Archive for category Poverty
The war was just two weeks old. The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia. They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.” It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient. Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality. That didn’t work. French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense. It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.
In the US the European war was not seen as our problem. The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German. The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular. American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.
On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America. The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans. But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.
World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom. Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power. Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.
This was true in the US as well as Europe. In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%. The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.
But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity. In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society. Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.
100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began. World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.
A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope. Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune. Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.
1) Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete. It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines. People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.
2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time. Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community. In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.
While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era. It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working. This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems. Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.
That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago. There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure. Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial. But we can’t go on like we did in the past.
100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict. They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures. Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same. Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.
Jon Stewart has recently taken on Fox New’s shameful and completely irrational effort to claim that the poor in America are moochers and are somehow ripping off the American people. After FOX news responded to the first report, Stewart doubled down and completely demolished Eric Bollingsworth’s effort to “school” Stewart. Why don’t pundits ever get that Stewart lives for such responses and uses them to create some of his best work?
Fox’s argument was straight forward. The poor in America are moochers. First, they aren’t really poor. They have refrigerators, they can use EBT cards at organic markets, purchasing stuff like “wild organic salmon.” To be poor, apparently, means you have to live in third world conditions, barely scrapping by. Government aid should be used to buy the cheapest food possible, preferrably expired, definitely not organic. And you shouldn’t have a television or any modern convenience since those aren’t actually necessary for survival. If you’re not suffering, you’re not really poor.
The second point is that the poor are able to game the system. But they can’t prove how often this happens. Instead they find anecdotal evidence, like “Surfer guy” who did truly abuse the system, and claim that he “literally represents millions of poor.” He doesn’t, they offer no proof that he does, they just try to ignite anger and emotion from their viewers.
Stewart’s ire is correctly tuned on Fox news here because they are engaged in a cheap propaganda ploy designed to support an ideology that argues against community or anything but the so-called “free market.” Never mind that free markets cannot exist without a strong, effective state. Unregulated markets collapse, because there is no check on the abuse of power by those with the most wealth and clout.
And, of course, poor people really live rough lives sometimes. I know poor students who work 40 hours a week, study, and have to live off the cheapest food possible. Yes, they do have refrigerators – and stoves, heat in winter, and cupboards. Compared to the third world, or American life in the early 1800s, they have conveniences beyond belief. They even have electric lights! Often they have computers (necessary to study) and even a TV. But that does not make for an easy go at things.
Single parents find the situation even more difficult. To work they need child care, child care is expensive. They want to feed their kids healthy food, but that’s more expensive. To get good food for their kids, they often sacrifice their own diet. They might have nice clothes for their kids and themselves – but usually that’s been purchased at a second hand or thrift store. Or perhaps they find cheap made in china toys and clothes at Walmart.
So when the poor are demonized as moochers, it’s really a “big lie.” The poor are worse off. This affects nutrition, makes it less likely they will get adequate health care, dental care, and educational opportunities. Yes, they will have a TV and a refrigerator, but won’t have access to what most of the country takes for granted.
I took my kids to swim at the fitness center today. I skied all winter with them, amazed at how they mastered the mountain (and scary jumps) at such young ages. I purchase shoes that help me avoid a recurrence of planter fasciitis. My wife and I eat out when we decide we want to, and sometimes take all four kids (each of us has two from a previous marriage). We’re hoping for a vacation this summer – nothing fancy, but getting away and doing something fun. We’ll go to water parks, buy camping equipment, even if we use it in the backyard. And while it was a stretch, we splurged on a hot tub.
Every well off family has these opportunities. The very wealthy have no boundaries, they can’t spend all their money on stuff, so they look to invest it to create more money. In theory that should be good for the economy, but in practice so much money seeking only to make more money inflated bubbles.
The poor struggle. Drive through rural Maine, or the rural south. Go into the inner city and look at living conditions. Talk to people who are struggling. It is perverse that a working class man not on welfare sees the single mother with an EBT card as the enemy, while the upper crust chuckle about how they rigged the game and make it seem like those with the least wealth and power are the problem! Fox news is their propaganda wing.
So if you look at the real picture, the very wealthy have been using deregulation and a warped ideology to try to convince those losing out that somehow less taxes and less regulation is good for them. More “freedom.” That, again, is the big lie. The most perverse aspect of all of this is how it’s built on massive debt. That has created an economy that while still huge, no longer is sustainable. Unless things change, Americans will soon look back at the 20th Century as the good old days now gone, nostalgic for the time America’s middle class was envied. Those days are already gone, America is no longer the best place to live in the industrialized world, especially for the poor and the middle class.
The reality of these statistics will ultimately shape the politics of this country. People are not going to take this, and they’re not going to take how wobbly our economy has become. A few can still believe that somehow America’s the envy of the world and has the best standard of living, but that’s simply not true any more – and things are likely to get worse.
It’s important to break the misguided ideology of free markets, ultra low taxes and deregulation. That does not increase freedom, it destroys the fabric of our society – and ultimately will send the US on a downward spiral.
I’ve been reflecting on the economic arguments made this election cycle and find myself dissatisfied with a lot of thinking on both the left and the right.
Many people buy into a way of thinking that is essentially materialist and anti-human: that people are at base value creating mechanisms and the market correctly assigns them money according to their work and value. This leads to false thinking on both the right and the left. On the right, the state is demonized and the market is seen as almost magic. On the left the rich are demonized and the the role of the state is seen as equalizing outcomes. Both views are wrong.
Turning first to the pro-market side, many believe that taxation and efforts to expand opportunity are wrong because they “confiscate” money from those who have “earned it.” Earning it is defined by being able to take whatever you can get away with in the market. If one is super wealthy and the other poor, then that’s how “nature” or the “market” justly caused events to turn out. The rich can choose to help the poor, but have no obligation.
However, no one who buys, sells, works or trades by using federal legal tender has an ethical claim on all his or her own money. That money is provided by the government to facilitate trade and cooperation. It brings a tremendous amount of efficiency to the system and allows people to have massively more wealth then they would without this government service.
If you are part of this system that makes wealth generation possible for large numbers of people, you have chosen to be part of a collective. You have cast your lot with a web of relationships and interactions that allow you to achieve much more than you could on your own. Without the state, only organized crime and other thugs would have wealth and most people would be living in poverty. Only stable functioning states bring about true prosperity for large numbers of people.So if you’re benefiting from this, your money is a result of your effort, ingenuity, and the role of effective government. Your effort matters, but the level of your success and prosperity is due to being part of a collective. That means that the state, through legal democratic processes, has a legal claim on a chunk of your monetary wealth.
Moreover, the role of the state must be more than just being a “referee” to make sure nobody is cheating. Power permeates all social relationships. If you have wealth, you can structure the game in your favor. You’re inherently not on an equal playing field with those who lack wealth. You can get for yourself and your progeny excellent education, opportunities, good health care and if need be, start up capital. To get a level playing field the state must actively work to assure real opportunity for all citizens, not just those with structural advantages.
The state acting solely in the role as umpire cannot protect a level playing field because the playing field is already made uneven by the distribution of power and wealth in society.
The rich often ignore this problem by denigrating and demeaning the poor, calling them “takers” and making it seem as if they want to live off the work of the rich rather than simply wanting opportunities to succeed. This was seen in the latest gaffe by Governor Romney (quickly repudiated by other Republicans) that Obama won because he “gave gifts.” At the height of perversity is the claim that the poor have the same opportunity simply by being in the same legal system, as if all the wealth and power of the rich don’t provide them structural advantages.
The left errs as well when they lose sight of the fact that the goal of government should be to expand opportunity so that everyone has the chance to succeed. That does not mean equalizing outcomes. It does not mean demonizing the rich or punishing success. It only means that the winners pay a portion of what they’ve gained thanks to both government protections and their position in the system to create conditions whereby the losers and their children have the education, health care, legal protections and opportunities to succeed that the rich enjoy.
The rich will always be able to afford better colleges, tutors and equipment for their children. Trying to level that will do more harm overall, and is not necessary. Here the materialist delusion hits both the right and the left: Wealth is irrelevant to success and happiness in life, so long as people have a sense of meaning and personal responsibility for their lives.
I am absolutely convinced that the wealthy are no happier or more content than the poor so long as the poor have opportunity and the chance to work to make something of their lives. Only when poverty is so intense that basic needs are not met, or that there is no hope to be able to build a better life, does lack of wealth lead to despair. Moreover, a psychology of dependency on government handouts damages that sense of meaning just as much as poverty can. If the left tries to “fix” the system in a way that simply makes the poor dependent on handouts, the solution is as bad as the problem.
Not only is it OK to have rich and poor if the poor have real opportunity and their basic needs met, it’s necessary. As long as all citizens have access to a quality education, decent nutrition, health care without risking bankruptcy and ruin, and the opportunity to succeed, outcomes should be diverse. The market then functions properly, reflecting the desires and preferences of the public. The left should focus on that – true liberty and opportunity for all – rather than worrying about outcomes.
This requires an active state, but also civil society and civic engagement. Community organizers should be more important than government bureaucrats in social welfare programs. Most importantly, we need to recognize that money and wealth are not ends in and of themselves, nor are they key to having a happy and successful life. The rich lose no liberty just by paying more taxes, and the poor need not have equal material outcomes if they have their basic needs protected and an opportunity to succeed.
Watch that Youtube video. It’s only a couple minutes long. It’s a powerful poem by Lauren Zuniga to the Oklahoma state legislature concerning their efforts to force women to get ultra sounds or other things before having an abortion.
This post isn’t about abortion or the Oklahoma legislature. What this poem really symbolizes is how little empathy and understanding we men often have for the life experiences of women.
Men often complain about how mistreated they are, especially white men. They complain that affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination, that women get better treatment and that somehow white males are victims of a wave of political correctness. That’s utter nonsense. Not only are white males still disproportionately wealthy and powerful, but very few ever suffer reverse discrimination. Sometimes if a woman gets a job males wanting the job will all think that it should have been them, but in the world of discrimination and victimization, white males suffer very, very little.
But it’s deeper than that. The reality of how different life is for men than women really hit me when I was in grad school, working late in the computer lab at the University of Minnesota. It was 10:30 and a female student was getting ready to go, and asked if anyone else was leaving. Someone was, in ten minutes or so. She asked if he could walk with her to the parking ramp. Simply, she didn’t want to be alone on that walk.
That concern would never have occurred to me. I would walk home, sometimes through sketchy sections of downtown, pretty late at night. I was young, had long hair and figured I’d just blend into the scenery. A woman would not have that freedom. Things I took for granted were often due to my male gender. Sure, I could be assaulted or mugged, but the risk was different, and perceived very differently.
When it comes to public policy issues such as abortion, aid for dependent children, food stamps, child care, health care for children, etc., it’s much easier for men to take a very abstract perspective on these issues. Dismiss such aid as coming from “hard working taxpayers” to “loafers.” To accuse women having kids just to get welfare money. That happens, but rarely. It isn’t as real to us because no matter how progressive or forward thinking we are, males usually are not the ones that have to deal with unwanted pregnancies and trying to raise children alone. Men can still disappear. Or as in the poem above, men can assault and get away with it, paying no consequences.
But for women, these issues are real. If she has a child her life is forever changed, and she may not be able to give the child the care and attention it deserves. Adoption is an option, but even that comes after a life altering episode. Suddenly she’ll have to deal with issues like how to have a career, what to do about child care, how to feed the child properly, how to get adequate health care. And while the Rush Limbaughs of the world might sneer that “that’s the consequence of having sex,” it’s a consequence that men can quite often evade.
And when the man does get caught and is forced to pay child care, the tables get turned. Suddenly that’s not fair — the woman could have had an abortion, why should he have to pay for years because of one mistake? A lot of women must shake their head at such a complaint and think “welcome to our world.”
So if you oppose abortion, support expanding health care to all children, support food stamps, after school programs, free day care, and efforts to help such women get real careers. Make it as easy as possible for women to go through the trauma of having their lives turned upside down. Make it easy for the children to have quality opportunities. Have a huge infrastructure of support available, disconnected from religious organizations with side agendas.
Even if all that were to get done, we men have to avoid the arrogance of talking down to or about women who are in these circumstances. That’s why Rush Limbaugh’s comments were far more vile than Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a “cunt.” Calling politicians offensive names is common, but attacking women for having to deal with difficult circumstances men like Rush easily evades is disgusting. For men to accuse women of wanting to avoid the “consequences of sex” is obscene given how easily and often men avoid those same consequences.
None of this is meant to say that women are oppressed and downtrodden. The overall situation now is so much better than a generation ago, women have real opportunities and discrimination has been declining. And certainly there are aspects of life where being a woman is easier than being a man. But on issues like abortion, birth control, rape/sexual assault and all sorts of issues involving children, schools and health care, we men have to be far more sensitive to the very different experiences of women.
And it’s not just men either. Some women can be even more judgmental if they either never were in such a situation or if they fought through such circumstances — they may think ‘if I can do it, so can they.’ But life doesn’t work that way; context shapes individuals as much as innate character and life experiences are diverse. It’s easy to stand on the side lines, abstract the issues away from their human meaning and then judge and pontificate. For some people, that can create a sense of self-righteous pride. But it’s a misplaced delusion.
Mitt Romney repeated one of the most malicious and misguided political lies of recent years: that people who criticize Wall Street and inequity in America are driven by “envy.”
Besides the fact that one has to wonder who Warren Buffett envies — he’s one of the richest men in America and he’s been a critique of inequity, as has George Soros, a wealthy international capitalist tycoon — the claim is not only absurd, but fundamentally dishonest.
Rather than look at real issues of power, wealth and opportunity, those who question whether it is good for society to have extreme wealth alongside extreme poverty are dismissed via insult — it’s “envy.” Occupy Wall Street, nothing but envy. President Obama’s effort to curb Wall Street excesses – just envy. Any criticism of the wealth gap and lack of opportunity gets brushed aside as “envy.”
This is a point that President Obama and the Democrats need to turn around on Romney. It’s best to do it with real stories. A family who lost health care and couldn’t afford an operation for a child, thereby leaving the child crippled or handicapped, for instance. Is their problem simply that they envy the rich? It’s not wrong that the wealthy have excellent insurance as a matter of course and the poor often see their children suffer. They’re just envious of the health care the rich take for granted.
A worker that lost his job and has nowhere to turn as they can’t afford college for their children or to keep their house thanks to the recession. They shouldn’t be upset about the shenanigans on Wall Street or how the wealthy have gained nearly 300% in the last thirty years while the poorest have barely stayed ahead of inflation. No, it’s just envy.
The message should be clear: It’s not envy to want real opportunity for Americans. It’s patriotism. It’s the values of our constitution, it’s the key to the future of the country. If we allow these inequities to continue in the false belief that somehow wealth and opportunity will trickle down and the wealthy are all “job creators,” then our country will continue to decline and we’ll find that America’s day in the sun is over. We need to fight for real opportunity and against a new aristocracy, because that’s a fight for America’s values and future. That’s got to be the message that the President runs on this year.
And soundbites of Romney muttering “it’s envy” should be ubiquitous on Obama commercials. An elitist Wall Street insider who has lived of life of privilege sneers down his nose and says the poor unemployed and struggling are just envious of people like him.
“Let them eat cake,” he may as well add.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually think Mitt Romney isn’t a bad candidate and would probably do well as President. But as you can probably tell, this claim that “it’s envy” to be concerned about poverty, equal opportunity and wealth disparity has gotten under my skin.
Moreover, if I compare my household income with the rest of the country’s, I’m not in the 1%, but I’m not that far away. My wife and I work very hard, make good money and are living the American dream. We’ll be able to provide the best for our kids, help them if they ever have difficulties in school, and get them a good education. But if I were to say “well, we’re smart and got ahead, those poor blokes down the road who are having a rough go are just envious,” well — what kind of arrogant slime ball would I be?
The second fallacy is the dodge, “oh we should be concerned and help, but government shouldn’t do it, it should be done by individuals.” Sure. We should all be concerned about murder, rape and arson, but government shouldn’t handle those protections, let individuals do it. The fact of the matter is that the collective action problem is real, well documented, and undeniable. If you leave it to the private sector problems get worse. You need government to do so because nobody else can do it. You might get food shelves to keep the poor from starving, but you won’t get real opportunity.
And that is where Obama has the rhetorical upper hand. He can say “the American dream is that every American has access to the education and opportunity to go into the market, work hard, innovate and be rewarded for the fruits of his or her labor. We reject socialism and efforts to equalize all outcomes because that makes everyone worse off and undercuts innovation and ambition. If you doubt that, look at the former Communist world. But to work capitalism needs to make sure that the elites aren’t rigging the game in a way that denies liberty, opportunity a fair shot to the middle class and poor.
“If we unleash America’s potential of ingenious experimentation, a willingness to work hard and take risks, and freedom to break with the past and try new things, we can achieve anything, we can maintain the American dream for generations. When a small group of elites rig the game with insider trading, schemes to rob pension funds and retirement accounts, predatory lending practices aimed at the poor and a tax system that gives them advantages that most people don’t have, it’s undercutting the American dream. It’s contrary to American values. It’s risking our future.
“It’s not envy to want a fair chance for everyone. Let those who work hard and innovate well succeed and become wealthy. Let those who choose to do the minimum and refuse to take the opportunities that exist suffer the consequences. Let it be the actions of the individual that determines the outcome, not the structure of a rigged game. It’s not envy to want fair play, it’s a sense of justice.”
A lot of Americans believe that the US offers unique opportunities for people to rise to the top if they work hard and show innovation. It’s the American dream – the idea anyone can grow up to be rich, anyone can be President. After all, look where success stories like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton came from; neither were from the ranks of the rich and famous.
Yet as the New York Times reports, that dream is quickly becoming a myth. If you’re poor in America, you’re likely stay poor. It’s no longer the land of opportunity. Canada and most of Europe offer a better chance for the poor to succeed. The findings are sometimes stark. In Demark about 25% of men in born in the bottom fifth end up there, in the US it’s well over 40%. Even Great Britain’s level is 30%, much lower than that of the US. Two thirds of those born in the bottom 20% stay in the bottom 40%.
The top fifth is also “sticky” as the article notes. If you’re born in the top 20% of the population in terms of wealth, you’re very likely to stay there. It’s hard for those on lower levels to move into the top fifth.
The good news is that in the middle things are more fluid. About 36% born in the middle fifth move up, while 41% move down. It’s the very rich and the very poor who appear stuck.
What do we make of this? First, you can’t deny the role of economic and social structure in creating opportunities and constraints. Being born into wealth assures you opportunities that others do not get — that’s why so many people stay there. Being born into poverty means a lack of opportunity and a series of constraints: poor health care, poor schooling, bad neighborhoods, etc.
This is not something that Republicans deny. The article points out that Rick Santorum and other conservative voices are pointing out the lack of mobility from the bottom.
Second, the US does not fare any better than other advanced industrialized states in any measure of mobility. The inability for the poorest to rise is stark, but at other levels countries fare similarly. The American dream and the ability to achieve it for those outside the bottom 20% is about the same as the Canadian dream, Danish dream, etc.
Why, though, do our poor have more difficulty than those in other states? The answer is obvious: social welfare programs. For all their faults, social welfare programs assuring health care, basic housing and nutrition to all citizens make a difference. That’s why a Dane born at the bottom finds more opportunity to rise up than an American born in similar circumstances. It simply is not true that social welfare programs only create a sense of entitlement and dependency; they actually get people motivated to pursue opportunities and move forward.
This also suggests that it does the top fifth little or no harm to increase taxes to create social welfare programs to help the bottom fifth. This isn’t unfair since the top fifth already has so many more opportunities and chances for success. They don’t earn these opportunities through their own choices and work, they achieve it by dint of where they are in the social structure. A major causal aspect of their success is from outside their individual efforts.
That doesn’t mean that individual choices don’t matter — people have to take the opportunity that they receive and not waste it. Still, somewhat higher taxes won’t change that fundamental social structure. Moreover, one could make a strong argument that it is a denial of liberty to those down the ladder by allowing so many individuals to be given such greater opportunity and fewer constraints because of position of birth. It’s not much different than the old aristocracy.
However, how such money is spent still is debatable. I don’t think a Danish social welfare system would necessarily work the same in the US because the social divisions, size of the country, and the impact of years of neglect will make it more difficult to get real opportunity to the poor. Also, while it’s clear that social welfare programs can work – they help people move up the ladder, they don’t necessarily create dependency – not every program is equal. Some programs do create dependencies, especially if like in the US the programs are meager transfers that don’t really create opportunity. If you’re not going to be able to move up, why bother? Just take what you can!
For the US to create opportunity we need to focus on helping people help themselves, providing education, health care, and the basics that children need to be in a position to let their effort and innovation actually determine what they achieve in life, not their position of birth. Perhaps the kind of welfare programs we have is part of the problem
To be sure, 8% of Americans (still the lowest compared to other countries) born in the bottom fifth make it to the top fifth. It’s not that there is no opportunity or that the constraints are insurmountable. But Americans tend to over estimate how likely it is for one to be able to do that, and under estimate the impact of social structure on opportunity.
This also vindicates at least one message from Occupy Wall Street. The 1% are almost certain to stay at the top, the game is structured in their favor. The poorest have real constraints, and even the middle class have limited means. That doesn’t mean that the radical solutions the protesters sometimes suggest are right — there is huge room for debate amongst conservatives, liberals, free marketeers and social democrats about the best ways to move forward. What we have to do, though, is accept the fact the class mobility in the US is low, especially for the top and bottom 20%.
Finally, the article points out that some skeptics note that 81% of Americans earn more in absolute terms than their parents. While that is a sign that as a society we’ve become more prosperous, the American dream is not simply about making more money, but real opportunity. A trash collector today earns more than a trash collector did 20 years ago. But the children of trash collectors should have the same opportunity to become doctors as the children of doctors.
“It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe. This trend has several implications, none of them pleasant.”
– Republican operative Mike Lofgren, upon retirement (full article here)
I have been amazed at the change in the Republican party during my life time. Today’s Republican party looks nothing like what it used to be. That’s also the message of Mike Lofgren’s parting shot at a party he served for over thirty years, driven by his amazement that the GOP could engage in what he called “economic terrorism” in the debt ceiling crisis and other issues. Where once Eisenhower could defend extremely high marginal rates on the wealthiest taxpayers (up to 90% on the highest incomes), now when Obama suggests closing loopholes during a time of crisis to pay to create jobs — keeping taxes on our wealthiest the lowest in the world — some make the claim that’s “class warfare.” More accurately class warfare is refusing to close loopholes so that the poor do all the suffering in a time of crisis!
Here’s another interesting bit from that article:
“A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.”
That kind of cynicism — to try to foster distrust of the institutions of democracy for electoral gain — is profoundly and deeply anti-American and of course anti-democratic (with a small ‘d’). So are the arguments made recently that only those who pay taxes should vote, or here in Maine wild hysterics with no supporting evidence that Democrats were ‘stealing elections.’ Vote suppression has become a tactic across the country, embraced proudly by Republicans who believe that making it harder to register and to vote will help them at the ballot box.
After listing some of the vote suppression efforts, Loftgren notes the purpose – to stop “those people” from voting.
“You can probably guess who ‘those people’ are. Above all, anyone not likely to vote Republican. As Sarah Palin would imply, the people who are not Real Americans. Racial minorities. Immigrants. Muslims. Gays. Intellectuals. Basically, anyone who doesn’t look, think, or talk like the GOP base. This must account, at least to some degree, for their extraordinarily vitriolic hatred of President Obama. I have joked in the past that the main administration policy that Republicans object to is Obama’s policy of being black. Among the GOP base, there is constant harping about somebody else, some “other,” who is deliberately, assiduously and with malice aforethought subverting the Good, the True and the Beautiful: Subversives. Commies. Socialists. Ragheads. Secular humanists. Blacks. Fags. Feminazis. The list may change with the political needs of the moment, but they always seem to need a scapegoat to hate and fear.”
Lofgren charges the media with being complicate in this attempt to subvert democracy. Thanks to Fox news there is pressure to be ‘fair and balanced,’ which means treat each side the same. Be no more critical of one side than the other, and blame both parties when things go wrong. A commenter to my blog (classicliberal) has accused me of the same thing. Beyond that, the far right uses talk radio and emotion-driven media to get their themes through. Having studied German history I find I cannot listen to people like Limbaugh and Hannity. To call them “entertainers” and dismiss their over the top vitriol understates just how much their methods, use of emotion, demonization of whole classes of people and simplification of the world into “us good, them bad” are so much like the tactics of Joseph Goebbels.
The author also blames the Democrats for ceding ground to the Republicans on this (again, echoing classicliberal’s criticisms of Obama’s center-right drift in comments on this blog). The result is a country with dysfunctional politics, a major party that is in the hands of extremists who sound like any taxation is bad, play to fears (of Muslims, the poor needing assistance, Obama, etc.) and refuse to compromise because their goal is not to solve the country’s ills but to take power to realize their ideological vision.
All this coming from a Republican insider who knows what’s happening behind closed doors gives it immense credibility. The author also doesn’t believe that most Republicans, not even most Republican politicians, share such a perverse perspective. In Maine neither of our two Senators, my GOP State Senator nor my state Rep are like that — they reflect the true values of the Republican party. However, at the national level the party seems to have been taken over by extremists who are so caught up in their own cause that they ignore the impact this has on a country that has functioned by competition between two parties who realize solving the nation’s problems is more important than electoral politics.
I am coming around to realizing that classicliberal was right. I still defend Obama’s pragmatism — it demonstrated an effort to treat the Republicans as an opposition that should be taken seriously. Perhaps they spat in Obama’s face more than he should have tolerated, but no one can accuse him of not making trying. And on the debt ceiling Obama had to ultimately give in — the Republicans were crazy enough to sabotage the economy if he did not, the 14th amendment was not a constitutionally valid approach (to do that to win a political fight would have been the equivalent of what the GOP was doing — to save the constitution you can’t abuse it), and it made clear who was at fault for the impasse. It’s no surprise that since then the ratings of Congress and the tea party have plummeted.
But no more. With all due respect to my conservative friends, Republicans who I believe do not represent the extremes and have legitimately skeptical views of many government programs, the Democrats and the President have to go on the offensive. Call it class warfare if you want, but they have to point out the fact I’ve shown in this blog that the middle class have been net losers while the wealthy have had their incomes expand dramatically in the last thirty years. Our taxes are the least progressive, our wealth distribution the worst in the industrialized world, and the wealthy haven’t made jobs with their gains, but produced bubble after bubble as the country went greater into debt and lost its productive edge. Our infrastructure is falling apart — in part because that’s one of the things you need government to do! In education we rank near last in the industrialized world in terms of PISA scores (standardized tests given to 15 year olds), and our country is in serious decline.
Cutting taxes and government won’t solve this. Removing regulations isn’t some kind of simple miracle cure that will magically produce jobs (indeed de-regulation was a major cause of this crisis). Easy, simple, painless answers have been GOP stock in trade (or pain only for those whose benefits are cut — people often dismissed as freeloaders anyway). The Democrats have to shift tone to a more aggressive defense of their proposals, challenging the GOP.
However, they can’t become like their opponents. They can’t ignore the middle ground to pursue their own ideological war. They have to recognize that, as I think President Obama clearly enunciated in numerous speeches, the American people deserve better from their politicians. But he has given the Republicans every chance to compromise and has shown a willingness to work with them to solve problems. They’ve responded with insults, holding the economy hostage, and deriding the President. The Democrats have to fight back. Hard.
Sometimes I run across an article that causes my jaw to drop in amazement that anybody would write such a thing. A recent article at the website “American Thinker” is one of them. In that article they say registering the poor to vote is un-American because the poor don’t pay taxes. The article itself, apparently trying to rationalize voter suppression and create resentment of the poor, is a mess. Most of the time it focuses on hard core Marxists of over forty years ago and even Trotskyists. Apparently the author wants to somehow link these to Barack Obama and current democrats.
There are three especially perverse aspects of that argument.
1. The article suggests that the Democrats want the poor to be poor in order to get votes through bribery. In other words, all the rhetoric about wanting equal opportunity, helping those who have difficulty, insuring people get access to quality education and health care — as well as food for children — is a lie: to them, the Democrats don’t care about the poor except to get votes.
That would be despicable if it were true. But Democrats from hardcore activists to people whose political action doesn’t go beyond voting are motivated by a desire for justice and to help people improve their lives. Now, it may be that the Democratic approach is wrong — there are many good arguments one can make against a myriad of social welfare programs. But the argument made in the article in American Thinker does go that route. They say that the poor are just being bribed, that the Democrats are shaking down the rich to buy off the poor.
That is a fascistic argument. I’m not saying that to call names, but fascism essentially operates by trying to deny the existence of politics. Fascism sees politics as mob rule, destined to fail as politicians play populist games to get votes. Therefore fascists try to deny the legitimacy of political differences and instead paint their opponents are morally depraved or fundamentally dishonest. In the article the real issues of how to deal with social problems are defined away; rather you just have bad Democrats trying to bribe greedy poor people.
It’s also an insane argument. The poor rarely vote. You’re not going to win elections by trying to simply give to the poor. The reason Democrats want to register the poor is to get them involved in the process. The more involved you are in the process the more likely you are going to take your community seriously and improve your life. The poor voter is more likely to work his or her way off welfare than one who is alienated. The writers’ argument is not only wrong, if followed (dissuading the poor from voting) it would make the poor more likely to stay dependent on the state.
2. It is clear class warfare, an effort to breed resentment of the poor and cause middle class folk, especially whites, to think that the Democrats simply represent lazy freeloaders. Some poor folk may be lazy, but most working class poor have recently lost a job, have had unexpected health care costs, or really want to find a way to make it on their own. If their kids don’t get a solid education, health care, and basic nutrition, they won’t have a real opportunity to succeed — meaning a perpetual cycle of poverty and an increased chance of crime.
For the rich to resent the poor is perversion. It’s the “haves” looking down their nose and scoffing at those who do not do as well, and then telling them “you should have no voice in the political system because you’re a loser.” When President Obama wants to close a few loopholes people scream that he’s demonizing the rich — which he’s not. The rich do very well in the US, we have the wealthiest top ten percent of income earners in the world by far. Our bottom 10% are closer to third world states, and even our bottom sixty percent aren’t that well off relative to other countries. If there’s class warfare, it’s coming from the right.
3. The argument ignores reality. Another blogger linked an article the other day from the CATO institute. Like the American Thinker article, it plays rhetorical games but ignores reality. Their claim:
Did you know that in Denmark, the poorest 30 percent pay 14.1 percent of all taxes and the richest pay 48.7 percent, while in the United States, the poorest 30 percent pay just 6.1 percent of all taxes and the richest 30 percent pay a whopping 65.3 percent?
From there the author asserts that our poorest pay less and get more, while our wealthy are bled. Of course, the reality is quite different. First, Scandinavian countries have poor pay in and then get more reimbursement — it’s only the reforms of Ronald Reagan that actually ended the poor paying in first. Reagan was proud to get the poor off the tax roles.
However, to measure progressivity the only way is to look at the GINI index and see the before tax and transfer and after tax and transfer rate. The GINI index measures income distribution. 0 would be everyone earning the same, 1.00 would be one person with everything and another with nothing.
The US pre-tax and transfer GINI index is at .46, while Sweden is at .43, and Denmark and Norway are at .42. That means pre-tax they are slightly more even in income distribution, but not much. Germany has a bigger pre-tax gap between the rich and the poor than the US at .51.
After tax the US GINI index moves to .38 — a modest improvement. After taxes and transfers Denmark is at .23. That’s right, taxes and transfers equalize wealth dramatically, the gap between the rich and the poor is least in all the industrialized world. This means the poor are much more even with the rich in Denmark. Sweden is also at .23, Norway is at .28, while Germany’s disparity narrows from .51 to .30. All of those systems are much more progressive than the US. Most wealth stays with the rich here, the gap between the rich and the poor is higher in the US than ALL other OECD states except Portugal, with which we’re tied. Poland is slightly better at .37 after taxes and transfers.
These arguments are signs that far right are relying on false arguments, based on distortion. They do not have facts on their side. It isn’t bad for the poor to vote, we do have the largest gap between the rich and poor, and our wealthy are doing very well.
This doesn’t mean Democratic programs work. This doesn’t even mean that the Republicans don’t have better ideas. It’s only that people making these kinds of arguments (glibly, talk radio style arguments) don’t even try to engage Democratic ideas or support Republican ones. They evade the real issues and appeal to emotion, often with very misleading information. The left spins as well, neither side is immune from the temptation to twist things their way. But these examples are a bit over the top, especially the desire to demonize the poor in the American Thinker article. It’s another example of how the far right is ‘jumping the shark’ and may be past its peak.
Modern social welfare programs began under Bismarck’s conservative German government as a means of undercutting the growing socialist movement. If workers saw that the state would help alleviate poverty and provide needed services, then the workers would not support Marxism. Moreover, conservatives tend to view the state as a “organic entity,” a collective bound together as a community. That means that it is in the interest of the state to make sure that people aren’t suffering or being exploited.
Other reasons for social welfare programs include ending poverty and suffering as an end in and of itself. This was behind Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, most of which were actually implemented in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In Europe, the left and right reached the great compromise, whereby the left would accept market capitalism in exchange for the right accepting that the state guarantee health care, pensions and a safety net. This led to unprecedented peace and prosperity for Europe, settling past ideological battles between left and right.
However, as demographic change makes most of these systems unviable in the long run, and high debt forces reconsideration of how governments spend money, it is time to rethink the purpose behind social welfare spending.
Bismarck’s goal of stability remains. Societies that see vast gaps between the rich and poor tends towards either authoritarianism (as the rich want to protect their share) or revolt (as the poor get angry about class difference). The “great compromise” was a brilliant solution; putting that at risk would threaten the core stability of western civilization.
Goals of ending poverty or equalizing wealth are suspect, in part because they are too vaguely defined. You could end poverty by simply transfering wealth to the poor, but what good does that actually do for the people themselves? It gives them more money, and may help them feed their families, but the goal is at too high a level of analysis. We should focus on social welfare programs for the sake of the people who are on them.
In the industrialized world people are generally responsible for their success in life. It’s a lesson I try to teach my children and my students: don’t blame others for the world you create for yourself, take responsibility. You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can take action and make choices to change them. Whining about injustice only increases the total whine volume. Claim your life! It’s yours to make, if you’re in college you have every opportunity to succeed, take control! That is a liberating experience, it’s freeing oneself from being confined by the shackles of low expectations and low self-esteem.
But what happens when we just give money to people? I’m reminded of the scene in Syriana where the oil tycoon talks about the money he’s made and how it’ll “probably ruin my children.” When you look at the children of the very wealthy, they have as many if not more problems than others, despite the wealth. When young athletes or film stars suddenly get large amounts of money, it often creates more problems for them than solutions. Some can handle it, many can’t. The reason: money itself does not help a person understand to how to live life.
Many poor are stuck in a situation where they do not believe they can take control of their lives, they don’t see opportunities, they haven’t had the chance to handle the risks through which we build self-esteem. If you just give them money, there is a real danger they’ll become addicts. Not drug addicts, but rather addicted to ‘free money.’ That will feed into a sense of victimization and entitlement. Rather than taking control of their lives, they’ll lose control of their lives and teach those lessons to their children who will start out psychologically unprepared for the demands of the real world.
So I would restate the goal of social welfare programs as being one of liberation. I do not mean this in a Marxian sense of ending exploitation. Rather, a person should be able to develop the confidence to grab opportunities and take control of his or her life. It should liberate a person to rise out of their circumstances, to provide positive role models to their children and community, and ultimately create a sustainable growing economy in communities once suffering economic stagnation.
Unlike some on the right, who take the approach that “if you cut the money they’ll be forced to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I do not believe just ending social welfare programs can work, nor do I think private donations would adequately do the trick. So I reject the dichotomy that says “either you give away money to the poor or you don’t.” Rather, we have to figure out ways to design a system that creates opportunities, works with communities, and helps people empower themselves.
Education must be part of this (and I think access to affordable health care is necessary too). People don’t automatically have confidence and self-esteem. Self-esteem cannot be gained just by being praised — it comes from learning one has the capacity to overcome obstacles. In fact, I’d say you can’t really gain self-esteem unless you risk failure and even have to overcome failure. In that sense, education has to be combined with opportunity.
But this needs to be more than job training or even workfare. To really function and become sustainable, opportunity has to connect with community. In that sense one of the most important roles is that of a community organizer, someone who can come in and bring a community together around opportunities for growth. Receiving any social welfare help should be linked to participation in some kind of community venture.
As communities arise, they will provide the opportunities and feedback for people to build confidence, have higher self- and other-expectations, and develop real self-esteem. They will take pride in what they build, and ultimately that will lead to them taking control of their own individual lives and recognizing that they have the power to make choices that will make it much less likely they’ll need assistance. In a recession no one is immune from some hard times, but ultimately the key not only to cutting social welfare spending but also regaining economic momentum and growth is to have people in society making good choices and wanting to be productive.
Community and opportunity based social welfare programs could succeed where bureaucratic programs fail. A community organizer in the field working with people is far more likely to help than a welfare caseworker sitting in an office asking questions and making sure the proper forms are filled out. And given the economic and budgetary crunch, now is the time to reassess our approach.
A friend of mine posted the following link to a yahoo finance story on a facebook:
Here’s some startling information from that website. This is worse than the last time I looked into these issues, about ten years ago:
• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 61 percent of Americans “always or usually” live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
• 36 percent of Americans say that they don’t contribute anything to retirement savings.
• A staggering 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.
• 24 percent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.
• Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008.
• In the United States, the average federal worker now earns 60% MORE than the average worker in the private sector.
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
• In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks.
• More than 40 percent of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying.
• or the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.
• This is what American workers now must compete against: in China a garment worker makes approximately 86 cents an hour and in Cambodia a garment worker makes approximately 22 cents an hour.
• Approximately 21 percent of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 – the highest rate in 20 years.
• Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009.
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.
These are almost third world country levels. Due to horrible policy choices starting at the time of the last recession (1980-83), we’ve been living on decreasing production and higher debt. The very wealthy have managed to benefit, but the middle class is being decimated. When people talk about not letting the Bush tax cuts expire because the “wealthy create jobs,” that’s simply not true. They haven’t been creating many jobs, and those they create usually pay very poorly. Moreover, if you want to stimulate the economy you do it through direct spending, not tax policy. Much of the money now to be taxed (only the very wealthy) probably doesn’t go into stimulating the economy, but rather to consumption of foreign made goods.
Finally, the Obama tax cuts to 95% of the population certainly were needed — but ultimately if the decline of the middle class isn’t halted, the days of American prosperity and the American dream will be over. We devolve into an increasingly bifurcated society with on going economic malaise. This is perhaps the most dangerous issue facing the country. It creates a far greater risk for the state of the US than any foreign foe or terror network.