(Return to the Contents Topics page.)
Yesterday was a tough day for me, starting with the morning’s news about the Supreme Court’s decision on the validity of strip searches and continuing with a conversation I had with a friend in the fitness section of the gym. My wife sent me to the movies in the evening for stress relief, and I chose Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I’m glad I did: Susan Sarandon gave one of her customarily fine performances, and the entire cast was excellent. Mainly, though, this emotionally dramatic “comedy” very pointedly and poignantly addressed selfishness and selflessness, compassion, and the meaning of life. None of the drifting, discontented characters in this story found fulfillment until they could feel love, and their lives ultimately became meaningful only through their gifts to others of compassion, generosity, and aid.
This story starkly revealed to me the pitfalls of the “me first” mentality that has come to pervade American society. Yesterday, I realized later, had been a repeating reminder of what ought to be the paramount concern in our lives: human dignity. I raced to the computer this morning to sort out and record my thoughts. I first Googled “entitlement.” That, you see, was the word that stuck in my craw all day yesterday.
My friend at the gym and I had been talking about economics and politics. He said he planned to vote for Obama, but that he didn’t think it would matter much whether he or Romney was our next president. He acknowledged that economic inequality is a problem (the true dimensions of which I feel he, like most people, fails adequately to appreciate), but he felt that the “first” thing America needs to do (before worrying about taxing the rich) is to create jobs, and bring manufacturing jobs back home. The conversation broke down before I could ask: Isn’t cutting their taxes still at the top of the 1%’s priority list? Would there be something wrong with trying to do all that we need to do all at once? Hasn’t Obama’s success in presiding over a steady growth of private sector jobs (while public sector employment has faltered) been partly due to his persistent efforts and partly due to an increasing global competitiveness of American labor? And how can all the new jobs, once created, ultimately survive an inequality death spiral?
The conversation broke down because he rather passionately opined, as he had on some previous occasions, that people take advantage of government programs in the social safety net, gaming the system. They regard government assistance, he insisted, as an “entitlement.” This time, I lost it, and I terminated our conversation.
Now I really need to go there: To what are human beings, and specifically Americans, “entitled”? What should we put into, and expect to get out of, our lives? And, especially, what may we reasonably expect from our government?
The first commentary I visited this morning (Entitlement is multi-generational, but so is working together), linked to the above photo, is a discussion of how Americans, from the “Millenials” (a.k.a. the “Me” generation – today’s 30-and-unders) on back, feel entitled to success in the workplace. I appreciated that, with my career-long aversion to “office politics.” The author (Kevin W. Grossman) envisioned an antidote to the “me first” attitude: “a mixed generational group, young and old alike, all re-imaging the way and why of work within an emotional connectivity context and cultural inclusivity.”
The second is an article by Tina Dupuy, The GOP: Preaching the Prosperity Gospel, posted just after the Florida debates. Tina opines that the rich also feel entitled, in spades:
One of the richest men in the country, ranking in the 0.006 percent of Americans, likes to accuse the President of creating an “entitlement society.” Mitt Romney, the heir apparent, next in line GOP nominee … is against entitlement.
When I hear “entitlement society” I think, “country club.” But when Mitt uses that phrase he doesn’t mean rich guys like him, given all the advantages of wealth, who are now enjoying its comforts – he means the rest of us. Yes, Mitt is against an “entitlement society” because that involves too many people and not just him and his ilk. It’s not the “entitlement” he contests – it’s the entire “society” part. * * *
Money is next to godliness and poverty is the fault of the poor for not being better people.
As these two articles suggest, within every income and social group in America there are people who feel entitled. The rich certainly feel entitled, as Tina points out, and plenty of government money goes their way, but their use of the word “entitlement” to disparage the social safety net, in their self-interest, has been its predominant use in the political conversation. Indeed, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance are often referred to as “entitlement” programs, but you don’t typically see tax loopholes or corporate tax subsidies referred to as “entitlements.” The programs for raising and spending government revenue are what they are, and use of the word “entitlement” can adding nothing to our understanding of any of them.
There’s no moral reason I can see for favoring the interests of the rich over the interests of everybody else. As Tina put it: “The rich aren’t better, they’re just richer.” Lacking any credible claim to moral superiority, the “bad” rich have promoted dissention among the working and middle classes to deflect attention from themselves. Scott Walker, for example, quietly went about transferring more wealth to his rich benefactors in Wisconsin through tax cuts, while stirring up private sector envy against the benefits (pensions and health plans) of public sector employees. Arousing competitive underclass jealousies over their respective “entitlements” appeared to be working for the rich: Walker got in trouble instead for union-busting.
Far more troublesome to me, though, is the broad-based attack on the social safety net implicit in my friend’s belief. Saying people feel they are “entitled” to government aid implies that they don’t deserve or need it. The implication is that they are lazy, and will cheat the system just to get a check from the government. To hear this from him today is, frankly, infuriating:
First, this kind of thinking is demeaning and divisive. We can’t know what’s in other people’s minds, except by inference, so to declare that people generally want to cheat the government may actually display only a bias against helping people, even when they need help. We all know people who could work harder, or irresponsibly avoid the effort it takes to get an education or to find and hold a job. But why would anyone sink into poverty just to brave the welfare bureaucracy for food stamps and a few bucks? I’d rather begin by acknowledging the plight of people who can’t afford a college education, or can’t get a job in their fields despite their degrees. Most of these people, I believe, are fiercely independent and want nothing more than to provide for themselves, but are nonetheless sometimes forced to seek government assistance as a last resort. Such people are the moving force behind the Occupy movement.
Second, he’s guilty of lazy, hung-over thinking. Forty years ago, combating welfare fraud was a much bigger and far more sensible issue than it is today. We’re in a recession today with high unemployment around the country and record levels of unemployment in portions of New York State. The bottom 90% in the U.S. is in a depression. More than 50 million Americans are living in poverty. And the situation deteriorates further as the rich 1% continues to siphon up wealth from the bottom 99%. With so many people victimized by the system, this does not seem the most appropriate time to oppose helping people because some might cheat. In fact, the system is cheating all of us in favor of the top 1%;
Third, we’re all in this together. Even the wealthy are better off when the economy is doing well. The “bad” rich have out-foxed themselves with their supply-side fantasies. That’s why so many millionaires and billionaires, from Warren Buffett and Starbuck’s Howard Schultz down to the “Patriotic Millionaires,” urge the government to increase their taxes. The “bad” rich, like the Koch Brothers (and, yes, Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital), are killing the goose that laid the golden egg. The best economic stimulus is unemployment insurance, because it all goes into the economy as an infusion of aggregate demand.
So we need to take a fresh, hard look at our “entitlements.” Are the uber-rich entitled to the obscene levels of wealth they have amassed, as the top 1% has siphoned up more than $10 trillion (about $60,000 per person) from the bottom 99% over the last 30 years? Are Wall Street hedge fund players entitled to $1-4 billion per year for betting on the economic failure of those farther down the income ladder, while producing nothing of value for society? If these sound like rhetorical questions, it’s because they are. As John Maynard Keynes said in 1935 in his revolutionary treatise on economics, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (ch. 24):
I believe that there is social and psychological justification for significant inequalities of incomes and wealth, but not for such large disparities as exist today. . . .[D]angerous human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth, which, if they cannot be satisfied in this way, may find their outlet in cruelty, the reckless pursuit of personal power and authority, and other forms of self-aggrandisement. It is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens.
This kind of excessive wealth inequality has reoccurred in spades, as I have documented – and that’s our biggest problem. But the rest of us beneath these “bad” billionaires should be able, at least, to count on the basic entitlement to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” claimed in the Declaration of Independence. Back then, “liberty” meant realistic economic opportunity, to be sure, but it meant a lot more than that: It also meant the opportunity to live in dignity, free from tyranny and oppression. Our forefathers (like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin), and certainly the population of the Iroquois Confederacy who lived in relative peace here in New York five centuries ago and provided our forefathers with a model for the U.S. Constitution, would be horrified by what is happening today.
What a travesty it is that a majority of the United States Supreme Court is beholden to the likes of the Koch brothers! Our freedoms have been greatly diminished by decisions like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Most recently, in Florence v. Board of Freeholders, by another 5-4 vote the court ruled against a New Jersey man who complained that strip searches in two county jails violated his civil rights. (See Supreme Court Upholds Invasive Strip Searches, 4/2/12.) Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that when people are going to be put into the general jail population, “courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security.”
But Albert Florence was put in the “general jail population,” and improperly imprisoned for a week on false charges, only after he was arrested when his wife was stopped while driving. So, when he was taken to jail, a man with no prior criminal record and no inkling that he was going to end up in jail, why might a strip search be needed? What sort of “substantial evidence” might be enough to demonstrate that concerns for jail security would not require a strip search in such a circumstance? None, actually, because the Court was approving and affirming “policies,” with no concern about their application. So, evidently, “correctional officials” can strip and probe anyone, for any reason, any time they feel the urge to do so.
What’s next? Surely airline safety is at least as important as jail security. So “airport officials” must also have the right to strip and probe anyone, for any reason, any time they feel the urge to do so. And what about our police? Must the court not also “defer to the judgment of law enforcement officials” any time or anywhere they deem it necessary to strip and probe somebody? If a private “watch volunteer” could legally shoot and kill a young man in Florida on the ground that he “felt threatened,” surely a young woman stripped and probed by a rambunctious police officer, after having been pulled over for some alleged traffic infraction, would have a heavy burden to show, assuming she were allowed to try, that the policeman’s actions constituted “an unnecessary or unjustified response” to the situation.
The United States Supreme Court has now held, in a complete abdication of its judicial responsibility, that “courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials.”
Today the rule of law is threadbare in the United States. Education and health care have become luxuries. Even what we not so long ago considered to be basic governmental responsibilities, like juvenile and adult detention and incarceration, are increasingly and quietly being privatized, to be provided for profit and more isolated from accountability under the law.
So what remains of our “entitlements” on this path? It is inconceivable to me that my friend could see no significant difference between another Obama term or a Romney presidency. The two are on the exact opposite sides of the class war. Obama has recently called out the Republican agenda for what it is, “thinly veiled social Darwinism,” as quoted in today’s sobering New York Times editorial Calling Radicalism by Its Name.
A single term of a 1% presidency at this point could irreparably destroy our country and the economy. The situation is that serious. The Ryan/Romney budget reflects an inevitable decimation of Medicare and, if Republican plans prevail, privatization of Social Security, forcing elderly people in the top 2-5% of wealth and incomes who now live reasonably comfortably to increasingly and precariously fend for themselves, while the less fortunate elderly would become desperate and destitute.
As each year passes, Americans see their lives diminished not just by lower incomes and a reduced standard of living, but also by reduced expectations that they and their children will be permitted to live with proper dignity and security in a civilized nation. So, as I was unable adequately to explain to my friend, “we the people” actually are entitled to the support of our government. And we should be proud of that “entitlement.”
That’s what “our” government is for.
JMH – 4/4/2012 (ed. 4/5/2012)
(Return to the Contents Topics page.)