Alternate Realities

Monday, I posted about the seeming (destructive) human need to distinguish between “us and them.” It bears noting that those categories aren’t confined to nationality, ethnicity and religion;  back in October, I commented on the tendency of the “haves” to dehumanize the “have-nots”–

If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.

These days, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged), but blaming the poor for their poverty is seen as analysis rather than bigotry.

A recent Pew poll confirms that observation.

Fifty-four percent of the survey respondents categorized as ‘most financially secure’ said “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

If anything confirms the ability of the well-to-do to live in a reality of their own construction, the belief that poor people “have it easy” should do it. These respondents have never met Alice or encountered my students who are working two jobs and going into debt in order to get an education that they hope will help them earn their way out of poverty.

To make matters worse,

Financial security is strongly correlated with nearly every measure of political engagement. For example, in 2014, almost all of the most financially secure Americans (94%) said they were registered to vote, while only about half (54%) of the least financially secure were registered. And although 2014 voting records are not yet available, pre-election estimates suggest that 63% of the most financially secure were “likely voters” last year, compared with just 20% of the least financially secure.

The people who are least acquainted with reality are choosing our lawmakers. Explains a lot.


Class Warfare

As the Wall Street sit-ins spread, we are hearing more accusations of “class warfare.” Those accusations come from both ends of the political spectrum: the wealthy–particularly those whose wealth comes from the financial sector–accuse the protestors of enmity aimed at the “haves,” and the protestors and their supporters respond that corporate “fat cats” started the conflict by engaging in unethical practices motivated by greed that harmed “the other 99%.”

I actually don’t think what we are seeing is class warfare. I doubt if many of the protestors really have animus toward all those who are better off. They are just really, really angry at the increasingly successful efforts of bankers and others to shield themselves from the consequences of their own (mis)behaviors.

Nor do I think that corporate bigwigs are motivated by a desire to harm the (dwindling) middle class or poor. I doubt they even think about what their “Masters of the Universe” game-playing does to other people. (This lack of awareness–let alone concern–is in fact one of their most distasteful characteristics.)

Rather than dismissing these demonstrations by mislabeling them, I think they are general expressions of discontent with a political system that increasingly favors the well-positioned and well-resourced over other Americans.

The “other 99%” don’t hate rich people. They hate a system that increasingly takes from the poor to give to the rich.


My Very Own Economic Fantasy

Well, I see from my morning paper that the Congressional GOP is proposing to address the national debt by slashing funding for such frills as home heating assistance and job training. Our compassionate conservatives do remain adamant about protecting wealthy “job creators” from any additional taxes, though.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone; the GOP’s current ideological rigidity has proven impervious to evidence suggesting that keeping tax rates ridiculously low does not spur job creation. As many rich people will confirm, they are more likely to create jobs when poor people have the means to purchase their goods.

As long as those in Congress are playing fantasy economics, let me offer my own fantasy prescription for what ails us.

We have two big problems right now (okay, we have dozens, but I don’t have solutions to all of them): the erosion of America’s already inadequate social safety net, and the lack of jobs, especially for people who don’t have specialized skills. What if we created a true safety net, consisting of a basic income level for those falling below a set poverty level and single payer medical coverage for all of us? And what if, as part of that income support, we required the able-bodied to work for the government? I can think of all kinds of jobs we could create that would improve our local communities: taking care of our parks, assisting teachers in our schools, cleaning streets and alleys, tutoring…the list is endless. At the state and federal level, jobs could include repairing our deteriorated infrastructure, a la FDR.

This should pacify the folks who believe that anyone needing public assistance is by definition a parasite (somehow, their own use of Social Security, Medicare, police and fire, public streets, etc. doesn’t count as government assistance). And it would put people who need work in jobs that need to be done, but aren’t being done because the ideologues have been busy trying to fire every public worker, on the theory that someone working in the public sector teaching our children or protecting our property or overseeing the construction of our highways or administering our tax system doesn’t REALLY do a job–that only work in the private sector “counts.”

We all know this won’t happen. Instead, we’ll just protect the wealthy and screw the unfortunate. Welcome to the brave new America, compliments of Congress.


Who Do They Work For?

Theoretically, members of Congress work for us–for “we the people.”

Whatever the theory, it’s clear that many of them think they work for those whose campaign contributions put them in office. To take just one recent example, ask yourself who would benefit from Paul Ryan’s much ballyhooed new budget proposal to replace Medicare with subsidies allowing the elderly to purchase insurance in the private marketplace? It doesn’t take a genius to answer that one: the beneficiaries of those subsidies would be the insurance industry.

I’m sure it is simply coincidental that insurers are among the most generous of campaign contributors.

As the Congressional Budget Office analysis pointed out,

A private health insurance plan covering the standardized benefit would be more expensive currently than traditional Medicare. Both administrative costs (including profits) and payment rates to providers are higher for private plans than for Medicare. Those higher costs would be offset partly but not fully by savings from lower utilization stemming from two sources. First, private health insurers would probably impose greater utilization management than occurs in Medicare. Second, private plans might restrict enrollees’ ability to purchase supplemental insurance plans; enrollees would thus face higher out-of-pocket costs than they do in Medicare, and that increased cost sharing would encourage lower utilization. On net, for a typical 65-year-old in 2011, CBO estimates that average spending in traditional Medicare will be 89 percent of (that is, 11 percent less than) the spending that would occur if that same package of benefits was purchased from a private insurer.

In other words, this plan would cost the government more money. To the extent there would be any “savings,” they would come from shifting costs to the individuals covered.  Protecting the disabled and elderly from those costs, of course, was the original purpose of Medicare. Essentially, this program would screw over the recipients and give a windfall to the insurance companies.

What is amazing to me is how utterly bald-faced this proposal is. Have we really convinced the American people that giving more and more to the “haves” at the expense of the most vulnerable is in the national interest? I was never a fan of the Robin Hood theory of government–robbing the rich to give to the poor–but I am appalled by the current “reverse Robin Hood” ideology, where we rob the poor to benefit the rich.

Well, we certainly know who Ryan works for. And it isn’t us.