It’s Never That Simple

I recently dipped back into Howard Zinn’s “People’s History,” mostly to remind myself that the past was just as messy and unpredictable–and unfair and inequitable–as the multiple things that drive me bonkers today, and also to remind myself that frequently, “good guys” won and made life better for lots of the previously downtrodden.

During his description of the chaotic time leading up to the American Revolution, Zinn shared a quote from Thomas Paine that I didn’t remember seeing previously:

There is an extent of riches, as well as an extreme of poverty, which, by harrowing the circles of a man’s acquaintance, lessens his opportunities of general knowledge.

Paine was pointing to the phenomenon that today’s commentators call “living in a bubble”–something most of us do. It is very difficult to genuinely interact with people outside our circles: city folks rarely mingle with rural ones, or professionals with people in the trades or those performing more menial tasks. We may encounter people outside our bubbles, but encounters are not relationships; they aren’t “circles.”

I thought about that quotation, and the undeniable reality it reflects, when I read “The Myth that Everyone has an ID,” published at a site called “Civic Nebraska.”

The lede was essentially a restatement of Paine’s admonition:

The reality is, we don’t all live the same life. We don’t all have the same experiences. And we have to take that into account. We should make sure all voices are heard, and that the laws we put in place don’t cut people out, or make them second-class citizens. It’s our job to encourage them and protect them.”

That comes from our video Gavin’s Story: The Hidden Harm of Voter ID, and at the end of the day, it really is the central reason to not force Nebraskans into strict photo identification requirements at the ballot box. Despite the conventional wisdom and the assumption that everyone has a “proper ID,” the fact is that many Nebraskans don’t. This is true for any number of reasons; regardless, it’s never as simple as proponents of such strict identification measures make it out to be.

The article proceeded to look at the numbers and draw some unsettling conclusions. Given the state’s most recent population figures, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 1,472,769 Nebraskans are of voting age.

How many of these Nebraskans already have IDs? According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Nebraska had 1,418,301 licensed drivers who were 18 or older in 2021. That comes out to about 96 percent of voting-age Nebraskans. This sounds like “almost everyone,” until you consider what that represents in terms of individual people left behind by an unnecessary law. By our estimate, that could be as many as 54,500 potential Nebraska voters.

As the writer says, that’s not nothing.

It represents a lot of Nebraska voters – especially college students, low-income voters, disabled voters, rural voters, or any eligible voter who for whatever reason is without government-issued photo identification. These are our neighbors, friends, family, co-workers.

By the way, that’s a conservative number. It assumes people over 18 with learner’s permits, which allow a person to legally practice driving before applying for their driver’s license, are valid ID-holders. Throw those out for any reason, and the number of Nebraskans potentially without valid ID to vote is nearly 70,000. And, of course, this doesn’t include the untold number of Nebraskans who have state-issued IDs but who may have changed their name, address, or other feature in their life, likely rendering their currently held licenses invalid to vote.

The simple answer, of course, is to give everyone a free ID. As the article points out, “It’s a fine idea that will cost millions. Every year. Forever.” Given the overwhelming amount of research showing that in-person vote fraud is somewhere between minuscule and non-existent, that’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.( I’d suggest diverting it to accurate–i.e., non-Florida–civics education.)

These voter ID laws are widely approved by people whose “circles” all have IDs–people who find it difficult to understand why anyone wouldn’t have such documentation, and thus don’t consider the requirement to be a genuine impediment to voting.

Of course, those voter ID requirements are also strongly endorsed by Republicans, who are quite aware that the bulk of the people they are disenfranchising–college students, low-income voters, disabled voters–are disproportionately likely to cast a Democratic vote.

Thomas Paine was onto something….


Patriotism and Taxes

Much of today’s angry rhetoric is constructed around two dubious claims: (1) taxes are unjust, because my money is the result of my own hard work; and (2) people helped by government are indolent leeches.

 One problem with the latter claim is that people who look down on welfare recipients who are poor have a remarkably benign view of welfare recipients who are rich. They see nothing wrong with paying USA Funds and similar enterprises lots of money just to give away federal dollars for student loans—a cushy deal with absolutely no downside risk—or with politicians who rail against government “handouts” while raking in big farm subsidies. (Tennessee Congressional candidate Stephen Fincher, a darling of the anti-tax folks, gets $200,000 a year from the government; “anti-socialist” Rep. Michelle Bachmann gets $250,000.)

 The more insidious claim, however, is the first: I worked hard for my money and government has no right to tax it for anything other than police and armies to protect me and my property.  

 Ian Welsh points out some “inconvenient truths” about that claim. He compares the average American to the average citizen of Bangladesh. The average American makes $43,740 annually; the average Bangladeshi, $470.

 Why the difference? American children are less likely to suffer from malnutrition, which adversely affects intellect later in life. American children are far more likely to get good educations. When a Bengali child grows up, there are fewer available jobs. If he starts a business, the market will be much smaller than the equivalent American market. As Welsh says,

 “The vast majority of money that an American earns is due to being born American. Certainly, the qualities that make America a good place to live and a good place to make money are things that were created by Americans, but mostly, they were created by Americans long dead or by Americans working together. ..Since the majority of the money any American earns is a function of being American, not of their own individual virtues, government has the moral right to tax.”

 Welsh isn’t the first to come to this conclusion. Thomas Paine, perhaps the most eloquent of the Founders, expressed similar sentiments in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.”

 “Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

 Patriotism isn’t just about being willing to die for your country. It’s also about being willing to pay your fair share to maintain the social infrastructure that makes life more pleasant—and more profitable—for us all.