What You Should Think About Poverty

October 15, 2008

“For the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson

Almost forty-five years ago, the President of the United States declared a War on Poverty.  Like the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, that militant metaphor ultimately proved misleading and counterproductive.  Unlike the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, our nation showed a stunning lack of resolve in dealing with this issue.  As Red Scare propaganda crystallized into an ideology of free market fundamentalism, the War on Poverty was displaced by an agenda that might be characterized as a war on the impoverished.

At the heart of this is a form of political opportunism that demonizes large groups of people by focusing on exceptionally bad, exceptionally rare, conduct within that group.  Often it is children who pay the price.  The typical beneficiary of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a single mother who started her family with every intention of paternal involvement.  The scope of this need would be much reduced if there were no deadbeat dads.  Yet the political dialogue that killed AFDC was dominated by the hateful distortion holding that the program was nothing more than a meal ticket for “welfare queens” who became pregnant repeatedly for no other reason than pursuit of a government check.

Because of irrational hostility toward the very idea of welfare, this nation has traded a program that enabled poor mothers to focus their energies on parenting for a program that compels poor mothers to labor in unskilled jobs.  In some of the worst cases, child care expenses required to enable this makework approach outweigh the value of the work itself.  Even in the best cases, the policy change compounds the disadvantage of being born into poverty with the disadvantage of decreased parental involvement in the upbringing those children.

The present debate about immigration is similarly distorted.  The typical illegal immigrant is eager for honest work and reluctant to engage in criminal activity.  It is the lack of a viable alternative, not a preference for lawbreaking, that drives the illegal component of their activities.  Worse still, many politically vocal Americans are obsessed with the relatively rare phenomenon of “anchor babies.”  Their hatred for people who exploit our laws see their children born as U.S. citizens becomes an excuse for counterproductive malice in the framing of policies meant to govern the inevitable (and thoroughly useful) flow of foreign workers into our economy.

The theory capitalist extremists espouse is that “nanny state” largess somehow weakens our people and our economy.  The facts would beg to differ.  At the close of World War II, the average height of the Dutch had stagnated.  Growth dating back to a 19th century prosperity surge gave way to the devastation of brutal military occupation.  Yet generation by generation since, they have risen to become the tallest nation on Earth.  A major factor in the change was a body of social policy that insured no citizen of the Netherlands went hungry but for the choice to do so.

Progressive social minima, including universal health care and robust poverty relief, are not economic liabilities.  To the contrary, they provide economic stimulus on many levels.  In the most immediate sense, an uplift in public morale created by alleviation of domestic hunger, homelessness, and ailments is good for business.  So too is the increased productivity generated by direct beneficiaries of sensible welfare spending.  Coupled with a long term commitment to minimizing domestic deprivation, the intergenerational result is a markedly healthier, happier, and more productive national workforce.

This is not simply some theory crafted to manipulate voter behavior.  The Dutch example is the clearest of many.  Global happiness surveys routinely turn up the best results in Scandanavia.  I have a hunch those results are not on account of the weather.  Right wing protestations about the certain failure of the welfare state are soundly repudiated by its many real world successes.  Besides which, recent events should make as clear as day that cutthroat capitalists are in no position whatsoever to criticize the democracies of Western Europe in the arena of fiscal responsibility.

It may well be the case that individualism has, even deserves, a special place in American culture.  Yet this raises the question — what is truly more useful to the purpose of enabling American individuals to pursue happiness in their own fashion?  Is the entire answer nothing more than big guns and small taxes?  Might instead there be a wide range of constructive actions that can be taken to promote broad-based economic growth while giving our least fortunate citizens options they otherwise would be unlikely to experience?

The ideology of supply-side economics was evidently corrupt at first blush.  Yet it has taken thirty years of disastrous public policy, punctuated by events taking place just this year, to provide overwhelming hard evidence to support that conclusion.  For decades, some citizens upheld the private sector as intrinsically superior to the public sector, without any regard for technical specifics.  Those same people also insisted free markets were sacrosanct ideals that ought be held inviolate.  These beliefs went beyond “regardless of the cost” and to the extreme of “the idea that there is any price to be paid for this form of extremism is unthinkable.”

Of course, the price is enormous beyond words.  To many Americans, every homeless schizophrenic, every undernourished child, every undermedicated senior citizen, and every serious medical condition left untreated constitute a great failure.  To turn Stalin on his head, behind each of those statistics is a staggering number of personal tragedies.  Each of them is heartwrenching.  Most of them are preventable.  That we as a nation should eschew efforts to engage in that prevention is abominable.

Obviously there are limits to our resources.  Yet those resources are part of a dynamic system that thrives under sound stewardship.  This same system withers when abused or neglected.  Trickle down economics endorsed a philosophy of deliberate neglect and fostered an environment of rampant abuse.  An ideal replacement would be a paradigm that transcends all ideology.  Yet if the ideal is unattainable, the least we can do is formulate a replacement ideology that fully recognizes the lessons to be learned by the realities of social spending around the world.

Just as Republicans never held any monopoly on patriotism, they also hold no monopoly on promoting economic growth.  Their leaders are quick to speak of growth as a justification for even deeper descent into the bowels of voodoo economics, but their ideas have been shown to create a false sense of prosperity amidst a backdrop of enormous fundamental problems.  Refusal to address those growing problems over such a long span of time is a big factor contributing to the crisis our economy faces today.  If we are ever to get serious about eliminating American poverty, we must first transcend the poverty of ideas afflicting this nation for the past few decades.

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What You Should Think About TANSTAAFL

November 3, 2007

“They take the paper,
And they read the headlines.
So they’ve heard of unemployment,
And they’ve heard of breadlines,
And they philanthropically cure them all
By getting up a costume charity ball.”

–Ogden Nash

Low standards of political discourse are immediately evident whenever “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is presented as if it were a relevant and substantial utterance. I make this claim without regard for grammar. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is more correct only on that level. The most common usage is to uphold anarcho-capitalist ideals, typically in a disingenuous manner. It remains a slogan with much more capacity to mislead than to lead.

Of course, on some level it is also true. Even prehistoric hunter-gatherers, living brief spans still often packed with more leisure time than we long-lived modern folks permit ourselves, had to expend effort for their meals. Risk, sweat, and patience are elements of big game hunting as romanticized by the distortions of outdated anthropology. More realistic studies reveal that feeding stone age tribes rarely required such dramatic efforts. After all, why waste muscle and weapons to kill antelope more easily herded over a precipice? Why bother at all with large animals when small game is caught with minimal effort in nets or pits? In a time of low human population density, epic exertions for the purpose of obtaining food would have been a sign of crisis or a quirk of cultural machismo — not the normal state of affairs.

Still, the process was not effortless. It is with this reality in mind that free food is approached with such hostility by modern economic thinkers. At a downright childish level, political discussions may take place where sharing this insight serves some constructive purpose. Little kids may not understand that there ultimately is some effort involved in the delivery of any good or service by the public sector. Beyond that level it is merely a tool to distract.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” in its typical context is an appeal for the outright abolition of all government. After all, it is even more insightful to make statements like, “there is no such thing as a free cruise missile,” or “there is no such thing as a free aircraft carrier.” Yet if someone were to address defense policy from that immature perspective, that individual would develop a serious credibility problem.

I believe wholeheartedly that big ticket defense spending is an ongoing economic disaster that should be addressed with sweeping reforms. I also believe it is best to raise these concerns by looking candidly at the real costs and real benefits of pending procurements. To say, “well, the missile defense shield isn’t free, you know,” is a feeble argument. To say, “well, the missile defense shield is well on the way to costing more than $100 billion without offering an actual capability to defend against missiles,” is much more in line with responsible adult political discourse.

Yet often when initiatives to improve national health or relieve American poverty are addressed by conservatives, they fall back on TANSTAAFL argumentation. A peculiar twist on the love of liberty can be found at the intersection of economics and right wing lunacy. It is thought that liberty is severely abridged by such “unfair” policies as a 50% top marginal tax rate or the enforcement of minimum wage laws. Yet notions like universal health care or expanded educational subsidy are also seen ways of obstructing the liberty of the rich rather than facilitating the exercise of liberty by all citizens.

John Stuart Mill gets dragged into these discussions all too often by conservatives lacking an understanding of the man’s actual beliefs and works. It is true that he wrote On Liberty, a thorough and articulate defense of social libertarianism. What so many ideologues in this area fail to recognize is that the man also wrote On Socialism. To Mill, “the right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose” would have seemed a crude way to make a good point. Yet “the right to amass my fortune ends at the point others in society must endure squalor” is at least as valid in interpreting his ideas.

TANSTAAFL thinking relies on a willful obliviousness to social context. Great wealth is thought to be achievable and maintainable as some purely personal act. The essential support of various civic institutions and a stable prosperous society is set aside through deliberate oversimplification of the discussion. This phenomenon seems born of the Red Scare, and it only spills beyond American borders to the degree that shallow self-centered ideology infests the minds of media tycoons and distorts debates abroad.

Never mind the hundreds of thousands of unfortunate families in urgent need of enough economic support to provide a decent home life for their children — let’s make the debate all about welfare fraud cases instead. Never mind the millions of immigrants aspiring to nothing more than a chance to trade honest work for American wages — let’s make the debate all about the anomaly of welfare seekers instead. Just as the Moon can eclipse a much more massive object like the Sun, somehow darkness spreads as economic conservatives manage to eclipse the whole of a major social need by focusing on a tiny subset of dishonest beneficiaries.

Yet the distortion does not end there. Many people will couple TANSTAAFL arguments with assertions that private charity could and would solve all manner of social problems if only the chains of burdensome taxation would be lifted. The sound of chirping crickets will greet those who listen to history looking for examples of anything resembling an optimal social minimum sustained without government support.

Apparently no wallpaper is too thin to prevent cutthroat capitalists from seeing the enormous holes in their own reasoning. Then there is the false implication that wealthy Americans are of one mind when it comes to welfare policy. This facilitates denial of the way perpetuating (or even accelerating) the concentration of wealth deprives affluent liberals of the freedom to live in a society with less contagion, less crime, and all around less human misery than exists under the status quo. Does the Constitution require the unanimous consent of the rich to implement social policy, or might the normal process apply here? No pundit uttering the phrase “limousine liberal” as if it somehow carried the implication “class traitor” should be taken seriously.

While it is obnoxious for a politically conservative fringe to claim to speak for all of America’s wealthy, it is even more absurd for them to contend that cutthroat policies somehow constitute a pro-growth strategy. The argument that poverty relief, universal health care, et al. actually promote growth by dramatically expanding the discretionary income of consumers may be controversial, but it is hardly without merit. By contrast, the argument that promoting concentrations of wealth will stimulate growth through some “trickle down” mechanism is a questionable assertion in times of capital crisis and flat out bogus in most macroeconomic scenarios.

It is true that at least a little effort is involved in obtaining anything worthwhile. Sound insight into economic policy is no exception to this. Why then would any adult substitute “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” for some intelligent contribution to a political discussion? I suspect at the heart of it all is a divergence of goals. Responsible citizens use political discourse to seek truth and promote the most informed and thoughtful perspectives on important decisions to be made in our times. Others seem determined to leave any exchange no more informed than they were at the start. Clearly that is not the behavior of a responsible citizen.