Hatched along the line came row after row of wretched slum properties, their obscene backs lit dimly from uncurtained windows. . . .They were getting out of the slum area now. Dark gaps were appearing in the laval deposit of slate, bricks and dirt. . . .Gently settled himself back more comfortably on the generous first-class cushions. Why should he spoil the rare pleasure by tormenting himself with the imagined wretchedness of the dwellers of that petrified forest? It might be better than one envisaged . . . there were occasional television aerials.Alan Hunter, Landed Gently (1957)
Plus ça change . . .
Today, over half-a-century later, a journey by rail or road past rural or urban slums will offer you, in place of aerials, the sight of satellite dishes attached or adjacent to dwellings constructed of discarded stone, brick, and cardboard (Google “satellite dish slum” for images).
But, apparently, that the poor today have television sets (especially flat screen TVs) really gets up some people's noses. For example, just over a year ago jumped-up hash-slinger Jamie Oliver prompted a row in Britain when he claimed that (in the words of Sky News) “he struggles to talk about modern poverty after seeing families living on junk food but spending money on enormous televisions.” More recently (and more typically) it was a wingnut politician complaining:
Obama is rewarding the lazy pigs with Food Stamps (44 million people), air conditioning, free health care, flat screen TV’s (typical of “poor” families).Republican Arizona state schools Superintendent John Huppenthal*
Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo traveled “to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India.” They discovered “a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead.” For example:
Those of us who have comfortable incomes and comfortable lives, Banerjee and Duflo point out,In rural Morocco, Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.**
often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don't invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.
In a review of Banerjee and Duflo's work in an Economist magazine blog “J. P.” points out something nutritionists and aid donors often forget:
well-intentioned programmes often break down on the indifference of the beneficiaries. People don't eat the nutritious foods they are offered, or take their vitamin supplements. They stick with what makes life more bearable, even if it is sweet tea and DVDs.***
King Lear, on the verge of a breakdown, rages at his malevolent daughters:
One might argue, then, that superfluity is a mark of humanity. As Lear reminds his daughters, the rich clothes “thou gorgeous wear'st . . . scarcely keeps thee warm.” Fashion is superfluous (and not particularly utile), but it helps some of us to signify our humanity.O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.
There are those—let's call them "modern medievalists"—who would seem to desire a resurrection (and extension) of the sumptuary laws of the Middle Ages, which regulated what each level of society might wear, from “Lords with lands worth £1,000 annually, and their families,” who had no restrictions, down to “Carters, plowmen, drivers of plows, oxherds, cowherds, swineherds, dairymaids, and everyone else working on the land who does not have 40s of goods,” who could have “No cloth except blanket and russet at 12d per ell, belts of linen (rope).” English Sumptuary Laws of 1363****
And so we would like to ask these modern medievalists, who bridle at flat screen TVs and cellphones (let's not forget how nuts they get about cellphones!) for the poor: "What are the poor allowed to have? Would you care to make an inventory of the possessions allowed to the poor?"
But it's not just the poor who are under attack for their spending habits:
Personal-finance gurus have a certain playbook. They take a representative middle-class family. They pinch their pennies, encouraging them to clip coupons and give up life's little luxuries, like those $4 Starbucks lattes.Annie Lowery, New York magazine
And to give them up for what? To “end up with hundreds of thousands for a secure retirement.“ But this advice is, Lowery states, “one big, caffeinated misdirection.” (See the rest of the argument.*****)
In conclusion, let us recall the words of Thomas Hobbes: “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
So, drink that latte while you can!
****Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century