The Welfare State

When President Franklyn Roosevelt initiated steps to thwart the depression his country was deep in, he cautioned against the real possibility that citizens would become dependent on the hand-outs the Federal Government was taking steps to provide. As he said at the time:

“Continued dependence upon relief indicates a spiritual and moral degeneration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

The possibility that Roosevelt alluded to had been noted years before by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who both saw “socialism” as a step toward the destruction of human freedom. Indeed, Dostoevsky thought socialism was the bastard offspring of the Church which, by making moral decisions for mankind, had robbed them of their humanity. If the Church or the State take care of people they will stop taking care of themselves. And taking care of themselves involves a struggle and, at times, suffering; these are the things that make us fully human. It is a dilemma: on the one hand there are folks who desperately need help and all who are able have a duty to care for them. On the other hand, this care can become a habit and rob those folks of the very freedom that makes them human.

Robert Kennedy in a speech in 1966 echoed Roosevelt’s warning, adding that “higher welfare payments . . .often lead to lifelong dependency.” The problem is how to find a balance between meeting genuine human needs and creating a situation in which those who receive assistance become dependent on it and find themselves unable to take care of themselves. The obvious solution takes the form of assistance with strings tied to it, assistance that demands that those who receive it do so for a limited amount of time and then fend for themselves, frequently referred to as “workfare.” Presumably this is what welfare reform is all about.

It’s not a Republican/Democrat sort of problem either, though there are Democrats who support all forms of welfare and there are Republicans who oppose all forms of welfare, which they see as hand-outs to lazy ne’er-do-wells. In a country that ponders the possibility of spending billions of dollars building walls to keep “terrorists” out and spends more billions to build planes and ships that can travel the world with nuclear weapons tucked away in their bellies, the notion that spending millions to help those in needs wastes our hard-earned money is truly ironic. And the notion that those in need are lazy is incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed. It is not the fact that millions are being spent on those in need that bothers so many people, however, it is the fact that they see those millions as being better spent on building higher walls. Or they point to anecdotes about abuse of the system, those who take without needing. In a word, we have a serious problem with perception and a loss of a sense of balance between what is being done and what should be done. And this in a nation that prides itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage!

Clearly, a wealthy nation such as the United States can afford to take care of those in need — whose numbers grow daily. The money that is spent elsewhere could be reshuffled easily to cover all costs. But the real problem is that those who receive this aid, regardless of how much money it turns out to be, must be enabled to take care of themselves. Many who receive welfare admit this and insist that their own self-respect depends on their eventually earning a living, taking care of themselves and their families– even if the income they earn turns out to be less than the money they are receiving on welfare!  The notion that these people are all lazy ne’er-do-wells is twisted and distorted — and self-serving. These are folks like you and like me who have come on hard times. The issue is not whether we spend some of our tax dollars to take care of those who desperately need it; the question is how we do this while still making possible the retention of self-respect and a degree of human freedom that they require to go on with their lives and become healthy, productive citizens.

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Friends In Need, Friends Indeed

I have a very dear friend whom I correspond with from time to time and we respectfully agree to disagree on most matters political. She recently wrote on her Facebook page a note regarding her frustration over some of the issues that the current election has raised:

I have a job. I make money. I have a choice of what to do with my money. I can decide to save some of my money or spend all of my money. I decide to save some of my money. Now I have to decide how do I want to save my money. I can put it under my mattress. I can keep it in my checking account. I can start a savings account. I can invest it. I decide to invest it. Now I have to decide what kind of investment. My decision to invest has worked out well for me. I make money. Now I have to decide, within the law, what to do with my money. I find out, with advice, I can save my money in different ways.
It is my money, I am within the law, but others have what they think is a better way to use or do with my money. But it is my money. I haven’t broken any laws. I am generous and giving with my money. But others think I am not generous and giving enough with my money. Why do others want my money or tell me what I should be doing with my money? What is wrong with this picture?

This is an interesting note and one worthy of reflection. My friend has a point: it’s her money, where do other people come off telling her where it should be spent?

Unfortunately, we live in a country where the government claims the right to take some of our money and spend it the way they think it should be spent. I also disagree with much of the way my money is spent, and I am frustrated by the waste and abuse. But I recognize the fact that I have little to say about it and as long as I choose to remain in this country I must play by the rules. For example, I would love to see “defense” spending greatly reduced and the money spent on clean energy, health and human services, and education. But I have no say in the matter, unfortunately. Neither does my friend.

For years now I have watched an elderly man walk by my house on his way to work at the local factory. He carries his lunch pail and he walks slowly back and forth like clockwork every day. I worked for years at the regional state university where my salary was paid for by people like the man who walks by my house every day. I have fed at the public trough and I have managed to do quite well. My friend, quoted above, also ate from that same trough and she has managed to do well also. We are the lucky ones, because we made it to retirement. The man I spoke about no longer walks by my house: he has been laid off due to “downsizing” at the local factory — after 20 years of loyal service working on an assembly line putting cabinets together. Now it’s my turn to help him, I figure. He can eat out of the public trough for a while until he can get back on his feet. Why not? It only seems fair.

As I say, I don’t choose where my tax money goes. But I am delighted to know that at least some of it goes to help out people like the man who walks by — and another friend of mine, a former public school superintendent who has been laid off, lost his house, and watched his life fall apart before his eyes. These people are not lazy bums. They are people who need our help and yet we begrudge it because it is “our” money. I  would prefer to think of it as a loan. We have it for a time and we certainly don’t need it all; when others need it they should be welcome to it. I don’t suffer unduly because these people are now feeding out of the public trough. I ate out of it for many years. Now it’s their turn.

Prognosis Negative

I haven’t seen the latest medical report, but the patient is in a coma and on life support so the prognosis can’t be good. The patient, of course, is the American democratic system and it is very sick if not near death. It waits for a champion on a white horse to rescue it — or perhaps miracle drugs, or a transfusion of new blood. As bad as things are at present they will get much worse if the Republicans have their way — judging by what they say.

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Books had a close look at the recent Republican National Convention and he had many astute observations to make. The one that interested me the most was the following:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe

people are poor because of circumstances beyond their

control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

We should have seen this coming, of course. When the presumptive Vice Presidential candidate tells us his favorite “philosopher” is Ayn Rand who advocates cut-throat capitalism we should have taken note. This group doesn’t care about people or the planet. There is no talk about the importance of educating the young or taking care of the poor. The latter are simply hoist by their own petard: they are lazy and unmotivated and that’s why they are poor. If they had any gumption they would be wealthy like us. This is not only a twisted, and even shrunken, view of the world, it is also a bit sick.

As Brooks suggests, the truly distressing echo resonating from the Republican rhetoric is the lack of compassion and concern for those who need our help. The chest thumping and braggadocio of the wealthy who honestly believe they made it on their own and everyone else should do and be exactly like them or there is something wrong with them is either delusional or downright stupid. This is especially so when one looks around and sees the talented and gifted people who are struggling to keep their heads above water as against the many stupid and uncaring people with great wealth who seem only to be able to gloat.

There are good people who need help and often the only institution that is in a position to deliver that help is the government, whether we like it or not. We tie the hands of government and reduce the effectiveness of social programs at our own peril: there but for the grace of God goes you or I. Even if people don’t respond to the call for charity and love of our fellow human beings, one would think they would respond to enlightened self-interest. We all benefit from a healthy government rooted in the concept of the common good.

If government “gets out of the way” we all run the risk of going down for the third time. The day of Horatio Alger is past. The day of progressive economic theorizing is past. We need to rein in our greed and self-interest and try to see the broader canvas. We need to develop new economies of sustainability and conservation — in the true sense of this term. And we need to care about one another. If we can’t see these things then the patient is beyond hope. Not even the most miraculous of drugs can save him.

Trickle-Down Economics and Other B.S.

[You’ve probably seen the photograph. It shows Ronald Reagan with a group of his associates in their Armani suits, holding drinks in their hands and doubled over in laughter. The word “Reaganomics” appears below the photo and below that the caption “We told them the wealth would trickle down.”]

Candidate Romney has proposed a tax plan that would continue and even expand the current tax breaks for the infamous 1% and increase taxes on the rest of us. The plan, which is phase two of Reaganomics and the equally infamous “trickle-down” theory, is designed to encourage the wealthy to invest their money and thereby create more jobs for those currently unemployed, thus enabling them to carry the tax burden which the wealthy prefer to transfer to others. In case we didn’t know that this is bogus economics, a recent story reveals that

The 2012 Survey of Affluence and Wealth in America, from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group, finds that One Percenters are hoarding three times as much cash as they were two years ago. Their savings rate soared to 34 percent in the second quarter of 2012, up from 12 percent in 2007.

I couldn’t possibly improve on the careful and detailed analysis my blog-buddy did on the idiocy of Mitt Romney’s tax plan which pleases no one this side of the Tea Party (which may help explain Romney’s recent choice of a running mate).  But unless I am mistaken what this means is that the poor will get poorer and the rich will be more careful to protect their already obscene amounts of spare cash. We have already seen the gap between the rich and the poor widen annually since the Reagan presidency as the rich continue to hide behind their tax breaks and subsidies and the poor continue to struggle to put food on the table. The notion that the rich will expand their companies, invest, and create jobs is tissue paper-thin: it is a myth exploded by downsizing and outsourcing — and information like that in the article quoted above. Indeed, there are a number of myths out there in this election year — some coming at us from the right and others coming at us from the left. We must be on guard. But above all, we must think through all the empty promises and vapid bromides to the real truth that lies hidden beneath — if there is any.

Anyone who tells us that he has a “secret plan” to restore health to the economy should be suspect. We should want to know the details; we should demand to know the details. Otherwise we are buying a pig in a poke. And anyone who tells us that the current tax breaks for the wealthy are a good thing, that the very rich should not pay their fair share of the tax burden, is shooting the bull. I have written about the need to rethink our take on taxes, how they do a great deal of good and should not be seen as simply a burden. But however we perceive taxes, we should all be asked to pay them, the rich as well as the not-so-rich.

In the end, the unperceived problem here is that the middle class, on whom this country has come to depend for its economic stability, is rapidly disappearing in the widening gap between the very rich and the growing number of poor. So more than ever before, we need to be aware of the wind-eggs that are afloat, especially in this election year. That is to say, we should read what is printed and listen to what is spoken with a considerable amount of skepticism: the people running for public office are coached to tell us what their marketing experts have told them we want to hear. It’s not about telling us the truth; it’s about getting elected — that’s pretty much all they know how to do.