The podcast and audio discussion library of the world has expanded the last few years to a ridiculous degree. Anyone can have a podcast on any topic, be it Denzel Washington or the Supreme Court of the United States.
That’s why truly reflective live events are so enamoring to me.
I was listening to a recent episode of On Being, which was recorded with a live audience at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
An interesting point was brought up, reflecting a question on sweatshops that many economists (in this case Paul Krugman) pose: what is the alternative to a sweatshop for a developing nation? Often times, it’s starvation in the countryside. People choose to work in poor conditions because the alternative is even worse. Granted, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have sensible labor standards, but we should also be careful not to force an American conception of comfortable labor onto countries who may not be able to afford it in order to assuage our self-righteousness.
One discussant in the episode brought up Krugman and then said, “We have all this software in our heads that makes us judge people by their intentions. And these western brands that go into these places just want the cheapest labor they can get. They don’t care about those people–and that’s true.
If you want to judge capitalism by the intentions of the people, you might say ‘I want socialism.’…
“I was on a panel once where the Dalai Lama was, and I asked him, ‘If the Chinese left Tibet, what government would you put in?’… and he said, ‘Communism is the only system that cares about the poor.'”
Therein lies the great tragedy of policymaking and social discussion. Intentions matter more than results.
Despite the fact that the minimum wage is a blunt and relatively ineffective anti-poverty tool that may cause real unemployment among those the policy was intended to help, many people push for it like an overprescription of antibiotics and still wield it as a political tool. Despite the fact that assault weapons bans may not have had a measurable or unambiguous effect on gun deaths, it has become the rallying cry for all things HuffPo this (tragic) week, evidently proposed as the final solution to mass shootings in the United States.
Such treatments of multifaceted issues brings to mind three images: Aaron Sorkin, yuppies, and hipsters.
Sorkin is known for quick, impassioned diatribes against what he sees as moral injuries. Anything on the West Wing and Newsroom can tell you that much. And yet Sorkin is woefully uninformed about many of the issues upon which he rants in his writing. In his writing, government action can be judged for its moral intentions in the face of dramatic problems. But these impulsive changes are not only bad from a policy perspective, they are precisely what the Founders wanted to prevent by establishing a constitutional republic.
Yuppies are well educated and therefore, like Sorkin, assume they are well-informed. When asked for an opinion, they are frequently aware of what they heard on the Daily Show (or increasingly, on John Oliver’s latest episode) and not much else. They see ideological discomfort with a proposed policy or measures of unintended consequences as a sign of moral corruption rather than a concern for other priorities. It matters what a policy is meant to do rather than what it actually does. These are the post-grad version of campus safe spaces.
Hipsters suffer from chronic nonchalance. At the core, it’s not fashionable for them to care too much about something, which includes not caring enough to study a subject, seek out expert opinions, or comprehend that unintended consequences exist. As long as it’s labeled organic, fair trade, or with a promise of charitable giving (here’s looking at you, TOMS), whether or not GMO foods are safe, if “fair trade” actually helps or hurts industry, or whether or not the charitable giving does more harm than good are all irrelevant. It’s your intention that matters.
Back to On Being discussants: “If your judgment is ‘do you care about the poor?’ you might want communism. But if you actually want people to not starve to death and be thrown into gulags, you should probably go with globalization and capitalism.”
In the end, who actually cares about the poor? Those whose actions produce despotism, or those whose actions expand human capacity? The attitude that intention matters so heavily extends from Brooklyn to Tibet. But should it?
*Seriously fun artwork on this page. You should check it out.