Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A defective example

There have been many attempts to define poverty on a comparative or world scale. One that is commonly cited is that people who must live on one dollar a day or less are definitely poor. That figure seems pretty convincing, even though a dollar (or its equivalent in rupees) goes farther in Bangla Desh than here in Manhattan. Even so, one would probably need to raise the floor higher. How much higher?

Here cultural factors intrude. Today most people in this country would surely regard absence of some common features of housing, such as indoor plumbing, as a mark of poverty. Yet in the early decades of the last century, my mother's parents lived with only an "earthen loo" (as an English friend tactfully calls it)--an outhouse--in the backyard. Yet they were prosperous cotton farmers in East Texas who owned a piano and a Ford. Their neighbors certainly did not regard them as poor.

As it happens, Adam Smith made a classic contribution to this discussion. First, some background. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he wrote:

"Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. The reason poverty causes pain is not just because it can leave people feeling hungry, cold and sick, but because it is associated with unfavourable regard."

He goes on to explain:

"The poor man . , , is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow–feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts; for though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel."

In this way, a person’s possessions function as signals of underlying personal characteristics, characteristics that others regard either favorably or unfavorably.

In the Wealth of Nations he wrote:

"A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct."

The notion that the Greeks and Romans had no linen is a major historical howler. As surviving mummy wrappings show, three thousand years ago the ancient Egyptians were perfectly familiar with the production and use of linen made from flax. From them the industry passed to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Roman togas, for example, were made of wool, but the tunic worn under them--the equivalent of a shirt--was generally of linen.

Without any attempt at verification, this Adam Smith gaffe is now crazily proliferating on the Internet. It is time to call a halt.

Does this error mean that Smith's overall concept is wrong? No, but it suggests that like any other author he should be subject to fact checking.



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12:10 PM  

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