*Back to stonework now. Here’s something for you to think about while I’m playing with stones…
Punitive Poverty in a cold cruel world or a real fair playing field in a thriving economic democracy? That is the main issue and that’s why I object to the use of the term or phrase “safety net” to describe social welfare services. This common phrase used so frequently by so many commentators re-enforces the dreadfully flawed metaphor that frames the debate about the relationship between economics and poverty in the United States. The words “safety net” are just a nicer way of saying “handout to losers” of the great free market competition. But public benefits are not handouts. They are basic economic rights in a sane society. In reality, a market can’t be free unless all citizens have basic economic rights to participate.
Can you visualize the ladders? No, not just one ladder, but lots of ladders, hundreds of ladders intersecting as they go up in a complicated maze. On the way up the ladders there are prizes and platforms and maybe even some elevators. Why not some bells, whistles, balloons and confetti too. There might even be slides so some people fall backwards a little. Or maybe some shortcuts that only a few people know about? How about a few traps and slippery spots? It wouldn’t be a fun competition unless there were difficulties and challenges along the way. Imagine all the little people at the bottom of the ladder. The great God in the sky starts the countdown. On your mark, get set, go…. All the little people run for the ladders, grab ahold and start climbing… racing to the top. Up you go. One step at a time. Up up up. The harder you work; the higher you climb. The smartest and strongest and best climb the furthest up. They are the winners of this great competition. But alas, not everyone can be winners. Most of us do all right… finish in the middle of the pack somewhere about halfway up the ladders. Some people don’t do so well. Always struggling with those slippery bottom rungs. And some people, well, they fall off the ladders completely. They are so sick or injured or psychologically warped that they let go of those slippery rungs and fall to the very bottom. They are the losers of this great free market competition. What should the God of the free market do with them?
Unfortunately, that is the metaphor that controls the debate about all types of “social services” in the United States. The right wing media responds to the metaphor by disparaging the losers of the free market with insults and calls for tough love to teach them a valuable lesson about life. No handouts. You have to get back on the greasy ladder and work/climb your way to a good successful life. They argue that social services are a cheating shortcut for losers that undermine the inherent “fairness of the truly free market.” As such, they consistently call for the cutting of public benefits or social services (austerity). The left wing media responds to the metaphor by calling for a “a robust safety net.” Their voices crack with empathy that sometimes sounds like pity. They feel sorry for the losers of the free market and want to help them. Instead of tough love, they want to welcome the fallen into the loving arms of the state. They support more public benefits and social services. But their support seems based on a foundation of charity for losers instead of a foundation of community and fairness. Neither left wing or right wing seems willing to address the fundamental problem with the whole metaphor.
What if the controlling metaphor of economic reality was transformed from a hierarchical ladder that we all climb into circular web that we all try to find our place on? Under such a metaphor, there is no place for a “safety net” because there is no “bottom” and there is no “loser.” There is just a complex network of humans who try to work together to make the world more beautiful and live-able. Sometimes we compete when we work together and sometimes we cooperate. But the fundamental interdependence of the human species within a living ecosystem is recognized as a fact of life. Under such a metaphor, the goal of the economic system is not continuous growth, continuous development and continuous consumption. It is, instead, sustainable creative transformation. Under such a metaphor, social services and public benefits are not misperceived as charity or handouts but are instead understood to be fundamental economic rights and the bargaining position of the entire working class.
In 1993 and 1994, I worked as a legal aide lawyer representing many people who received public benefits and social services. Before that experience, I had no understanding of how social welfare law worked. I had been a lawyer for a few years before that and worked briefly on Wall Street and briefly for an appeals court. I had done exceptionally well on the bar exam and graduated near the top of my law school class. I thought I understood the legal system very well and believed I had a fairly decent understanding of how social welfare law worked. Nevertheless, my presumed understanding was a delusion. I believed in the safety-net concept… the welcoming arms of the state. A social democracy takes care of the less fortunate citizens who don’t fair well on the free market. But I found a different kind of system instead. I found a broken social welfare system that served to punish the poor because it was designed to serve the interests of its administrators rather than the interests of the people who supposedly received the benefits. Indeed, the social welfare system I found was so insane that it convinced me to give up the practice of law altogether.
The poverty economic game works something like this: A human can’t earn enough money on the “free market” to survive so he/she goes to an advocate to see about getting on a government system to pay for survival rations (food, shelter, healthcare). The advocate has to figure out which system or systems the person is eligible for. There are multiple systems for each category and complicated rules that explain the inter-related eligibility requirements for each different system. When I was an advocate, there was the unemployment insurance system and/or worker’s comp. if someone was recently in the work force. Then there was SSI disability insurance and SSD disability…both government programs. If that didn’t work there was AFDC (now called SNAP) if it was a parent with children. Then there was a state program called home relief if you were a single adult with no children. Then there were separate programs for food (food stamps, WIC) and separate programs for housing (HUD and section 8) and separate programs for medical (Medicaid and Medicare). As an advocate, it was my job to negotiate and argue with program administrators about whether or not my client belonged in their program or some other program instead. The programs often overlapped and cancelled each other out. Clients didn’t get to play the system and accumulate extra. The possible combination of programs always gave the clients the same amount of economic value; between 700 and 1000 dollars a month. The questions debated between the advocates and the administrators mostly just determined the source of the funds. (Fed., State, County). But they had little effect on the actual amount of economic value the client ultimately received (barely enough to survive).
Having worked briefly on Wall Street in mergers and acquisitions, I was trained somewhat in spotting economic inefficiencies. But really, the absurd economic inefficiency at the heart of social welfare system was so glaringly obvious it made me wonder why nobody ever talked about it. A year or so into my social welfare law immersion, I started doing some research to confirm the reality of the anecdotal evidence I kept experiencing. The ratio of administrative cost to benefit cost in most government programs was 70-30. In other words, for every thirty dollars in public benefit paid out to a needy person another seventy dollars was paid to people like me who wore suits, pushed paper and argued about the idiosyncrasies of welfare law and the personal lives of the poor people we were supposed to be helping. The truth is hard to dispute. The social welfare system is not designed to serve the unfortunate souls who need public benefits to survive and it is not designed to serve the citizens of society as a whole. It is instead designed to serve the economic interests of the people who work for the social welfare system as administrators, lawyers, psychologists and caseworkers because they are the ones who harvest the most currency from the functioning of the system. And more importantly, the social welfare system is designed to serve the interests of Wall Street and all those high flying corporate executives who manage the economy according to a broken ideological construct.
When I realized I was a cog in the poverty industrial complex instead of an advocate for basic economic rights, I decided to quit my position. But in the last few weeks before my big career change, I started asking some of my fellow poverty industry workers the rather obvious question. “Why don’t they just combine all the programs into one and streamline the process to make it easy to get benefits? If they would just give everyone a guaranteed survival ration of a thousand or so bucks a month, they would save a fortune on administrative costs.” Most of the other poverty industry workers responded to my query with the pre-programmed media sound bite that is drummed into our consciousness on a daily basis. “But you can’t just give people money for nothing. They have to do something to earn it. Or, at the very least, prove that they deserve it.” After considering my question more thoroughly, however, my fellow workers would usually reluctantly agree with the economic aspect of my suggestion. It would definitely be much cheaper for the system to guarantee a unified benefit from a single source than it is to make clients fight for a complex array of benefits from a bunch of different sources but then… Ahhh… wouldn’t we all be out of jobs? Ha ha.ha But at least we could collect the guaranteed survival ration; just like our former clients. Ha ha ha Welfare for everyone; yay!! Nobody has to work.
The problem I’m getting at here is a fundamental philosophical problem at the very heart of our economic system that causes severe societal fractures. You can see it in the cultural programming that demonizes the poor. You can see it in the wealth gap. You can see it in the mania to consume. You can see it in the bizarre billionaire worship. The whole crazy messed up edifice of modern day neoliberal capitalism is wobbling and trembling and verging towards collapse. Indeed, I would say that it has to collapse because it has a messed up foundation. That messed up foundation is the broken social welfare system and the very complicated “progressive income tax system” that supports it. (The metaphorical ladder with a safety net at the bottom).
What if? Don’t you love what ifs? Just as a thought experiment… What if we scrapped the entire “social welfare system” and “progressive income tax” system and started from scratch. What if we combined the two into a single system and simplified it so everyone could understand? What if everyone really agreed to join “the system” and pay taxes? What if “the system” was a simple mathematical model? At the beginning of each month, every single person who joins the system receives a monthly investment package of basic economic rights ($1500 + a basic health plan). At the end of each quarter (3 months), every single person who joins the system agrees to pay an income tax back to the system of 50% of everything they earn by using their economic rights to participate in the now free market. Welfare would no longer be a stigma or handout because everyone in society would receive it. It would be your personal investment. Wealth would not be “redistributed,” but instead economic rights would flow through the system in a circular pattern instead of starting at the top and trickling downwards. Taxes would not be “bracketed” or “progressive.” Instead, everyone would pay the exact same dynamic rate: 50%. Just like they all receive the same monthly investment. ($1500 + a basic health plan). No longer would we all be racing up a greasy ladder hoping not to fall into a frayed and tattered “safety net.” Instead, we would all be working together in a complicated inter-connected web to create a more beautiful and live-able society.
Of course the powers that be are not likely to replace the authoritarian corporate capitalist system with a democratic dynamic organic system any time soon. That’s because the ruling class and their managers and proselytizers in the corporate press understand intuitively that their power derives fundamentally from exploitation rather than “freedom”. And exploitation depends upon having desperate people who can be exploited rather than free people who have bargaining position. That’s it… really. The real fear the ruling class struggles with; the bargaining position of the working class; economic rights instead of charity. Indeed, the entire theory of their capitalist economic system is this notion that citizens make contracts of their own free will to sell their labor for money. But in reality, the notion that a job seeker has bargaining position when seeking employment in the modern economy is an absolute delusion. Workers have to beg, ask, submit, bow before management in order to be granted the great benefit of a “job.” If you challenge the fundamental fairness of the “employment contract” you challenge the fundamental fairness of the whole system. If you created a package of economic rights for all citizens that was incorporated into the tax code, deciding to live simply on the minimum investment would be a real alternative to employment. Indeed, the idea of living simply off the monthly investment might be encouraged in the interests of environmental protection. Free people might choose to work with you on a joint enterprise for a fair share of profits. But desperate people wouldn’t be forced to work for you for the lowest possible wage. The ripple effects across the whole economy would be staggering. By giving bargaining position to “job seekers”, you change the nature of every employee’s relationship with their boss. It would be an economic revolution.
But it’s not going to happen because the corporate media will continue to fill our brains with the lie. “Public benefit programs are safety nets for the losers of capitalism.” The left will tell us the safety net needs to be robust and the right will tell us it needs to be cut and everybody in the voting/tax paying class will be under the impression that public benefits are something they give to others out of kindness (the left) or because they are forced to by the tax man (the right). They will not see how public benefits are a fundamental part of a healthy economic system that serves the overall interests of everyone.
Imagine the non-violent economic revolution. Stop talking about safety nets and charity. Start talking about economic rights and the bargaining position of the working class. Demand Economic Democracy!
Not copyrighted, pass it on.