How Not to Understand “Poverty”

Note: Since first posting this, I’ve gotten a good response from one of the article’s authors Martin Kirk of The Rules. I’ve included it below but it boils down to this: the authors intended to show that the elite-driven problems (disenfranchisement by sword) are often met with elite-driven solutions (redistribution by sword), and these “solutions” entail many destructive/disruptive externalities. I wish they had made that argument clearer, but having a solid Narrative is something we all need to work on in the global dialogue.

“3 Ways Humans Create Poverty” is an objectionably clumsy approach to a serious issue. Starts with sloppy definitions and goes downhill from there.

First, “You need X dollars a day” is not a definition of poverty but a measurement of one dimension of it. Poverty can only be understood in relation to wealth — not Scrooge McDuck wealth but wealth as a matrix of material and mental, skills, personal networks, etc. Then let’s face the fact that “capitalism” is a similarly bullsh*t when you use it as a signifyer for all forms of capital-related trade.

Put it this way: Would anyone object to the statement “It’s better when more people have more ability to more material and skills, so they can create and exchange more things”? No? Well that’s what Adam Smith and others were going for with what has been dogmatized as “Capitalism”.

Personally I think “Capitalism” can go f*ck itself, but unfortunately there’s not yet a better word to summarize all that Creation/Exchange stuff. And that increased access to creation/exchange *IS* what we’ve seen overall, as humanity evolves. Now this evolution isn’t the work of the World Bank or the Railroad Barons or the East India Company, but the work of humanity as a whole. The word “Capitalism” is a fart as we collectively digest this difficult concept. If you don’t like it, stop smelling it, and focus more on the other end of the equation.

As to the article’s three points, it starts with the notion that there was a communal landowning utopia prior to the Industrial Revolution — I imagine in the authors’ mind this takes place sometime after the peasant holocaust of the Middle Ages and the 30 Years War.

The second point gives us the “colonialism was a one way oppression by Whites against non-Whites”, basically the James Cameron’s Avatar school of “Human Nature doesn’t apply to the Noble Savage.” — whether one is talking about pre-British India or pre-European Americas, only a total ignoramus can say, “It’s certain that life would have been better for everyone if the Europeans had never come.”

Never mind that “colonialism” issue assumes too much agency. Civilizations collide, advantages are taken, and then a new balance is sought. One does not avenge the dead and enslaved of the past by misunderstanding what happened to them. Was it similarly colonialism when one pre-European group conquered/enslaved/dispossessed another in Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East or the Americas? No? Maybe we need a better word then, to differentiate the express intent to colonize with the inherent human instinct to migrate, expand and explore.

The third point the article makes is that “Free Trade” is really about the machinations of Big Government, Big Industry and the institutions that serve as their hands and mouths (e.g. the World Bank). Screw that. Free Trade in principle is as a sane human being would define it, exactly what it sounds like. The whole increasing and cascading creation/exchange phenomenon mentioned earlier.

Free trade is captured by the physics of wealth (wealth attracts wealth) and human nature (greed), yes, but it continually creates disruptions that weaken those captures. Every position of seemingly “totalitarian” rule is undermined. Nomadic warlords become sedentary feudal lords in pursuit of a stable source of food and payment for their armies, giving cities (the Kublai Khan effect). Monarchs cede authority to the knights who fill their armies and the merchants who pay for it all, yielding a form of democracy and a middle class (e.g. Magna Carta). Now we have governments and industries that are being undermined by phenomena exemplified by the internet, 3D printing, alternative energies (e.g. solar), aqua/hydroponics, etc.

In all this, however, there are always those on the margin getting screwed and those in the middle getting squeezed. Millions have died from war, starvation, disease, etc. as humanity slowly learns how to best manage its natural and human resources. But we are getting better at it.

And if we think it through carefully (i.e. not like the linked article), if we continue connecting with one another via new technologies, and if we continue putting that technology towards pursuits in line with our principles, we will come through on the other side.

Response from one of the article’s authors, Martin Kirk:

We’d agree, poverty can’t be reduced to a level of income. You’re complaining about the World Bank’s definition, not ours; the definition chosen by the UN SDG process; the one on which the story that we can “eradicate poverty by 2030” (i.e. that we are questioning) is based. You could complain that we didn’t write an article about that specific point, but it’s a bit disingenuous to say that because we didn’t, the article we did write, focusing on a broader theme, is therefore objectionable.

Your second point is a non-sequitur. No-one is denying there is more “creation/exchange stuff” overall. What we’re talking about is the processes by which wealth and poverty have been created over time, and the distribution of opportunity and benefit, reward and suffering that have entailed. Again, you seem to be suggesting that we should have written a different article, not making any serious comment on the one we did write.

Creating a better narrative is, indeed, the bigger challenge. Poking holes, as you put it, in the elite narrative is only one step towards that, albeit an essential one. You could check out our website ( to see how we, along with many, many others, are trying to do just that.

On poverty measures – the UN’s own Multidimensional Poverty Index is a great start. Combine that with the (again, UN’s own – or, at least, UNCTAD’s) $5 a day as the income variant and you would be painting a pretty decent picture. One that blows a continent size hole in the “poverty eradication by 2030” story, which is important because of how it sets up the logic that we just need to maintain and extend the neoliberal model and everything will be fine. We’d also advocate complementing these poverty measures with different measures of growth. The SDGs actually aim to look at that, only not till 2030, the year they end. How convenient.

Originally published at

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