Choosing to be Poor

Resnick and Wolff give an account of the neoclassical economic logic that I find so chilling: “the ultimate determinants of the supply of and demand for labor and thus of wage incomes in society are certain underlying traits of human beings: their preferences, production functions, and resource endowments. . . [R]uling out market imperfections, the wage incomes of individuals in society are explained on the basis of these individuals’ own human nature or the technology that is available to them. Indeed, for any given technology (i.e., for any production function and resource endowment), the relatively rich are rich because they choose to be so, while the relatively poor are poor because they choose not to be rich” (70-72). Part of me remembers Ronald Reagan’s remark that the homeless are to blame for their own state, and shudders in disgust. Part of me wonders if Resnick and Wolff are reducing neoclassical logic to a formulation that other economists would have a hard time agreeing with. If I were to construct this as a moral issue, I think the important split would be that Resnick and Wolff would condemn the structure of capitalism as a cause of economic injustice, whereas their straw-man interlocutors would (obviously) call it inequality rather than injustice, and blame it on those too lazy to excel (or, in an economy where resources are scarce, generous-hearted enough to choose to be poor so that others might be rich: this is the proud academics’ view of their own nobility).

I was gonna write more here — attempt a synthesis of my grateful reactions to the really generous comments from Curtiss, Chris, and Erik — but I’m worn out after my work & traveling, and am packing it in early tonight, so it’ll have to wait a day.

Choosing to be Poor
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