Fear of a Majority Faction

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Before picking the sweet corn today I glanced at the local paper. This edition carried more than its share of reports (without useful context of course) indicating the increasingly down-scale nature of existence in Maine and these United States–for those outside what John Kenneth Galbraith once called “The Fortunate Fifth” of the population.

Page 1’s lead story announced: “Scarborough Comfort Inn to stop sheltering homeless people.”  A “staggered eviction process” will “facilitate the safe and orderly removal of all (80-plus) current guests.”  The town council balked at renewing the hotel’s operating license.  Reportedly “the Opportunity Alliance” had been paying the rent for these otherwise unhoused citizens, and the hotel owner was taking the money, but that’s over.

Famously, there is no right to housing in the USA. So there you go.

Page B3 headlined: “Church in Auburn ordered to remove homeless encampment.” Apparently a U.U. church in town had been allowing poor people to shelter on church grounds for some months, but the “encampment is clearly visible from the road and has drawn noise, smell, and other complaints from multiple local businesses and neighbors.” So they’re out under the city’s Disorderly House Ordinance. “Between Sept. 3 and 18 police responded to six calls….. including one call reporting a suspicious condition from someone that the police termed a ‘paranoid neighbor.’”

A page B4 report noted, “Winslow food pantry struggling to keep up as demand surges.” Two days a month the “Winslow Community Cupboard opens up to about 220 people in the parking lot behind the Winslow Congregational church.” The food is purchased from the Good Shepard Food Bank at reduced rates per pound. Founded in 1981 and like most similar non-profits, Good Shepard’s mission is to “end hunger.” It is currently affiliated with Chicago-based “Feeding America” ——formerly America’s Second Harvest. (Wikipedia)

Relying on voluntarism and charity to solve structural economic, political, and social problems has a long history in the US. But if “ending” hunger, homelessness, or illness untreated is the aim of the voluntarism, one must eventually conclude that the efforts are ineffective.

Worse yet the presence of these “non-governmental” initiatives give elected officials and political institutions a pass on doing something meaningful to create a more equal and prosperous society. Jane Poppendieck, author of “Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement” wrote back in 1998, “The people who want more inequality are getting it, and well-meaning people are responding to the resulting deprivation by handing out more and more pantry bags and dishing up more …. soup.”

How’s that working after all these years?

As it happens the United Nations Office of Sustainable Development produces an index which routinely ranks nations focusing on environment and equity—— quality of the lives of regular folks.  By those standards, UK Guardian columnist Area Mahdawi recently observed: “Better than Bulgaria but not as nice as Cuba: How did the US become such an awful place to live?”

She asks, “What do you call a country where nearly one in ten adults have medical debts and a broken bone can boot you into bankruptcy? A country where a city of more than 160,000 residents recently had no safe drinking water for weeks? A country where life expectancy has dropped for the second year in a row and poor people sell their blood plasma in order to make ends meet? A country where the maternal mortality rate of black women in the capital is nearly twice as high as for women in Syria?”

The UN’s most recent index has dropped the US from its former position of 32nd among nations to 41st. This suggests we’re “becoming a developing country.” Stated differently: “A poor society with some very rich people.”

A recent Financial Times article by John Burn-Murdoch compares the UK and US with more advanced countries by similar “data points.” He writes, “The rich in the US are exceptionally rich—the top 10 percent have the highest top-decile disposable incomes in the world….. But the bottom decile struggle by with a standard of living that is worse than the poorest in 14 European countries including Slovenia.”

It’s hard for citizens here to vote themselves a better life. That’s by design. The “framers” of our pre-modern constitution were very careful to engineer a system where “the majority faction” couldn’t “invade the rights” of the rich. (See Daniel Lazare.)

As James Madison argued in Federalist Paper #10, the aim was to “make it more difficult for all who feel….a common motive” (i.e.  national health insurance, free college, guaranteed housing)  “to discover their strength and to act in unison with each other.” Under the Madisonian check-and- balance/divide-and-conquer constitutional regime, “ A rage for paper money, for the abolition of debts, for an equal distribution of property, or for any other improper  or wicked project” could be structurally blocked.

Gotta hand it to him.

It’s still working.

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rerhames@gmail.com