the CEO. Whereas in the 80s, it was just starting to be the case that CEOs were being paid 7 figures on a regular basis.

This is purely anecdotal, of course. But I suspect if you could get a list of typical large-corporation compensation for upper-most level management and compare it to average salary for people in those businesses, the gap would be easily 100x (to high-tech/high-skill employees not living in the Bay area) to 200x (to lower-skill workers and office types), and that high-level compensation has steadily risen at a much faster rate than low-level compensation. I admit this is only a guess but it's based on more than just pulling it out of my butt.

By "upper-most level", I mean positions like CEO, CFO, and anyone else who reports mainly to the shareholders.

(Note: "not living in the Bay area" -- tech employees, even in today's economy, are paid a higher average wage out here because COLA is so much higher than typical, so the gap is lower, though still very visible.)

It has always annoyed me that the people who do what I like to refer to as "the actual work" are the ones who get paid the least. But there are businesses who are engaging in a spiral of death because of this attitude: they cut costs by firing actual workers, then can't meet their contracts, and have to cut more costs, or just set their expectations of sales lower -- lather, rinse, repeat. (Working at a distribution company really heightened my awareness of this.)

I will be the person with the party hat and confetti dancing on these corporations' graves.

Tina ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 02:43 PM:

I agree we need more small businesses.

Want it to happen? Patronize them in favor of larger ones where possible. Even if it means going out of your way or paying a little* more, because those two items are self-correcting given more support of small business.

(This is a semi-annual rant of mine, to go along with the "vote third-party" rant, which btw, consider mentioned now that it's an election year.)

*"A little" depends on your fiscal situation and the price of the item alike, of course, but I'm always willing to pay a couple percent more if necessary, since I think of that as normal price fluctuation based on sunspots anyhow. Like, say, $1 even for a soda instead of 95c so I can patronize my mom-and-pop shop instead of the Big Chain, or $50 more for a computer assembled in a 5-person tech company instead of going to Best Buy. Sometimes it's not possible, but it's possible more often than people think IMO.

Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 02:45 PM:

I don't argue with the proposition that there is intent (systemic) to keep people down, to make it difficult to get out of poverty. But Ms. Payne made a lot of choices that could have gone differently. She managed to run up $10,000 or more in credit card debt, but didn't choose to spend the $250 to get the dentures fixed? She incurred almost $20,000 in student loans to get a 2-year college degree, but couldn't find a job in her field? She apparently accepted a minimal divorce settlement, and it's at least implied that she could have received more. Where are her kids, why aren't they helping her?

David W. ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 03:31 PM:

In some ways, I think Ms. Payne is fortunate to have had at least something of a safety net to fall back on. Three years ago, Erin and I went to a dairy farm in a neighboring county here in Wisconsin to look at a dog that was for sale, and I was shocked to see the terrible condition of the old farm house the family there was living in, and at how dirt poor they were. I never felt so good paying $100 in my life when we decided we wanted the dog. Perhaps there were decisions which were made that helped to put them in the situation they were in, but no one deserved to be living the way they were living.

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 03:45 PM:

I agree, Kris, the piece reached in a few spots to make its points, but I still think it made some very valid ones.

A personal example of the kind of thing the article talked about: My mother-in-law works at hospital X, which provides to her health insurance coverage Y. Hospital X does not accept coverage Y!

One of the things that really bugs me in the California supermarket strike is that the markets are claiming that they "have to" cut back on benefits or wages, because Wal Mart is "going to" start competing with them, Wal Mart pays its employees less, and so the supermarkets won't be able to compete because of their higher labor costs. Why don't they push to get Wal Mart unionized, and encourage aggressive enforcement of labor laws at Wal Mart, instead? That would put them on an equal footing with Wal Mart, too.

Varia ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 04:04 PM:

and meanwhile, they flew workers out from other grocery stores across the country (to work in the striking stores), with work schedules of 60-80 hours a week, and time and a half for overtime, plus extra for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

It's cheaper to fight the unions?

Seems like corporate solidarity (and squash-the-peons-brotherhood) is stronger.

clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 05:14 PM:

I just read and summarized a statistical analysis of two fifteen-year-long, nationally representative work-and-education surverys of the US; one started in 1966, one in 1979: Divergent Paths. Shortest form: bad jobs are getting worse-paid, less reliable, and much harder to get out of. The return on education has dropped, especially for anything less than a finished four-year degree. Only finance, real estate, insurance, and "some professional services" (IS? S&M?) are doing better than their cohort of thirteen years earlier. Much statistical cogitation on why; mostly, that firms are intentionally deskilling, breaking up natural routes to promotion from within (or even good pay for the expertise of experience).

And I just trotted through some of the introductory-calculus-model for demand and supply curves, in which one works out that at a given price some consumers are "ahead" - the ones who would have paid much more for the same product - and some suppliers are "ahead" - the ones who could have sold the product cheaper and stayed in business. These curves are supposed to intersect at the place most beneficial to the whole society, if we're all consumers and producers in balance. I'm surely wondering if the intermediaries, of which Wal*Mart is the widest and the financiers the highest, aren't bollixing up that intersection.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 05:52 PM:

One fast source on executive pay issues is (no surprise) the AFL-CIO website which has a CEO Paywatch section. One money quote:

Since 1980, the average pay of regular working people increased just 74 percent, while CEO pay grew a whopping 1,884 percent.

They get their information from SEC filings and such. The best known source seems to be Graef Crystal, the leading consultant on executive pay. Over the past decade or so he has been denouncing executive pay policies that decouple executive pay from overall company performance and overall employee compensation. You can google for information about him, but he seems to reserve some of his best stuff for WSJ and a private newsletter.

Tina ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 07:52 PM:

Kris wrote:
I don't argue with the proposition that there is intent (systemic) to keep people down, to make it difficult to get out of poverty. But Ms. Payne made a lot of choices that could have gone differently. She managed to run up $10,000 or more in credit card debt, but didn't choose to spend the $250 to get the dentures fixed? She incurred almost $20,000 in student loans to get a 2-year college degree, but couldn't find a job in her field? She apparently accepted a minimal divorce settlement, and it's at least implied that she could have received more. Where are her kids, why aren't they helping her?

In order: Quite possibly she ran up the credit-card debt for things she thought were necessities -- I know it doesn't say, but I know an awful lot of people who have used their cards for basics like food and electricity when they weren't working.

A two-year college degree is approximately worth the air it displaces in terms of getting a job. The article itself specifically addresses this point, by the way.

When you're going through a divorce, you aren't always able to think about the fiscal side of things because the emotional are too strong. People get screwed over this way all the time.

And her kids? The article mentions they helped her with several things, but for all we know, they're in the same financial straits as she is.

I felt compelled to answer this because I detected a certain faint aroma of "People in poverty are there because of their own choices," which sort of defeats the whole article's point, which is: that's not necessarily true, a fact I can attest to personally (though I did get out myself, but there's an element of luck in it and I didn't have three kids -- one disabled -- to worry about). Even though you say straight out that's not what you think, it still comes across in that fashion to me. But I admit that this one's an easy button to push.

I've seen the effects of people who make stupid choices (I've occasionally been that person, though thankfully rarely) or who want the prize without the work, and it looks a lot different than this story to me.

Tina ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 07:56 PM:

"In 2002, the average CEO compensation package equaled $10.83 million..."

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention in my $6 million reference that that was base salary, not counting additional forms of compensation.

I have frequently been known to say that I would happily take a CEO job for a single year and then retire on what I made. I could live pretty much my most extravagant dreams out on the interest I'd get off the base cash salary.

(Hey, I'm from a blue-collar family; my extravagant dreams are nice and lower-class.)

Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 11:00 PM:

I felt compelled to answer this because I detected a certain faint aroma of ďPeople in poverty are there because of their own choices,Ē which sort of defeats the whole articleís point,

I'm not surprised there's an aroma, because I do believe that many people are remaining in poverty because of the choices they make. I also believe that there is conspiracy-level intent to limit their choices. Like you, I made it out of poverty. Unlike you, there was no luck involved--it was social welfare programs that kept me alive as a child, and my own hard work and choices (like not to have a baby while in high school, or not to do drugs, or not to run up charge cards) that made it possible for me to get good jobs and eventually to own a home.

Ms. Payne admits *in the article* that she bought stuff she wanted, not just stuff she needed. She had a tv, vcr, email addy (computer? internet access?), answering machine--enough stuff that someone helped her rent a truck to move.

She also chose to have 4 kids she couldn't support, left a marriage when she couldn't support herself or her kids, and apparently didn't do enough investigation about whether she'd actually be able to earn enough to pay off her college loans before deciding to incur them. Even with her limited choice field, she's shown no record of taking full advantage of what's available to her. The only good trait portrayed in the article is that she's a hard worker.

Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2004, 11:40 PM:

Digging around the hard disk, I found this:

Peter Lindert, "Why the Welfare State Looks Like a Free Lunch"

Abstract: The econometric consensus on the effects of social spending confirms a puzzle we confront in the raw data: There is no clear net GDP cost of high tax-based social spending on GDP, despite a tradition of assuming that such costs are large. This paper offers five keys to this free lunch puzzle. First, it shows conventional analysis imagines costly forms of the welfare state that no welfare states have ever practiced. Second, better tests confirm that the usual tales imagine costs that would be felt only if policy had strayed out of sample, away from any actual historical experience. Third, the tax strategies of high-budget welfare states are more pro-growth and less progressive than has been realized, and more so than in free-market OECD countries. Fourth, the work disincentives of social transfers are so designed as to shield GDP from much reduction if any. Finally, we return to some positive growth and well-being benefits of the high welfare budgets, and then pose theoretical reasons why democracy may exert a crude form of cost control.

Money paragraph:

The overriding fact about the cases of costly welfare states, though, is that they never happened. Thatís what their being extrapolations out of the sample range really means. Once we draw back from such imaginary extrapolations to the historical range of policies actually tried, no expansion of taxes and transfers significantly lowers (or raises) GDP. The free lunch puzzle is confirmed, even by the most appropriate available kind of econometric test.

It's a neat paper, though, you know, dismal.

Interesting yet unsurprising factoid gleaned: that Bell Curve guy Charles Murray was involved in making up those imaginary yet oddly compelling low growth scenarios, and of course he used cherry-picked, biased numbers in the process.

C.

Gareth Wilson ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 12:53 AM:

An Antipodean perspective: I was amazed and impressed to read that the woman actually has a job. We have exactly the same kind of poverty stories in the New Zealand media, but the protaganists never work. They sit around on some kind of benefit instead. Make of that what you will.

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 03:26 AM:

The common neoconservative wisdom is that social welfare programs breed laziness, that if you hand people everything they want, they'll sit around and do nothing to earn it.

This runs contra to my own personal experience: I was halfway between self-employed and unemployed throughout 2002. I was working pretty hard much of that time, but I wasn't pulling in that much money. I would have happily continued in that state, I don't NEED that much money, really, for most things, except for one thing: health insurance. There's a law called COBRA - you know that name pretty well if you've ever been laid off. It deems that your former health insurance must continue for a certain period after you've been laid off, available to you at a cost which, for me, was far less than the market rate. But that period was due to run out six months after I landed a job.

I knew and know a lot of people who would love to start businesses, but their entrepeneurial spirits are quashed by the need to keep paying for health insurance, and the grocery bill.

The West does have a permanent welfare state, people who live in comfort and have done nothing to earn their comfort. These are the people who inherited wealth from their parents. You want to see parasites who are living off the sweat of decent, hard-working people's brows? You might find some in the local Welfare office, but you'll get a better view if you download the Paris Hilton video.

Gareth Wilson ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 04:03 AM:

"The West does have a permanent welfare state, people who live in comfort and have done nothing to earn their comfort. These are the people who inherited wealth from their parents. You want to see parasites who are living off the sweat of decent, hard-working peopleís brows? You might find some in the local Welfare office, but youíll get a better view if you download the Paris Hilton video."

The difference is that the decent, hard-working people Paris Hilton is living off are her own relations. And that's really their business, isn't it? Actually the latest Analog has a solution to that "problem": read Steven Bratman's _Deletion_.

Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 12:16 PM:

Let's see. Since one can't claim that a more comprehensive social safety net will decrease this country's wealth or growth -- well, one can, but it goes against all the comparative evidence -- the argument shifts to social engineering, something Gareth here is no stranger to contemplating.

Why, if it causes no damage to the economic health of the state, should the state be concerned if some people use the benefits it provides to drop out? Because it *looks* bad? Because it's the duty of the state to keep its citizens anxious and cheap? A *pimp* does that.

If both Paris Hilton and Gareth Welfare choose to sit flashing thigh at the pub all day, what does it matter to me? None of my business either way.

C.

Lis ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 02:08 PM:

Tina wrote: I can't cite actual references for the ratio of executive:peon compensation increasing
Quoting Whiskey Bar (Billmon) back in October:

The most common benchmark of income inequality is called the Gini coefficient, which measures the distribution of income across quintiles -- fifths -- of the population, ranked from poorest to wealthiest. Inequality is measured on a scale of 0 to 1, with a higher number indicating greater inequality.
...
America's Gini rating now much more closely resembles that of a Latin American banana republic than it does the other major industrialized nations.
Read the entire post. They say pictures are worth a thousand words, and he's got graphs of the American Gini coefficient over time, along with average U.S. household income measured in mean vs. median. It's not a pretty picture.

Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 03:15 PM:

Like you, I made it out of poverty. Unlike you, there was no luck involved

Did you pick up the values that drove your choices from your parents, or your teachers? Is that not luck? Do you have all your teeth? Is that not luck? Have you got more native IQ than the woman in question? Is that not luck? Are you part of a geographically distributed social support system called fandom? Is that not luck? Did you marry a man who isn't cheating on you and doesn't sexually molest your children? Is that not luck?

Ms. Payne did not do drugs, or get pregnant in High School, either. She chose to get a degree in a field that had good prospects of paying off her loans at the time, certainly IT was pushed all over the place at the time, and apparently took an AA degree where it was bloody expensive compared to what I was used to in California. She had her kids while married. She chose to leave those marriages in the face of cheating in one case, and gross child abuse in the other. With the exception of her credit card debt (which is no worse than what all too many Americans carry irrespective of poverty level), it looks to me as if you're straining at gnats to fault her choices. And credit card debt, however foolish (and notably encouraged by the credit card companies) is not what distinguishes the poor from the rest of us.

From where I sit it looks as if your belief that poverty is the fault of the poor is not something you're willing to scrutinize very skeptically. Rather, you'll ignore any facts that don't support it, and emphasize the ones that do.

Which supports Patrick's original point, I think. If you blame her for her poverty, for her poor choices, and believe that better choices are what makes the difference for others, then your incentive is to watch your P's & Q's, behave like a good little stooge, not question when employers farm formerly internal jobs out to temps, contractees, and other corporate choices, however toxic they may be. If the behavior of corporations is off the table, then you aren't scrutinizing it for better alternatives in the same way that you do Ms. Payne's. In other words, it doesn't look like you're taking very seriously the notion that institutional forces work to create the sort of bind Ms. Payne is in. At least, not seriously enough to criticize.

Jon Sobel ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 03:25 PM:

" I know an awful lot of people who have used their cards for basics like food and electricity when they werenít working."

I've been in that situation. Health problems caused me to be unable to work full-time for a period of about two years. I'm still, in effect, paying off the credit card debt amassed during that period, which ended over six years ago. And I am a person with many more skills and advantages than the woman in the article, not to mention a member of a DINK (double-income, no kids) couple.

Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 04:13 PM:

A couple of things:

If the Tampax factory had been willing to change Ms. Payne's hours to a steady day shift, there would have been no need for her to leave that job and she'd still be in her house. If companies in general didn't still pay the same exact pittance they did 30 years ago, as though there were no such thing as inflation and housing prices hadn't gone through the roof, then this would all be moot.

And as long as we're discussing entities who take advantage of government largesse, let's point our fingers in the right place: Ms. Payne is living in state-subsidized housing and getting health care through Medicaid while she is *working* as a cashier. That means that taxpayer money is going to *subsidize the substandard wages of that bloody store*, which otherwise would have to pay its employees enough to pay rent, have health care, and buy food. We are not subsidizing Ms. Payne, we are subsidizing Wal-Mart.

One more thing: for people who disdain Ms. Payne's TV/VCR ownership (I've seen it here and on Crooked Timber and Brad DeLong), I would argue that a TV and a VCR are actually a sensible investment for poorer people: once the units are bought, it adds up to virtually free entertainment (except electricity which is pretty negligible). Movies, plays, concerts, and other activities cost money, either to attend or to get to or both. As many people here know, books can also cost money, and public library hours are shrinking as a rule. Especially if you have a child, and especially especially if you don't have a lot of time yourself, TV is a way to make what time off you do have at least semidiverting, and to take the edge off the pressure of child-rearing.

sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2004, 06:03 PM:

Gareth: An Antipodean perspective ... They sit around on some kind of benefit instead. Make of that what you will.

Ugh. Just so as to represent the Antipodes a bit more clearly: what I make of that (your comment, I mean; also your comment about Paris Hilton's host organism being only her family) is that you really believe that the poor get and stay that way by choice and/or through some fault of their own. What I make of the "welfare class", both in the US and in Australia, has been pretty much said by Stefanie, Ulrika, Mitch and (thanks Jaquandor) George Carlin.

Reimer Behrends ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 06:42 AM:

Stefanie wrote: Especially if you have a child, and especially especially if you donít have a lot of time yourself, TV is a way to make what time off you do have at least semidiverting, and to take the edge off the pressure of child-rearing.

If I may add to that, I'd also like to point out that many of her critics don't seem to have the slightest clue what it means to raise a handicapped child (which, unfortunately, I'm only too familiar with, both through friends and through volunteer work). There's also the small matter that many do not accept anything short of outright starvation as deserving of help (even homelessness is apparently eyed with suspicion). Whereas I consider basic human dignity a fundamental right, not a privilege that can be granted or taken away.

Moreover, I don't even care if there are a few welfare abusers on the fringes that live off taxes I pay. It's a small price to pay for knowing that more people in need can have something resembling personal dignity. Definitely a much smaller price than having to listen to the whining of those who can't bear the thought of losing a few percent of their precious paychecks.

(Teresa, feel free to disemvowel that last sentence if you think it is out of line or may cause undue disruption.)

Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 12:43 PM:

Televisions are also pretty useful for socialization - what's on TV is always a principle topic for bonding at work. Not knowing what everyone else is talking about is a good way to be left out of the conversation and tends to make others think you are anti-social. Being able to talk about popular TV programs can be as important as wearing proper clothing to work. I've found this especially to be true when I've worked at jobs that are more typically working-class, including secretarial work.

Pointing out that Payne has made bad choices doesn't actually impress me. Of course she has - everybody does. The difference is that if you start with more resources, your bad choices are less likely to be fatal to your future. George Bush made even worse choices, but his just plain didn't matter, did they? No one can pretend he got where he is by pulling himself up by his bootstraps, hard work, diligence.

I think Stefanie made a very good point about how taxpayers are actually being forced to subsidize these companies to allow them to keep people poor and dancing on coals. Moreover, by making employees sit around and wait even to find out when they will be working, they are consuming all of an individual's time, including that which could be spent doing other things to try to improve their situations. Which means that in real terms you can divide that hourly wage by three.

And whether Payne made bad choices is irrelevant on that score; it doesn't give the right to employers to steal your time. And stealing your time is what it is if it doesn't provide a living.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 02:37 PM:

Go Reimer go! (Especially that sentence.)

clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 05:28 PM:

(I even prefer the penultimate sentence of Reimer's post.)

Connie ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 05:45 PM:

The $10K that Payne ran up could easily have been an actual $5K of expenditures and $5K of interest by the time she declared bankruptcy. She may well have maxed out her cards (or not had any) at the time that she couldn't afford another $250 to adjust her dentures. I've known several people who were financially unable to pay to keep their teeth -- believe me, I would say having seen them go through it that you don't do that unless you really believe that your back is against the wall financially. All three of them were devastated emotionally before and after.

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 10:22 PM:

I had a fun day today at the dentist's office. I'll spare you the details. If, however, back in 1995, I hadn't walked in the door where a guy totally unsuited to be a hiring manager took one look at the busted bridge in the front of my mouth, shrugged, and hired me anyway, I wouldn't've been at the dentist's office today. I wouldn't have any teeth, or much of anything else, either.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2004, 11:42 PM:

I just want to say that one of the essential components of poverty is envy. We consider it to be a sin, and castigate people who admit to it, but the fact is that it is a very basic emotion, one that people can't help but feeling. If everyone you know is poor, that poverty is far less grinding than living much better, but being faced every day with people vastly better off than you are. Monkeys object to unfair wages.

When I was 18 or 20, I was working for minimum wage, no benefits. No paid vacation. No sick time. No paid holidays. Weeks with holidays, I couldn't work a 40 hour work week because the court house was closed. I asked my boss for a raise. She said that she couldn't afford one because she'd just bought this brand-new Lincoln towncar and the payments were just enormous. She went on to extoll the car's many virtues; its leather seats, its onboard computer, its ashtrays, its steering, its -- gods know what. I never hated her so much as at that moment. I was having trouble coming up with busfare. I used to have fantasies of destroying that car. My favorite was an EMP blast that murdered the onboard computer, but my second favorite was a wrecking ball. Never have I hated an inaminate object so much, either.