Poverty: The Plus Side

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874.

“Poverty Should Have Risen”—so runs the cheery headline of a New York Times blog post this week by Casey B. Mulligan, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

“Poverty did not rise between 2007 and 2011,” Mulligan writes, “and that shows why government policy is seriously off track.”

Yes, seriously off track. Perhaps you are under the popular impression that it is good when poverty does not go up. You might even think it a policy triumph. Not so. When job losses multiplied after the financial crash, Mulligan writes, poverty ought to have risen. That would have created job-seeking incentives. Destitution is want, to put it in Victorian terms. By keeping people out of poverty, “the government was helping too much,” writes Mulligan, so much so that it has been “erasing incentives.”

Could this message be more timely? This is a time of year, let’s admit it, when people gush with sentimentality. They write checks to charities. They make resolutions to cultivate more mercy, generosity, and forbearance. Their minds stray dangerously to the neglected poor. Why, the mood can be so redistributive that it borders on socialism!

But without poverty, remember, incentive structures would be skewed.

So many possibilities exist in this line of thought. Why stop at bemoaning low poverty rates? Can’t scholars at the University of Chicago economics department—heirs to Milton Friedman, the sort of people who post Adam Smith’s visage on their personal homepages—come up with other examples of the bracing jolt of market discipline? Let me suggest a few:

If there were more famine, people would develop a powerful incentive to eat.

If we stripped coats and hats off the indigent, the homeless would get off their duffs and find places to stay.

If we stop hugging our children, it would incentivize them to strive for love and recognition.

If we destroy half the hospitals, it will create powerful incentives for healthy living.

Put all these ideas together, and we just might decrease the surplus population!

Oh, and if we fired every economist whose dogma led to callousness, perhaps the discipline might once again try to imagine a humane and abundant economy, not an “incentivized” one.

A dose of unemployment—and poverty—might have a hugely clarifying effect on the economic mind.

Are not the workhouses full?



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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