Archive for category Welfare

Money and Power

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.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…

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 winners often don’t acknowledge the vast structural advantages they are able to enjoy in the system

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.

Demonizing the rich ignores the complexity of assuring initiative and reward in a complex economy

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.

True wealth is far more than that which we buy and sell

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.

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Male and Female

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.

One hopes that perpetrators of violence and disrespect end up feeling karmic retribution.

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.

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The American Myth?

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.

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Social Welfare Programs Should Liberate

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.

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