Posts tagged with: johnny cash

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 15, 2013

There’s some evidence that the distress associated with poverty, such as worry about where your next meal is coming from, can create a negative feedback loop, leaving the poor with fewer non-material resources to leverage against poverty.

In 2011, a study by Dean Spears of Princeton University associated poverty with reduced self-control. His empirical study attempted “to isolate the direction of causality from poverty to behavior,” resulting one possible explanation “that poverty, by making economic decision-making more difficult, depletes cognitive control.” A working paper from NBER from earlier this year examined “Poverty and Self-Control,” and Bernheim, Ray, and Yeltekin found that “poverty damages the ability to exercise self-control.”

A working explanation runs along these lines: there is a finite amount of mental energy that each person has, and the more of it that is spent on things like worry and concern for acquiring basic needs each day, the less there is available for things like planning, making sound financial decisions within a limited timeframe, and other choices related to economic success over the long-term.

It can be difficult for social sciences, especially those like economics which often rely on models of rational actors, to account for the factors which lead to seemingly irrational behavior. But an anthropology informed by Christian theology, which recognizes the spiritual nature of the human person, including the anxiety that often attends to material insufficiency, goes a long way towards providing a coherent explanation and understanding of the complexities of poverty. The poor often experience a kind of despondency that can be crippling. Worry can create feedback loops which tend to reduce a person’s perspective of what is possible, a kind of poverty trap from which it can be difficult to escape.

Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson capture this dynamic well in their performance of “Worried Man,” from VH1 Storytellers (1998):

In the full recording of the Storytellers album, Johnny tells the genesis of this version of the song. He had encountered a beggar in Falmouth, Jamaica, who said, “Mr. Cash, I’m a worried man. I’m a very worried man.” Johnny thought, “Man, here’s a new approach. I’ve never had this one before.” Johnny asked what was worrying him, and the bum responded, “I got a wife and nine pikni [children] and no job. That makes me a worried man.”

As Robin Klay and Todd Steen explore in their article in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, the Christian virtue of hope is an important antidote to the devastating effects of worry, uncertainty, and depression. In “Christian Hope and God’s Providence in the Context of Economic Change and Development,” Klay writes about her experiences of the “‘stubborn hope’ of poor people, who, having very little, are nevertheless determined to use their labor, knowledge of markets and local resources, and small investments to open up a better future.”

Subscribe to the journal today to get access to the latest two issues, including Klay and Steen’s article as soon as it comes out.

And see the related piece by Todd Steen and me, “Hope and the Hunger Games,” over at First Things.

Jordan Ballor wrote a provocative post about fusionism today, titled “Libertarians in Black,” modifying Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion that there should always be a libertarian in the room during political discussions with a little help from Johnny Cash:

I think we might be able to bring Jonah Goldberg and Johnny Cash together on this point, to say that there always ought to be a “libertarian in black” in the room, asking the right questions about what government policies do for the people, particularly the poor.

Yet I wonder, might there be room for another man (or woman) in black as well? Might we also benefit from having a monk in the room? (No offense intended to any Trappists, who traditionally wear white, but honestly, what are they going to say?) (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, June 6, 2013

The conservative-libertarian fusionism conversation is gaining new life as discussions and reflections about the state of the Republican party reverberate after last year’s election. Ben Domenech has a particularly worthwhile outline of what he calls a “libertarian populist agenda.”

Last month’s discussion at Cato Unbound also focused on fusionism, and in this post I’d like to bring together some of the various threads to conclude for a vision of conservative-libertarian fusionism (or at least co-belligerence) in the economic sphere.

In one of his discussion posts, Clark Ruper asserts that “a libertarian can be ‘socially conservative’ or ‘socially progressive.’” But he then proceeds to use the research of Boaz and Kirby, which identifies a group as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal-libertarian” as definitive of a new generation of liberty-minded voters. This ambiguity gets precisely at what Domenech calls in today’s edition of The Transom the difficulty posed for fusionism by “the more atheist and agnostic strands of libertarianism, particularly the urban variety.”

It’s easier for these strands to give lip-service to the openness of the libertarian cause to “social conservatives” than to really identify the coherence of conservative social values with libertarianism. This gets precisely at the dynamic I intended to highlight in my initial post about the limitations of libertarianism as a political philosophy of limited government as opposed to a fully-blown world-and-life view. If you think that libertarianism is really a political philosophy that remains largely agnostic about things other than government, then you are more likely to really think that “a libertarian can be ‘socially conservative’ or ‘socially progressive.’” But if you think of libertarianism as an ideological worldview that has to do with maximizing individual choice and autonomy in every conceivable sphere (political or not), then you are much more likely to see libertarianism as entailing social liberalism (or what some conservatives deride as libertinism).

The upshot of this is that I think the key to any constructive fusionism must deal on the basis of seeking liberty in the realm of political economy, something that both conservatives and libertarians ought to be able to unite on. We ought to be able to come together to defend and promote a system of political economy that best promotes human flourishing, particularly by addressing the problem of poverty and the complex challenges of wealth creation. This is in part why I find a movement like the Bleeding Heart Libertarians is encouraging.

In another dialogue about fusionism, Jonah Goldberg asserted that there should always be a “libertarian in the room,” referring to the context of political discussions, because “the libertarian in the room asks the right question: Why is this a job for government?”

I think we might be able to bring Jonah Goldberg and Johnny Cash together on this point, to say that there always ought to be a “libertarian in black” in the room, asking the right questions about what government policies do for the people, particularly the poor. As Johnny sang,

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, October 30, 2008


The lyrics to “Busted,” written by Harlan Howard, and made famous as performed by Johnny Cash:

My bills are all due and the babies need shoes,
But I’m Busted
Cotton’s gone down to a quarter a pound
And I’m Busted

I got a cow that’s gone dry
And a hen that won’t lay
A big stack of bills
Getting bigger each day
The county’s gonna haul my belongings away,
But I’m Busted

So I called on my brother to ask for a loan
‘Cause I was Busted
I hate to beg like a dog for a bone,
But I’m Busted

My brother said, “there’s not a thing I can do,
My wife and my kids
Are all down with the flu
And I was just thinkin’ about callin’ on you,
‘Cause I’m Busted.”

Lord, I ain’t no thief, but a man can go wrong,
When he’s Busted
The food that we canned last summer is gone,
But I’m Busted

Now the fields are all bare
And the cotton won’t grow
Me and my family’s gotta pack up and go
But I’ll make a living, just where, I don’t know
‘Cause I’m Busted

There’s a lot to think about in this 2 minute song: family, poverty, foreclosure, charity, and economic displacement.

Update: A recommendation has come my way (HT) to check out Ray Charles’ version. Here is below:

Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of Johnny Cash’s live recording of the album At Folsom Prison. On the 1999 re-release, the brief song “Busted” (originally recorded by Cash in 1962) was included.


And while the price of cotton is more like 50 cents per pound now (which is much lower than the cost of inflation over the same period), the song still speaks to the situation of many folks today:

“My bills are all due and the babies need shoes but I’m busted
Cotton is down to a quarter a pound and I’m busted
I’ve got a cow that went dry and a hen that won’t lay
A big stack of bills that get bigger each day
The County will haul my belongings away I’m busted!

I went to my brother to ask for a loan I was busted
I hate to beg like a dog for a bone but I’m busted
My brother said there ain’t a thing I can do
My wife and my kids are all down with the flu
And I was just thinking of calling on you I’m busted!”

Something of note in that tune penned by Detroit native Harlan Howard: when in need, the man turns to his family first (not the government).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 14, 2007

“Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.”