Posted by: bkivey | 27 January 2015

A Bug, Not a Feature

Almost exactly one year ago I wrote a post on the stifling effect government largesse has on social mobility. My premise was that as more government money is given to people in lower income brackets to ‘help’ them, the more difficult it is to move out of poverty. The usual economic progression is one of incremental steps rather than sizable jumps, so low-income workers often find that any increase in their paycheck is more than offset by the decrease in benefits. Thus it takes a person with fortitude to suck up the negative differential and ride it out for a few years.

Lo and behold, the 23 January edition of the local fishwrap of record led with a story on how a $15/hr minimum wage would affect a single parent with two children. There’s a graph illustrating how a putative $3100/month would break down in wages and benefits given hourly wages from the state minimum $9.10/hr to $18.10/hr. As surmised, the net income is negative from $11.10/hr to $14.10 hr. To politicians and social workers, this is known as the ‘benefits cliff’.

I was pleased that the paper ran the analysis on a single-income family household, because that’s the demographic most often cited by the Social Justice Warriors (SJW) when agitating for a higher minimum wage. A single person with no dependents, aka most of the minimum wage workforce, would likely see a net increase as their marginal wage rate rose. In fact, most estimates put the single income family on minimum wage at less than 0.5% of the workforce.

The article interviews bureaucrats, politicians, and social workers, and none of them see the ‘benefits cliff’ for what it is: the walls around the reservation. Gearing public social policy to the lowest common denominator has created a negative feedback loop: the greater the dole, the harder it is to escape it, the more people are on the dole. This is likely one of the reasons public assistance success stories are so uncommon. Even stipulating that intelligence and ambition are normally distributed among a given population, the combination of spirit-crushing benefits and ever-higher barriers to mobility require an exceptional individual to overcome them.

This isn’t to say that people aren’t generally thrust into these situations unwillingly. If you’re a single parent trying to raise a family on a minimum-wage job, you’ve very likely made some bad life decisions. I’m not blaming the victim, just going with the high-probability event. But youthful indiscretion shouldn’t be punished by those who profess to ‘help’ you.

The folks interviewed in the article were generally of the same mindset: rather than lower benefits to encourage work and social mobility, they were of the opinion that benefit triggers should be raised. They see generous welfare benefits as a feature of the social system, rather than a flaw of paying people not to be productive. They certainly don’t recognize the toxic effect on society of limiting access to a more financially rewarding life.

I’ve noted in other posts that income inequality is a necessary part of a productive society. Just as in thermodynamics, there has to be an energy differential to make the engine work. The key, and the one thing that has made America the pre-eminent economy for two centuries, is the promise that someone on the lower end of the economic ladder has access to the upper end. As the political class seeks to consolidate power by limiting access to the upper reaches through programs to ‘help’ those less fortunate, the poor will continue to vote for those that promise to give them stuff, not realizing they are little more than serfs.

So if you are in the position of trying to raise a family in a one-earner minimum wage household, you’re pretty much trapped in a life of, if not outright poverty, low income and lower probability to escape your situation. That may not be servitude, but it sure as hell isn’t freedom.

Mutiny on the Bounty

One of my goals this year is to read more. My primary motivation was the number of unread books in my library, most of which I picked up last year. I recently finished William Bligh’s account of the mutiny on board HMAV Bounty.

The Bounty mutiny is probably the most infamous in the English language. The bald facts are: Lieutenant (Leftenant) Bligh was commissioned in 1788 to take the Bounty to the South Seas, procure a number of breadfruit plants, and convey them to the West Indies to be used as cheap food for slaves.

Other than having to quit the attempt to enter the Pacific by way of Cape Horn and sail by way of the Cape of Good Hope, the outward voyage was uneventful. After five months in Tahiti taking on breadfruit trees, the Bounty sailed for the Caribbean. A month into that voyage, the crew, led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, wrested control of the ship and put Bligh and 18 loyalists in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific. Four other loyalists were retained by the mutineers for their skills.

In a stunning display of seamanship and command, Bligh sailed that open boat 3,600 miles to the Dutch settlement on Timor without charts or compass, losing only one man to native action. As an exercise in competence and leadership, it compares favorably with Shackleton.

After finishing the book, I watched the 1935 movie version of the story. Featuring Charles Laughton as Bligh, and a y0ung Clark Gable as Christian, the movie has much to do with the popular perception of Bligh as a tyrant the crew was only too eager to get rid of.

But the logs tell another story. A captain must record everything of note in the ships log, and Bligh says the first punishment wasn’t ordered until some three months into the voyage, while the movie implies that the Bounty was a Hell ship pretty much from the get-go. The movie also depicts some events, notably a keel-hauling and forcing Christian to sign a stores manifest against his will, that aren’t evident in the history.

The movie does allude to the likelihood that after five months in Tahiti, some sailors didn’t want to give up Paradise on Earth. I think this the likely motivation for the mutiny, because a choice between life on the islands and the harsh discipline of British naval service at the time would be an easy one for many men to make. The fact that over half the ship’s company was loyal to Bligh, although some may have wanted to avoid the noose, says his reputation as a martinet may be overblown. And even the mutineers respected Bligh as a mariner. When the carpenter was allowed his tools, some sailors expressed the opinion that Bligh would see England for sure.

The Bounty story is a good one, all the more so as the mutineers fared on the whole worse than those they set adrift.



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