It’s The Culture….

The other day, I was at the IKEA loading dock. I’d bought two porch chairs, and was wrestling their fairly large and heavy boxes into my car. A gentleman, probably in his late 50s, was walking by, and stopped to help me. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me: he saw a woman struggling with something heavy and stopped to lend a hand.

I thanked him profusely, but on the way home, all I could think of was how utterly impossible it is to picture Donald Trump ever noticing that someone was struggling and offering help. (Yes, I know I’m obsessed with our insane and dangerous President…)

If there’s a moral to this non-story, it is that nice people make life better for everyone–that thinking of ourselves as part of a community of inter-dependent members who help each other out– rather than as isolated and besieged individuals– creates a supportive culture that really does “lift all boats.”

And that–strangely enough–brings me to public policy. (Pretty much everything these days brings me to public policy….)

As I was doing research for my most recent book, I looked especially at the way social safety nets around the world are constructed, and then at proposed reforms of the U.S. “system.” (I put system in quotes, because it’s a stretch to call America’s inadequate, costly patchwork of social programs a system.) I concluded that there are two major problems with our begrudging approach to a social safety net.

First, and most obviously, America’s welfare programs are inadequate, purposely demeaning and poorly functioning. There are major gaps in coverage, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements–the critiques are plentiful and easily available.

The second problem is far less obvious. Most of the programs in America’s social welfare system are designed in a way that divides, rather than unites, Americans.

Think about the difference between public attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, on the one hand, and TANF and similar programs on the other. Social Security and Medicare are universal programs–everyone who lives long enough will benefit from them. Then think of the resentment frequently voiced about more targeted welfare programs: the government is taxing me to support “those people.”

When a tax-supported program or service benefits everyone, it tends to bring people together rather than dividing them.( I’ve never heard anyone protest that they don’t want the streets fixed or the garbage collected because “those people will benefit from a service paid for by my tax dollars.”)

One of the most compelling arguments for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that it would be universal.  There are many other virtues to a UBI, as Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center has noted: the structure avoids creating poverty traps; it would raise worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it would decouple benefits from a particular employer or local jurisdiction; and It would simplify and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency. But it is because a UBI is universal that it is so appealing at a time when Americans are so divided.

Programs that treat all similarly-situated members of a community or polity the same tend over time to support a more cohesive culture; they avoid contributing to racial and socio-economic resentments.

UBIs and/or similarly universal programs won’t turn self-centered and emotionally crippled individuals like Trump into nice people who stop to offer help to strangers. But such policies would go a long way to easing–rather than exacerbating– unnecessary and unhelpful social tensions and divisions.

Americans have always had trouble balancing between too much “I” and too much “we.” Social supports that are universal enable a mean between those extremes: providing individuals with membership in a common polity–the “we”–and liberating them to follow their own life goals–the “I.”

A girl can dream…


  1. Dream away…

    I go more to the psychological for answers so if we looked at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I believe a large percentage of Americans are in the first two levels. This means belonging and love aren’t in the picture.

    UBI helps with this depressive status. Too many Americans are struggling just to survive so they aren’t interested in the WE concept. Too competitive and it fits the division of taking money from me to give to someone else (resentment). “I need the damn money!” “If they weren’t ______, they’d have their own money.

    However, I monitor the wages in our area for jobs and most of these people cannot afford to work because daycare costs more than the wages they could get working at 7.50-8.50 an hour.

    This isn’t the result of our inadequate social safety net — it’s a direct result of capitalism. And wait until the next crash which is building as we type away. But our primary global capitalistic partners: China and India are having their own meltdowns and both have gone over to Fascist leadership…they all have, including the USA.

    If we look at the Happiness Index, the USA is the worst, whereas, all the democratic socialist countries who pay hire taxes are much happier. How can that be?

    We’ve been culturized to believe, “Higher taxes = Bad”.

    Albert Einstein called our style of capitalism, “predatory”. He said it even ruins our educational systems. He also called it, “Evil.”

    Bottom line: Our economic-political-social systems aren’t producing good results for the masses.

    All other ills can be traced to this truth…all of them.

  2. “It’s The Culture…”

    “Programs that treat all similarly-situated members of a community or polity the same tend over time to support a more cohesive culture; they avoid contributing to racial and socio-economic resentments.”

    But those programs are comprised of people who create them and those who follow it; it would be interesting to look into the culture which created the founders and the followers. I grew up in a staunch Republican family who were racist and bigoted in a white neighborhood of racists and bigots but something inside me knew it was wrong even as a very young child. The man who helped Sheila load two large heavy boxes into her car saw only that she needed help; didn’t ask her religion or politics to qualify for his time and effort. Last Saturday I saw an elderly man using a cane and carrying 3 or 4 heavy grocery bags from Kroger at East 10th and North Shortridge Road. Something told me to ask if he needed a ride; he was sweating heavily and struggling with the bags and his cane. Couldn’t converse with him due to my deafness so I followed his pointing directions to where he lives at East 16th Street and Shortridge Road, accessible only by using Shadeland Avenue. This city and state offers no easily available or affordable transportation assistance for the elderly or disabled.

    This being a Republican city, despite our current Democratic Mayor, and state; is Republicanism a culture or is it and has it always been the “me first” political party consisting of those of the acceptable religion and economic status? Was Mayor Bill Hudnut an oddity within the party which produced the basically progressive 16 years of service to this city? Has the time for the basic humanitarian culture become outdated? State and current federal government is based on increasing corporate profits such as the NRA and Big Pharma; the culture of the NRA is not self-protection and Big Pharma is not life-saving. They are now two of the basics in the cultural make-up of this entire country and there appears to be no way to end their control of government.

  3. Perhaps I am reading too much into Sheila’s description, but I get the impression that the UBI would make the other social programs unnecessary. So if the Affordable Care Act were eliminated, because people could afford health insurance, we would be back to the pre-ACA days, but with higher premiums, because the insurance companies would raise their rates to rake in the extra money they would know we would all have. We would be back to square one.

  4. I send time each month with people who are poor and in need of social services. They don’t seem to be waiting to have their needs met before helping one another. I witness acts of kindness by the very poor fairly consistently. Then I read the letters to the editor in my local paper to see people who complain that, since they no longer have children in the school system, they shouldn’t have to pay property taxes for the schools. The people who complain about that are not generally poor.

    Some people have been brought up to help where necessary. Others have been brought up to be helped, even if unnecessary.

  5. Todd, interesting that you would bring up Maslow. I was thinking about his hierarchy lately, as well. For the “self actualized” among us the emphasis is on “self” instead of being the highly realized “self” of his design.
    I agree that when people are situated on the lower levels survival pushes almost everything else away. However, I feel that the better angels of our nature shine through. And, no, not reliant on religion.

  6. As the mother and mother-in-law of a SPEA Master’s students, I’d say your analysis is spot on Professor Kennedy. It is in the grass roots of this nation our hope resides and the forces that are pulling up the green grass to withe,r are powerful. We all go down if they continue to hold and abuse power. I cling to art which is my discipline and my faith. It’s twin is hope; of that, I have next to none; Except in the actions of Liberally and well, educated young folks I know.

  7. “If there’s a moral to this non-story, it is that nice people make life better for everyone–that thinking of ourselves as part of a community of inter-dependent members who help each other out– rather than as isolated and besieged individuals– creates a supportive culture that really does “lift all boats.””

    When I was a lad so long ago I experienced nothing but pride in being an American no matter where you were born, your citizenship status, or the language that your parents spoke.

    I thought it was odd when I started hearing first on radio, then pervasively, all that was wrong with this country. Not that the fact of things needing fixing was a surprise, as my parents were pretty much always into politics I knew that from the start. This was different. These were things like cancer that needed structural changes in who we are to fix. Of course not that we all needed fixing, just those others.

    It seemed destructive to me then and now you and I know without a doubt how destructive. It could well be a terminal cancer to democracy, the source of our well being and pride. (I suppose that I never associated before then that the pride we felt before was with the fact that it was our government and we were doing a damn good job of running it.)

    Now the cancer has enveloped several essential organs and even the most skilled surgeons publicly wonder if it can be removed without losing those organs.

    I want to go back to before. I want to feel pride again in where I was born and have lived and know so well.

  8. Pascal @ 7:41: You are reading too much into my endorsement of the UBI. In my book, I argue for both national health care and a UBI–and suggest ways to afford them.

  9. History always has the answer, and for this problem, let us just say it’s an “Anglo-Saxon Thing”.
    We outlawed titles of nobility in the Constitution, but never, ever have we tried to outlaw the actual nobility based on property and money.
    I doubt if we ever will, so we’ll probably just let the cycle of wealth and poverty continue to roll along as it always has from that day in 1619 when the first slaves were imported into Jamestown. Don’t forget, the colony was failing in large part because “Gentlemen” made up a large part of the members, and it acually took Capt. John Smith, who had to say “He that will not work, shall not eat.” – at least until 1619. We thought we’d made great steps forward with the election of our first African-American President, but look at what we’ve got now, another German (Anglo-Saxon!), and what makes it almost unbearable, a German with his roots in the early 20th century thinking of Germany.
    On the local level this is a bit removed from helping a lady load a couple of chairs into her car, but taking it up to the top on a national level, we get Mar-a-Lago, etc., etc.

  10. as a Bernie liberal,and to my past experience, i find those who support a liberal agenda, tend to help out, without being asked, or, told as employed. in the construction field theres plenty to do, and sometimes the ongoing workload,doesnt notice the person who is shoveling his or her ass off,when theres a extra shovel, and someone standing around. the younger gens,just need some experience,whereas, the ones on the job for years have the issues ready to resolve… but as i find, those Bernie liberals will most always jump in to help, without being asked, whereas, the definate trumpers, find excuses to avoid helping out,especially the person of color.. Im Just doing my job,sure,but its a way to express the solidarity among the working class, anytime…even cleaning up after the trumper run off…

  11. Those of us who live or have lived in Trump world, know that acts of kindness are at least as common place as anywhere else. I submit you could have been an elderly woman or man of color and you would have been extended the same kindness.

    It’s perplexing and certainly gives me pause at their vilification.

  12. Yes, Todd’s usual comments about the vagaries of unregulated capitalism, American style, are correct. But the “culture” thing is the most important aspect, isn’t it?

    Take racism (please), for example. That lives in EVERY culture around the world. From the homogeny rules in Japan to the caste system in India to the ancient idiocy of American echoes of slavery, it’s everywhere. That “culture” is from inherent tribalism that goes back further than the 200,000 years of known modern humans. Only those who actually think, read, experience and make the intellectual leap past that most ancient of social imperatives become truly “modern”, at least in that sense.

    In Tim Alberta’s book, “American Carnage” I’m reading how Republicans eat their own. Tim Mulvaney, for example, is supposed to be one of the smartest people in government. He has degrees from everywhere including law school, and yet…. And yet he is one of the most adamant champions of exclusion, separatism and virtual libertarianism. My basic question remains: How can really smart and educated people still be Republicans? They are certainly not being honest with their education. It must be the culture.

  13. “The other day, I was at the IKEA loading dock. I’d bought two porch chairs, and was wrestling their fairly large and heavy boxes into my car.”

    Somehow, I think back in the “old days” an employee would have been there helping. It was called Service. Small businesses understood Service was an important part of the product sale and generating a repeat visit. Service is a concept that has largely disappeared with Big Box Mega-Corporations.

    The message for today is how we treat each other, even when we are strangers. People seem to be in their own silos, this is not new.

    Rather than UBI, I would look for a nationwide $15.00 an hour minimum wage and Universal Single Payer Health Care and crackdown on Big Pharma’s pricing.

    Just as a note, I read a clever feed on Face Book, what if each bullet were priced the same price as insulin??? Can you imagine the anguished cries from the NRA and their camp followers???

  14. The most useful definition of ”culture” that I was ever exposed to is what we observe as the behavior of others who we deem to be like us.

    What does that say of the culture in this forum? That we deem others like us to collaborate and help each other as the need arises. That’s who we are.

    It seems that there also must be an opposite culture too. People who deem others like them to compete and who fight to stay ahead of others no matter what need arises.

    Can those two cultures coexist?

  15. John Neal; I live in a Trump infested neighborhood, I have seen them watching me struggle with my heavy trash can on the driveway incline, or pick up other people’s trash out of my yard and in the street, or struggle cutting back overgrown bushes, or any number of maintenance around my yard. They all know I am 82 years old, totally deaf and physically disabled and live alone…they stopped offering help in November 2016 when their Trump yard signs were posted.

    Recently I was cutting ground level branches off of an evergreen tree in my front yard and cutting them up into my trash can which I rolled to the city sidewalk. I was nearly passing out due to the struggle and oppressive heat; leaning over hanging onto the trash can to keep from falling when one of “them” gave me a dirty look because she had to step into the street with her fuzzy little dog to get around me. Don’t tell us about the wonderfulness of living in a Trump world; maybe you do help one another…as long as you KNOW they are another Trump supporter. All of you Trumpsters give me pause as I watch you cheer and applaud him vilifying Americans with darker skin, those of another religious belief or immigrants who have been in the process of becoming documented but now live in fear and hide to not become a victim of another Trump roundup of them to destroy their families.

    We on the blog who read your posts KNOW you by your own words as lacking all knowledge of humanitarian actions. We accept your freedom of speech as provided by the Constitution of the United States of America which all of you in Trump’s world ignore and deny the existence of.

  16. Pete: “My basic question remains: How can really smart and educated people still be Republicans? They are certainly not being honest with their education. It must be the culture.”

    Pete, you have to think in multi-dimensions here. We see this cognitive – dissonance, as it should produce a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

    Mulvaney’s case and for others like him (well educated, etc.) there is no cognitive – dissonance. The sole goal is personal self aggrandizement (accumulating wealth and or power). If you have to flip your position on something, you can do it as long as you stay true to your own personal goal. These people see a stairway and the steps are people, these people (steps) can be stepped on as long as you can continue to go up.

    Just as another thought on well educated, intelligent people. We have at this moment scientists all over the world who are working feverishly to improve the ability to destroy with new upgraded weaponry the “Other”.

  17. JoAnn,

    I am certainly not a Trumpster and am truly sorry for your experiences. I don’t know what I have said to incur your wrath but I apologize, as I value your comments and what you relay about your life experiences and knowledge from them.


  18. ML, once the culture of competition is ingrained everything becomes a race to separate THE winner from all of the losers.

  19. There are so many levels to address. I contend that Lee Atwater’s southern strategy has worked beyond his wildest dreams. Fear of the Other. I know I am in the minority here but I also contend that integration destroyed an entire culture. The African American middle class disappeared. A total culture of black owned businesses evaporated over-night when their customers were allowed into the white businesses. The only thing that remains segregated are the churches and the funeral parlors. All that green money that percolated thru that black economy suddenly went to white businesses. Families that for generations had been pillars of those communities were destroyed. With nothing to pass down, the next generation was forced to find lesser occupations in the white world. Even now when a black business arrives the black community still spends it’s purchasing power in white popular venues. As for less poor/working poor whites who complain about those “others” getting benefits when they are not, let’s be clear: they are angry because the income requirements put them just a couple dollars above the minimum. as poor and struggling as they are – they make too much money to qualify. get a better job you say. where? how will I get there. will I make enough for gas and child care. will I be any better off when my gross paycheck amount is deducted from the measly benefits I am receiving now. on another level, hopelessness is rampant at every turn. the rules make it impossible to get ahead of the curve. think of the mandatory requirements of every day life with those costs rising on a whim. we can afford the house – not the taxes and insurance. we can afford the car, not the license and insurance. we can afford the phone not the connection. we can afford the refrigerator, not the electric bill. can we do without those things? sure, but why should we in the richest nation on the planet? the time has come to cure this ebola destroying our minds and souls. Taxing the wealthy will not put those people on snap. they will still be wealthy beyond understanding. if they just paid their dam taxes they might actually save money by not having to pay some cpa to cheat, not having to pay for a lobbyist, or purchase a politician. Am I a raving socialist, you bet. We can boldly go where we should have been all along.

  20. ML,

    Actually, those quotes were from my comments, not Pete’s. Just sayin’… I don’t need the accolades here. Just buy my books. LOL.

  21. It never has occurred and likely never will occur to Trump to help someone other than himself. Yet, if he weren’t such a danger to civilization and knowledge and decency, I could find it within myself to forgive him. After all, he is a captive of the most virulent form of narcissism most of us have ever witnessed. He feels empathy (albeit temporary – ask Jeff Sessions) only for those who have sworn and proven their total subservience to his regal self (like Attorney General Barr). He must have some redeeming qualities in his nature, his character or his personality. But as hard as I’ve looked for them to surface, I’ve yet to see the first one. I request a DNA test to determine if he even belongs to the same species as the rest of us.

    I take some pleasure – probably schadenfreude – in the realization that no one suffers from the absence of self-esteem like a person consumed by the tiny, malignant world Trump inhabits.
    I despise passing these kinds of judgment on a president of the United States, but however they come out, they all feel like understatement.

  22. Yes, it’s culture, and culture includes political sensibility. Stereotyping is always dangerous, but I think generally that (somehow and for some reason, probably cultural), those of the Democratic persuasion are kinder to their fellow man or woman than Republicans. Perhaps it’s because Democrats are (and I’m again stereotyping) poorer and have been exposed more on average to the mayhem of poverty, or perhaps that is only one of several causes for their plight and consequent sensitivity to others in need of help. I am admittedly out of my league here and should google the finding of sociologists with numbers – but the foregoing is my amateur thinking on this mixture of culture and political sensibility as I (like JoAnn) have observed it, and especially lately.

  23. Gerald,

    Agree. My apparently poorly worded comment was trying to probe the mystery of how people who are frequently decent and kind otherwise could support a monster like Trump and his policies. I find that “perplexing”.


  24. Something I found, that I can’t figure out to link to: “If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do”. Sadly, I don’t remember where i found it, except I do remember there was no attribution. Seems somewhat apropos to the conversation!

  25. Sheila, the very fact that you felt the need to comment on someone helping you load your furniture not only highlights today’s sketchy customer service, but also reminds us about both the rule and the exception to that rule. 30 40 years ago people helping each other was the rule not the exception. I have found myself waxing poetic when someone stops and picks up something I have dropped, or when a teenager steps aside to let me through, or miraculously, one driver lets me in when i am turning into traffic.
    One little side note on my comments: Jo Ann, this is for you. Just trying to find a reason, no matter how flimsy- why people would not at least offer to help you. I put partial blame on cell phones…(yeah, I know a pet peeve) I was in a doctor’s office recently and everyone was sitting and waiting can’t blame them for burying themselves in their phones–(except me of course, I have a stupid-not smart phone) and a man was trying to sit down and missed the chair…..most of us instinctively jumped up and tried to help, but there were too many still sitting imbedded in their screens.

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