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I am working on a book on rhetoric and, as might be imagined, this year’s American political season has been a goldmine. Recently Mitch Daniels said “We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon to haves.”

The phrase “soon to haves” is an excellent example of a euphemism (a more pleasant or appealing phrase or word substituted for one that is negative or likely to be offensive to the audience).  While euphemisms are a stock tool in politics, it is always fair to critically examine their usage to see what sort of reality they might be employed to hide or soften. As such, I will take a short look at this phrase.

Daniels, obviously enough, makes it quite clear that his euphemism is a substitute for “have-nots” (which can itself be seen as something of a euphemism for the term “poor”). “Soon to haves” is clearly a more pleasant phrase than “have nots.” After all, the have-nots are lacking and there is no implication of hope. In fact, the usual way of things is that “whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” In the case of “soon to haves” this not only makes it clear that these folks will be haves but that this having shall come soon. One rather obvious point of concern is whether or not this euphemism matches the reality it is alleged to describe.

On the one hand, the United States (and other countries of the world) does have upward mobility. I am better off than my grandparents on my father’s side (they both had to quit school before the ninth grade in order to take jobs).  People can, obviously enough, become haves even with a start as a have not. As such, the United States (and all countries) is a land of haves and soon-to-haves.

To use an analogy, in running there are people who win races or place and those that do not. As in general life, the winners are haves and those who do not are have nots. Of course, some people who do not place in this race or that race go on to place in another race. Thus, runners could also be seen as haves and soon-to-haves rather than haves and have nots. Except, of course, the people who might never place. Fortunately, in the case of running, most runners can actually find some race in which to place in. After all, there are lots of races and with some effort and luck one can find such a race. Of course, the running analogy breaks down pretty quickly. After all, while there are plenty of races and running competition is basically fair, the same is not true of the economy. Overall, there is just one race that is going on all the time. Also, the economic race is rather clearly an unfair one. Which brings me to the other hand.

On this other hand, it is rather obvious that even though there are soon-to-haves there are also many people who are and will continue to be have-nots. True, some of these people have not because of their own decisions, choices and actions. However, many of them are in that situation due to factors beyond their power to reasonably control. For example, a leading cause of bankruptcy in America is medical debt incurred by people who find themselves unable to pay those bills (such as when their insurance coverage is exhausted). Other people find themselves in that boat when their employer goes overseas, goes out of business, or gets taken over and gutted for a profit. Some folks find themselves to be have nots when their retirement vanishes due to corporate mismanagement or clever financial manipulation.

It might be replied that even these folks can be considered soon-to-haves. After all, they do have more than nothing and will no doubt get more of something soon. Hence, they are soon-to-haves if not haves.

The obvious reply is that having more than nothing hardly is what is meant by being a have. It is also obvious that being a have is not just a matter of doing okay. After all, being a have is generally taken to mean doing very well-that is, being wealthy or even rich (which are also vague terms). The obvious reality is that the United States and most other countries have very extreme class disparities between the real haves (the top wealthy) and everyone else (the middle class on down). While there is some mobility between the classes, the transition into the dominion of the true haves is very rare indeed. After all, the true haves make up that vaunted 1%, which means that 99% of the people are not haves in that sense.

It might be objected that I have set the bar for being a have too high. What is meant is not that the soon-to-haves will be haves in the sense of being the top haves, but rather that the soon-to-haves will move from less to more (that is, upward mobility). Of course, as noted above, this would require more than going from nothing to something and even more than going from (for example) abject poverty to merely being poor.

Upward mobility does seem to be a real possibility. However, there is an obvious point of concern: if the United States is a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, how is it that there are still soon-to-haves? After all, those soon-to-haves should have become haves…well, soon. Perhaps the soon-to-haves are all new immigrants-having just arrived, they are not haves but are just a short time from being haves. Of course, this does not match the reality: there are plenty of people and families who have been here a long time and are still poor.

Perhaps some of the soon-to-haves are people who were haves. That is, there is a cycle of having and then being a soon to have. Of course, there are plenty of folks and families that were never haves.

Perhaps the soon-to-haves are kids. After all, kids are not haves but they will grow up soon and perhaps they will be the haves. However, many kids grow up in poverty, live in poverty and die in poverty.

As such, it does seem that while there are soon-to-haves, there are still plenty of have-nots.

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  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I agree with your post, but perhaps at times politicians might change the focus from having to knowing or to treating others well or to living rationally.

    Having enough is important and goods should be distributed fairly, more fairly than they are now.

    However, maybe a step forward to a better society might be to stress that some live rationally and some will soon live rationally (with more education, more dialogue and less passive TV consumption), etc.

    A rational society would be a just society, in terms of wealth distribution, but it would encompass more than merely changing the distribution of wealth.

    However, we need leaders who open a dialogue, not only in terms of having, but, as I said, of other values, such as treating others well, knowing what matters, and what a rational life might consist of.

  2. In my logical atomist moments (fewer these days) I used to think the place of rhetoric and poetry as perhaps being more of the art of the sophist and word-spinner than the philosopher. As Plato said:

    …there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Republic, 607b5–6)

    But these days, I’m usually more flexible. I recently posted some speculations that the poet’s art is to speak beyond the semantic meaning of words so as to communicate his truth that words themselves may not speak to (a kind of Wittgenstein PI language game).

    So Dylan Thomas can write:

    A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” (On Poetry, in his Quite Early One Morning)

    However the politician uses rhetoric to stir up passion, support and persuasion for his political interest. Expressions such as “have-not’s” and “soon-to-haves” develop a meaning beyond the rational in a similar language game. This is more akin to the sophist’s habits though.

    I’m sure you’re across this source:

  3. I too am a little confused about this kind of rhetoric. It does not take much to look out the window and see all the Mcdonald- and Wal-Mart-like jobs (and many other similar kinds) sitting out there, work that is generally low pay and non-stimulating, for most people. Either we would have to pay such people more; or eliminate such jobs; or define people who work such jobs as part of the “haves.”

    That may just be saying that our present capitalistic system is bankrupt. Or I guess, we could just write it off and say that the people who end up in such situations, or worse situations, deserve it based on the failure to choose properly, work properly, or the what-not. Or that we need all these people and other people to believe (falsely) that if everyone worked up to their potential, and made “good” choices then NO ONE would end up in such jobs or unemployed; which again is of course a false consciousness.

  4. Lyndon,

    Good points.

    While some people do manage to become haves even when starting in dire circumstances, these people tend to be the rare exceptions (that is why they are sometimes famous for this). In most cases, people seem to have a rather hard time working up out of poverty. After all, if we were all soon-to-haves we should soon be out of poor people.

    While some folks do make bad choices, many folks who are poor were born into poverty.

  5. Where is the philosophy in this post? I can answer that. First I want to say I like this post because it touches a bundle of issues: rational economics and full cost accounting for poverty, social justice, downward mobility by bad luck or self-destruction (so also upward mobility by skill or evil works) and more.

    What are the metaphysics of an expectation (genus), a hope (species) and futility (the opposite species)? A soon-to-have has an embedded hope. And a have-not has an embedded futility. In what sense to expectations exist? In present time, place, mind, inter-subjectively? In future? Does a hope have a power to uplift?

    How about a Socratic question? What is a hopeless romantic? It’s a good thing that a hopeless romantic is on Geach’s heap of things we know without having a definition; which is good otherwise the Hopeless Romantic Bed & Breakfast would never have any guests. But the B&B does; presumably some guests go there soon-to-have some love in time or space.

    A problem with poverty is that it costs too much. But our accounting is dirt cheap. A full cost accounting would show how much poor people cost the rest of us for the publicly paid expenses re healthcare, policing, courts (child protection and family courts, etc), jails for poor Dads, blah, blah and blah.

    Our governments are hopeless when it comes to creative solutions. There is no reason to have poor old people. In Canada, for example albeit a small-minded example, any poor senior is guaranteed about $18,000 per year plus healthcare with seniors’ benefits and not including housing subsidy. But the cost of living is high there. Meanwhile a senior couple can live well in Peru for about $1,300 per month including healthcare etc. So a creative solution would be to ship the really poor old folks out-of-country. Land them in a warm country with friendly people, eh?

  6. A 'Nation Of Haves And Soon To Haves': The Path To Oligarchy - pingback on February 12, 2012 at 9:38 pm
  7. In truth, it has never being “haves” and “have-nots”. As in most observable phenomena, there is a continuum from “haves” to “soon-to-have” to “almost-have” to “just-have” to “haves” and going the other way, to “almost-have-just-lost” to “have-not” to “will-never-have”…you get my drift. And the fact is, it’ll always be like that.

    The proportion in each camp, will change from time-to-time, of course.

    As for politician, the art of getting a diverse group of people, with diverse views, wants and needs has been to master the art of “slighht-of the-verb” Rhetoric has it purposes too.

  8. America has been noted as the land of opportunity. This has meant a graduated wealth without class distinction, or a plethora of classes, all striving for equal opportunity within the union. For any politician to campaign that America should soon-to-be a two class system should bring discord to most Americans. It would move social progress back 500 years.

  9. The central problem in my opinion, is the monopoly of half of the world’s resources by 1% of the population. I watched this talk a few days ago. They engage with this question on philosophical grounds

  10. Jim,

    I feel both less bad and more bad. Less bad in that my salary puts me in a small percentage. More bad in that I know I am not doing that well, which entails that other people are really badly off.

  11. Raissab,

    True-while Americans/Western soon-to-haves have less than our haves, we still have more than almost everyone else.

  12. Dennis,

    In some ways we are heading towards a two class system. The middle class, it has been claimed, is mainly falling into the poor category.

    Of course, fine gradations can be made. For example, Newt and Rick are both millionaires, but they are outclassed by Mitt’s millions. Mitt is, of course, outclassed by others in turn.

  13. POD,

    True-much of politics lies in words.

  14. Boreas,

    True-poverty does come with a high price tag.

    While people do argue that the haves should not be robbed of their stuff to help the have nots, there is the stock argument about how it is unjust or just wrong to take the desires of the few rich to count more than the needs of the many folks who contributed to the rich being rich. In some ways, assisting the poor could be seen not as charity but as paying them back either reparations for being victims of a system that creates the super rich and the poor or as wages for all that they have done in enabling the rich to be so very rich.

  15. Mike,

    I’d come across the link to this in a story in the Guardian around Christmas. It’s tells the story of the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord who’s behind the site – he gives away 40% of his income and his charity encourages others to sign up to give 10%.

    Around the same time I came across another story titled ‘Cuts to social housing punish the poorest Americans at the worst time’. It mentions a 25 year old single mum in Washington with two babies to provide for on an income of $306 (£195) a month. A single person over 25 year old in the UK on unemployment benefit gets around £283 a month – which puts them in the top 19%. But, living in a homeless shelter two blocks away from Capitol Hill you have the globally typical person.

    I’m on a modest income but if I donated myself down to UK unemployment benefit levels (and I’ve lived on that before and you can manage fine if you don’t drink, take drugs or smoke) and lived to a reasonable age I could save thousands of lives and live just fine.

    This did all give me pause for thought at Christmas.

  16. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I have no problems living without the latest smartphone or wearing my shoes and jeans until they literally fall apart.

    The problems arise when you have children and they find that they are the only ones in their school class, in a far from wealthy school district, without the latest smartphone, the latest model atheletic shoes and a bicycle helmet with a “cool” logo.

    It’s hard to justify one’s philosophy of life to a 10 year old child who is convinced that social acceptance depends on having the right and latest consumer goods, and perhaps I don’t have the right to exclude or marginate him from the world of his classmates.

  17. Jim,

    One irony of American politics is that we have people fighting to be the most Christian while they are also fighting to be the one who will be the biggest cutter of social programs that aid the poor and children.

    One stock argument against helping the poor is that a person should not give up what they have to help the lazy. After all, if I just give money to people, they have no incentive to do better.

    Of course, the obvious reply to that is that people in poverty are often locked into a situation that prevents them from escaping without aid and if they are not helped, they will simply stay poor (and have kids that are poor and also locked in). Helping these folks enables them to stand on their own eventually and they can, in turn, help others. Perhaps.

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