Tag Archives: rich

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.


Who Deserves?

I caught a bit of one of those interminable talking-head debates on television the other day, in which one pontificator was explaining that in America, we work for what we get, and it is thus unAmerican to begrudge wealth to those who have earned it.

I agree. When someone works hard, innovates and creates that better mousetrap, we all benefit. That person has earned what he or she has. I also agree that this emphasis on meritocracy–the belief (however unwarranted) that anyone can compete and succeed if they just work hard enough–is a quintessentially American belief.

What the talking head didn’t seem to understand was that he was in the wrong conversation.

The people criticizing the status quo today are clearly not angry with capitalism, nor hostile to those who have done well by actually producing something. They are angry–justifiably, in my view–with a government that seems to have two sets of rules, one for those rich enough to hire lobbyists and another for the rest of us. They are angry with a system that confers obscene rewards on people who produce nothing, people who simply play financial games and buy influence.

Genuine capitalism requires the rule of law and a level playing field, where the same rules apply to everyone. When some people–or corporations–are able to buy a pass, buy a separate set of rules for themselves, that is no longer capitalism. It’s cronyism, and it violates deeply embedded precepts of American culture.

I’ve always been puzzled by the double standard so many seem to live by: you’ll hear people talk disparagingly about “welfare bums” who “work the system” and don’t deserve our help. And I know there are people who fit that description–although research suggests they make up only 2% or so of welfare recipients. Until quite recently, however, I did not hear similar opinions offered about people with unearned wealth–those who inherited it, or especially those who broke the rules in order to get it. I heard few complaints about corporate lobbyists who “work the system” to get special benefits others don’t enjoy. If we truly believe that merit should be rewarded, and cheating punished, we aren’t doing a very good job of selecting the winners and losers.

What we are seeing right now is a shameful effort to defend unearned privilege, by claiming that the rich are all “job creators,” or that objections to the status quo are “class warfare.” It’s telling that those who genuinely earned their wealth–think Bill Gates or Warren Buffett–are among the most vocal critics.

If we are going to dispense welfare, who truly deserves extra help from the taxpayers? The single mom struggling to raise her children in an economy she did not produce–an economy hollowed out by wars of choice, tax breaks for the powerful and permissive regulations that enabled dishonesty all the way from Enron to the banksters–or the people who run corporations like Halliburton and banks like Citicorp and Bank of America? I’m prepared to concede that we couldn’t allow the financial system to melt down–the consequences would have been horrific for everyone–but now that we have stabilized it, we need to address the inequities of an economic system that demands far more from the working poor than it does from the well-connected rich.

We Americans need to rethink who we are, where our taxes should come from and where they ought to go, and who “deserves” what.

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.