Tag Archives: membership

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…

Membership Has its Privileges

Yesterday’s blog included a “you aren’t one of us” moment, and it got me thinking about the nature of membership and exclusion.

We all value membership–in a club, a society, a community, a polis. Political thinkers suggest that one of the stabilizing elements of a liberal democratic society is the widespread phenomenon of “cross-cutting” memberships; that is, the fact that we are all members of multiple, different communities. In my case, I’m a member of the Jewish community, the academic community, the downtown community, the legal community, etc. etc. At any given times, some of those ties are stronger or weaker, but the net effect is to embed me into a number of different (i.e. “cross-cutting”) groups. If that were not the case–if each of us belonged only to a single group–the liklihood of competition for power and comparative advantage between groups would cause constant conflict.

The bottom line to this theory is that the more groups in which we claim membership, the wider our perspective and the more inclusive our definition of “we.”

The problem is, in order to define membership, we have to be able to distinguish between those who belong and those who don’t. And therein lies an apparently inescapable problem.

If you think about it, human progress–or at least American progress–has been defined by extending social membership to people who were previously identified as “other.” The Irish, Catholics, Jews…and more recently and incompletely, Asians, Latinos and GLBT folks. Even women.

When people are “other,” when they are not members, not one of “us,” it becomes easy–and acceptable–to generalize about them and to demonize them. The Irish are all drunks, Catholics do the Pope’s bidding, Jews are shifty businesspeople, women are too emotional…Membership definitely has its privileges, and the most significant of those is acceptance into the group and the right to be judged on ones own merits, as an individual.

This all leads to a conundrum. With membership we also have exclusion and its negative consequences. Without membership, however, we lose cohesion. With no “we,” society becomes atomized, a collection of self-serving “I’s.” Exclusively nationalistic “we’s” can lead to fascism (defined as the identification of the individual with the state) or authoritarianism.

The trick is to find the proper balance–enough community within enough communities to give us comfort and generate mutual support, enough individualism to facilitate the exploration of our human distinctiveness. The Greeks called it “The Golden Mean.”

We have a way to go.