Friday, May 2, 2014

Move Fast and Break Things: Poverty and Paul Ryan

Move Fast and Break Things: Poverty and Paul Ryan

When it comes to programs to aid the poor in the US, Representative Paul Ryan says the test is, “How do we make sure every dollar we spend to reduce poverty is actually working?”[1]  There are two major problems with this test.  First, every dollar must be well spent.  The test is so strict that no government program can pass muster.  If we adopted Representative Ryan’s standard in the private sector, no product would ever reach the market.  Second, Representative Ryan has stated the goal too narrowly.  Everyone would like to wipe out poverty just as much as we’d like to eliminate cancer.  But we will always have some level of poverty in this country.   Part of government’s role is to help people move up the economic ladder.  Another function is to meet basic human needs.  Meeting basic human needs doesn’t seem to be on Mr. Ryan’s agenda.



There’s a perverse beauty in Mr. Ryan’s test.  No matter how much the government cuts food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, or other anti-poverty programs, there will always be evidence that some of those dollars aren’t actually reducing poverty.  Mr. Ryan and his supporters can use the same logic year-after-year to slash antipoverty programs.  At the same time, Government subsidizes all sorts of programs benefiting the middle class, wealthy, and industry, and those programs don’t face Mr. Ryan’s stringent test.  No one has ever insisted that every dollar spent on tax preferences, defense expenditures, or farm programs actually meet Mr. Ryan’s stringent policy objectives.

In my view, we should adopt the philosophy that drives Silicon Valley, and is exemplified in Facebook’s corporate motto: “move fast and break things.[2]” In the private sector, we’re willing to take big risks in pursuit of ambitious goals and fabulous riches.  In the high tech world, failure is acceptable.  Companies are encouraged to pump billions of dollars into acquisitions and new products or services, and if these efforts implode they simply move on.  America’s economic and social success over the decades has been built upon the necessity of failure.  Without failure, we don’t learn.  If failure were unacceptable, no one would be allowed to take the risks necessary to move our economy and society forward. 

When it comes to antipoverty and social programs, America has pretty much adopted Mr. Ryan’s philosophy. It has had an extremely corrosive effect.  Not only do conservatives support his position; progressives have been cowed progressives by it.  All too often advocates for the poor and their public interest lobbyists attempt to demonstrate that particular programs are meeting Mr. Ryan’s unattainable standard: reducing poverty with unwavering efficiency.  It’s a battle that cannot be won.

I think we need to borrow from Silicon Valley and readily admit that in an effort to make sure that poor people have both the minimum required to subsist and the opportunity to succeed, we’re prepared to move fast and break a few things.  We might actually shut down or modify programs that are failing if it became acceptable to admit that a program doesn’t work.  Today, any sign of failure in antipoverty programs is met by vilifying the poor.

Many executives in Silicon Valley reside on the libertarian side of the political spectrum.  They would be aghast at the idea that government should move fast and break a few things in an effort to address poverty.   In large measure they are blind to the number of government programs and subsidies that have been integral to their own success.  In part, they fail to realize that in the absence of government programs and subsidies to aid the poor, their business models would sputter.  The poor are an important consumer market for tech companies, as well as the advertisers that support many of their offerings.  Adding further desperation into the lives of the poor is cruel and extremely bad for business.




[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/business/house-committee-looks-at-war-on-poverty.html?_r=0
[2] Facebook’s motto actually sounds like the rallying cry for the war in Iraq.

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