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On Real American LifeDaniel Johnson Salem-News.com
There must be an economic floor for social existence, beyond mere subsistence.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - There was a time, only a few centuries ago, when the adolescents of North America—not the palefaces—were taught about the world they were about to enter as men. Although they had been observing the adult world since infancy, in early adolescence they were initiated into adulthood and taught how to track, hunt and fish; how to make weapons (primarily for hunting, seldom for aggression) and tools; how to read the sky for predicting the weather; and many other subtle skills. We might today call it a sexist society, but the adolescent girls were taught their own set of related skills—primarily around what we would call “homemaking”.
The young men and women then entered an adult world where they had valued skills with roles to play in the society at large.
The young men and women in today’s society are not so fortunate. They are given lots of theoretical knowledge, lots of general interest information, but when it comes down to how the real world works, they are essentially cast adrift with luck generally playing a dominant role in how their lives play out.
There is a well known phenomenon in our society where people on welfare (relief, social assistance, the Dole) tend to come from parents and grandparents who are, or had been, on welfare. It’s a vicious cycle that no one seems to know how to stop. This failure exists because of blinkered thinking, particularly in the United States which is the least humane of all the developed countries. In the pre-civilized (for want of a better term) society of the first paragraph, those who could no longer contribute to the commonweal were not turfed out on the “street”, as such people are here in Canada and the U.S. Rhetorical question: Which society is the civilized one? Poor laws and workhouses have a long and disgraceful history in Western society. Political scientists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward wrote a lengthy, disturbing book titled Regulating the Poor: The functions of public welfare. The second edition came out in 1993, from which I will liberally quote (no pun intended).
“ The harsh treatment of those who had no alternative except to fall back upon the parish and accept ‘the offer of the House’ terrorized the impoverished masses. That, too, was a matter of deliberate intent. The workhouse was designed to spur people to contrive ways of supporting themselves by their own industry, to offer themselves to any employer on any terms. It did this by making pariahs of those who could not support themselves; they served as an object lesson, a means of celebrating the virtues of work by the terrible example of their agony. Three years after the Poor Law Commissioners of 1834 decreed the abolition of outdoor relief and expansion of the system of workhouses, Disraeli accurately said of this reform that ‘it announces to the world that in England poverty is a crime’.”
In society overall, they note:
“The regulation of civil behavior in all societies is intimately dependent on stable occupational arrangements. So long as people are fixed in their work roles, their activities and outlooks are also fixed; they do what they must and think what they must. Each behavior and attitude is shaped by the reward of a good harvest or the penalty of a bad one, by the factory pay check or the danger of losing it. But mass unemployment breaks that bond, loosening people from the main institution by which they are regulated and controlled.”
Mass unemployment is the reality in America today where one in six workers are unemployed or underemployed. This is about millions of workers and millions more—their families—who are in economic trouble through no fault of their own.
Take the auto industry as an example. People there have worked for many years, sometimes two or more generations in a family, making cars. When the auto industry collapsed, many became unemployed—those making cars and those down the line in supporting industries.
What can these people do in American society today? In the native society of the first paragraph, if a person somehow became disconnected from his society in an equivalent way to our auto worker, he had options. He still knew how to hunt or fish for food for himself and his family, find or build shelter and so forth. Our autoworker is not so fortunate.
Food is in the supermarkets and he has access to that food only if he has money. He cannot seek out shelter on his own—everything in the city is owned by others. In the final analysis he and his family will probably be thrown onto the public purse where his presence will be resented by working Americans. As Piven and Cloward observed:
“Some of the aged, the disabled, the insane, and others who are of no use as workers are left on the relief rolls, and their treatment is so degrading and punitive as to instill in the laboring masses a fear of the fate that awaits them should they relax into beggary and pauperism.”
This is morally shameful. Our society is complex and interlocked on every level. I’m reminded of something that Canadian historian James Gray said about his experience in the 1930s Depression on the Prairies.
When Gray applied for relief in 1931 he said that “at home were my wife and daughter, and my mother, father, and two younger brothers. Applying for relief might prove the most humiliating experience of my life (it did); but it had to be done, and I had to do it. The deep-down realization that I had nobody to blame but myself made the journey doubly difficult.” (italics added) But it was not his fault. He and millions of others were victims of a global depression, just like in America today. Depression or no, economic distress can happen to anyone at any time. No matter how self-reliant or independent people believe themselves to be, they can be undermined in a moment.
There are still Americans who blame the jobless for their plight.
Alexandra Jarrin, 49, had a corporate job making $56,000/year and was enrolled in an MBA program. In March 2008 she lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company near NYC. In March 2010, she received her last unemployment cheque, being one of the first wave of so-called 99ers--people who have exhausted 99 weeks of extended benefits. Ms. Jarrin, evicted from her apartment, now lives in her car. When it is repossessed, she will be on the street. Shelters where she has applied have waiting lists. There are nearly 700 comments on her NYT story. One commenter, "Peter" in NYC wrote, in part:
"And I should pay higher taxes, and borrow more from China, to support this woman? Not in the United States of America, I should not have to. She has chosen and created the circumstances of her own life. That is freedom."
He doesn't say, but I wonder if "Peter" would have any more compassion for some of the victims of Bernie Madoff, who he is supporting in prison through his taxes.
If the company a person has worked for for decades, decides to move elsewhere, or goes out of business in this economy, they are out on the street. They have no control over this. If they are self-employed, their business can be lost just as quickly in this economy. And if they have money and believe themselves to be secure, it too can disappear in the blink of an eye. Just recall the people who went through Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Even with millions of dollars to start with, a few of them emerged on the other side destitute and near homeless. Some of them lost everything and ended up just like the laid off autoworker.
Piven and Cloward describe the dynamic of work:
“Under capitalism, the distribution of workers is mainly the result of monetary incentives or disincentives: profits or wages, or the threat of no profits or no wages. As these incentives ebb and flow in response to economic changes, most people are more or less continuously induced to change and adapt. Continual change in labor requirements also means that, at any given moment, some people are left unemployed. In subsistence economies every one works; the labor force is virtually synonymous with the population.
But capitalism makes labor conditional on market demand, with the result that some amount of unemployment becomes a permanent feature of the economy. In other words, change and fluctuation and unemployment are chronic features of capitalism.”
In his book Capitalism and Freedom, conservative Nobel economist Milton Friedman argued that “a central element in the development of collectivist sentiment…has been a belief in equality as a social goal and a willingness to use the arm of the state to promote it.” (underline added) But what, he asked, is the justification for state intervention? His answer:
The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market is, “To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.” The operation of even this principle implicitly depends on state action. Property rights are matters of law and social convention. As we have seen, their definition and enforcement is one of the primary functions of the state. The final distribution of income and wealth under the full operation of this principle may well depend markedly on the rules of property adopted.
This is where the luck mentioned above comes in. Very few people enter the adult world with “instruments” that produce for them. What the vast majority of people have is the labour of their hands and minds. That’s all they have to sell to prospective employers.
It’s the irrational fear of collectivism that terrifies so many Americans. They refuse to acknowledge that they actually are a de facto collective; they are all in it together. There is also a resentment that someone may get something for nothing while they have to work. This is a misinterpretation of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (3:10) where he said For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." The key words are “will not”. Paul was referring to a commune of Christians where some people were there as freeloaders. But the numbers there were small. In today’s society, there are millions of people affected. There are bound to be some who game the system, but you cannot collectively (there’s that word again) punish everyone because of a few miscreants.
Friedman commented about equality as a social goal which is a reference conservatives use to scare everyone. But equality is not the goal. If some work harder than others, then it is only proper that they should get more for their efforts. No one, except perhaps for a few extreme socialists, want a levelling of the economic outcome.
I quote FDR from his 1936 presidential acceptance speech: “An old English judge once said: ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives a man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”
James Gray recounted his experience in the 1930s Depression: “We received no cash in relief, and for the first year no clothing whatever was supplied. Relief vouchers covered food, fuel and rent, and nothing else. But we needed other things—many other things like tobacco and cigarette-papers, tooth-paste, razor blades, lipstick, face powder, the odd bottle of aspirin, streetcar fare, a movie once a week, a pair of women’s stockings once a month, a haircut once a month, and a permanent twice a year. Most people tried to find twenty-five cents a week, every week, for a newspaper. Unexpected needs continually cropped up, like needles and thread, darning wool, a bit of cloth for fancy work, a pattern for making a dress, a half-dollar every other month for a co-operative half-keg of beer for a neighborhood party at which the Woodyard could be forgotten. The catalogue of essential trivia differed from family to family, but it seldom added up to less than a rock-bottom minimum of $1.50 a week.”
There must be an economic floor for social existence, beyond mere subsistence. There has to be reasonable, minimum standards for the support of those fellow citizens who are unable to work or support themselves through no fault of their own.
If this is not an acceptable American ethic, then when people become a charge on the state, it would be better to put them out of their misery by shooting them. America has, after all, enough guns for that job. This echoes the infamous Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer who opposed government support of the poor. “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place
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