The Stupidly Obvious Phrase of the Day

“The Poor Suffer the Most”

Used, for example, in this news header today in a story about food shortages: “As a brutal convergence of events hits an unprepared global market, and grain prices go sky high, the world’s poor suffer most.”

Really? The poor suffering the most? It’s hard to imagine. Because, you know, usually when there’s a major global crisis of any sort, it’s the poor sitting there on the sidelines, going whew, dodged that bullet. How strange that the people the least economically, socially and educationally able to deal with wrenching change should suffer the most. How odd that the rich should so often be able to shield themselves from the ravages of events. It’s almost as if they have some advantage over poor people, although off the top of my head what it might be escapes me.

Which is not to say that the rich always get off scot free: who among us can forget The Great Davos Lobster Bisque Inconvenience of ’04, in which the victims, none with a net worth of less than $15 million, suffered a small amount of gastric distress due to too much heavy cream in the soup? The poor escaped that with hardly a cramp. Good for them. The poor did have that tsunami that year, though. Killed a couple hundred thousand of them. But in terms of aggregate worth, it all evens out, you see. Intestinal discomfort for the rich, death by wall of water for the poor. Seems fair.

A tip for news writers: it’ll be news when the poor don’t suffer the most. “As the mysterious Billionaire’s Virus decimates Aspen, the world’s stinkin’ rich suffer the most.” That’s a news head worth writing.

57 thoughts on “The Stupidly Obvious Phrase of the Day

  1. …and they wonder why the circulation of corporate newspapers continues to drop.

    Probably involves internet piracy somehow. Give it time.

  2. It may be obvious, but I think it actually needs to be said. There’s a tendency to view big manmade problems, whether social, economic or (especially) environmental, as some sort of divine retribution for our sins, and it’s always worth pointing out that the people who have all the power and contributed the most to the problems are usually not the people who get hit.

  3. Yeah Matt, obvious. But given how blind the mainstream US media have been to the genuinely poor, it needs to be said.

    …. and in other shock news tonite… poor folks, previously thought to be extinct, are found thriving. Details at ten ….

  4. While I appreciate high snark, I will point out that the tsunami took rich-and-poor alike. Thailand lost a beloved prince, as well as numerous (relative to the common Thai) wealthy Euro-tourists.

    Sure, there were a couple hundred thousand poor killed from Malaysia to east Africa- but I suspect that the killing was pretty evenly distributed amongst classes based on ratios within the specific countries.

    Just sayin’, is all.

  5. John-

    In terms of gross numbers, absolutely.

    In terms of economic impacts, absolutely.

    In terms of proportional numbers… the rich suffered the tsunami appropriately based on density of rich people.

    The poor will be effected more harshly by the food shortages, as they are by every economic impact.

    My only point above was that the part of the tsunami which resulted in death by drowning was very, um, egalitarian.

  6. poverty is NOT the way to lose weight, cancer is,
    or heroin – if you’re a runway model.

    Daniel, the tsunami may have taken both rich and poor alike, just as Katrina did – but after it was over, the rich rebuilt and went on with their lives, the only thing that changed for them is that now they have a harrowing tale to tale at cocktail parties. The poor are still living in the ruins.

  7. After reading the article it seems one man’s subsidy is another man’s incentive. The politics of black and white thinking. But somehow I have this strange compulsion to do some e-trading, in say commodities – a little birdie just told me. I do hope that I don’t hurt the feelings of any speculators.

  8. So, Daniel, the point you’re trying to make is that you think my bit of snark re: “death by wall of water” is factually a little shaky, on a per capita basis?

    You’re aware The Great Davos Lobster Bisque Inconvenience of ‘04 is factually shaky too, right?

    I think it’s sweet that you’re trying to be rigorously fair to the rich here, but I really do think it’s one of those missing the forest for the trees things.

  9. Funny, the Economist did a story about this that made their cover a few months ago called “Dear Food”, dear, in this case meaning expensive.

    They pointed out that the economies of many impoverished nations are reliant on the export of agriculture like rice and wheat, and that higher prices for these staples would help the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor.

    I can’t help but think, “the poor suffer temporarily, but gain in the long run” here.

  10. Folks, let’s not conflate suffering with death.

    Death without suffering is apparently not common but not unheard of… while suffering without death happens all the time.

    For those of you apparently too dense to keep that very simple fact in mind, read Jim 13’s comment as many times as needed, until you understand.

    In closing: people don’t choose to be poor… poor is what’s happening when the best reward for parsimony is the ability to feed your kids a balanced supper the night before payday. Savings account? Emergency fund? Oh, teehee.

    Are you getting the damn signal yet?

    Poverty happens when people don’t have all of the knowledge they need to make good choices. How often do you hear of a good school in a bad neighborhood? Yeah, thought so.

    It also happens when someone doesn’t trust strangers to give them anything more than a gratuitously hard time, as is often the case for PTSD sufferers and children of alcoholics. Do you know how much waiting and paperwork and sheer bureaucratic nonsense goes into a successful application for assistance (to say nothing of the failed ones)? Have you ever noticed that unskilled laborers are treated like commoditized unpersons, so that in effect the only way to make a truly decent living is to be superlatively good at what happens to be a superlatively bad job? Have you ever stopped to consider how much despair is engendered by finding oneself in the midst of such circumstances? Yeah, thought so.

    …And too often s–t simply happens. If you ever get forced into court over a six-figure health insurance claim, let me know how it turns out. And say, what do you think happened to the formerly lower middle class folks in NOLA whose wealth was entirely tied up in their houses? I bet they’re having a blast.

    In certain quarters there’s an outcry against anti-intellectualism among the poor. Considering that the poor are routinely screwed over by people they’ve never even met and who all seem to hold college degrees down to the last sonofabitch, I can’t really say I blame ‘em. Disagree with, sure, but not blame.

    And lest you wonder, all of the classes I describe here, except for the NOLA folks, are represented by family members, close friends, and finally Yours Truly depending on what quarter it is.

  11. …And since the general trend of the thread seems to be moving toward residents of countries in which food riots are the order of the day, I should point out that nothing I laid out above really changes.

    In these places, the poor still get crappy education. They still get abused by people they trusted, and then again by the same bureaucrats who are supposed to be maintaining the societies in which they live. They still get battered by s–t that happens.

    To top it off, because they live in countries with comparatively little infrastructure, underdeveloped social safety nets, diminished respect for rule of law, and so on, guess what? They have less social mobility than the poor living in the First World.

    There’s a word for that. It rhymes with “plucked.”

  12. we are here! i LISTEN AND I WATCH ! We are talked about in the abstract,a problem to be solved,a thing to be pitied. I live, I breath,I think.

  13. I hear that Wal-mart and other stores are limiting the amount of rice that one can buy. Are they stockpiling to profit later when prices go up or is there really a shortage?
    In NOLA, the poor are still suffering.

    Ben: Filing for unemployment compensation is almost as bad. Hey, the poor have nothing but time on their hands, right? (I’m being sarcastic here. I realize that many of the poor are working poor and may be working more than one job to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. And are probably one major health problem away from being homeless.)

  14. Nicholas Waller:

    There are lots of poor who aren’t subsistence farmers. Many of them live in complex urban enviroments.

  15. “The people with the least to lose are subsistence farmers”

    What an astounding example of slimy intellectual dishonesty.

    When you have nothing, you have “less to lose” than people who have lots. So if you’re already starving and can’t afford fifty cents for a bowl of rice, why then you probably aren’t losing as much money as I am with my millions of dollars in the rice-import market.

    But it’d be Economist-class vile and self-absorbed to say that you have “less to lose” than I do or “suffer less” because your suffering could hardly have gotten worse.

  16. Daniel Spector, it may surprise you to know that in most countries, the wealthy live upland, not so much at the shore as they do here in the US. Or as a tour guide in Germany once pointed out to me, “The more wealth you have, the higher on the mountain you live.” He then pointed at the top level of house and remarked that his landlord lived up there.

  17. Come, now. The rich suffer far more than the poor in at least one situation which should be obvious: revolution.

  18. Kia:

    Yes, the poor Cambodians certainly got off easy there. Not to mention the millions of poor Chinese who sat out the Cultural Revolution.

    (which is to say that even when revolutions target elites, the poor still often get screwed anyway.)

  19. Mythago: I think the point of the quote “The people with the least to lose are subsistence farmers” (from Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts) is that they have the skills and local resources to carry on being subsistence farmers when the planes cease to fly and the cities fall*, growing their own food rather than shipping it in from thousands of miles away utilising a complex system of credits and just-in-time middle-men organisations and economic inputs – which is how I live. I, on the other hand, have no idea how to grow food and would soon die.

    Actually, I expect that if civilisation collapses, several groups of people would make it their business to take whatever the subsistence farmers do have (see A Bug’s Life). So they might not get away with it after all.

    *I did put something to this effect in my 2004 Interzone story Enta Geweorc “[...]the globalised economy snapped and unravelled, people suddenly tossed out of their universal cybermarkets into a million local stone ages, without any sophisticated stone age survival skills. Now that he was down here amongst them too, Collard found it surprising anyone at all was able to survive, apart, he supposed, from any unassimilated aboriginals in places like Brazil.”

  20. As massively dumb as it is to say, “The poor suffer the most” (and it is incredibly dumb), it’s still 10 times less annoying than when the Wall Street Journal editorial page refers to the poor as “lucky ducks.” They pay less in taxes, don’t ya know, which is why so many people are enrolling in those How to Get Poor Quickly courses.

  21. Bob:

    You should check out the cartoon Tom the Dancing Bug. Two recurring characters are Lucky Ducky and Hollingsworth Hound. Lucky Ducky is destitute and often homeless, and either works in a crummy job or is unemployed. Hollingsworth Hound is fabulously wealthy, but sees Lucky Ducky as being better off because he pays no taxes, receives government services, et numerous cetera. Swiftian satire in the funny pages? Strange but true.

  22. So let me get this straight: the rich, in any situation where their possessions retain any barter value at all and are not taken away from them by force, have some sort of strange ability to avoid starvation more easily than those people with no negotiable possessions?

    Inconceivable!

  23. More about poverty and the tsunami: A crowd of people who include what we’d consider normal access to information is more likely to know that when the ocean is heading away from the shore, the right thing to do is run fast in the opposite direction without having to learn it the hard way.

    And there was a lot of talk after the tsunami about what it would cost to set up a warning system. The reason poor countries didn’t already have a warning system (iirc, not terribly expensive as national projects go) is poverty.

  24. It was a very funny piece, John. That’s sort of thing is hard to write. I laughed out loud and woke my wife.

  25. Adelheid, re WalMart: my best guess is neither. They are trying to avoid speculators who will use the rumors of scarcity to buy up large amounts of rice and resell it at higher prices.

  26. re: the rice issue: I had heard that a crop failure overseas had caused a minor panic among certain communities, and the club retailers (Sams Club and CostCo) were asking people not to buy more than usual because some consumers were panicking and hoarding rice.

  27. John @ 26 said: “even when revolutions target elites, the poor still often get screwed anyway.”

    The poor revolt because they have been screwed to the point where they figure they’ve got nothing to lose anyway. My point was that the elite tend to *survive* revolution at a much lower rate than the poor do. I direct your attention to Paris, 1793-94 and the Revolutionary Tribunal, which kept the guiollotine busy for between 16-40,000 heads that rolled, including the King, the Queen, almost all of their courts and a lot of other elites. Although the numbers are not exact, I’d wager a dollar that the percentage of the elites who survived was FAR lower than the percentage of poor people who survived.

  28. My favorite headline ever was from an article in the NYT about life expectancy for men decreasing (or not increasing). Something like that. I can’t remember the exact headline, but it went something like this: “Men dying early; women and children hardest hit”. It then went on to argue about how difficult it was for women to continue to pay their bills after their husbands died.

    I distinctly remember the “women and children hardest hit” part.

  29. MikeMangum@37: there’s an old joke about the ultimate New York Times headline. “WORLD ENDS: women and minorities hardest hit.”

    Actually, I seem to recall a recent SF short story in which an asteroid is about to hit the Earth, and nobody does anything about it since (a) building a planetary defense system would be expensive and (b) the place of impact is in the Third World, so the wealthiest populations just hunker down to wait out the effects. But then everyone ends up dying anyway.

  30. ben: “Considering that the poor are routinely screwed over by people they’ve never even met and who all seem to hold college degrees down to the last sonofabitch, I can’t really say I blame ‘em. Disagree with, sure, but not blame.”

    The recurring myth that the poor are poor because some rich person stole what the poor people have is denial and transference at its worst.

    The poor are NOT screwed over by people they haven’t met.

    Why would anyone rob a poor person? Remember Clyde (of Bonnie & Clyde) – when asked “why do you rob banks?” he said “Because that’s where the money is!”

    The converse is true with poor people. A most cynical answer to “why don’t the rich ‘screw over’ the poor?” is “Because that’s where the money is NOT.”

    Never mind the possibility that the people involved, rich and poor, may not be out to “screw over” anyone – that they’re good, moral people – oh no – only poor people can be good, and they’re always victimized by the rich.

    A lot of well-off people are well-off because their parents worked hard and they worked hard (and continue to work hard). It’s an utter lie that there’s only so much economic pie and if someone else has a big piece it’s because they took it from someone with crumbs. The person with crumbs likely either had some very bad luck as far as catastrophic health issue, or crappy parents, or made very poor decisions on his own, etc. It’s damned rare that some anonymous college-educated rich guy figured out a way to steal that person’s (small amount of) money.

    And I am sure someone will write “well Enron stole nickels & dimes from millions of people and it added up to billions.” The people who contracted with, and got gypped by, Enron are not “the poor.”

    Though I am sure ben feels a lot more self-righteous and better if he has someone to blame (pick the Jews, ben, they’re a good all-purpose scapegoat for angry people seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility like you).

  31. “it’s always worth pointing out that the people who have all the power and contributed the most to the problems are usually not the people who get hit.”

    Kind of pointless, really. There’s a reason rich people are rich and it usually doesn’t involve robbing banks. Statistically if you get your GED, avoid drugs, get married, find a job – any job! – and save your pennies you won’t be poor very long. Rich people, you see, plan ahead more than just to the next meal. When bad things happen they’re better prepared to deal with it. When good things happen they’re quite a bit better prepared to deal with it, too.

    Rich people get a bad rap, too. Rich people really don’t make gas prices go up. Running out of oil and refusing to open new oil reserves like ANWR does that. Rich people don’t make the price of food go up, Politicians pandering by converting foodstocks into fuel does that. Rich people make their money more on VOLUME than PRICE. You make more money selling a lot cans of corn at a low price to a lot of poor people than 1 can of corn at $8 Billiion dollars to Bill Gates.

  32. John, your comment has stupid all over it. Please avail yourself of statistics of property-related crimes against poor households; whether you can conceive of it or not, poor people get robbed quite a lot.

    However, the generalized class baiting that’s now beginning to infect the thread should probably stop. The entry isn’t about class war; it’s about the obviousness of the fact that the poor suffer quite a lot in most upheaval and crisis.

    So have your class war somewhere else, please.

  33. Once poor always poor. Poverty gets into your mind and never goes away. It becomes a state of mind, a way of thinking, a series of poor judgments made in response to a way of life that may or may not still be your experience.

    I know this because I’m living it. Even though my circumstance is such that my annual income puts me somewhere in the “middle-class”, I still live check to check and routinely make stupid choices with my money.

    Every windfall feels like winning the lottery, and it’s hard to see the future for catching up with needs that most take for granted, like healthcare, transportation, and wardrobe. Never mind consumerist distractions that take precedence over common sense.

    Healthy eating? Bah! Tradition dictates “the most calories for the least cost”. You never know when the bottom’ll drop out of that paycheck. Should I buy the organic makings of a good salad? Hell no! I can get a case of chili con carne for that. Do you know how many packets of ramen I can get for the price of a one package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts?

  34. If you go that route, doggo — which I don’t recommend — at least avail yourself of a daily multivitamin.

  35. Favorite NYTimes headline:

    “World ends; Women and minorities hit hardest.”

  36. @ Scalzi #44 – Yeah, I know. I try not to give in to personal history and actually eat green things that aren’t mold.

    What I’m saying is money doesn’t cure all ills. Poverty is, as others have said here, as much about missed opportunities, lack of, or poor quality education, and a myriad of bad circumstances, as it is about money.

    “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, as a lot of Republicans like to spew about, is a lot harder than it looks. And it’s only partly about making money. A lot of the “self-made men” made themselves at the expense of others. If you’re not willing to ignore ethics, personal honor, or even the law, overcoming poverty becomes a lot harder than it might seem.

  37. So, this went from slamming media inanities (My fav? “….remains to be seen.”) to saying that the rich have never never never taken advantage of the desperation of the poor?

    Poster John, you are an idiot. Scalzi had it right: not only is there stupid all over you, there’s stupid through and through.

    What’s with all the apologia for the fucking rich?

  38. KIA @36— More elites might have died on the guillotine during the Terror, but since the French Revolution kicked off several wars (adding up to a world war, really) that weren’t wrapped up until 1815, I’m thinking the poor came out worst off. Can’t take 1793-94 in isolation. Even if you limit the losses due to revolution to French subjects not killed in foreign wars, there’s still a civil war within France to account for, not to mention riots, incidence of food shortages, etc.

  39. It’s an utter lie that there’s only so much economic pie and if someone else has a big piece it’s because they took it from someone with crumbs.

    Actually, John, the first part of that utter lie is a lie that the rich and those who expect to be rich cling to: namely, that there’s only so much economic pie, and if somebody gets crumbs they must have taken them off my big piece.

    And they also like to wallow in the kind of defensive attribution Orion models for us above. Work hard, be virtuous and you won’t be poor, therefore if you’re poor you clearly are lazy and unvirtuous and deserve your poverty.

  40. I wanted the BMW in Smurf Blue, but they would have had to drive one up from New Jersey… so I had to get the Benz instead. I’ve suffered.

  41. Ok – let me clarify:

    I didn’t say poor people were never robbed or taken advantage of. That’s a strawman.

    I said a cynical reason the rich don’t rob the poor is because there’s not enough there for the rich to bother stealing from them.

    My post may not have made that clear. But simply saying it’s stupid instead of engaging it or pointing out where I may be wrong makes you the one demonstrating an intellectual deficiency. If all we’re going to do is call names, there’s no chance of reaching an understanding of what each other’s point is. If you don’t want to take the time to argue, then I suggest you express your disagreement by saying “I think you’re wrong, here’s an example of why, but I don’t have the time or motivation to get into a long debate over why.”

    I agree it’s not right to blame the poor for being poor. What Orion said is true about bad life decisions leading to a bad life, but the fundamental tools to make good decisions are often denied to poor people. In my opinion, that denial is not by the rich, but by their parents.

    And now I would like to be a mite hypocritical and cut a little ad hominem rant of my own loose:

    Eric, Parroter of Banalities – how’s it going with the plastic surgeon with getting the impression of Scalzi’s belt-buckle off your forehead?
    How about doing some reasoned argument instead of simply saying “oooh! look at me agreeing with you please Mr. blog host! I want to mock the new poster also! Please notice me and my passionately revolutionary use of the f-bomb on those rich bastards!”
    Shmuck.

    The topic here is stupid journalistic cliche’s, and the host has asked that we stick to that, so I won’t go back to the “class warfare” issue again.
    Thanks.

  42. John:

    “But simply saying it’s stupid instead of engaging it or pointing out where I may be wrong makes you the one demonstrating an intellectual deficiency.”

    Well, no. It means that one doesn’t want to waste large amounts of one’s time correcting you because you yourself don’t appear to have put a great amount of thought into the post. And as I suggested you check out actual property crime statistics to correct what appeared to be your confusion that someone might wish to rob the poor, I think, as you demand, you were sufficiently encouraged to learn why you were wrong (or at the very least, came across as so).

    Aside from that, the quality of one’s initial statements can and should dictate the quality of response. You appear to be under the impression that things should go as such:

    Commenter #1: [Overly broad and somewhat jackassedly phrased post tangential at best to the original entry]

    Commenter #2: [Patient and thoughtful examination of Commenter #1's post, with amply intelligent responses]

    When in fact this is how it goes:

    Commenter #1: [Overly broad and somewhat jackassedly phrased post tangential at best to the original entry]

    Commenter #2: Wow, that was a jackassed post.

    Which is to say that if you want people to take your comments seriously, dial back your rhetoric and avoid making badly-phrased comments which then have to be clarified in subsequent posts to get to what you really mean. This shouldn’t be too hard.

    Now, re: your comments to Eric, since he was rude to you, I’m going to let your equally rude comments to him stand, but from now on play nice, please. And thank you also for agreeing to stick more closely to the topic at hand. I do appreciate it.

  43. Stacey @ 51, I actually know some folks who think that way (“Poor me, I only got a Merc!“). They’re nice people, btw, but they’re just so adept at claiming how unfair life is (“Look, he’s got more then me! I’m gonna fix that!”). I think they really believe they’re poor.

    Whereas some less well off people I know have never complained about how “poor” they are in comparison. They just get on with life.

    So is that why the rich are soooo rich? Their fear that someone else might have more, pathologically locks them into this cycle of always having to get more?

    (Just as an aside, this reminds me of a line from an old 80’s/90’s song: “…The rich declare themselves poor….“. Who sang that? Maybe they knew something? :) )

  44. Dear Rayyy, it was George Michael. Great song – nice thought.

    Funniest part of this great exchange, is the how educated argue about the disenfranchised. Not a bad thing, but funny as hell.

    If I may:
    – “defenders of the poor” – shut the f*** up. Patronizing is debasing and arrogant. You (and me) sit at a computer, in a rich country (internet access!), with an education cumulated and provided by others. The rich aren’t all bad – everyone one of us is *loaded* in comparison to the average human existing on this planet right now (let alone history past).

    – “defenders of the rich” (sorry John) – wake up. You have little claim to your education, your station in life, or even your intellect. All of this is built on others (parents, western culture’s predecessors, God. Hell, anybody but You).

    Everyone is a big ball of genetics, experiences and upbringing. Nailing down the failings of some folks and the ascension of others is – in my view – too complex to assess in platitudes.

    Lastly, John, don’t know you, nor have I read your books (sorry), but that is a beautiful post and the fair and judicious moderating is generous. I submit to any flaming you choose and appreciate your instigation of a good discussion/argument.

  45. Lost @55:

    so, where I am in life is not in the least attributable to me, you say. How then can it be attributable to my parents? They were also mere human beings, caught in this big mess of genetics, experiences and upbringing. Oh, and their parents too… and their parents’ parents… and still, who I am and what I do constitute part of other people’s experiences and upbringing! Funny thing, that.

  46. Well, I wouldn’t say “not in the least,” but much more about factors outside of each person’s “will” than we could imagine, I suspect. Not a determinist, but the lack of humility or thoughtfulness about the things that provide the context for some of us to will our way to good choices, success, etc, is a downer.

    Yep, it is a funny business.

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