In Defense of Homeless Hot Spots

BBH Labs is an advertising agency that specializes in new and creative ideas for marketing products. But few ideas have ever generated the heat of one used this past weekend at the Austin, Texas, technology conference South by Southwest.

Wireless networks are famously overcrowded at these events, and everyone is scrambling for a good connection. BBH had the idea of uniting two causes: help for data-hungry attendees and help for the homeless population of Austin. It invited homeless people to carry wireless hot spots and walk around offering their services in exchange for donations.

The homeless people were given $20 for the workday and allowed to keep whatever donations they could elicit in appreciation for their service. They would walk around wearing a shirt that says “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hot Spot.” Anyone could connect and enjoy great access to the whole of the digital world.

It is obvious from the reports that everyone loved it, attendees and also the homeless, too. It gives them a chance to interact with people, feel valuable, earn money and be an important part of people’s lives.

What’s not to like? One reads with amazement, but maybe not shock, the screams of outrage against the whole idea. To some people, this smacks of “exploitation.” The homeless are being used in a cruel experiment. Their very bodies are being commodified! It is demeaning! You can read all these claims and thousands more at hundreds of sites on the Internet right now.

The New York Times claims that the whole thing somehow “backfired” and became a public relations disaster for the ad agency. BBH isn’t backing down, but it is explaining itself. It was once common for the homeless to sell newspapers and make a bit of spending money that way. But now, hardly anyone even wants a stupid newspaper, so they need other things.

What is the most valuable thing today? A broadband connection. Let homeless people carry them and be paid. Beautiful! Creative! In no sense is this exploitation, else surely someone party to the exchanges taking place would object. So far, none have; on the contrary, the homeless population has heralded the opportunity. One homeless man called it “an honest day of work and pay.” Yes!

The terms “exploitation” and “commodification” are used by people who have something against commercial transactions between rich and poor. To this crowd, the reality that everyone obviously benefits from commerce means nothing, since we are all apparently blinded by some deeper reality that you can fully discern only by reading the collected works of Marx and Lenin. We don’t have time, so it is up to the enlightened elite to read, interpret and implement on our behalf.

And what does this implementation amount to? It comes down to actually denying opportunity to people who need it the most. Instead of providing services people are willing to pay for, they would be languishing on a cot in a smelly warehouse somewhere, while allegedly retaining their dignity.

How is this better? If I were a homeless person, I would wear a shirt that said, “Please exploit me with a job! Please commodify my valuable talents!”

To a remarkable extent, our perceptions of our own self-worth are bound up with being valued by others. To see this realized requires opportunities for people to cooperate with each, particularly in an economic sense. In economic exchange, we become important as individuals, and others become important to us. This is why market-based societies are also societies in which human beings flourish and feel a sense of being important and valued.

To be truly demeaned and exploited means to have that value reduced to zero, so that we become nothing but physical beings who produce nothing, but still take up space and use up resources. This is the path to psychological demoralization and death.

What are the conditions in which this sense of being completely without value are most intense? I would draw attention to two institutional arrangements, in particular, in which this is an omnipresent feature. Both involve conditions of total state control.

First, soldiers in a war are not valued as individuals, but rather exploited to kill and be killed. They have very little control over their lives — their job is to obey no matter what — and their lives are stamped as expendable under the right conditions.

A second case in point is the jail, in which prisoners have no control and are not valued by those who do control their lives. At least animals in a zoo are providing value to others; the prisoners in jail don’t even have that luxury. Jail is a wholly demoralizing and dehumanizing situation from which people never fully recover.

The unemployed and the homeless experience this feeling in a much smaller degree, but it is still present in their lives. Cut off from the commercial nexus, they wonder what they have to contribute to society. They wonder about their very value as humans and whether there is really any point to the day at all. They sense that no one needs them. They feel unloved and unvalued.

It is for this reason that suicide among the unemployed is two-three times the national average. Having a job is about more than getting a paycheck. It is about feeling that we have something to contribute, that there is a purpose to life, that our very existence has a point, that others really do care about whether we live or die.

Let’s formulate a general principle: If a person is disgruntled with life, it is generally because he or she is feeling undervalued in some way. In fact, I know of no exceptions to the rule. The solution, then, is to change the institutional conditions that have led to this unfortunate state of being. That change requires freedom and opportunity.

Among the unemployed and homeless, the solution to the problem is rather obvious: commerce. They need engagement with others in a tangible way that yields results. Only the market provides this. This why “commodifying” the homeless and the jobless is the best thing that can ever happen to them.

Apparently, for many people, however, the homeless population is not a problem to solve, but a group to be used for political purposes. Their job is to look pathetic, be down and out, live in squalor and pose for the cameras when activists show up to use them for purposes of political agitation. And the solutions that that activists propose somehow always involve politics, not economics.

This is the real meaning of exploitation!

For all the kvetching about the homeless problem over the years, one might have expected that the housing price crash would have been greeted with shouts of glee. After all, it could have meant the new availability of vast numbers of homes at super-low prices that everyone could afford! But on the contrary, this is not how it was treated: The whole energy of the government and central bank was dedicated to keeping house prices as high as possible! So much for the plight of the homeless.

The self-proclaimed friends of the homeless aren’t really that. Enterprises like BBH that provide them economic opportunity are their true friends. Shelters, handouts and political ploys don’t improve people’s lives over the long term.

Free enterprise and creative entrepreneurship will not only save the demoralized among us, they are also the keys to uplifting the whole of humanity so that everyone feels valued in service to others and to themselves. Commerce is unique in that it embodies that magical capacity to bring both together for the good of all.

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