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Jonathan Wolfman's Blog
FEBRUARY 24, 2010 11:33AM

THE BASICS: YOUR HANDS, ARMS, FEET, MINDS, HEARTS, GUTS

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  Someone must tell me precisely why we can't have it both ways, why the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet does not provide The Basics, acceptable shelter, health care, and nutrition, to every man and woman and poor child who just cannot pay for them-- and stop this damned nonsense once for all about how that just runs so dangerously counter to free enterprise, healthy markets, and individualism? There's no reason to think that above these basic levels of decency markets and profits cannot flourish. 

     Because of course they can:  there is and always will be markets for the better-off. Not as much profit for some, perhaps? Well, tough. And the point really is that were all families fed, sheltered, and their basic health requirements adequately met and sustained either on their own or through the collective will, tens of millions more would be working productively and growing this market economy far more than it grows now. 

     The great majority of Americans thought at one time that providing day care, publicly supported and privately sponsored, would be a waste. Many hundreds of millions of women, here and in other countries, proved that idea inane and the workforce and Western economies have never been the same. 

     For one to believe, really believe, that the structurally poor so fundamentally lack the sense of individualism, the duty and drive required to stand up and work and participate in civic life once the basics are no longer a daily, weekly, monthly, year-over-year soul-sapping and vicious grind, then the problem may well not be in the tremendous majority of poor people's hands, arms, feet, minds, hearts and guts...but somewhere else much closer to home.
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The Senate just passed what I think will be the first of a series of Jobs Bills. The vote was 70-28.  

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Why we can't or why we don't? Why we don't is really two reasons:

1. Blaming the victim. Some feel the poor are poor through their own lack of industriousness. For some, this is a very comfortable misconception. It's one very small step away from saying that Blacks have it worse than Whites for analogous reasons. Such views allow people to avoid any responsibility for how badly others have it. Personally, I find this viewpoint fundamentally antireligious, even though there are paradoxically many ostensibly religious people who hold views like these.

2. The misconception that the economy is a zero-sum game. In other words, if you get more, I get less. However, the size of the pie isn't static. If you opt for a thinner slice of what becomes a larger pie as a result of your choice, you can actually eat better.

Why should we? Again, there are two reasons, and the trick here is not to rely strictly on the first one:

1. Conscience. Using this argument is often referred to as "shoving guilt" and has a long history of being ineffective with conservatives. If they're successfully blaming the victims, they don't feel guilty, so conscience doesn't enter into the equation.

2. Because of what you said in your second paragraph. Put another way, because it is both in our interests and our patriotic duty to help the pie grow. There is a long history of this country's economy doing better under Democratic leadership which would seem to run completely contrary to conservative assumptions about what slows down the economy (too much taxation and regulation). Why? Because:

The most important factor for economic health is an American middle class with disposable income because Wall Street needs a healthy customer base way more than a favorable tax or regulatory climate.

That last sentence should be framed and put onto the wall of the NY Stock Exchange. It's truly basic and it's absolutely amazing how few people there understand it. No one who works at the Wall Street Journal understands this and they follow the economy for a living.
You keep on writing and I will keep on reading! Good job.
We don't take care of those who can't take care of themselves because in many cases, we have those who only care about themselves.
Free market societies are rather interesting. We agree that the USA is one of the richest nations in the world and yet, we allow hunger, disease and inequality to exist and continue to exist without real challenge.

I don't particularly lean to the left nor celebrate the doings of the right and refuse to sit on the fence in the middle. For those that are in my shoes that prefer to simply point fingers at our leaders may be in for a big surprise when they sooner or later realize that it is the masses that allowed this ugly practice of haves and have nots to endure.

Whether we are communists, socialists, fully free market capitalists or other - the bottom line it is all about division of materials for consumption. The real root of the problem is how we consume and grow our consumption to match our populations.

When our forefathers were at their prime we were a fledgling nation eater to grow and as such, the desired dream of unique government for the people by the people was perhaps historically, one of the finest notions brought to fruition. Those days are long gone, the complexities of meeting the masses' needs is at our doorstep every day and leaders that cater to the wealthy. Of the latter, it is not longer individuals but corporations and special interests (composed of businesses).

I do not believe that any notion of gov't sponsored or similar medicine would work well due to our unwillingness to get a grip on our consumption. The finest means of reducing consumption is by keeping populations in check. As belief systems and more impede this venue, it becomes a greater challenge. I believe that the first step is to stop rewarding families for having more than (pick a number here) a given number of children by tax benefit. That is, as example, no tax deductions for more than 2 kids. You may only claim two on your taxes. This is the kindest means to suggesting less population. As for the poor that historically have the largest families, more would be required to help them keep families smaller and afford more quality of life to their offspring.

To be candid, I have yet to find one person who thinks that population is not an issue qualify why we should have so many people on the planet. There is zero reason and plenty to suggest the negative impact.

The ideals of caring for all citizens is a wonderful one but it requires all citizens to want to be a part of that system and cooperate. This country as it stands, has neither the mind or fortitude to make those changes to usher in an age of people sponsored wellness for all.
I fully agree that a major misconception contributing to the poor staying poor is the flawed idea that it's a zero-sum game.
If we really believed that capitalism was the most robust way to moor economic life, we would also believe that it is strong enough to flourish while yet ensuring the fundamental health, nutrition, and shelter of the poor. I believe it is and I am saddened that so many coservatives speak as if they don't.
Capitalism has to be the only way to moor an economy. Without those incentives, you'll never get growth. The problem comes where people confuse all capitalism with unregulated capitalism. While capitalism works way better than anything else, economic anarchy does not, partially because it encourages monopolies (which defeat the major advantage of capitalism: competition) and partially because it allows all sorts of issues to divert energy from growth.
A moderately growing population is the only way a nation can sustain itself economically for the long-haul. If you have more pensioners than wage-earners, than the government is spending more money on the welfare-state, than it is taking in from tax revenue. This is unsustainable, even if you have a very progressive tax system. It is also incompatible with human nature to successfully reduce the number of children people can have. Europe is suffering because of low birth rates and the various problems which flow from that. They are only still in the game because of low death rates of their current senior citizen population, but when they go, the social welfare state of Europe will go down into ruins, because nobody will be around to pay the taxes needed to support it. No Social Democrat with half a brain can support low birth rates in the West.

As for consumption, the only way economies can grow and the middle class can grow is through consumption, or the demand-side of the economy. This is why welfare, social security, unemployment benefits, public works jobs and public benefits work so well. The more money you put in the hands of consumers, the masses, the more they spend on American goods and services. The more they spend on American goods and services, the more American businesses pick-up and bounce-back, which means they start producing more and hiring more.

The problem with supply-side economics is that it totally forgets the "demand-side," which is what Keynes was all about. Supply siders think that if you increase the money held by the rich (through low taxes), that they will put this back into the nation, purchase labor-intensive goods (McMansions) and invest in local businesses and the like. Although this theory looks good on paper, it never happens like this in reality, aside from speculative McMansion booms. The money is wasted on (1) a small number of horribly inflated consumer goods ($10 cans of coca cola at the NYC 4 Seasons Hotel), which is never enough to spur job creation, (2) speculative investment in high-finance. At the end of the day, more money held, spent and speculated by the rich hurts the middle class and, amazingly, hurts the rich as well, but they are too proud, arrogant and haughty to see far enough into the future to understand this.
Rob,
In spite of the fact that it's linguistically counterintuitive, the truth is that trickle up works way better than trickle down. You talked about why trickle down doesn't work. Trickle up works for an analogous reason: Poor people when they get money will spend all of it locally. The money goes exactly where it will do the most good.