The Social Safety Net

The election having ended, the news from Washington now is about the looming so-called ‘fiscal cliff,’ and negotiations underway between Dems and Repubs to steer the ship of state away from it.  Oops, metaphor fail: ships don’t go over cliffs.  Ships sail on the oceans, which are reasonably flat, and don’t have cliffs. Is it a fiscal tsunami that beckons?  Works better metaphorically, I suppose, but still unsatisfying, since tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes, and this particular impending fiscal disaster is entirely man-made.  Jon Stewart took a stab at it last night on his show (though neither cliffs nor tsunamis respond well to stabbing), calling it an approaching fiscal asteroid, that we built and launched earth-ward, as a test of our asteroid defense system.  Jon then sang this song.  Pretty well, too; I didn’t know Jon Stewart could sing.  Anyway, we’re facing a financial Armageddon, with no Bruce Willis to save us.

It’s bad, anyway.  And so my conservative Facebook friends have finished working their way through the stages of grief over Mitt Romney’s electoral loss, and begun spinning out various ways in which it’s the cliff/tsunami/asteroid that’s going to bring about the Second Coming. And President Obama and John Boehner et al are in tense negotiations to come up with some kind of deal, despite the fact that the President insists that any deal must include tax hikes on rich guys, and cannot involve cuts to Medicare or Social Security, and Speaker Boehner insists that the deal absolutely cannot include any tax hikes on rich guys, and must include ‘reform’ of Medicare and Social Security.  And the cliff/tsunami/asteroid beckons.

But the more thoughtful conservatives and more rational liberals (both of which do actually exist) have been having a different conversation; about the role of government itself, about whether or not the United States should have a welfare state, whether or not cradle-to-grave social programs are affordable, or desirable, or constitutional, or something worth even having.  Should we continue to offer Medicare, really good health insurance for that sector of the population most likely to have major health problems?  Should we continue to provide that same population with Social Security, an guaranteed minimum income for the not-always-so-golden years?  And of course Obamacare is part of that conversation, and taxes and tax policy and marginal tax rates and payroll taxes.

To quote one friend in particular at some length:

Eric, it’s a pleasure to have respectful back-and-forth. Something that I don’t always have with my mother-in-law (very strong Obama supporter and ardent Democrat) ;). Makes for awkward Thanksgivings.

Two small points. I believe, that when I’m 65, advanced technology and personal fiscal probity will enable me to eschew dependency on a corrupt federal government wealth redistribution system.

My opposition is indeed ideological. But it is also based on hardcore practicality. When nations spend amok, they end up like Greece and Zimbabwe. People say, “That won’t happen here”. Hubris has been the downfall of people and empires for thousands of years. I am deeply concerned about the suffering that will occur when the Treasury stops printing peoples’ welfare/social security checks. Either we suffer now and return to fiscal sanity and get people to take responsibility for their personal fiscal future, or there will be a lot of hungry, starving, angry people rioting all across America when the checks stop flowing. And then the misery really commenced when people realize that the government, after all is said and done, really isn’t there for them. Apocalyptic future? Fear mongering? Laugh at me if you will, but it’s not only possible, but likely if we don’t stop spending trillions a year and mortgaging our grand-children’s future to China.

Okay, obviously I disagree, while responding to his passion. I see no evidence that the USA bears really any resemblance at all to either Greece or Zimbabwe; I think we’re the wealthiest nation on Earth, and perfectly capable of providing for our people.  But I don’t dismiss these concerns as facile or stupid; my friend is certainly neither of those things.  I think he’s overstating the nature of the problem, and I certainly think that when we talk about federal spending, the fact that we spend more on defense than the next 23 most defense-profligate countries on earth, combined, suggests some fairly obvious places where cutting spending might first occur.

But let’s go back to the central question, not what spending should we cut to pay for our version of a welfare state, but should we have a welfare state at all?  My friend counts on ‘personal fiscal probity’ to provide for his dotage; well, what about people who aren’t fiscally responsible?  Let ’em starve?  Or (as my friend would suggest), hope private charity steps in?

So, okay.  I was thinking about high school.  In my home town, Bloomington Indiana, there were a few major industries in town, and one big one: Indiana University.  Lots of people, including my Dad, were employed by IU, which had, as it happened, an exceptional retirement program, the fruits of which my Dad is currently enjoying.  But for a lot of my high school friends, they expected to work at the Westinghouse plant in town, making stereo systems.  Or the Otis Elevator plant west of town, making elevators.  Or the Sarkes Tarzian plant mid-city, making TV and radio components. Or in the limestone industry.  You graduated from high school, you got a job at one of the big employers in town, you joined the union, you put in your thirty or forty years, you worked hard, you raised your family.  You retired, with good benefits.  You played basketball in the driveway, and you watched the Hoosiers play on TV or live.  That’s what you did.  Those were the expectations.

Today? The limestone industry is basically dead.  Otis, Westinghouse, Sarkes T; they’ve all shut down.  The university is still going strong (even has a pretty good basketball team this year, though they’re still awful at football, long tradition there), but a good friend of mine teaches there, and the retirement program ain’t close to what it was when my Dad was there.

What’s the rhetoric today?  The average worker will work at several jobs in his/her lifetime.  Four, seven, nine; plan to be laid off, plan to have to retrain, plan for your company to go under.  Companies need to stay lean and mean.  Those 500 shares of Dell or HP you bought fifteen years ago; shoulda been safe investments, right?  Computers are always going to do well.  Sorry, pal, you shoulda bought Apple back in the day; those stocks have lost 80% of their value.  That company that was supposed to provide you with a good job and a good retirement; it shut down its American plants years ago; those TV components are being built at Foxconn in China.

What was President Obama talking about, running for President?  Get extra training at your local Community College.  There are good jobs in green energy.  For now.  Retrain, retrench, realize that in this tough economy you have to be tough to survive.  You have to be flexible.  And don’t count on unions; Walmart workers will never organize, and neither will the ‘enlightened employee du jour’, Costco.  You might want to think about nursing.  People are always going to get sick.

Isn’t that where we are?  I’m not overstating this, am I?  We’re not in a kind and gentle economy.  More like tough as nails.  I mean, the Republican candidate for President of the United States was a really successful businessman who made his millions by buying sick and ailing companies, loading them with debt and relieving them of ‘excess’ workers, and tossing what was left into the deep end of the pool.  A few learned how to swim really quickly.  A lot didn’t.  That’s the United States in the 21st century.  A flex-time economy, a tough economy, a relentlessly social-Darwinian economy. Corporate profits very high. Corporate influence, extremely high.  Some few really really rich guys.  With very weak unions, and high unemployment.

So let me just ask two questions:

Doesn’t that seem to you like a country that could use a strong social safety net?

Doesn’t that seem to you like a country that could figure out how to pay for it?




One thought on “The Social Safety Net

  1. Julie Saunders

    Just catching up on your recent posts, so this is a late comment. But I did want to point out that if you’ve ever lived paycheck to paycheck, I mean really paycheck to paycheck in the “my check better arrive on time or my electric bill will be late again” kind of way, you generally can’t save for retirement. You can barely, if you’re good, save for a movie ticket. And that’s the situation a lot of people are in now, and not all of them are technically below the poverty line.

    Now, if fewer taxes had come out of my checks at that time, would I have had more money to save for retirement? Maybe. Honestly, though, I probably would’ve just had to save it for the next time I was unemployed, which came frequently during my temp days (which is the game you have to play if you want the experience you need for a non-temp position, assuming one ever becomes available at your level).

    Thankfully I’m educated, adaptable, fairly personable, and luckier than average, so now I get to have one of those (staff) university jobs with a retirement program. I’m not naive enough to think that everybody gets that kind of opportunity, though, and I hope that’s still true of me once I’ve been steadily employed for long enough to forget about my leaner days.


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