The Other I

June 19, 2017

I missed something big

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:27 pm

When I was a Maryknoll nun hoping to work with the underpriviledged in a developing country, my hopes and plans could be summed up in a single motto:

It is better to teach a man how to fish than to give him a fish.

I have had the same values ever since, whether I was thinking about religion, politics or the economy.  Consequently, I have tended to favour government policies aimed at creating jobs rather than primarily charitable hand-outs.  It’s an attitude of many Americans who came to this land for a chance to work hard, not for hand-outs.  The assumption was always that if one worked hard enough, one could improve one’s lot.  And for millions of Americans, that has been true for many years.  Even today, some of the most successful companies in America were founded by first or second generation immigrants.

Image result for fishing

Personally, it is an attitude that suits my own psychology.  I am keenly aware of the often unearned help I have been given in my life.  But whenever I can I want to do things myself.

These values also permeated the way I taught at university.  When students produced an unsatisfactory assignment, my policy was to tell them how to do it better.  And then to give them a chance to do the assignment again.  That way, they had a chance not only to earn a better grade, but more importantly, they had help developing skills that would serve them for a life time.

I still hold these values.  But I think now I was missing something big developing in unrecognized steps for probably the last 30 years.   I did not see how, little by little, hard work was not being rewarded.  Rather the middle class was shrinking, as a small number moved into hugely financially rewarding jobs, but an increasing majority were paid for work that did not keep up with the increasing cost of living, or were made unemployable altogether.

I think this might be the key explanation for the far right support for politicians like Trump, and far left movements here in the UK and Europe.  I was never even tempted by the far right, and here in Britain the far left reminded me too much of the failed and corrupt Communists governments which have been overthrown in Eastern Europe.  Too often it seemed to me, everybody except corrupt government officials were punished for raising their heads above a level playing field.  Innovation was punished if it was too successful.  For the “working class,” it was criminal to be rich.

In the meantime, as a species we are experiencing increasing resentment of others and violence against people we consider to be “different.”  Rather than benefiting from our differences, we are trying to obliterate them.

I don’t have the answer to this increasing inequality.  I do read a lot of analyses by economists but I find I can analyze wrong answers much more easily than I can identify answers that will start righting this hugely destructive inequality which condemns too many people to their station in life, no matter how hard they work.  Taxing the rich too strongly risks re-creating the kind of brain drain out of the high-tax country that the Labour government created by its taxing policies in the 1970’s.  But the view favoured by the Republicans like Trump that it is the rich who create jobs has shown not to be accurate either.  And the risk of making people dependent on government for basics such as food and housing and child care condemns those people to the potential of life-long dependency on the state.

I still think it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.  But as I say,  I missed something big.

And I don’t really know the answers.





  1. At least the west has the data on what’s happening which should enable constant course correction, assuming, of courses, there is clarity on goals.

    We here have employment guarantee schemes so poorly overseen it’s a huge drain of tax-payer’s money though the intentions are noble. Execution excellence is as necessary as noble intentions in driving these programs.


    Comment by tskraghu — June 19, 2017 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

    • I take your point. It is also becoming clear that an economic policy that succeeds in one society doesn’t necessarily succeed in a society with different cultural, religious, and social practices and norms. It’s not simple, this prospect of justice and prosperity, is it?

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Terry Sissons — June 22, 2017 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  2. Terry, once again…you are so thoughtful!
    May I recommend two new books?
    This Fight is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren…Senator from Massachusetts
    No is not enough..resisting Trump’s shock politics and winning the world we need
    by Naomi Klein. I’ve read several of her books…No Logo …and The Shock Doctrine…
    Then there is Sorokin’s recommendation…what the world needs now is a dozen St. Francis’s of Assisi.
    I’m not volunteering so I keep reading…


    Comment by Beth Bastasch — June 20, 2017 @ 12:37 am | Reply

    • Beth, thank you so much for your comment and recommendations. The one I think I will start with is Elizabeth Warren. If the Democrats are going to come up with a firm set of proposals of their own, I suspect they are going to emanate from thinking politicians like Warren and Sanders. I certainly agree with N Klein that simply saying no is not enough. But I’m not sure about needing a dozen St. Francis of Assisi’s. Sounds too much like sacrificial charity – more like giving a man a fish rather than teaching him how to fish, if you know what I mean. But if I’m going to disagree with Warren, I think I’d better know what I’m talking about.

      Hope to touch base with you again soon. Love, Terry


      Comment by theotheri — June 22, 2017 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

  3. thanks Terry for another interesting thoughtful article. At heart I am a socialist, as were many in Liberation theology in Latin America. Not all socialist countries are terrible. Consider social-democracies of the Sweden, Finland, etc. Also, Bernie Sanders identifies as a socialist. Strangely enough, in America we’re super anti-communist, yet almost all our consumer goods are made/assembled in “communist” China. And the Vietnam war was largely begun and kept going because of domino effect, fear of communist China taking over Vietnam. Of course, now U.S. businesses are looking for partnership with Vietnamese.
    Folks raised in families whose parents have some financial assets or community connections, offer their children advantages, that other families do not have for their kids. I believe in offering financial help where needed, whether from government, private sector, philanthropy, wherever. The elite educated and financially well-off in the political world, the arts, education, etc. are usually far-removed from the desperate struggles of the unemployed, mid-America (where opioid addiction is widespread). The U.S. is divided , unable to talk to those who disagree with us. It’s they and us whether Democratic or Republican.
    Am always moved to think/feel deeper when reading your posts. p.s. I should admit I am a fan of Jeremy Corbin. I think that Theresa May’s “Manifesto” did her in, plus insensitivity to many people. Oy vey! as we say in Brooklyn!


    Comment by Carolyn Grassi — June 29, 2017 @ 3:11 am | Reply

  4. You may teach a man all you want; if you don’t allow him near water he won’t catch anything, all his acquired knowledge notwithsatnding
    You may teach a man how to build a house; if you don’t allow him a piece of land, if you don’t allow him to build on land he may have, what good is some bullshit about teaching a man


    Comment by req — August 9, 2017 @ 6:44 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment. It helps me realize that I may not have written very clearly because I think you may have misunderstood what I was trying to say. Of course it is a waste of time to teach a land-locked man to fish, or teach him how to run a computer if he has no access to a computer, etc. I was speaking metaphorically, not literally. What I do think is that although there is certainly a place for charity and unearned gifts, it cannot take the place of giving someone the wherewithall of working for him/herself, of giving him independence, and greater free choice.


      Comment by theotheri — August 9, 2017 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

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