The Right Coast

February 26, 2004
An argument with evidence? Get those people out of the blogosphere!
By Tom Smith

My first response to Brian's response to my response to, etc. etc., concerning international comparisons of poverty, is that it is refreshing to be engaging with someone who obviously cares about the facts and wants to argue about what the big external reality out there tells us about, in this case, which country has relatively more poor people. While I confess I regard Brian as a deluded hard-lefty (and he no doubt considers me equally misled), at least we can agree on where it is useful to disagree. Probably it is prejudice, but I find the hard left frequently easier to take than the soft left, perhaps because the hard left thinks they are working with facts, economic laws (in my view fictional, but at least they're trying) and groups exercising power in the world, rather than feelings, sensitivities, nicenesses, fairnesses and all that other stuff that makes me feel like I'm trapped in a cheap restaurant where the food smells bad and they've used too much air freshener.

But to counter nit-pick, having examined the Kenworthy piece Brian links to for all of five minutes, it's not clear to me how it is a measure of absolute poverty levels, even though Kenworthy says it is. On page 1125 of the article (which I am too stupid to figure out how to link to but try this) K explains that he is still measuring poverty with reference to where one is in the distribution of income in one's country (at least I think that is what he's saying) but that these correlate highly among countries, so that's OK. Well, I am nervous about that since that is how this argument started. I liked the Blackburn piece in part because it tried to measure poverty really absolutely, in terms of absolute incomes. I completely agree, however, that subsidies from the state should be considered in income, so if you get free medical care or fish or whatever in Norway, that should count in your income. (I can forsee that that would be hard to do, however, since just because the government spends $X delivering something to you, doesn't mean you get something worth $X. Just look at public education in California, which spends $17,000 a year per kid teaching them not to read -- I exagerate slightly but you see what I mean.)

Also, there is the point I heard Eric Rasmussen made, though I haven't seen it, which is, the appropriate comparison would be between the US and some comparably sized group of social democratic countries, such as perhaps some large chunk of the the EU. And no leaving out basket cases, or else the US should get to drop out Mississippi and so forth. If you pick out Sweden, then I should be able to pick out Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Maybe there is a law review article in this somewhere. If so, maybe I could get a research assistance to help!