How Do We Divide Up the Pie? Radical Bleeding Heart image

Reward the Productive, not the Unproductive.

It is an article of faith among the right-wing whack jobs that poor people in America are a bunch of lazy, irresponsible good-for-nothings who have become dependent on government handouts. Taxes, they dramatically aver, are used to divert money from the hard-working “Makers” into the pockets of shiftless and government-addicted “Takers.” They really believe this stuff.

The conventional way to respond to this sort of evil nonsense is to drag out the numbers and show that, for instance, nearly half of the federal spending deemed “welfare” is for Medicaid, the bulk of which is goes to the elderly and disabled and is large because of escalating medical costs, a problem that afflicts us all. Or to point out that a sizable portion of it is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program Ronald Reagan raved about because it goes to the working poor, thus encouraging people to work.

But this is rising to the bait. As long as we have government assistance for the poor — welfare — the wing-nuts will complain about it. It gives them an excuse to bellyache about taxes and to beat up on the poor; it indulges their natural inclination to be both selfish and mean. And as long as we have policies that systematically reduce people to poverty — insisted on by the right — we will have to choose between providing welfare and allowing people to go hungry. It is a bit like cutting off someone's legs and then punishing them for not walking.

Let us refuse to play that game.

A Progressive Battle Cry. Conservatives are actually right that the world is divided into “Makers” and the “Takers”. They are just confused about who makes and who takes. So here is the Progressive formula for a society in which everyone does their share, and no one gets to be a free-loader:

  1. Everyone Has a Right to Do Productive Work For a Living Wage,
  2. No One Has a Right To a Free Ride.

You might not think that two such innocuous sounding statements could be controversial, but they are. They are revolutionary. If we were to attempt to put them into effect the right would fight them with a ferocity like you have never seen.

If . . .

The fact that we are not is a symptom of two remarkable facts: One, that the left has become lost, confused, and bewildered; and, two, that the right has been extraordinarily successful in appropriating the language and rhetoric of the left and using it for their own reactionary purposes. The resulting Conventional Wisdom is that up is down, black is white, and East is West. It is truly bizarre.

Alright. Let us take these two simple ideas one at a time. Let us see if we can clear away the fog that has been deliberately poured over them.

Employer of Last Resort. First one: The Right to a Job. The simple solution is for the government to become the employer of the last resort (ELR). If you cannot find a job elsewhere, the government will give you a job. A job doing real, useful work for a living wage. That means a wage that would allow you not only to feed, clothe and house yourself and your family, but also to provide for your future, both the foreseen and unforeseen. That is, it would provide enough for full health insurance and pension insurance. And yes, also enough for minimal recreation.

The government as employer of last resort is a policy long advocated by L. Randall Wray and others. He goes into it in depth in his book, Understanding Modern Money. In theory, this should appeal to conservatives. Except in cases of disability, it eliminates the need for traditional welfare. It means that anyone who wants to work, can work. And — the hard-hearts should love this — it does away with the excuses of those who don't want to work. So in theory, this should be a conservative dream program. Since conservatives claim to hate welfare and love work, you would think that they would embrace such a program. You would, that is, if you imagined that they were honest.

Conservatives love to complain about them, but programs like food stamps and EITC not only help the poor; they subsidize the cheap employers who can hire them at starvation wages — and let the government take up the slack. ELR would do away with the subsidies for tight-wad employers like Walmart. The living wage it would provide — indexed of course for inflation — will become the de facto minimum wage. That will force all employers to pay a decent wage. There is nothing conservatives loathe more than having to be decent to poor people.

So they will declare that the plan would fail since those good-for-nothing poor people do not want to work. But that should make all the more appealing to moralistic right-wingers. By replacing traditional “giveaway” programs, it would mean that you would have to have a job or get nothing. If conservatives really were concerned about encouraging work and chastising laziness they should love this program.

They will hate it of course.

The real mystery is why progressives and liberals have not wholeheartedly embraced the idea and fought for it. The answer, I fear, is that we have lost our way. We call ourselves “progressives” but we have lost our vision. We have no idea where we need to progress to. We have lost our spines; we are so fearful of being called “radical” or “socialist” that we keep repeating our timid calls for palliative half measures, uncertain even of what we hope to achieve by them.

Second Point: No Free Rides. Although it should not, this requires some explanation.

Nowhere has the right wing disinformation machine been more successful than in their campaign to confuse this issue and turn up into down. The wing-nut gasbags would have us believe that poor people are all a lot of lazy, irresponsible whiners who want to live on government handouts, when in fact all they want are decent jobs with pay they can live on. And, even more astoundingly, the wing nuts want to convince us that the rich are all noble, hard-working, responsible pillars of society who deserve every penny of their enormous hoards.

Unearned Income. This is an extremely important issue which we go into in some detail here. But it is absolutely essential for understanding what is wrong with our social and economic system and what to do about it. So here is a super-condensed version:

Elves and Trolls. The production of the goods and services that constitute our daily necessities requires both labor and resources. For reasons that we go into elsewhere, the needed resources tend to accumulate in the hands of a fortunate few, leaving others with nothing to offer but their labor. If you control the resources, you do not need to do any work. Thus the world tends to become divided into Elves, who do all the work, and Trolls, who guard the resources and charge others tolls for their use.

The way the product of our joint economic efforts is divided among us is complex — too complex for this super-condensed version. But system that we have favors Trolls at the expense of the Elves. Basically, as much as possible goes to the Trolls, with as little as possible going to the Elves. Much is made of the growing inequity of wealth and income; that, in a nutshell, is the reason.

Let us make this as clear as possible: Elves do the work; Trolls get a free ride. The Elves are the real Makers and the Trolls are the Takers. We need a system in which as much as possible goes to the Elves with as little as possible to the Trolls.

In other words, we want a system that rewards people primarily on the basis of the work they do, not how much they own, as well as a system in which everyone is guaranteed the opportunity to do productive work. The reverse is presently the case.

So, you see, ideals can be useful. It requires, first, that we force people honestly to face the enormous discrepancy between the ideals they profess and the realities they live. But we can go even further . . .

[Next: Taking Jesus Seriously, Part Two.]