Entries from April 2010
I am currently in the process of buying a house and it’s overwhelming thinking of all the stuff I will have to go through with closing coming up and then moving, dealing with having a yard, and all the little headaches of home ownership. I’ve been living happily in an apartment for the last three years, and while the house is far nicer, there are definitely some down sides. I think similar feelings are the reason for the tea-party movement. We, as a country, are going through some big changes currently and while sometimes big changes can lead to something good, change itself has a cost. How many people do you know that will put up with something annoying rather than put in a bit of effort to change it? I’ve been guilty of that. A wise man once said, “Change will only happen when the cost of staying still becomes greater than the cost of making a change.”
And let’s face it, we humans hate change. Sure there are those of us who love variety, but by and large we like our routines to stay the same. If we have to do something differently, it means figuring out a new system which involves emotional and mental investment. Often that investment pays off, but there is no guarantee of that going in. For me, moving from an apartment that I’m mostly happy with to a house that I will likely be very happy with constitutes a risk. What if I’m not happy? What if the benefits don’t outweigh the annoyances? In the apartment, if something breaks you call maintenance and they come and fix it for you. In a house, you’re it unless you call someone in and pay them to fix it.
Add to that the fact that in every change there are winners and losers. In moving out of an apartment and into a house, there may be things that annoyed my wife about the apartment that are solved by the house, while there may be things I liked about the apartment that are lacking in a house. With political and cultural change, the people who are winning are going to oppose change because they might not be the winners once the dust settles. Those who are secure and those that the current system fails will embrace change, those who lack security but for whom the system largely works will oppose it. And we see that with the protesters. The Tea Party people are better educated than average and make more than the average American, yet they’re out there protesting. They’re the ones for whom the current system has largely been working. Which is why they so vehemently hate the government in Washington that promises change. It’d be like winning the house cup after a long year of effort only to have some last minute rule change hand victory to another team.
They feel angry. “Their” country is being taken away from them and given to people who are not like them. The systems that let them be the winners and those other people the losers are being changed to favor the losers. They won the championship and now the losers are getting a first round draft pick, and it’s going to be harder to compete next season. (Ugh, did I just make a sports analogy? I HATE sports analogies!)
But there is a major problem with the white-hot anger that burns in their guts. The fact is, at least so far, change has been mild and largely in their favor. A large majority of the tea-party conservatives believe that their taxes have gone up, when in fact they have been cut. They protested tax freedom day (The day when we stop working for the government and start working for ourselves) despite it being the earliest it’s been in decades. Despite any of these changes, the winners will remain winners. They just might have to try a bit harder to stay ahead. They might not have as big a lead as they once did.
This animosity towards change that they feel is a very gut-level instinct. If people actually thought about these issues, they’d probably realize that government doesn’t have that much control of our day-to-day lives and if we who are above average in the money department end up paying an extra couple hundred dollars, it’s not going to hurt us as much as it’s going to help people who really need it. But it will hurt. Change always hurts. Even really good change can feel bittersweet. Change that is lateral or only slightly for the better can feel as bad as change for the worse. For a lot of these protesters, their lives are not being changed all that much for the better or worse, but change is being forced upon them. And they resist it. Skipping work to go protest is less painful than having change thrust upon them, even if said change does not negatively effect them much.
In a way, I can understand the conservative impulse. I’m experiencing it now. Where I am currently is pretty darn good, moving forward is uncertain. And yet, even if I sit still, the world still moves forward. If I sit still, the world will move around me until the place I’m staying in becomes completely unfamiliar. It is the paradox of the conservative movement. It is the urge to stay still when it is impossible to do so. The same people who fought against medicare years ago are the very people defending it to the death now. It’s not about policy, it’s a deep-seated fear of change. Conservatives want to go back to how it was, when things were simpler (they weren’t) and people were more open and caring (they weren’t) and politicians were honest (they weren’t.) Pushed to the extreme, they are no longer merely conservatives. They are Regressives. But I feel a bit of that impulse, that fear, that uncertainty. But I’m going to keep moving forward. If the world changes anyway, I might as well try to keep up. It beats stagnating.
A lot of the arguments I hear lately have been accusing the administration of “Wealth Redistribution” by which they mean “Communism.” It’s one of those loaded words by which those opposed to progressive ideas demonize them by painting a picture of your hard-earned money going to lazy, good-for-nothing bums so they can afford a better television than you. The idea of “Welfare Queens” has been around for decades and has not been weakened by the sudden increase in formerly hard-working real Americans joining the ranks of the unemployed. The argument goes that giving people who are down on their luck (which is what we used to refer to lazy non-working people as) enough to get by on until they can get back on their feet will just make them lazy. That if we stopped giving them money, they would just go out and find a job. This despite many areas having 30-100 applicants for any available job.
I’m sure there are any number of examples of lazy people making a bare living off of unemployment, however to get unemployment you have to have been employed. To get Social Security, you have to have paid into it. The idea of the government handing out entitlements to people who have never worked a day in their lives is simply not accurate. The people who blow their food stamps on expensive shoes are simply not going to be able to eat. Those who are gaming the system for their own benefit and living off the government dole are breaking the law and should be brought to justice. The problem is the mentality that seeks to get as much out of the system as possible without contributing to it. It’s a problem that is not confined just to the poor. The rich benefit the most from the system while many are lobbying, loop-hole finding, and generally doing their best to contribute the least to the system that makes their wealth possible but also props up those lazy bastards who should just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps the way we did!” I object to this “I’ve got mine, screw you!” mentality. We as a nation are all in this together. The “This” is making this country the best it can possibly be.
Redistribution of wealth always happens, whether we like it or not. Generally, the redistribution comes in the form of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. If this gets out of hand and the robber barons are too unreasonable, it can lead to violence. It is not unreasonable for the government to take steps to prevent the disparity of wealth from reaching “Let them eat cake” levels. They do this in three significant ways.
The main way governments redistribute the wealth is from all to all. Government invests our tax dollars in the things that benefit everyone, like infrastructure. Things that we all benefit from we all pay for: roads, bridges, communications, police, fire fighters, the military, and in some places health service. Even if I never travel down a particular road or cross a particular bridge, its existence allows others to travel to new destinations quicker and easier, allowing them to more easily buy products and services that increase our economy’s health and that benefit our nation as a whole. Police to protect us from criminals and firefighters so that a fire in one building does not level a city. The military to protect us from foreign attack, communications so that we can talk with people from across the country and around the globe (and hopefully buy things from them.)
The second way government redistributes wealth is many to few. When the government takes everyone’s tax dollars and uses the money to benefit a select few. This can either be to benefit the wealthy (pork-barrel politics) or the poor (Welfare.) While few people have issue with the government fixing the roads (we just wish they’d do a better job of it) or making the trains run on time, lots of people have issue with our tax dollars going to bail out irresponsible banks or irresponsible home-owners whose reach exceeded their grasp. The problem is determining who was a responsible person that hit a patch of bad luck and who is a lazy slacker who brought their situation upon themselves. It’s not always clear. In some cases, the government helping the poor will give them the opportunity to get back on their feet, and in others it will create a person totally beholden to the government for their existence. Many people have a problem with this setup, and it is reasonable for them to be slightly miffed that their hard-earned money is going to those who don’t work. (I’m personally a fan of having those on welfare work a day or two a week at community service to improve their communities, clean up trash, etc. in order to earn their welfare payment.)
The last distribution is the Robin Hood phenomenon, few to many. Take from the rich and give to the poor. Even many of the poor who would most benefit have a problem with this. There is a fundamental unfairness that someone who has worked hard should be unfairly burdened. It is unjust. However, there exists a subset of this wealthy group that make this a bit more complicated: the heiresses. The people who have never worked a day in their lives and yet jet about in extreme luxury. The people, in short, who make money by having money. Money tends to attract more money. At a certain level, you can stop working and let your money pay for your living. If I had a million dollars, and were able to find a savings account that gave me five percent interest, I could comfortably live off the interest. (5% of a million would be $50,000 a year, which is way more than what I’m making currently.)
There is also the obscene amount of money that CEOs and Bank Presidents make. How would you even spend $300 million dollars? If I made $100,000 in one year, I’d be able to pay off all my current loans and still have a hell of a down-payment on a house. $300 million dollars? Really? I did a brief, unscientific survey a while ago and the consensus seems to be that you can live comfortably on around $40,000 a year. $50,000 if you have kids. With that kind of money, you can pay the bills, pay for a car, and make a mortgage payment or keep current on your rent.
The median income in the United States is $44,000 a year. Roughly 45% of Americans live on less than $40,000 a year. For a quick estimate, if you figure a fairly nice house has a mortgage of $1000 a month, food costs $400 a month, utilities (gas, water, trash service, electricity, phone service) cost another $400 a month, someone making $40k a year would still have $1500 a month to work with to pay off debts, buy things, and save up for future catastrophes. Someone making $20k a year (which 20% of us do) would probably have a crappy apartment for $600 a month, $2-300 for food (which tends to be unhealthy food. The good stuff is expensive.) $400 for utilities, and they’re left trying to pay down debt or make a car payment on $350 a month. Heaven help them if there’s an emergency or they get sick.
On the other hand, if you make $100,000 a year, you have over $8000 a month to work with. You could afford a mortgage payment on a McMansion of $5,000 a month and still have double left over for food, clothing, car payments, and spending of someone making $20,000 a year. Let that sink in. If someone making $100k a year bought a house in the same price-range as someone making $40k, paid the same in food and utilities, they would have $6500 left over every month. Imagine what you could do with $6500. Every month. Now imagine what it would be like to have $19,000 left over every month. Which is what you would have left over per month if you made $250,000 and still lived in what the $40k set would call a “Nice neighborhood” but which you are now starting to think of as “The Ghetto.” How would you spend $19,000 a month? If you’re smart you’d invest it to start living off the interest, but if you wanted to spend it? What would you buy?
Now imagine taking $20,000 from the man making $250,000 ($1600 a month) and giving it to the guy who is only making $20k a year. (Not necessarily in a handout. It could be in the form of health-care, better working conditions, help with housing, etc.) $250k guy isn’t going to miss it much, he’s still got $17k to work with, but it’s going to make a huge difference for $20k guy. And yet, this is stealing. We are robbing the rich and giving to the poor. This is not just. If $250k guy chose to give it, there would be no problem, but if we as a people take it, we as a people are stealing. Which raises all sorts of questions.
Does stealing from someone who will not feel it to aid the poor who desperately need it feel justified? If $250k guy blew a gasket that the government was stealing from him and taking away his hard-earned money, would you have sympathy? What about $1.5M guy? Should someone who has benefited the most from the American financial system be obliged to help those less fortunate, even if he doesn’t want to? Would someone who makes $20,000 a year feel insulted if he is offered help? Should he?
And finally, how much is enough for you to live comfortably on? Would you be willing to give up a bit of comfort so that someone who isn’t making it can get by?
While I said in a previous post that I have more respect for people along the poles of political alignment, (Straight libertarians, conservatives, totalitarians, and progressives) I still have an issue with anyone who takes those beliefs too far or holds them too strongly. We are in a polarized political climate, and the more ardent the political belief, the further it pushes people to the edges. Think the free market needs a bit of regulation so greedy businesses can’t run roughshod over the economy? You’re obviously in favor of government takeover of everything. And so on and so forth.
And it becomes more and more of a problem to argue with someone the more and more strongly they believe something. If someone believes that Obama is a closet communist and no amount of contrary evidence is going to convince them otherwise, it becomes impossible to have a functional conversation with that person since that underlying premise is at odds with other people’s beliefs (and also objective reality.) Most reasonable people would give up, which leads to the jeer that, “You can’t argue with THAT, can you?! I win!” I would argue that causing all your opponents to walk away in disgust is not winning when it comes to arguing your side. Winning is convincing your opponent that your ideas, not theirs, are correct. having beliefs so strong that they do not even entertain the possibility of being wrong and will ignore any evidence that contradicts their theories isn’t just losing, it’s tipping the board and scattering the pieces. You not only don’t win, you actually push your opponents to take up arms to oppose you.
For instance, the healthcare bill. I believe that it’s a compromise, a deal that will probably do more good than harm, but that leaves everyone unsatisfied. (As opposed to leaving progressives very happy and conservatives apoplectic.) However, due to the furor raised by the right over supposed “Death Panels” and the like, I came out in defense of the bill, a bill which I would otherwise have been rather apathetic about. There is a balance in politics, and the more you push to one side or the other, the more the other side pushes back. The problem comes when both sides push too far out and something snaps. If you become so far apart politically, you can no longer communicate with anyone of differing views. If you can no longer communicate, you lose your ability to enact positive policy.
We live in a representative democracy, which means that the elected are not elected leaders, they are elected representatives. They represent us, the people of their district, state, or country. Optimally, our representatives would be the best of our district, state or country. We are sending them to represent us to the world. However, since elections require a majority of votes to win and the accepted way to get votes is to fire up the base, we get representatives that speak for roughly half of their constituency. They are elected over the protest of their opponents.
If people do not feel they are fairly represented, they become angry. Sometimes this is justified, if they are prevented from having their say in the matter. Sometimes it is not, when they have had their say and a majority decide otherwise. Further problems occur when someone’s strongly held belief becomes more important than the process of democracy. If someone believes so strongly that the current path the government is on will lead to ruin, they will take matters into their own hands, regardless of evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This is dangerous to a working democracy.
So what to do? The obvious thing is to not believe things too strongly. No matter how right you think you are, there is always the possibility that you are wrong. Always. Second, understand that things are never, ever going to be as good or as bad as the extremists believe. If you hear that a particular ruling will end democracy as we know it or will solve all our ills, don’t believe it for a second. Things are never as simple as the true-believers say it is. There are always unintended consequences, but lets not pretend that we know exactly what they are. If we did, they’d be intended consequences.
Thirdly, acknowledge that people believe things differently than you for a reason, not just because they’re idiots. Nobody believes we should take up communism because it leads to totalitarian regimes and the purging of all who disagree. Nobody believes that unregulated free-market capitalism is great because it allows the rich to feed off the poor. There are good and bad things in any system of government, the trick is to account for them and try to set up checks and balances to smooth out the rough edges. If we believe too strongly in any one particular platform, we ignore it’s ills and when a rational person of a different stripe talks to us and brings up an issue, we don’t have an answer short of “Oh, that’s not a problem. If the system runs right, it takes care of that.” Which doesn’t answer the question of how it takes care of that or what happens if things aren’t running right. It is far better to listen to criticism and think of solutions to those problems than to blindly follow a belief full of holes. And all systems of government have holes.
The absolute best way for our government to run is to pick and choose working solutions from any and all ways of thought. Libertarian ideals aren’t necessarily going to solve things, but they do point out the weakness in totalitarianism. Conservatism can’t move the country forward, but Progressives do well to listen to their concerns, they’re more likely to see the unintended consequences of progressive policy. (At least if they’re doing their job right and not beating each other into a frenzy with the crazy stick.) We need all ideas on the table to have a healthy debate and a working democracy, with representatives working together to find solutions and weed out problems in legislation. If we get too hung up on our own ideology, we become unable to work together to forward the common goal of a better country. It is a sad day indeed when people hold an ideology so strongly that they would rather see the country burn than work with those whose opinions differ from their own.