Are Poor People Happier?

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Some people believe that those living in utter poverty, in the wretched parts of the world, know best how to smile and enjoy life. “Poor people,” they say, “live simple, contented lives, with fewer worries and distractions.” Some of the best-known spiritual teachers — Stephen Covey, Wayne Dyer, etc. — have talked about greater happiness, deeper connections with the earth, and higher levels of spirituality among the poor societies they have visited. Many celebrities (John Lennon, Richard Gere, etc.) and business leaders (the late Steve Jobs, for example) spent extended time in India to seek spiritual enlightenment.

To a casual observer, all this may look very reasonable. But the reality is completely different. And we’re not talking about a minor, insignificant error: such beliefs seriously affect what we mean by progress (Is poverty better than prosperity?) as well as the public and financial-aid policies we adopt in relation to poorer societies, often with horrible consequences. Even within this strand of erroneous views there are two schools of thought. On one hand there are people who want to restrict all developments in “primitive” areas “to preserve their languages and cultures,” whether those societies want development or not; on the other there are people who want to impose democracy on these societies and flood their poor people with cash, because “they deserve a better material life, their fair share.”

So what is it about poor societies?

Some people living in big cities cherish a romantic notion about rural places within their own area. Romantic, and mistaken: it is often a huge error to presume that rural people believe in simple living, have a higher sense of community, are closer to nature, are friendlier and more compassionate, and are physically more active and healthier.

I have been to scores of the world’s poorest countries, and I have spent extended periods there. I have done several spiritual retreats in India. I have found poor people very hospitable and generous toward me. But one must live there long enough to understand what is behind the facade. One must ask whether poor people are, indeed, happy.

A wretched life is survivable only on the foundation of numbness. Early in life, very poor people learn to switch off feelings, to avoid sensing the nonstop pain of poverty and tyranny. Those in hunger lack an interest in philosophy, a sense of right and wrong, or an aspiration for higher meaning in life. Their lives are driven by expediency, not morality or reason. They relieve the stress of living under tyranny by passing it on to those more vulnerable. They have, quite rightly, one overpowering obsession: survival. Poor people process the world through dogmatic beliefs and faith.

To poor people, a visitor is a novelty, a reason for catharsis, a much needed escape from their mostly wretched existence. The visitor provides them with a sense of comfort, a tacit knowledge that they are not in competition with him for resources. But visitors (and readers of visitors’ reports), beware: it is hazardous to jump to any conclusions about the character of a poor society and its state of being, simply because of a short, smiley encounter. Anyone who calls poverty spiritual is misled, shallow-thinking, or condescending.

* * *

I must expect some readers to respond that I am “over-generalizing.” They fail to comprehend that we always generalize. Was Saddam Hussein a bad guy? Indeed he was. But that is a generalization. In parts of his life, he was a good guy. He was a hero for people from his community. We might say that politicians are corrupt or that bureaucrats are lazy. That does not mean that good politicians cannot exist or that you’ll never find an efficient bureaucrat. Similarly when I talk about poor people, I am referring to the average.

* * *

But aren’t people in poor counties free from the “depression” felt by people in the richer, developed world? Yes, but for a very wrong reason. Poor people just don’t have the time (or the future) in which to feel depressed. On the surface of their existence they create all possible noise, chaos, and smell to keep themselves distracted, to avoid examining their inner selves. If they did find a reason for self-examination, they would emerge extremely frustrated. History shows that a lot of social revolutions happen, ironically, as people emerge from hand-to-mouth existence — the inertia of pre-rational thinking does not necessarily change even after they have started becoming prosperous.

Creating policies based on erroneous assumptions, either to aid poor countries or to change their regimes forcefully, has had disastrous consequences. If we really want to be an impetus for change, we must accept facts as they are, objectively, even if they counter the instinctive sympathy we feel for the weak.

Are the meek inheriting the earth?

In today’s age of technology, poverty does not come easy. Most poor people are poor because that is what they deserve. It is a result of their spiritual poverty, of their failure to imagine abundance and a win-win society, of a sinful state of thinking and worldview in which envy, tribalism, irrationality, and fatalism dominate. It is with their mental paradigms that they elect their leaders. Those in positions of power indeed are tyrants, but see what happens when the underclass is suddenly elevated to higher positions. You should normally expect worse.

Why else did Iraqi institutions built at the cost of trillions of dollars (including the money spent removing a tyrant) collapse like a house of cards within months of being left to themselves? It is just very hard to change the human mind, and without changing that, there is no hope. The removal of Saddam Hussein was at best a result of extraordinarily naive thinking. There is no escape from drudgery until people individually wake up.

Poor people are very materialistic, if you understand that “materialism.” Material acquisition is their obsession, a result of their minds being tuned only to survival. Moreover, when they start earning a surplus — and when they become nouveau riche — their worldviews don’t change easily and may not for several generations. A volcano of crudeness and rudeness erupts. And why venture to exotic countries to understand this? Look into your own backyard. Have you ever wondered why some in the poorest communities in your area have the most expensive cars? Look for information about those who won hundreds of millions in lottery tickets. Most of them end up worse than where they started, with unpaid bank loans, drug addiction, and wrong company.

* * *

A lot of confusion is created by using terms improperly. Some people tend to use “capitalism” in place of “materialism.” While they are not parallel terms and hence not strictly comparable, in essence they are often antonymous. “Materialism” has its roots in addiction to material acquisition and “capitalism” in individual liberty. In my experience those who seek personal freedom often lack any obsession for material acquisition. And one can live in utter opulence and still not be materialistic, if material acquisition is not the driving force in one’s life.

* * *

In the South African capital of Johannesburg, one is awed by Lamborghinis, Jaguars, and other very expensive cars, mostly driven by those who were very poor not long before, but got easy access to cash because of redistribution policies. Those who thought that this money would have gone toward better purposes have been proven wrong.

In my backwater city in India, where cars and houses were traditionally modest, signs of prosperity are now the same as signs of bankruptcy: people buy Audis and BMWs on loans they cannot afford to pay. Alcoholism among women, slum-dwellers, and rural people is on the rise, rather rapidly. A culture of self-denial (owing to the socialistic past) has rapidly mutated into one of pleasure-centeredness. Ironically, the switch was easy; it merely required a change of rules — there was no time-consuming, painful critical evaluation, for such a concept does not exist in the culture.

* * *

One might ask where Indian spiritual teachers emerge from. The reality is that spirituality is a rare concept in Indian society. Religions teach fatalism, dogmas, and superstitions. Magical stories of kings and queens and the myths that go with them grip the mind very early in life and combine to cripple people from thinking rationally. There is too much of materialistic expectation in the concept of the afterlife developed from dogmatic religion, making indoctrinated individuals very resistant to change. The corrupt leaders and sociopaths who benefit have entrenched themselves extremely well, over hundreds of years; and this entrenchment is not going to go away easily, for the sufferer and the tyrant are often two sides of the same coin. In such an ecosystem, those with an interest in spirituality are outcast — J. Krishnamurti, for example — and hence tend to gravitate to certain pockets of protection or interest, mostly catering to American and other Western followers.

* * *

But aren’t Chinese and Indians thrifty? Don’t they have huge savings? Haven’t the Chinese provided trillions in credit to the developed world? Consumption of Louis Vuitton and other exotic luxury goods — brands that I cannot pronounce or remember — is exploding in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and so on. The Confucian culture of China, a culture that encourages saving, is mostly a myth that prevails among China bulls (and I am one, but for a different reason), a retrospective rationalization for China’s successes of the last three decades. Not too long back, the Chinese were seen as spendthrift, lazy, and unhygienic.

* * *

Macau today is a much bigger gambling and sin city than Las Vegas, and growing. An upcoming hotel will soon have the biggest fleet of Rolls-Royces anywhere in the world. The cost of a suite for one night will be $135,000. Each suite will have a private access, perhaps to provide the ultimate in hedonism. I don’t decide what people should do, but I do wish they used their newly minted money for better purposes. However, I have invested some of my money in these pleasure centers. I will leave the reader to worry if I am a hypocrite.

* * *

What does this mean for the future?

What will human society look like in the future, as it continues on the path of economic growth and technological revolution? If poor societies are not really spiritual and deep-thinking, the trajectory they will take and the influence they will have on the larger society as they become richer and more globalized will be very different from what it would have been if their poverty were a result of nothing but their political institutions.

For a long time, I thought — very erroneously — that poor societies would use their initial excess cash to invest and provide for personal development. I had made the same error that I now blame others for.

In reality, poverty would almost instantly disappear were the poor capable of strategizing their lives, of looking at life rationally with the long term in mind. A visit to malls in Asia convinces me that the growth of luxury goods and high-end services will continue to trend upward. As soon as people have enough to eat, they start to consume rotten junk food, and their brand consciousness kicks in, making them spend a disproportionate amount of money on status goods. They must own a Louis Vuitton bag or drive an expensive car, even if it means sharing a room with several other people.

I have devoured with great pleasure the books of Jared Diamond, in which he attributes the success of the West to “guns, germs, and steel” and those of Niall Ferguson, in which he argues that beginning in the 15th century, the West developed six powerful new concepts or “killer applications” — competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic — allowing it to surge past all competitors in the East. But have all these concepts not been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries?

Did Cambodia (where a large population was killed in the civil war), Mao’s China, and vast parts of Africa not use guns for self-defeating purposes? Despite the fact that these poor people had suffered from huge tyrannies, the first thing they did when given the power was set-up worse a tyranny. The truth is that the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West, and without those historical revolutions the “killer applications” may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. The guns and the steel have horrendous consequences. Societies outside the West, without an intellectual infrastructure of rationality and ethics, lack the eyes to understand what made the West great; and it isn’t clear that the West still remembers its own moral underpinnings.

You cannot help poor people by artificially giving them power or by merely bringing a regime change to democracy. You can have a hope only if you can inculcate the concept of critical and self-critical reason.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty. Poverty is mostly a reflection of inner emptiness, irrationality, and the paradigms of pre-rational days. Poor people not only have no clue what spirituality means, but lack the awareness, or even the time or patience, to understand it. Those who are keen on getting rid of poverty must do the emotionally hard work of understanding what lies at its roots.




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Critical Thinking

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Government is the froth that floats on the surface of a fluid. That fluid is the culture. The dirtier it is, the dirtier the froth it generates.

As a kid growing up in India, I always found that local goons, tyrants, sociopaths, and freeloaders emerged spontaneously, almost in direct proportion to the quality of the social environment in which they appeared. If you got rid of them, they soon reemerged. There was no way to avoid the emergence of goons, unless the underlying culture was addressed. This was invariably true, even if a vast majority of people opposed those goons, for the existence of goons is correlated not with people’s conscious views about them but with people’s own character, with the general culture.

As American society degenerates, its politics degenerate in direct proportion. Improvement in culture must precede any improvement in the quality of our politics. I have no prescription for how to improve the culture, but I do have an opinion about how people are mentally enslaved.

I have been to about 60 countries and have lived in four of them. Other people travel the world to see the world. I travel the world to use it as a mirror, to understand myself. Twenty-three years ago, when I left India for the first time, I decided to stop eating Indian food. I stopped having Indian friends. I did not want to have anything to do with India. I hated it.

Alas, I have left India but India hasn’t left me. I am still recovering from the indoctrination, conditioning, and irrationality of the culture I grew up in. This has been the case despite the fact that I have revolted against authority and irrationality for as long as I can remember. That is the grasp of indoctrination on the psyche.

Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

People often think that the problem of India is its government. Sane investors and Western institutions keep insisting that India should focus on some very simple, basic issues: build up infrastructure, make the bureaucracy more responsive, control inflation, remove unnecessary regulations, provide better schooling and primary healthcare, and better law and order. They believe that addressing these issues would have an extremely high-leveraged effect on the Indian economy. But while these policy suggestions appear simple and rational, they never stick.

Even in these days of technology, more than 50% of India’s population has no access to toilets. People must go in the open to defecate. A rational investor might think that investment in some very basic communal sanitation would yield significant results in months, if not weeks. But this never happens. The same rational person has been saying for over two decades that given democracy and an English speaking population, India will eventually overtake China. The reality is that not too long back India had a higher per capita GDP than China. Today, an average Chinese is four times richer than an average Indian. And the Chinese economy continues to grow much faster than the Indian.

The problem is that the so-called rational person, often blinded by political correctness, looks at India in a very superficial way. He fails to understand the philosophical underpinnings that guide the Indian society.

The situation is not too dissimilar to that of a health fanatic suggesting to an obese person that he must reduce his sugar consumption and smoking. To the fanatic, the prescription looks easy and simple; to the obese person, it does not. It is hard for the prescription to stick unless the obese man addresses his deeper problems. Moreover, if the fat man does stop consuming sugar and smoking, the health fanatic will soon be likely to discover that the target of his advice is now consuming other bad things — more alcohol, more carbohydrates, more something. For the problem truly to be addressed, one must go to the source. Similarly, what look like simple policy prescriptions that India must follow consistently fail to produce results.

The problem of India is not its government. Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

A lot of what you and I perceive as corruption is not what the Indian society sees. Morality is relative, and mostly based on expediency. There are common expressions in India such as “you can only scoop butter with a crooked finger,” which is basically a rationalization for crookedness. Another is that “Dharma [religion] is for the temple.” This suggests that you can forget about morality once you are outside the temple precincts. Indeed, India has never been through the age of reason or the age of enlightenment. In many ways the mindset is still very medieval. It is grossly lacking in rational philosophical anchors. To top it all, Indian culture seriously discourages critical thinking, thereby ensuring that dogma and superstition stay in place.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions.

In a relatively capitalist country such as America, rational people can see what causes what effects. The more socialist a society becomes, the more the path from causes to effects becomes convoluted and difficult to understand. The minds of those who grow up in such a culture are an entangled web, embedded with corrupted instincts. If you become aware of your own mental tangle — which is very, very unlikely — and you try to undo the damage, you cause yourself more mental difficulties, because every thinking pattern that you try to straighten out conflicts with several others, and you must suffer for decades dealing with it.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions. During the winter season, my school, instead of starting later in the morning, started even earlier. In winter I had to wake up at four in the morning, for no apparent reason. If we enjoyed any particular subject, the teachers ensured that the enjoyment would not last. They would beat us for exactly the same reason that led them to praise us on another day. If one kid did something wrong, the teacher would beat everyone. To avoid this, if you told the teacher who was the wrongdoer, she would beat you for snitching. And then of course we could be beaten for not snitching, on a later occasion. This is not just about the teachers but about how people in the surrounding society interacted with one another.

You grow up utterly confused and cloudy in your thinking, with an uncertain sense of causality. Your mind then becomes capable of absorbing all sorts of garbage, irrational and contradictory beliefs, and superstitions. Your eyes and senses no longer experience the truth as they are designed to see it.

You are forced to respect authority, not virtues; and the result is you become incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. You become extremely gullible. You speak what sounds good, not what is true. Speaking the truth for the sake of speaking the truth was a revelation to me when I arrived in the West. Our elders told us always to speak the truth, in the same way in which they gave us the concept of not worrying about the concept of morality outside the temple, and we parroted the saying, because it sounded good. But it had no significance apart from making us hypocritical. Critical thinking was washed away in dogma and authority.

The system cripples you mentally. Even if a vast majority of superstitious and hypocritical people consciously oppose the state and how it is run, it will still exist, for the anti-nutrients that feed the state do not come from people’s vote but from their character.

Adults face the same system as the children. A collectivist system — as in India — detaches people from the consequences of their actions. The feedback people receive in their interactions with society contradicts the truth of how the world works, because the costs get socialized while the gains do not. Trickery and heavy handedness seem to work, with those at the receiving end having no recourse to retribution. Bad behaviour goes unchallenged and never registers in the core of one’s being as “bad.” Real wealth creation in such a system feels like an unnecessary hassle with little economic advantage to be gained from it. From an individual’s point of view, time and capital may be better spent elsewhere. Political connections and “bribes” look like much more efficient ways to make money.

You become dull, apathetic, and mostly non-thinking. A trillion fights keep happening in your brain, with no rational means of resolving them. You are left with no confidence, because everything you see or believe is a floating abstraction, often in conflict with what your senses appear to tell you.

Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

It is important to distinguish the collectivism of Mao’s China from that of India. In China, the individual and his survival was in conflict with the state. In contrast, in the case of India, collectivism has been made a part of the individual’s DNA. In such a society, what individuals tend to do is exactly more of what created the original problem. Indians are very impervious to rational suggestions, and one must expect to face massive verbal attacks if one tries to extricate them from their mental slavery.

Judging from the way in which societies have historically worked, at one point India must collapse under the weight of its irrationalities and break into smaller pieces. Of course, this transition will not be easy and not without huge strife. Some of it has already been seen in the religious strife that rent the country at independence, and that still manifests itself, sometimes in acute forms.

Some might think that what happens in India will never happen in the US.

To respond to that I must again go back 23 years, to the time when I first arrived in the West. The airport was a happy place. The immigration officer addressed me as “Sir.” I looked around to make sure that he was addressing me. How could a government officer not treat me like garbage? In those days airport security was courteous and prompt for most Western people. But what would have been impossible to imagine then is now common and acceptable. Security now has no inhibitions about asking even old ladies to strip off their clothes. And alas, people gladly do that. In Canada, where you don’t have to take your shoes off before going through scanners at airports, most people do anyway. In just 23 years, I have seen North Americans increasingly groveling before the ever-more-mindless bureaucrats.

Western people endlessly worry about real or perceived discrimination. They worry about segregating their garbage and about ensuring that they buy so called fair trade coffee. They discuss the issue of sweatshops in faraway countries, about which they have absolutely no clue. “Everyone should have the right to free healthcare and a living wage,” they say. Political correctness forbids Americans to discuss any possible fallacies in these one-dimensional views.

How the Indian grows up muddled in thinking is different from how the American psyche is being muddled — but assuredly it is being muddled. In India we were made unreasonable by fear, irrational feedbacks, and mental self-numbing. In America, the self-esteem movement wants adults to provide “positive feedback” to kids even if they are not doing well. Doesn’t this confuse their understanding of causality? Aren’t they made irrational, in a feel-good way? Through love and warmth, kids in the West are, for instance, induced to swallow politically correct positions on the environment — something they don’t have the data or the competence to understand. Doesn’t this impede critical thinking? Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

Orwell’s 1984 is likely the later stage of collectivism, as is the case with India, but Huxley’s Brave New World is likely the earlier stage, as is the case in the West. The mental virus that afflicts Indians now increasingly afflicts those in the West.

Apathy has rapidly sunk its deep roots here. What is happening to Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning has been reduced to an orgy of public entertainment. Irrespective of the merit of their cases, should Snowden return to the US to face “due process” when Bin Laden was killed and dumped in the ocean and when the prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to run? Similar cases a few decades back would have probably have brought a change in the US government. Even civil libertarians talk about why the NSA should not be spying on American citizens or why the president should not have the right to pass executive orders to kill Americans. But, what about non-Americans? Are they not human beings? Are their lives and privacy not important? Try discussing these issues, and Americans will start going around in circles and start responding irrationally, not unlike the way Indians do. “Due process” and “the rule of law” were seen as very fundamental to the Western civilisation. In an era of expediency, they are still much talked about but are getting increasingly diluted in their moral essence.

Americans are impressed when they hear that many women in the poor parts of the world do not have a sense of self or of an independent existence. They do not reflect that they themselves are slaves for more than half of their lives, paying taxes and following stupid regulations. They fail to see any connection. It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Collectivism is increasingly present in the DNA of those in the West. Individuals in the West are likely to keep doing more of exactly the same things that created the initial problems, slowly retracing their steps, back to the medieval period. Will the West become another India? I would not be surprised at all.

It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Obama and Bush, however criminally minded they may be, are only symptoms of problems. The problem lies in the current state of the Western culture. In my view the danger is not the tens of trillions of dollars of Western governmental debt but the process of cultural degeneration in which reason and evidence are replaced by dogma and unverified belief systems are protected by a lack of critical thinking.

Lack of liberty is the result of a lack of freedom within our minds. Our conscious search for liberty will be futile if we fail to address our deeper mental constructs. Only a rare human being would claim not to want to be free, yet many people who claim to want freedom exist in wretchedness and slavery. The good thing is that bureaucrats and politicians, the purveyors of collectivism, are often lazy and stupid. They have no power that the culture does not give them. They will wither away or take to begging on the streets if we as people give up the virus of irrationality and take to critical thinking.

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