Saturday, October 01, 2011

"People are Messy"

There is a common thread in the analyses of our current fiscal problems, and it is connected by the fact that people cost too much damned money!

It is connected, in other words, by an idea. An abstraction. The worship of concepts over the concern for human beings.

This is as good a starting place as any:

Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), who’s expected to face Sen. John Tester (D) in the Montana Senate race next year, is worried that some families who receive federally-subsidized lunches may be gaming the system and therefore bilking you out of your hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

It’s about waste, fraud and abuse, he suggests. But Democrats say it’s about something else: A Republican looking to scrimp on a program that benefits the least fortunate of all Americans, poor children, while he fights to protect subsidies for multi-billion dollar oil companies.
Mitch Daniels has been all over the news lately, from The Daily Show to Morning Edition on NPR, promoting his idea that people cost too damned much and we really just cannot afford them:

Daniels, whose book portrays America — and President Obama — in deep trouble, says that he largely agrees with columnist Charles Krauthammer, who says the Social Security system needs to be adjusted, not abolished, and that the changes can come over time.

Changing the system, Daniels says, "would send a clear and positive message that we do not intend to go over a fiscal Niagara."

"The wisest course would be to say to today's retirees, nothing changes for you, but also to ask them to join in seeing that younger generations who are paying for their retirement today have some protection, too."
I pause only to note the "expert" Mr. Daniels agrees with is a newspaper columnist. I might also point out I've been hearing Social Security was going to "go broke" since at least the 1970's. It's a popular canard because, well: people are too damned expensive.

We're never about to go "over a fiscal Niagara" because of defense spending, or because we build too many highways, or because we bail out too many banks, or because we let too many corporations get away with not paying any income tax. It's always because we spend too much on people. Wait for the day a Mitch Daniels goes on the talk shows promoting a book about how we buy too many weapons systems and waste too much money propping up Wall Street.

You'll be waiting a very long time.

Everybody plays the game, even if they don't quite seem to. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are all for making the tax system "equitable," and want to keep social programs, but only for the "most vulnerable":

The work done by our commission and others has shown that it is possible to reform entitlement programs in a way that preserves and even strengthens the safety net for the most vulnerable while achieving significant savings.
But Dennis Rehberg and Mitch Daniels would define the "most vulnerable" as the taxpayers (who are being cheated by "the poor") and major corporations (who need lower taxes and less regulation so they can "create jobs"). And nowhere in the Simpson/Bowles editorial is there any mention of the outrageous spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which created the budget deficit we have in the first place (Clinton left Bush with a budget surplus; Cheney said "Deficits don't matter".), nor any idea that "entitlements" should perhaps include defense spending in its definition. Defense spending is still for the most vulnerable of all. Apparently.

Two arguments could be made here: one purely emotional, the other painfully rational and based on a pile of evidence. The conclusion is the same, and this is the golden thread running through the discussion of the current situation. Matt Yglesias, for example, noted what I immediately noted about Michael Kinsley's (the poor man's Newt Gingrich) column on Chris Christie's weight:

A further nuance here, though, is that not only did Michael Kinsley’s piece on this draw a spurious connection between Christie’s appearance his personal virtue, it does so in order to make a second bad moral panic. After acknowledging that Christie “makes all the right noises about fiscal discipline,” he says that “perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control. But it would help if he got his own under control first.” This not only misunderstands obesity, it misunderstands fiscal policy. The sentiment here is that small budget deficits are a sign of self-control and personal virtue, and that large deficits are to be deplored as the reverse. There’s just no reason to think that any of that is true. The question to ask about fiscal policy is whether it’s appropriate to try to advance full employment in the short-term and capacity growth in the long-term. You have to ask what’s really going on, what the situation is, and what the impact of the policy choices will be. On Yom Kippur, you fast as an act of self-abnegation as part of a process for atoning for one’s sins. A person with out-of-control appetites will have a difficult time doing it. Fiscal policy is nothing like that.
No, it isn't; but fiscal policy is a terribly abstract notion. Much easier to replace it with an equally abstract notion, but one that seems concrete: people are no damned good! And fat people are victims of their appetites! And so the rest of us, greedy bastards that we are, are victims of our appetites. Or rather, victims of someone else's appetites (always easier to blame someone else for your problems).

Remember when the narrative said that it was the poor who caused the financial markets to collapse because they took out mortgages they couldn't afford? Funny, if they couldn't afford them, how did they get them? I've never been able to take out a large loan I couldn't afford; I always had to have a credit check. If I couldn't afford the debt, it was because of a loss of income, not because I never had the income to repay the loan. How was it the poor were suddenly responsible for the lenders being irresponsible?

They weren't, of course; but the story of the rapacious poor continued. Rick Perry is right: children of illegal immigrants in Texas deserve to pay in-state tuition rates for Texas colleges, colleges supported by state taxes paid by people who live in Texas. Being "illegal" doesn't exempt you from paying taxes, especially in a state with no income tax. A Texas resident pays sales tax on every purchase (except food and medicine) and pays property tax, either as a landowner, or through rent. That money is all you are asked to contribute as a resident in order to get in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges. So how does being "illegal" affect residency status?

It doesn't. But the GOP primary voters who are disgusted with Rick Perry (NPR found some in New Hampshire) think "illegal immigrants" don't deserve anything from Texas because...well...they're "illegal." They aren't people, they're: "Illegal." Perry was right to call people with such opinions heartless, even though that's no way to win votes.

But ideas matter more than people.

In fact, people don't even matter. It's the idea of people that matters.

When Jesus says, in Matthew's gospel, that you saw me naked, or hungry, or sick, or in prison, and you cared for me, even if just to visit me or give me some food, he's contrasting the idea of people with the reality of people. And those who treat people as human beings rather than ideas, are the ones who, literally, served God (and stop and think what it means to "serve God," without serving as God's agent of power. To serve the powerless God, the God who is sick, in prison, or naked, or hungry. We praise "servants of God" who tell us what they think God wants. We pay almost no attention to servants of God who actually serve God by being servants to people.)

I don't want to banter still with still more ideas of how this idea became so important. I just want to point out that if there is truth in the old teaching from the catechism that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," this is a concrete application of that teaching, rather than merely a metaphysical or abstract one.

Most of us prefer ideas over people. It's just so much easier to deal with the world that way.


  1. May I suggest a solution to the problem of expensive people that dates to the the early 18th century?

    I believe you've even suggested the solution yourself a time or two, Rmj.

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

  2. Swift's satire is so sharp it still cuts and stings, and we still (largely) miss the (economic) point.

    It is, of course, a perfect example of "economic" reasoning. Swift's narrator is just more honest about it than the marketplace is.

    Thanks for reminding me, Mimi.

  3. Thank you for this. One of the best posts I've read in a long while.