Bus Tokens and Welfare Queens
“The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift.” –Mitt Romney
If I will? Actually I’d rather not, Mitt. There’s an old saying I’ve never heard before that goes something like this: Never beat a gift horse with a piñata stick. Can we talk? Mr. Romney was alluding to Hispanics (sorry, his maids and gardeners) when he inadvertently targeted his sore losership revealing, once and for all, his Non-Expanding Universe of One. Romney was never a company man. Hell, he dismantled them for a living. In short, he didn’t get the promotion so now everyone can go fuck themselves. Whoa, even your friends, allies and tireless supporters, Mitt? In case you didn’t notice, Romney was forever packing things up and shipping them out of America: our jobs, his money. It was like he was afraid stuff might get infected by something, I dunno, by Americanness. The quandary was that, by the cruel vagaries of birth, he could only be President here. And if Romney was anything, he was ambitious. So he ran. And we told him, if you will, to fuck off. I’m gonna stop here before people think I voted for Obama.
Politics is the new pathology. A lot of these right-wing rugged individualistas are exhibiting acute symptoms of social malformation. Who needs a dumb old polis anyway when you’ve got guns, ammo, silver bullion and Fox News? Socialization is for leaners and bleeding hearts. Communitarianism is a sign of weakness. John Wayne and his pigeon-toed swagger fucked up so many useful idiots someone should file a class action suit against the John Ford estate. And before some incensed Montanan deputizes his paranoid-schizophrenia to come hunting for me, Wayne was a fucking actor, alright i.e. he was only kidding! Until near the end when he started to believe his own kidding. That’s sort of where we are today, boys and girls. On Monday, Mickey said ‘let’s put on a show’. By Wednesday, Judy was too stoned to remember the cameras were rolling. Cut!
So much for ten-gallon thespians and greased paint; let’s get to the real scumbags of this movie, the stubbornly destitute and chronically underemployed. Look, I don’t presume to know where the sweet-spot for American wealth and income distribution truly lies. But I do know this: There is a minimal amount of income a critical mass of Americans must command if overproduction (under-consumption) is to be averted. When incomes are driven to subsistence levels (what Marx and Engels fondly called the ‘central crisis of capitalism’) through the normal machinations of competition, workers can no longer purchase the fruits of their own labors. Simply put, subsistence workers must forego cars and washing machines for water bills and Hormel® meat products (despite the cruel irony they toil at building really cool stuff by day.) Capitalism becomes so insanely ‘competitive’ (i.e. Company One cuts its wages in order to gain market share over Company Two which in turn cuts its wages in order to regain competitive advantage over Company One, and so on and so forth…) that it leaves its workers unable to fulfill their symbiotic, offsetting role as buyers of product.
If only billionaires could grow legs with the facility they grow wealth. As it is, acres of stonewash jeans can rest easy and unzipped in dockyard crates. For unless Bill Gates steps up to fill the aggregate consumption void by purchasing one million pairs of pants per day for his personal use (as, say, 100 million American workers with sufficient disposable income might), we can kiss another ten apparel factories good-bye as well as the supply-demand equation they once rode in on. As any capitalist has trouble explaining from his discrete locus as the captain of but one disaggregated P&L, aggregate demand has to sort of equal aggregate supply or else subsistence begets subsistence, production stacks up for lack of buyers; hence the prefix overproduction. Workers get laid off. Demand collapses further still. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
Now, I am no more a Marxist than Karl Marx was on his apocryphal deathbed. What I am though is a dejected convert to the overproduction phenomenon. Thus before you don your $22.95 Banana Republic® Che Guevara t-shirt, you might want to check for telltale Starbucks® coffee stains. (This has been a protected public announcement by Yours Truly®.) Even beyond that, there are ways, within a capitalist framework, to avoid a self-destroying dynamic. Unfortunately only government can militate against the inevitable antisocial excesses of capitalism. Yes I know. I’m no great fan of government either. But if not Uncle Sam, then who? Donald Trump?
Alas overproduction makes for a lousy wanted poster as it is a bloodless abstraction. People want faces for their dart boards and the darker the better. For this, a welfare queen will do. Thus there is, in the wake of Romney’s defeat especially, a tendency towards crocodile tears in Tea Party circles that folks in the lower economic tier are gaming the system when every empirical metric points to wealth and income in America hemorrhaging upwards, and with a vengeance. Targeted morality is no morality at all. What we need desperately in America are more hard-nosed empiricists and fewer hysterical, yelping ideologues with sublimated racial beefs. How else to explain why these champions of ‘economic equanimity’ consistently fail to hassle the gilded tail of the dataset, you know, the folks with almost all the poker chips at this advanced stage of the game?
Let’s examine three broadly accepted statistics:
· From 1965-2008, $16 trillion was spent in LBJ’s War on Poverty. (Source: A Nation Like No Other, by Newt Gingrich, p.109)
· Today, the richest 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth. Twenty-five years ago the top 1% owned 33%. (Source: Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz)
· In 2007, the lower 50% owned 2.5% of the nation’s wealth. (Source: Institute for Policy Studies)
One of the first, immediate questions, certainly among beleaguered cloth-coat Republicans, is in what offshore accounts that massive slug of po-folk entitlement money has been stashed. Provided the bottom 5% doesn’t own 80% of the above-cited 2.5% (from squirreled-away welfare surpluses) can we allow that most of the bottom-half, on some roughly equivalent basis, is not flush with vacation homes and REIT’s? The very poor are all about purchasing consumables, a classical Keynesian term for ‘barely having a pot to pee in’. Another way to interpret the first statistic is that the poor are first-order champions of GDP (true patriots one might say with scant knowledge of the Cayman Islands) because all the wealth (really, transfer payments) they control (or are handed, whichever) flows directly into down-home consumption or else, again, they have taken a page from the Mittster, secreting their ‘entitlement wealth’ away in Swiss bank accounts, a nefarious scheme these damned statistics simply fail to capture. But I doubt it.
More than likely, the poor are not pleading poverty as a cheap stunt; so, how do we reconcile the unmistakable wealth and income trends against the widely-cherished Republican trope that America’s wealth and treasure is leaking like a sieve into the pockets of the unrepentantly downtrodden (unless we’re including the ‘non-productive rich’, trust-fund babies et al, something Republicans are almost religiously averse to doing)? Clearly the real danger we face is not a descent into Soviet-style democratic centralism but a lurch into Brazilian plutocracy and evisceration of the American middle class, not at the hands of the poor, but at hands of the rich. And yet I hear one numb-nut after another bemoaning the socialist nightmare Obama is bringing down on our heads. Okay, I might accept that the middle class is getting gnawed at from both ends. But clearly the rich have taken way bigger bites. Look at the bleedin’ numbers!
I realize that for some—albeit on an irrational, emotional level—it’s maddening to think a bunch of indigents is collecting something, anything, for nothing. Frankly, what could be more galling than getting passed every day on your way to work by an SSI recipient in a gas-guzzling Hummer? Talk about justifiable road rage! As is the case with most emotional arguments, there are some troubling blind-spots. For example, why don’t all forms of entitlements receive an equal drubbing, e.g. corporate welfare? According to a 2006 study, the government spent about $59 billion for traditional social welfare programs and nearly twice that, $92 billion, in assistance to corporations annually. That’s a lot of boardroom panhandling. Is the underclass simply an easier target for the schoolyard bully? Or is the rule in America that if you’re going to steal, steal big? Otherwise morally confused Americans won’t respect you. Or something like that.
The selective outrage is reminiscent of the poor white Southern redneck of the early ‘50’s. For those with a sense of not-so-distant history, the Southern white aristocracy drew a line in the middle of the transit bus, made-believe it was sand, then instructed the redneck to forbid the African-American passenger to cross said line. Why? Well, as the rich white managed to assure the poor white, before resuming the backseat of his Driving Miss Daisy limo, the latter deserved the front of the bus, ‘cause you know ‘we white folk gotta stick together!’ This of course was music to the poor guy’s ears as he was beginning to feel his sweat-stained, wife-beater T-shirt was barring him from the 19th (watering) hole at Augusta. Certainly it wasn’t the color of his skin.
His elevated status in society thus reaffirmed, Bubba trained his eye on that line like it was his mamma’s backbone and the Mason-Dixon all rolled into one. So intent was he on his Jim Crow perk that he failed to notice the rich white guy being driven away in a ’48 Hudson while snickering at….everyone on the bus. The rich white guy knew what the poor white guy couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge: the American redneck is a sucker for token crumbs and invisible lines, the only real color is green and every other color is just a seat on the bus.
Though the bus-routes may change, this tactic remains as timeworn as it is diversionary. Therefore I cannot counsel my fellow, besieged, largely white, 21st century middle-class compatriots enough that, should they find themselves obsessing over uppity welfare queens (as some undoubtedly are), they have fallen prey, once again, to a venerable billionaire ruse. Of course no sooner do I type this warning than I know it will go largely unheeded. Everybody wants the scalp of a welfare queen if for no other reason than to prove such an entity exists beyond the fevered imagination of Ronald Reagan, which it never did. The last time the welfare queen was trundled out we got trickle-down economics. Nuff said.
While we’re on the subject of false divides and the putzes who perennially embrace them, can everyone who doesn’t own a vacation home in the South of France please get over this Democrat-Republican teacup storm? Nobody actively courts poor people so much as the latter tend to lumber dejectedly into lesser-of-two-evil calculations. For the poor, political decisions are not unlike that stupid reflexive property taught in high school algebra: “I’m going to get screwed or I’m going to get screwed, so I guess I’ll get screwed.” No wonder algebra has limited real-world applicability, especially in areas of urban blight. As for the poor, let them eat grim political calculus. Plus they’re forever bumming cigarette money. Frankly who needs them?
In real life, the Democrats chase trial attorneys, the Republicans chase HMO executives and so it goes. It’s not called retail politics for nothing. The point is both parties must chase money and everything ends up becoming what it chases—you know, the pigs are men and the men are pigs? It costs close to $1 billion to mount a presidential campaign. Poor people are useless for such a costly enterprise. Now, the Dems claim to be in it for poor people. But they really aren’t. Thus the blue-red demarcation offers, at best, a stylistic choice as to how the U.S. is going to be driven into the ground and by which guild or clique, nothing more. Remember, the Baskin-Robbins kiosk on the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic with all 36 flavors aboard. You want to arm-wrestle over howwe’re going to sink? The fact is we’re sinking. Stack the color-wheel with the deck chairs and the Chocolate Almond®, Captain.
I bet this is where you expect this essay to veer left-leaning liberal (LLL), yes? Hah! This is not a class warfare screed. There is no particularly compelling reason to favor the American poor over the American rich (beyond humanitarian concerns for the former in the event of hunger or extreme deprivation). A more rigorous empirical analysis should please all parties if only to properly characterize the post-mortem analysis. Fiscal responsibility (read: old-school sane Republicanism) is a political nonstarter because you don’t raise $1 billion running a tight ship. The entitlement craze is an epidemic, infecting all strata of American society (have the petit-Republicans forgotten too-big-to-fail, TARP, etc.) You might say the nation’s moral bankruptcy is endemic. You might also say the rich exhibit their lost moral compass more ostentatiously only because they have the financial wherewithal to do so; or that the poor are morally at sea on a smaller scale as befits their need to look ugly on a shoestring budget. Qualitatively, I see nothing that recommends one class over the other in any moral sense. There is no such thing as the virtuous poor any more than there is a sublime social glue called noblesse oblige. Everybody generally sucks to the best of his and her economic potential. Cause for wide suspicion arrived in 1987 when 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian teachings were suddenly overturned by one lousy sound-bite: “greed is good” (Gordon Gekko). We’ve been sinking under the moniker of ascent ever since. Greed is today’s oxygen. Too bad its symptomology conforms more to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Even if wealth was redistributed from the top to the bottom, the latter lacks the productive attributes anymore to do anything but plow their one-time windfall into consumption which would generate a momentary GDP bump, but no sustainable productive effect. The bottom part of America society is simply too far gone (in terms of inadequate education, marketable skills, etc.) to make productive use of the windfall. I hasten to add Paris Hilton is not exactly arrayed with a plenitude of marketable skills either. Our captains of industry have long since ceded the boardrooms to sad sperm and reality TV bimbos. Oh for the salad days of old-school sociopathic robber-barons. At least they built real shit like bridges and railroads.
So how many social workers are there in China? What is a social ‘worker’ anyway? It’s a former addict holding up a ‘portfolio’ of 20 current addicts. If my calculations are correct, that sums to one public-sector paycheck for every 21 non-productive Americans. The problems in America are no longer simply economic, fiscal (tweaks in tax policy) or even class-oriented. What a luxury it would be if they were. The problems are moral, structural, generational, cultural and impervious to short-term fixes.
America’s future is not in plastics. It’s in bananas—Brazilian ones to be precise—and not the new, BRIC Brazil either but the old one with Rio shanties, lean-to’s and street urchins digging through dumpsters. Absent substantive campaign finance reform for too long (a government captured, catastrophically for all, by the top), there is no redistributive remedy that the rich will permit, even to temporarily ameliorate the imbalances. If you take off your red, white and blue glasses (something the wealthy did long ago), there must be 200 cities around the world that provide better investment opportunities than Detroit. Globalization allows American wealth to travel the world with impunity in search of the optimal investment environment (long-long-term, this will probably equilibrate into a more equitable planet). Thus best-case, the U.S. faces an incredibly arduous multi-generational process of re-educating itself ‘back to the front’ of Kuala Lumpur as a comparatively more attractive locale for global capital.
A vaporized middle class serves no one. The wealthy will regret the middle’s demise no less than will the poor. Unfortunately greed is called blind for a reason. In their reptilian, blind pursuit of more, the wealthy have dealt a death-blow to the golden goose in the middle roost. This mindless plundering reflects an overall character slippage in the American upper class borne of inherited wealth, something John Locke took great pains to disparage. We are awash in too few Andrew Carnegie’s and too many Paris Hilton’s. The latter and her ilk will simply retreat to gated communities in a neo-feudal pique and polish her nails distractedly while the rest of us are left to roam the countryside like Chaucer’s highwaymen and beggars. Obama can’t help us. But then, neither could Romney.
Norman Ball can be reached at email@example.com.