Pavlovian Discourse

Since I've made similar arguments regarding terms like liberal, conservative, right, and left in American political discourse, I thought I'd link this article by Theodore Dalrymple on discourse in European politics. It begins:

Some words in the press are used not only for purposes of shorthand but also as Pavlovian bells to get the ideological saliva running. They have only to be printed or uttered for thought to cease, and since thought is often painful and poses the danger of arriving at unwanted conclusions, such words offer protection against such pain and discomfort. Among them, for certain people, especially in Europe, are poverty, liberalism and austerity (the list is far from exhaustive). 

He discusses each term in turn as used in Europe. The paragraph on poverty applies equally well on this side of the pond, I think.


Texan99 said...

I think "poverty" often means not necessarily an absolute lacks of material wealth, nor even a simple inequality of wealth, but a gut reaction that someone lacks a necessity that is easily available, to judge by how many of his neighbors acquire it without seeming to have to try very hard. So it makes a huge difference how wealthy the nearby society is, and how fair you think the rules are for how some people acquire an average standard of living. Hardly anyone would feel comfortable watching his neighbor's child die for lack of antibiotics that he could acquire in an hour with the proceeds of an hour's work. He might be more resigned to the idea that his neighbor was going to die for lack of an expensive experimental treatment that only Steve Jobs could afford, or that could be made available in the future only if half the national wealth were devoted to finding it.

It gets a lot more complicated when you see your neighbor's brother-in-law chronically unable to afford a car to get to work because he drinks up his paychecks and keeps getting firing for cause.

Sometimes I think the definition of poverty is "whatever makes me feel queasy about my own lack of generosity." If only that didn't so often turn into a restless urge to force other people to be more generous instead.

Tom said...

Good points.

However, often poverty is defined as earning X% below the median or mean. According to Dalrymple, writing for Europe, "Almost always, the denotation of poverty nowadays is the possession of an income below 60 percent of the median income." They don't check to see if 60% covers the necessities.

Where I find this dishonest is that these measures are then used to get that gut reaction from readers who don't understand the measures. The writer is using an X% below definition but assuming that the average reader will take it as "lacking basic necessities" and demand more government intervention to solve the problem. It's intentional equivocation, in my opinion.

Tom said...

Sorry. "Below" is the wrong word there. It's "X% of" of course.

Unknown said...

Further to Tom's comment, and at risk of going off-topic, the US "poverty rate" was remarkably static for the few years including and after the 2008 crash - -

Certainly fewer people had jobs, and many people had fewer hours or accepted jobs with lower pay, but because the reported incomes of the top 0.1% dropped so much, the median dropped proportionally, so one could be at 61% of the median with a lower income than before.

jaed said...

At risk of going EVEN FURTHER off topic... The last time I checked such things, cash assistance was used as part of income in computing the poverty rate, but not non-cash assistance like food stamps, and not refundable tax credits such as EITC.

The result is that:
- If we cut all noncash benefits and revoked the EITC, the poverty rate wouldn't change.
- If we doubled taxes on the poor, the poverty rate wouldn't change.
- If we converted all cash benefits to a basket of useful in-kind benefits worth twice as much, and made them available to twice as many people as get benefits now, the poverty rate would spike upward.


E Hines said...

In this regard, I' the European use of "austerity" to mean less government spending. As though government spending, rather than individual ethic and individuals doing the spending for their own imperatives, is the road to prosperity. And this mindlessness is what our own Left wants us to emulate--for which "be more like Europe" is another Pavlovian shorthand.

Eric Hines

Unknown said...

Austerity as "less government spending" is a sort of first-order approximation, what it actuallymeans is that the budget for some department is increasing by merely 3 or 4 percent, where the department itself asked for 7 or 8%, and unions were saying that an increase of 12% or more was required.

For example, during the time when Cameron was Prime Minister, I was constantly reading via my facebook friends about the NHS (UK socialized health service) being destroyed! by austerity. During this time the number of people employed by the NHS has increased by about 40%

Texan99 said...

Poverty gets defined all kinds of crazy ways, and then used dishonestly in political discourse, but what gets voters hot under the collar is more the concept I described, I think. Once they're hot under the collar, they're ripe for manipulation, especially if they're prone to obscure guilty feelings they can't or won't confront and understand.

Gringo said...

My view of poverty is influenced by my working and touring in Latin America. By comparison, the poor in the country are fairly well off. I found it interesting to read a Venezuelan's reaction to a slum in Africa.

Francisco Toro, the main blogger at Caracas Chronicles has written about his reaction to a Ugandan slum.Ugandan Slum, Venezuelan Eyes.

He points out the obvious: that the Ugandan slum is poorer than slums in Venezuela, by making a comparison to Petare, a slum in Caracas.

As night falls, you can see the kerosene lights coming on in Makindye. You see electric lights on in maybe one shanty out of every 4 or 5. In Caracas, shanties are famously decked out with satellite dishes. Here, even electricity is out of reach for most, TV a distant dream, and satellite TV entirely off the radar. There are plenty of obvious ways Makindye is much, much poorer than Petare.

While Makindye is poorer than Petare in Caracas, in other ways it is more comfortable than Petare in Caracas.

But then women and girls walk around Makyndie alone, at night, without a second thought. Nobody wastes money putting bars on windows to keep thieves that don’t exist from stealing stuff they don’t have. The informal nighttime curfew so many in Venezuela have grown used to would scarcely be comprehensible to people here, who socialize intensely at night, outside their huts, as their kids play around them.

Toro notes that Makindye is much cleaner than the Petare slum in Caracas- garbage is take care of- and even cleaner than better-off sections in Caracas. While people shout in Caracas, in Makyndie they are soft-spoken.

Crime is very different.
It’s hard to quite put into words but, within minutes, you feel it. There’s absolutely no sense of menace to this place. No malandro culture. There’s none of that tension that’s slowly made Caracas unlivable in the last twenty years.
The facts are stark. In 2011, there were 183 murders in Kampala. Murder in Caracas, which has twice the population, is running at about 4,000 a year. There’s nothing remotely like the frenzied gun-culture of the Latin American slum in Makindye. When — exceptionally — someone is kidnapped in Kampala, it’s national news for days on end; it’s that rare. (And then this happens.)

It all depends on your perspective, I guess.

(The quotes are from a link in the Caracas Chronicles article)