Friday, September 9, 2011

So you Hate Unions and Welfare, Huh?

Every year around election time... and, well, all other times... there's a big segment of the American population who takes it upon itself to tell the rest of us exactly what they think is wrong with this country, and almost universally, two of their chief answers are unions and entitlement programs. Usually, this is around the same time that I feel my blood pressure skyrocket and the little historian inside me reach for a crude spear fashioned out of a broom handle and a piece of broken glass. But let's deal with entitlement programs first.

The chief criticism of welfare, food stamps, etc., is that they promote laziness, i.e. that Americans need to get back to that Golden Age when we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Interestingly enough, I have yet to hear a definitive answer on when that Golden Age actually was, but the implication seems to be that it was either around the 1950s or perhaps all the way back to the good ol' 18th and early 19th century, that being the dawn of our nation and our Founding Father's hay day.

OK, again, let's look at this backwards. Were the Founding Fathers (note: I didn't say Founding Mothers) all self-made men? Eh... kinda. Most were moderately wealthy, white Europeans who came here to get richer, but they also happened to be a pretty intelligent and relatively moral bunch, so things worked out... well, that is, they sort of worked out, so long as you weren't: 1) Black, 2) a woman, or 3) a white man who didn't own property. Oh, and if you were a factory worker in those pre-union days, as illustrated by the Triangle Fire and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," factories were about as safe as dark alleys strewn with landmines and used needles. But that's nothing compared to the cards you were dealt if you happened to be born a Native American, or even a white person with a severe disability.

If you think the good ol' 1950s (you know, before Civil Rights was something we really considered) were so rosy and utopian, think again. Just because problems aren't talked about doesn't mean they aren't there, so I have to ask if anybody is really naive enough to think that spousal abuse, child molestation, sexual discrimination, and racism just spontaneously developed the decade after, thanks to the Beatles and color television.

Which brings me to entitlement programs, aka the most common scapegoat for the Hasty Generalization fallacy. Let's cut right to the chase. Are there people who take advantage of entitlement programs? Yes. Are there bad union members? Yes. But does that mean that either are morally bankrupt? Well, let's ask the single mom trying to feed her kids, or better yet, the kids who won't have to worry about being sent down mine shafts to gather coal without so much as a headlamp and a mask.

There's a statistic that I just love: contrary to stereotypes, on average, people on welfare actually have 1.7 jobs and 40% of them have two jobs!

But let's assume for the moment that entitlement programs really do promote laziness (which they don't). Even then, getting rid of them is the last thing we'd want to do! As any sociologist or member of law enforcement will tell you, desperate people are simply more likely to do desperate things, as a product of human nature, and I can't imagine anybody more desperate than someone who is starving or in urgent need of medical care. So unless you want to euthanize all poor people in the country and/or make gun ownership contingent on income, something must be done. Nobody likes to come right out and say this but entitlement programs don't just help the good, hard-working people who happen to fall on tough times; they help everyone by giving those with nothing left to lose one less reason to launch a French Revolution on gated communities and country clubs.

Here's another statistic I... well, I can't say I love it, but it's definitely worth remembering: as of 2007, the top 1% of Americans have 34.6 percent of the wealth. Perhaps more pertinent, though, the bottom 80% only have 15% of the wealth. Now, if you're like me, your brain shuts down when you hear statistics, so let's make this more manageable. If you had a hundred people and a hundred dollars to distribute, that means one guy would get about 35 bucks, nineteen people would get about $2.63 each, and eighty people would get 19 cents each.

Am I implying that each of those hundred people should get an equal share? No, of course not! You need competition for a healthy economy... but as we're clearly seeing now, competition isn't a silver bullet, and neither are tax breaks for the top 1% (though closing loopholes and getting rid of sweatshops would certainly help). Besides that, we as adults would do well to remember that life isn't an either/or scenario. We don't have to choose between a few people getting everything and everyone getting the same, since both scenarios are ridiculous. There are about a zillion middle ground compromises. But until we get those ironed out, doing away with entitlement programs and lambasting unions is nothing more than poor people being tricked by Machiavellian politicians and talk radio hosts into dropping their pants going you-know-what in their own overcrowded, dilapidated nests.

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