Friday, June 18, 2010

Cell Phones

FLG stopped reading Jamelle Bouie when he was blogging over at the League because it was unbearable. Today, FLG learns via TNC's blog that Bouie is blogging over at True/Slant about cell phones:
When I was guest-blogging for Matt Yglesias a few weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson for his claim that cell phones are indicative of rising living standards among the poor. I argued that cell phones are both very cheap — cheaper than a landline, in fact — and essential to navigating the world of low-wage service jobs. Without some way to contact employers (or vice-versa), it’s nearly impossible to find a job.


For people who are instinctively rankled by the sight of a poor person with a cell phone, I think simple ignorance is the culprit. In this world of iPhones and pocket-sized computers, it’s easy to forget that with less than $100, you can buy a fairly reliable phone and minutes for the month.

That said, if you fear “subsidizing texting and sexting among the poor,” your problem isn’t ignorance — or at least not that kind of ignorance — your problem is that you hold a pretty ugly view of the poor and poverty. For these conservatives, poverty is purely the result of individual behavior; if you are poor, you have obviously done something to deserve it, “Of course poor people would use phone-handouts for texting and sexting, they wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t have degenerate habits like communication, or sexual expression.” To repeat, cell phones are not a luxury. But even if they were, there’s nothing about poverty that disentitles you to enjoying your life. If you are one of the few people who don’t need a cell phone, but get one because it would improve your quality of life, that doesn’t make you any less “deserving” of help than someone who chooses to go without. This idea that we should control the pleasure of those on the bottom is both baffling and pretty offensive.

A few things.

First, FLG went for years without a cell phone and almost never carries or even turns on the one he has. So, he questions whether they are a necessity.

Second, Jamelle seemingly argues that even if they are a luxury, then it is somehow poor bashing to hold the position that they ought not be subsidized. It's one thing to say that poor people have a right to use some of their meager resources on things that aren't directly profitable toward alleviating their poverty. Say a drink now and then or a pack of smokes or a maybe a cell phone. It's entirely another thing to say those things ought to be subsidized. If Jamelle really wants a welfare state where people are not only entitled to necessities but also luxuries, then he's going down a political and economic dead end.

Third, FLG recognizes the first case that Jamelle makes. There are numerous situations he can envision where cell phones could be incredibly useful for poor people in finding employment. Therefore, it makes sense for poor people to get them. But there are a whole bunch of questions surrounding a policy that subsidizes poor people's phones. Is it the most efficient way to increase employment? What sort of cost-benefit model are we looking at?


dance said...

Cell phones become more critical if you have an unreliable car or are always taking public transit. Etc. That is, when things are more uncertain, it becomes more important to be able to let your boss know you will be late, arrange emergency childcare at the last minute, find out if your mother can spot you $20 till payday, etc. So your experience is not necessarily germane here.

But what's your argument here? Scrap the entire Lifeline program (since 1984), which also enables super-basic landline service, or don't apply it to cell phones? What's the difference in principle between this LifeLine program (I went and read the full piece, clearly), and say, govt grants to put more computers in public libraries? Or govt regulation to ensure broadband gets to rural areas?

(the question I would ask: should the govt subsidize TracFone locking in customers who will buy more minutes? I mean, I don't *think* the govt contributed to the $400 AT&T paid towards my purchase of a new iPhone)

FLG said...


My main issue is here:
To repeat, cell phones are not a luxury. But even if they were, there’s nothing about poverty that disentitles you to enjoying your life.

What he is saying here is two-fold. First, cell phones aren't a luxury. I'm of mixed mind on this. I went without for a while, but I can see how they would be extremely useful, largely for the reasons you cite in your comment. But then there's the second point, which I do have issue with. To rephrase the bolded sentence, "people in poverty are entitled to enjoy life." And in Jamelle eyes this apparently means that we must subsidize luxuries because poor people are entitled to them. That is what I disagree with..

Anonymous said...

FLG, I agree with you. I've always thought *the idea* behind this sort of stuff is let the people get a taste for the finer things and that will encourage them to go and work for more but I'm probably wrong. It may just be plain old simple Robin Hood time.

On a related topic of sorts, have you seen the latest on a guy you once wrote about in the august pages?

Mrs. P

dance said...

Cellphones are both a useful example and a red herring here. The govt long ago decided that telecommunication is a basic utility, like electricity, and that it is in the nation's interest for as many people to have access to it as possible. In 1984, that meant landlines--later it was decided cellphones were included, now it means broadband internet, and actually, the subsidized digital tv converters also fell under this principle. It's not about giving people a taste for the finer things, or robbing the rich to pay the poor, or specifically about employment (although I'm sure employment is part of the reasoning behind the basic principle that telecom is a utility).

And now, suddenly people reject that principle, because it seems to manifest itself as the govt paying for luxuries.

Jamelle says: This idea that we should control the pleasure of those on the bottom is both baffling and pretty offensive.

That's his key point. In terms of cellphones, he's right--we should reject this general principle and erect specific laws because fun might be a side effect? that's BS. (And it's the same BS that leads people to protest insurance paying for birth control pills or giving free condoms--gasp, people might have sex for fun! So even though the company/govt can pay for pills/condoms cheaper than STDs, pregnancy and childbirth, don't cover the pill! Pure BS.)

And I think this is a misreading:
"we must subsidize luxuries because poor people are entitled to them"

Rather, the issue is "does offering necessary help then entitle people to put all sorts of judgmental constraints on what is done with that help?" Do we walk back on something we've already decided is a good idea and go out of our way to eliminate the possibility that some luxuries might accidentally get subsidized, or do we trust in individuals to make their own choices about how to balance their limitations? Jamelle's argument that even poor people are entitled to enjoy life is a declaration that such little things are within the individual's private sphere, and should not be subject to interference from outside.

Me, I'm disinclined to be the person who effectively says "because you are poor, that must mean that you cannot be trusted to make your own choices, and that you do not need to be respected as an adult." There's already plenty of that in the system. That's the attitude Jamelle is attacking.

arethusa said...

The program he's referring to actually goes back to the Reagan Administration (pre-cell phone subsidies for phone service for the poor). After 25 years, surely someone has done some analysis of whether the program is effective?

These phones are those Tracfones you can buy over the counter and add minutes to. They are not luxury items; I don't think the family values guy should be worrying about sexting, nor do I think the luxury items should be subsidized for anyone. Fairness doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing, it means that everyone gets what they need. No need for a Blackberry if you just need a phone to look for a job, pay bills, etc.

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