Alt-Facts of Employment

 

Here is a topic I return every so often. It’s the related nexus of unemployment, permanent unemployment, and underemployment along with how it relates the larger economy, the black market, inequality, opportunity, welfare, poverty, homelessness, desperation, etc. I don’t have any new thoughts, but I was looking at a lot of articles and decided to share them.

There is so much disagreement over the data, what exactly is the data and what it means or doesn’t mean. The reason for this is that there is so little useful data. I’ve always been concerned not just about what the data includes but also what it excludes… and so who is excluded and for what or whose purpose. Still, much can be ascertained from what data is available, if one is willing to consider it honestly. The number appears to be shockingly low for adults working “good jobs” who potentially could work, if full employment was available (not to mention if full opportunity and economic mobility was available). So many Americans have given up on looking for work or the kind of work and many others, for various reasons, are simply not seen in the data.

So much of human potential goes wasted. This kind of data isn’t just numbers. It’s people stuck in place or running place, too often falling through the cracks. It’s people struggling and suffering, working hard and not being counted or else wanting to get ahead but feeling blocked. These people are frustrated and ever more outraged or else resigned. Many others are simply tired and just doing what they can, what they must to get by.

The poorest of communities, in a large number of cases, have the majority of their residents unemployed and the majority of their men caught up in the legal system. The main economy in these communities it the black market of drugs, prostitution, and other basic work paid under the counter.

The problems we face are far worse than gets typically recorded in the data and reported in the media. Some of these problems have been developing for decades, such as stagnating/dropping wages and the shrinking middle class. And they are inseparable from the problems of worsening corporatism, failed governance, lost public trust, growing national debt, crumbling infrastructure, externalized costs, and much else.

These problems are real and urgent for those who are most harmed by them. Data on such things as unemployment, however it is measured, is just the tip of an iceberg that sits teetering atop the tip of a vast oceanic mountain range.

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Nearly Half of Millennials Say the American Dream Is Dead. Here’s Why.
by Natalie Johnson, The Daily Signal

One in five suicides is associated with unemployment
Science Daily

The Opioid Epidemic and the Face of Long-Term Unemployment
by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Lack of jobs linked to gun violence at schools
by Megan Fellman, Futurity

Alternate Unemployment Charts
ShadoStats.com

The Invisible American
by Jim Clifton, Gallup

The Big Lie: 5.6% Unemployment
by Jim Clifton, Gallup

Gallup Is Right: The Unemployment Rate Is A Big Lie
by John Manfreda, Seeking Alpha

Only 44 Percent Of U.S. Adults Are Employed For 30 Or More Hours Per Week
by Michael Snyder, The Economic Collapse

Neither Employed, Nor Unemployed
by Bud Meyers, The Economic Populist
comment by Bud Meyers

Gallup CEO Blasts Press’s Complacency in Covering Unemployment and Underemployment
by Tom Blumer, NewsBusters

The Low Unemployment Rate Is A Momentary Calm Before The Coming Economic Storm
by Drew Hansen, Forbes

Long-term Unemployed Struggle as Economy Improves, Rutgers Study Finds
Rutgers Today

47% of Unemployed Americans Have Just Stopped Looking for Work
by Dan Kedmey, Time

US unemployed have quit looking for jobs at a ‘frightening’ level: Survey
by Jeff Cox, CNBC

In U.S., One in Four Unemployed Adults in Financial Distress
by Lydia Saad, Gallup

Nearly half of U.S. workers consider themselves underemployed, report says
bAlexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune

Despite Reports, Unemployment Is Still A Major Issue For Veterans
by Dan Goldenberg, Task & Force

Unemployment rates are higher for young people, minorities
PBS NewsHour

UIC Study Shows High Unemployment Among Black, Hispanic Youth In Chicago
CBS Chicago

Nearly half of young black men in Chicago are neither in school nor working
by Rob Wile, Fusion

One in four black, Hispanic workers is underemployed
by Andrea Orr, Economic Policy Institute

Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Job Crisis
by Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Drau, Demos

Nearly Half Of Unemployed Americans Are Under 34 Years Old: Study
Huffington Post

Fed: Nearly half of recent college grads struggling
by Irina Ivanova, Crain’s

Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States
New American Economy

ILO: Only one in four workers has a stable job
DW Akademie

New Study Predicts Nearly Half of All Work Will Be Automated
by Patrick Caughill, Futurism

* * *

A Sense of Urgency
America Is Not Great For Most Americans

Common Sense of the Common People
We’ve Been Here Before
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
Minimum Wage, Wage Suppression, Welfare State, etc
Invisible Problems of Invisible People
Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data
Worthless Non-Workers
Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?
Working Hard, But For What?
To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black
Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility
Race & Wealth Gap
Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration
End of Work as Endtimes
American Winter and Liberal Failure
Conservatives Pretending to Care About Economic Problems
Conservative Moral Order & the Lazy Unemployed
Conservatism, Murders & Suicides
Republicans: Party of Despair
Rate And Duration of Despair
Poor & Rich Better Off With Democrats
Unequal Democracy, Parties, and Class
‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Germany

‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Finland
Problems of Income Inequality

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place
Not Funny At All

Mean Bosses & Inequality
The United States of Inequality
Economic Inequality: A Book List
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good

Basic Income: Basic Solutions for Basic Problems

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

A basic income is an interesting proposition. For one, it is a fundamentally American idea.

In the form of a citizen’s dividend, it goes back to Thomas Paine through his recognition of the significance of the loss of the Commons to the average person. The founders understood the value of land and having access to it, and they realized it was upon land that economies and lives were built. The early government lacked an income tax for the reason the federal government was able to gain so much money from the sale and taxation of land. Paine’s insight was that financial gain from public resources, especially when given away and privatized, should be shared to some minimal degree with the citizens that the government constitutionally represents.

Later American thinkers such as the 19th century Henry George had related ideas. Like Paine, he supported free markets and the private use of land. Also, like Paine, he saw land taxes as a way of dealing with the social problems related to the loss of access to land and its value.

All wealth originates from land. The reason for this is because everything procured and made comes from natural resources, including human lives and communities (a close, entangled relationship existing between natural capital, economic capital, and social capital). All natural resources were public before they were private. All private gains made from natural resources is at least in part wealth removed not just from the public domain but also from future generations. This a touchy issue for Americans, as our country was founded on the notion of consent of the governed, which was understood by the founders to mean that one generation of citizens shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions for and force costs upon future generations of citizens. It’s the worst form of externalization, for those future generations don’t necessarily even get any of the benefits for what they end up paying.

Americans, in particular, have ignored these realities. We could do so, for in the early centuries of our country, Americans could fool themselves into thinking that land and natural resources were practically infinite. The government’s giving away of the Commons for free or below-market value seemed like a necessary incentive for growth, not a theft from the public good. In recent generations, this privatization of gains and externalization or rather socialization of costs has become more difficult to ignore.

The implementation of a basic income is a way of evening out of the playing field that has, through past political policies (along with plutocratic maneuverings), been intentionally or unintentionally made uneven. A basic income doesn’t eliminate the faux meritocracy and rigid socioeconomic hierarchy, but it does lessen the sting of the harshest consequences. The challenge posed becomes an ever more present problem as increases are seen with the mechanization of jobs and the related rates of unemployment and underemployment. Average wages have been stagnating, median wages have been decreasing, buying power for basic goods has taken a hit, economic mobility has fallen, the middle class is shrinking, economic inequality is growing, and on and on. An entire permanent underclass is forming in this new economy.

One solution made popular came from the Progressive Era. Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed everyone had the right to work, with government as the employer of last resort. This was understandable during a time of growing industrialization. It makes less sense under present conditions. Neither the job market or welfare is keeping up with the economic problems facing so many Americans. If real work isn’t available, creating pointless busy work doesn’t seem all that productive or inspiring of a solution, not to argue that public service can’t be a worthy form of work.

The point is: What end is work supposed to serve, if and when it no longer serves a market purpose? Real work or not, the government as an employer of last could end up being more expensive than present welfare and almost certainly would be more expensive than a basic income. How much would be willing to pay for employment for its own sake?

This line of thought could explain why a basic income has gained support from across the political spectrum. Even many libertarians are getting on board, as they see it as an attractive and viable alternative to a growing welfare state and the bureaucracy that goes along with it. Also, many people in general see as a failure such things as the call for raising the minimum wage, either a failure on practical grounds or a failure of imagination. A minimum wage just shifts the costs around, but it doesn’t alter the fundamental conditions and solve the fundamental problem. Sometimes shifting costs around is a necessary evil, as someone has to pay the costs (both financial and social), and at least the minimum wage is an acknowledgement of the problem itself, but maybe we should look to the systemic causes that go beyond any particular segment of the economy, even if one thinks raising the minimum wage is a partial or temporary solution. Basic income can exist with or without a minimum wage, for if the basic income is high enough a minimum wage simply becomes irrelevant and so would become useless as a political football.

A basic income obviously goes much further than present mainstream solutions. It turns a probing eye toward how public resources get allocated in the first place. It pushes the debate back to first principles and it questions upon what basis should our economy be built (not just the basis of politics and markets, but also that of the social values and moral vision). Also, it puts public costs and benefits squarely in the realm of public decisions to be made, not shifting the responsibility to private employers. A basic income could be designed in many ways, but it doesn’t even require an increase of taxes or any other form of altering the cost equation in the private sphere. It could be fully financed either through a redirecting of present welfare funds or through ensuring the economic value of natural resources is used toward this public good (or a combination of the two). I’m sure that diverse other funding possibilities are available as well.

As many realize, our present economic situation isn’t stable or necessarily even sustainable. We too often forget that this arrangement of capitalist employment is only a few centuries old, feudalism having had just come to an end as the US was being founded (and slavery extending feudal-like conditions well into the capitalist era). Traditional forms of economics existed for millennia prior to modern economics. Even within recent centuries, capitalism has changed drastically. Further changes are inevitable. We will have to deal with this, one way or another. The loss of jobs through better technology and more efficient markets could be seen as a sad fate, but it could also be seen as an opportunity to build a new kind of society.

Anyway, there is never a lack of work that could be done. Most of the work people already do is unofficial and unpaid, from raising children to community-building, from church activities to volunteerism, along with endless other wanted and unwanted activities that whittle away one’s time. Having more freedom and leisure could mean more time spent with family, community, and church; more time growing fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking healthy meals; more time building social capital, participating in democracy, and implementing social innovations; even more time to seek education and training to find better and more satisfying employment.

The problem for Americans has never been laziness. If anything, we’ve been obsessed with work to an unhealthy degree. America is the land of the Protestant work ethic. The question is how do we turn this drive to work toward ends that are economically sustainable, socially beneficial, personally satisfying, and politically liberating. How do we increase opportunities and access for people to have better lives, for themselves, their families, and their communities? Even during this time of increasing unemployment/underemployment and economic inequality, the economy is growing. The problem is obviously not a lack of resources and productivity. Rather, it is an issue of what kind of society we want to live in, not just for some of us but for all of us.

Don’t forget the alternative. We could always choose to live in a society with a mass population of a permanent underclass. Instead of something like a basic income, we could have increasing rates of poverty, welfare, ghettoization, crime, gangs, black markets, and imprisonment. That is the choice we are making at present by default. There is no indication that these problems are going to inevitably lessen through natural forces, market mechanisms, or somehow otherwise solve themselves.

Whether or not we do so consciously and intentionally, we are always making choices. Changing conditions means both new problems and new opportunities, and hence new potential choices.

* * * *

Related previous posts:

Bullshit Jobs

Governing Under the Influence

Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

Worthless Non-Workers

Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

Working Hard, But For What?

Work Ethic: Denomination, Region, Ethnicity

No, The Poor Aren’t Undeserving Moral Reprobates

Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility

To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Every Freedom Comes At A Cost of Freedom

The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

A Sign of Decline?

Morality-Punishment Link

Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

The Desperate Acting Desperately

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

* * * *

Relevant articles:

Mincome: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans

However, in his book, author Charles Murray concedes that a mincome-like plan may not be realistic… yet. “I began this thought experiment by asking you to ignore that the Plan was politically impossible today,” he wrote. “I end proposing that something like the Plan is politically inevitable — not next year, but sometime.”

Guaranteed Annual Income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Guaranteed minimum income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mincome – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Basic income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Global basic income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

List of basic income models – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Category:Basic income by country and region – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Citizen’s dividend – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Asset-based egalitarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Agrarian Justice – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Geolibertarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Georgism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Land value tax – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rent-seeking – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Value capture – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reserve army of labour – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Economic democracy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Four Freedoms – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Right to an adequate standard of living – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Second Bill of Rights – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Why We Need Movement Of Free People

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Thomas Spence (1750-1814) on land ownership, land taxes and the provision of citizens’ dividend

Debate Argument: Georgism Should be Implemented in the United States | Debate.org

Martin Luther King Jr. Where do we go from here

Martin Luther King’s Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Martin Luther King’s Economic Dream: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Solution to Poverty

MLK’s Other Dream: Economic Justice and a Guaranteed Annual Income

Four ways Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to battle inequality

Guaranteed income’s moment in the sun | Remapping Debate

Should the government pay you to be alive? – The Boston Globe

A Brief History of Basic Income Ideas

15 quotes that show Basic Income is the way forward

Wealth and Want: Citizen Dividends

EmbraceUnity » The Basic Income is Dead

Negative Income Tax: How does it differ from basic income?

Universal Basic Income versus Unemployment Insurance- Working Papers – St. Louis Fed

Unconditional basic income + flat income tax = effectively progressive income tax

Universal Basic Income as the Social Vaccine of the 21st Century

The Basic Affordability of Basic Income

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » The Economic Case for a Universal Basic Income (Part 1 of a series)

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » Could We Afford a Universal Basic Income? (Part 2 of a Series)

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » A Universal Basic Income: Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian Perspectives (Part 3 of a Series)

Funding Universal Basic Income by Creating Money, Not Taxes

The Pragmatic Case for a Universal Basic Income

Ten Reasons to Support Basic Income

Three Trends That Will Create Demand for an Unconditional Basic Income

If We No Longer Force People to Work to Meet Their Basic Needs, Won’t They Stop Working?

it’s all one thing: Four problems with work requirements for Basic Income

The Case For A Basic Income Guarantee

Krugman’s Argument In Favor Of A Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income gets mentioned to John Stossel on Fox News

Why the Tech Elite Is Getting Behind Universal Basic Income | VICE | United States

Vice on Universal Basic Income: A Response

Interview: Neil Jacobstein Discusses Future of Jobs, Universal Basic Income and the Ethical Dangers of AI – Singularity HUB

Afraid of Robots Taking Your Job? You Should Be

How to pay for such an outlandish idea? Tax the rich, particularly the truly rich. Our current tax brackets often fail to distinguish between someone who makes, say, $500,000 and $5 million. But this difference matters, as does the difference between $5 million and $50 million. To simplify things, let the Google and Nike and Narrative Sciences executives eliminate all the jobs they please, as long as their taxes support a guaranteed minimum income.

The Future Threat to Middle America No One Is Talking About

Why trucking matters: The country was built on transportation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.6 million long-haul truckers and 2.8 million truckers are in the workforce. The American Trucking Association estimates an additional 5.2 million people are employed by the trucking industry who aren’t drivers. That includes operations managers, sales personnel, repair staff and instructors.

Trucking creates an ecosystem of towns and businesses fed by the steady flow of human drivers who stop along their route for basic necessities. Scott Santens, a blogger about basic income and automation, wrote on Medium:

“Those working in these restaurants and motels along truck-driving routes are also consumers within their own local economies. Think about what a server spends her paycheck and tips on in her own community, and what a motel maid spends from her earnings into the same community. That spending creates other paychecks in turn. So now we’re not only talking about millions more who depend on those who depend on truck drivers, but we’re also talking about entire small town communities full of people who depend on all of the above in more rural areas. With any amount of reduced consumer spending, these local economies will shrink.”

Those truckers are like nutrients moving along the roots and outer branches of the middle American tree — and when robots don’t need to pull over to spend their money at rest stops, each of those secondary services loses its viability. According to independent research reports as recent as May, the truck stop and convenience store business alone is a $450 billion industry.

If self-driving trucks take over the roads, that puts 70% of the nation’s freight shipping in the hands of capable robots. That is, if the trucks of the future are all they’re cracked up to be.

Will self-driving trucks actually take over the industry? Detractors say the change toward automation will happen so gradually that the industry won’t be irreparably disrupted. Bloomberg economy columnist Megan McArdle argues:

“Overall, I think Santens is right that eventually, we’ll solve the problems and self-driving trucks will displace a lot of drivers. That will be good news, because truck accidents are extremely deadly. But I expect the number of jobs lost will be smaller than he thinks, and the change will be slower. So while eventually a set of former drivers will have to figure out what to do with their freed time, that’s likely to be a problem for the next generation of truckers, not this one.”

Martin Ford, author of a recent book on automation called Rise of the Robots, told Mic a number of other factors will prevent self-driving trucks from taking over. To start: They’re extraordinarily heavy objects to be moving around populated roads without drivers, and that any computer system is likely to have its security issues. “The technology might be there, but it’s going to take some time,” he said.

Another argument against the rapid loss of jobs is the concept that, like dozens of industrial transformations in human history, this change will create other kinds of jobs, like maintaining the automated trucks.

But Santens disagrees. “When we mechanized farming, we transitioned to services — but now we’ve hit this part where instead of automating muscle power, we’re automating brain power,” Santens told Mic. “Suddenly, all this work we’ve been shifted to is automatable. There’s a belief there will be all these new jobs. And yes, there will be some, but not the millions on millions that will be lost.”

Trucking in the U.S. was a stable, reliable source of income for millions of Americans. But now, as the sector explodes with new job opportunities in the short term, driver pay is also at a decadelong low.

But self-driving trucks are arriving soon. Even if, as McArdle argues, this is far enough off in the future that only the next generation of truckers will be affected, we’ll need to find many of those drivers new job opportunities. Jobs that can’t be immediately automated — a classification of career that’s becoming smaller and smaller in scope.

Basic income paid to the poor can transform lives

The main conclusion is that a basic income can be transformative. It had four effects, most accentuated by the presence of the collective body.

First, it had strong welfare, or “capability”, effects. There were improvements in child nutrition, child and adult health, schooling attendance and performance, sanitation, economic activity and earned incomes, and the socio-economic status of women, the elderly and the disabled.

Second, it had strong equity effects. It resulted in bigger improvements for scheduled caste and tribal households, and for all vulnerable groups, notably those with disabilities and frailties. This was partly because the basic income was paid to each individual, strengthening their bargaining position in the household and community.

Third, it had growth effects. Contrary to what sceptics predicted (including Sonia Gandhi), the basic incomes resulted in more economic activity and work.

Conventional labour statistics would have picked that up inadequately. There was a big increase in secondary economic activities, as well as a shift from casual wage labour to own-account farming and small-scale business. Growth in village economies is often ignored. It should not be.

Fourth, it had emancipatory effects. These are unappreciated by orthodox development thinkers. The poor’s liberty has no value. But the basic income resulted in some families buying themselves out of debt bondage, others paying down exorbitant debts incurring horrendous interest rates. For many, it provided liquidity with which to respond to shocks and hazards. In effect, the basic income responded to the fact that in such villages money is a scarce commodity, and as such that has driven up its price, locking most in a perpetual cycle of debt and deprivation.

A bipartisan proposal to make a universal basic income a reality in America

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

A Universal Basic Income Is The Bipartisan Solution To Poverty We’ve Been Waiting For

But would it actually work? The evidence from actual experiments is limited, though it’s more positive than not. A pilot in the 1970s in Manitoba, Canada, showed that a “Mincome” not only ended poverty but also reduced hospital visits and raised high-school completion rates. There seemed to be a community-affirming effect, which showed itself in people making use of free public services more responsibly.

Meanwhile, there were eight “negative income tax” trials in the U.S. in the ’70s, where people received payments and the government clawed back most of it in taxes based on your other income. The results for those trials was more mixed. They reduced poverty, but people also worked slightly less than normal. To some, this is the major drawback of basic income: it could make people lazier than they would otherwise be. That would certainly be a problem, though it’s questionable whether, in the future, there will be as much employment anyway. The age of robots and artificial intelligence seems likely to hollow out many jobs, perhaps changing how we view notions of laziness and productivity altogether.

Experiments outside the U.S. have been more encouraging. One in Namibia cut poverty from 76% to 37%, increased non-subsidized incomes, raised education and health standards, and cut crime levels. Another involving 6,000 people in India paid people $7 month—about a third of subsistence levels. It, too, proved successful.

“The important thing is to create a floor on which people can start building some security. If the economic situation allows, you can gradually increase the income to where it meets subsistence,” says Guy Standing, a professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, who was involved with the pilot. “Even that modest amount had incredible effects on people’s savings, economic status, health, in children going to school, in the acquisition of items like school shoes, so people felt in control of their lives. The amount of work people were doing increased as well.”

Given the gridlock in Congress, it’s unlikely we’ll see basic income here for a while. Though the idea has supporters in both left and right-leaning think-tanks, it’s doubtful actual politicians could agree to redesign much of the federal government if they can’t agree on much else. But the idea could take off in poorer countries that have more of a blank slate and suffer from less polarization. Perhaps we’ll re-import the concept one day once the developing world has perfected it?

From basic income to social dividends: sharing the value of common resources

Rethinking basic income in a sharing society

This model of economic sharing recognizes that all citizens have a right to income from the commons—such as land and other resources that are either inherited or co-created by society. Although this approach is rarely part of the popular discourse on implementing a citizen’s income scheme, the idea can be traced back to the work of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, who stated that “the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.”

As explained by Peter Barnes in his book With Liberty and Dividends for All, the majority of the wealth that’s inherited or created in society is captured and extracted by the rich, rather than distributed fairly among citizens. Meanwhile, the damaging social and environmental costs of this process are largely borne by the public or the biosphere. The simple idea at the heart of most proposals for a social dividend is therefore to charge user fees on shared resources, which can then be distributed to all citizens as a basic right.

Although an agency would initially have to be set up by governments to administer the program, it would operate independently of the private and public sector as a ‘commons trust’ that could conceivably manage a range of shared resources—from land, fossil fuels and atmospheric carbon storage, to the electromagnetic spectrum and intellectual property. According to calculations by Barnes based only on a specific selection of shared assets, the program could provide every American citizen with as much as $5,000 a year.

The real advantage of a social dividend from resource rents is that it would facilitate, rather than impede, the creation of a more equal society that embodies the ethic and practice of sharing. Unlike the standard basic income proposal, this alternative approach would not compete with existing welfare budgets, and it would therefore complement solidarity-based systems of social protection.

The social dividend also acknowledges that all citizens are entitled to a fair share of co-owned wealth and resources, which is a commonsense proposal with the potential to dramatically reform economic systems and enhance social cohesion. Since the value of common resources would be shared more equitably, social dividends present an important systemic solution to poverty that can counterbalance the injustice of a global economic model in which wealth predominantly flows to the richest one per cent of the world’s population.

In line with some of the common arguments made in favor of a basic income, social dividends would also increase our sense of personal freedom, since people would no longer feel forced to do menial or difficult jobs that they would otherwise undertake reluctantly or for reasons of survival. This would leave them free to devote more time to creative, cultural and caring pursuits, sparking a much-needed debate on the nature and purpose of work at a time when the escalating environmental crisis necessitates a radically new economic model that is no longer predicated on consumption-driven economic growth.

Furthermore, social dividends could have a transformative impact on individuals and communities, which could pave the way for more extensive changes across society. The additional income received by individuals could help sustain the indispensable unpaid activities that take place in the core economy by giving people the freedom to act on their inner desires to give or be of real service to others. This includes raising children and caring for the elderly, maintaining community relationships and mutual support networks, and participating in voluntary action and civil society organizations.

According to Edgar Cahn, the core economy produces “love and caring, coming to each other’s rescue, democracy and social justice”, which is why there is a clear imperative to rebuild and strengthen this fundamental aspect of society that is increasingly under assault. The profound relationship between genuine compassion and the creation of a more equal world was also vividly expressed by Martin Luther King, who once declared that “Standing beside love is always justice.”

Embodied in these insights is the hope that strengthening the bonds of love, empathy and reciprocity within communities could spark a cultural shift in favor of social justice, and that this could eventually find expression in democratic institutions and policy debates. By helping to resuscitate a rapidly diminishing core economy, a basic income derived from the value of collectively owned resources could therefore empower citizens to take a crucial first step in the co-creation of a truly sharing society.

The Aquarian Agrarian: Conservatives for Georgism and a Social Market Economy

The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Why reform conservatives should embrace a universal basic income

While Ryan’s expansion of the EITC is a good idea, it can’t address the bargaining power issue because getting the EITC is dependent on getting a job. So, like much of the rest of America’s social safety net, it can’t be used as leverage against an employer. Only a non-market wage of some sort can. By providing a little financial breathing room, a UBI would combat labor market slack and let more workers say “no” to jobs that don’t come with decent pay and sane schedules.

Unfortunately, this is also what makes reformocons nervous about a UBI, since they rightly recognize the profound human damage that’s done — to both individuals and communities — when people detach from the work force. Jim Manzi and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry have pointed to U.S. experiments with a negative income tax (NTI) — a close policy cousin to the UBI — that showed a drop in work effort of roughly 13 percent. However, the reduction wasn’t from people giving up on finding work entirely, but from people simply waiting longer during spells before taking another job — a crucial distinction. Most of them were mothers who chose to spend more time caring for their children, or young people who spent more time accumulating an education. A similar experiment in Canada around the same time found the same result. People weren’t “listing away in socially destructive idleness” as Gobry put it; they were simply contributing to the social fabric in ways not recognized by the market.

And even when it’s not parents or teenagers waiting longer to get a job, these would-be workers could very well be holding out because they’re waiting for a better deal — enforcing exactly the kind of market discipline on employers that results in better wages and treatment. All unemployment is not created equal, and reformocons should not fear the UBI on this score.

In fact, reform conservatives should embrace the UBI’s modest reductions of work effort. One of the reformocons’ primary concerns is for the “mediating institutions” of civil society; the families, neighborhoods, churches, community groups, charities and so on that make up the fabric of American social life. Perceptive conservatives like Patrick Deneen have long realized that it’s not just the state — reformocons’ typical bête noire — that threatens civil society, but the market as well. Ross Douthat, another reformocon, recently worried that “both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.”

When we are dependent solely on the job market for our income, a tyranny of need sets in: We must go where the job market dictates, when it dictates, and do as its vagaries determine. That’s why the closing of a factory can decimate a town, and why a layoff can ruin a marriage. The time and energy we pour into work is time and energy we cannot give to our children, our spouses, our community gardens, our church bible studies, our hobbies and talents, or to our bowling leagues. The job market can poison and rend the social fabric as easily as bolster it. But by rolling back the ubiquity of the market, while minimizing the government’s bureaucratic footprint (it requires minimal administrative overhead to send people checks), a UBI would thread the needle between the market and the state.

Pethokoukis has also worried that we’re headed toward a future where automation really does begin reducing the supply of jobs, or where the economy’s ability to deliver more corporate profits while employing fewer people becomes permanent. In that case, a UBI would also shift us away from the current situation, where total dependency on the job market means the most vulnerable Americans are the last to enjoy the benefits of increased productivity, but the first ones to be squeezed out of the labor force when another threshold of efficiency is reached. If the economy is learning to do more with less, then the ideal would be a world where attachment to the labor force remains high, but everyone just works fewer hours — essentially the opposite of what we have now. By equitably distributing some of those productivity gains, a UBI would make such a world a bit more likely.

By giving all Americans at least a little income that is not dependent on the whims of the market, a UBI would allow workers more pro-active control over when and why they do or do not engage with the job market. It would open up more time and space for people to participate in those mediating institutions, becoming a de facto investment in the health of America’s civil society. In fact, the investment could very well be literal; any UBI — but especially one financed by tax deduction closures and military spending cuts — would be a massive distribution of income down the income ladder, and most social data suggests the poor and working class contribute more of their income to their churches, communities, and local charities than do the rich.

Poverty: The argument for a basic income (Opinion) – CNN.com

This tidy, egalitarian concept isn’t new, and its support isn’t limited to the radical political left. Dig through the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s little discussed book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published in 1967, the year before his assassination, and you’ll find an endorsement: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective. The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize winning economist who was an adviser to conservatives Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, also supported a variation of the idea.

The basic income continues to have a diverse set of supporters — left, right and libertarian. They like the concept for different reasons, said Matt Bruenig, a writer and policy analyst for Demos. Those on the left tend to like it because it’s egalitarian. It helps give everyone an equal (or more equal) shot at success in our capitalist society. Some libertarians and right-wingers support the concept, meanwhile, because they see it as a way to whittle away at government bureaucracy. Some would have the basic income replace many existing social safety net programs. There’s also a conservative philosophy underlying all of this: Give people money and they, not the government, know best how to spend it. They know what they need. The feds do not.

Basic Income: From Paine to MLK; a solution to Welfare and Poverty?

Three Problems for Libertarian Supporters of a Basic Income

August 2014: The Basic Income and the Welfare State

Libertarians Debate Basic Income Guarantee

It might not be ideal—certainly “no libertarian would wish for a BIG as an addition to the currently existing welfare state,” writes Zwolinski. “But what about as a replacement for it?” He argues that the BIG would amount to less bureaucracy, less expense, “less rent-seeking”, and less paternalism.

Will a guaranteed basic income replace welfare? | Deseret News National

One of the strangest aspects of basic income proposals, which Matthews handles at length, is that there is substantial support for it from both ideological extremes.

On the conservative side, for example, libertarian political philosopher Matt Zwolinski joined the likes of economists Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith when he argued last year that such a policy could potentially simplify the current federal bureaucracy, lower costs and provide greater protections to individual privacy.

“In Libertarian Utopia, we might not have any welfare state all, no matter how limited or efficient,” he argued. But, he continued, “the question is not whether a GBI is a perfectly libertarian policy in every way, but whether it is more libertarian than the other realistically available policy alternatives.”

On the liberal side, many have noted that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for similar measures, as did philosopher Bertrand Russell. “In a GBI (guaranteed basic income) world, an employer has to make work somehow appealing enough to get employees even though everyone’s guaranteed a basic minimum whether they work or not,” Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate in 2013 (Yglesias is now an editor at Vox).

“But that ‘appealing’ factor could be high wages, could be valuable skills and training, could just be a pleasant work atmosphere,” Yglesias added. “Or (it) could be some combination of the three.”

Though there have been proposals in the past for some form of a basic income, most notably from the Nixon administration, most pundits, including Matthews, aren’t optimistic that such a major change to the American welfare system could come any time soon. Still, they argue, it’s at least worth a look.

Basic minimum income is a BRILLIANT idea. Small problem: it doesn’t work as planned

It should be fairly obvious that the other group of people who support this idea, us over on the very free market right, don’t necessarily support it for the same reasons. Yet it is true that this is where the other focus of support is. My own support comes from the incentives problem.

I’m pretty much convinced that incentives matter to people – there would be little to be said about economics if this were not true. What you get, after tax and benefits withdrawal for your labour, is obviously an incentive that affects your willingness to labour. As the Budget points out every year (it’s one of those things it is supposed to detail each year) there’s several million people who face marginal tax and benefit rates of 70 per cent or more. There’s even a couple of hundred thousand over 100 per cent.

By earning an extra pound or ten in a week they actually end up with less money in their pockets and have also had to work more to get less. You don’t have to entirely buy into a strict reading of Art Laffer’s famous Curve to believe that this is going to reduce the amount of extra work that these people are going to be willing to do. They’re thus stuck in a poverty trap; they work more and get less, therefore they won’t work harder and get over that hump into better territory.

Please note the implication of this: yes, us free market right w(h)ingers really do think that hugely high marginal tax rates affect the poor just as they do the rich and that therefore we shouldn’t have them.

So, from this point of view, just give everyone some amount of money per week, untaxed and not withdrawn as incomes rise and those poor will face hugely lower marginal tax rates. It’ll thus leave room for the incentives for people to slowly improve their situations through extra work, better work, experience, education and so on. We have, we hope, solved the poverty trap caused by the current tax and welfare system.

This is largely the argument that Charles Murray (yes, he of the Bell Curve) used in his book on the subject, “In Our Hands”. The collision between tax rates and benefit withdrawal rates is such that we’d be better off just giving everyone some cash and letting them get on with it. If that means they go to the beach all their lives so what? It’ll be a minority that do and we’ll all still be better off.

The problem really boils down to us asking, what is the definition of “basic” that we’re using here? There’s some who want to call for a universal income: something like the UK’s living wage of £15,000 a year or so. Without taxing the economy into oblivion, that’s just not going to happen. Murray’s worked out that the US, a much richer place, could afford about $10,000 a year per adult. But do note that that replaces everything else: the entire welfare state, including old age pensions (or Social Security as the colonials call it) disappears into that one $10,000 per adult payment.

The Green Party is talking about £75 a week or so, which is pretty minimalist for even the word “basic”. The assumption seems to be that we’ll all eat off our own potato patches. Despite how that they’re not very good at explaining where the money will come from, the answer is obvious: it’s folding large pieces of that welfare state into making that payment.

Dillow and I seem to think that something around the level of the pension guarantee could be done: £130 a week. But at that point you really have stripped absolutely everything out of the welfare state to pay for it. Pensions, tax credits, personal allowances for tax and so on all disappear into the gaping financial maw of said universal basic income. And we think that all would be better off in such a system.

Money for nothing: Mincome experiment could pay dividends 40 years on | Al Jazeera America

For those on the left, basic income represents a chance to strengthen the social safety net and more evenly redistribute wealth, while some American libertarians view it as a way to cut back on bureaucracy and provide individuals with greater personal choice. There’s disagreement, however, on whether there would be accompanying tax hikes and whether other social programs would remain in place.

Karl Widerquist, an academic and vocal supporter of basic income, suggested its rising popularity in the U.S. springs from concern over income inequality spurred by the Great Recession. “It’s really incredible how much it’s grown so fast, and there’s no telling where it will go,” he said.

The Dauphin experiment, like four others in the United States around the same time, was an attempt to measure if providing extra money directly to residents below a certain household income would be effective social policy.

Dauphin was unique among those studies in that all residents of the municipality and surrounding area, with a population of about 10,000, were eligible to participate if they met the criteria.

For those who didn’t qualify for support under traditional welfare schemes, such as those for the elderly and the working poor, Mincome meant a significant increase in income. Low-wage earners had their incomes topped up.

Richardson, for instance, recalls collecting about 30 Canadian dollars some months. That’s the equivalent of about CA$145 today (US$133).

The experiment produced a trove of data, but the results were never released. After changes at the federal and provincial government levels, the program was shut down without a final report or any analysis.

Decades after the program ended, sociology professor Evelyn Forget dug up records from the period and found there were far-reaching benefits in the education and health sectors.

In a 2011 study she reported an 8.5 percent drop in hospital visits, a decrease in emergency room visits from car accidents and fewer recorded instances of domestic abuse. There was also a reduction in the number of people who sought treatment for mental health issues. And a greater proportion of high school students continued to the 12th grade.

As with U.S. experiments during the same period, there was no evidence that it led people to withdraw from the labor market, according to her research. “It’s surprising to find that it actually works, that people don’t quit their jobs,” said Forget, a University of Manitoba professor. “There’s this fear that if we have too much freedom, we might misuse it.”

What happens to kids when you give families a universal basic income? | JSTOR Daily

In a 2010 paper, a team of researchers looked at how the payments, which started in 1997, affected children. They determined that the payments increased the likelihood that kids would graduate from high school and reduced the chances that they would get involved in criminal activity. That was particularly true for the town’s poorest children. For those kids, an extra $4,000 in annual household income added up to an additional year of education and a 22 percent reduction in the chance of committing a minor crime at ages 16 or 17.

How does giving families money help kids? The researchers found at least part of the explanation seems to be that adults who received the payments were able to be more effective parents. They were less likely to commit crimes and more likely to know where their kids were and what they were doing. Children in families receiving the payments also reported a higher number of positive interactions with their mothers (though there was no statistically significant effect here when it came to fathers).

The authors suggest that getting a bit more money reduces stress and other mental health problems related to poverty. (Parents receiving the payments didn’t work any less, so the change was not about simply spending more time with their kids.) The fact that a simple transfer of money could produce this kind of change provides an interesting corrective to the frequent focus on supposedly deep-seated cultural differences to explain class differences among children.

Lessons from Mincome: How a Basic Income Would Improve Health

A Canadian City Once Eliminated Poverty And Nearly Everyone Forgot

Two years before the Harper government shut down its operations, the National Council of Welfare released a damning report criticizing how welfare rules are trapping people in poverty.

“Canada’s welfare system is a box with a tight lid. Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance,” said TD Bank’s former chief economist Don Drummond after the social agency’s report was released in 2010.

“But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You have no means to absorb setbacks in income or unexpected costs. You can’t afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills.”

Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal is a longtime proponent of a guaranteed annual income policy. He believes the program could save provinces millions in social assistance spending on programs like welfare.

Instead of being forced through the welfare system, people’s eligibility would be assessed and reassessed with every income tax filing. Those who don’t make above the low-income cut-off in their area would be automatically topped up, similar to Mincome in Dauphin.

[ . . . ]

“I would think it’s fair to say ideologically, the present government would eye the notion that this is some ‘kooky left-wing scheme’ without addressing the fact that really strong social and economic conservatives like Milton Friedman argued in favour of a negative income tax,” he said.

In Canada, the idea of an universal basic income was first presented at a Progressive Conservative policy convention in October of 1969. Then-leader Robert Stanfield argued the idea would consolidate overlapping security programs and reduce bureaucracy.

Bullshit Jobs

The Robot Economy and the Crisis of Capitalism: Why We Need Universal Basic Income
by The Philosopher’s Beard Blog

“Finally, and more positively, a basic income would allow us to take advantage of the liberation offered by material abundance. As the anthropologist David Graeber noted in a recent essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, when you look at the content of most of the work people do these days, “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” The cult of work has persisted long after it stopped really making sense and the material prosperity prophesied by Keynes came to pass. A great many people are trapped in jobs that are wholly or mostly pointless – Graeber has a particular go at corporate lawyers and university administrators – simply because they need to earn a claim on the productivity of the economy somehow, and automation has reduced the number of jobs in industries that make or do things that are actually useful, like growing food or building things.

“Artificial intelligence would undermine most of those pseudo-jobs, to the extent that they are worth doing at all, while a basic income would provide us with the freedom as a society not to set out to create a new set of pointless jobs, as flunkies to the new upper-classes, say. Finally we would be able to stop wasting half our waking lives on activities that really don’t matter whether we do them or not. Finally we would all have the right to the dignified leisure of the gentleman, not the hopeless and morally stigmatised inactivity of the unemployed. We would be able to live our lives for ourselves, though whether we would use that freedom to embark on noble projects and philosophical contemplation, or merely to watch more TV and play golf is another matter (and one I have tried to address elsewhere).”

ON THE PHENOMENON OF BULLSHIT JOBS
by David Graeber, Strike! Magazine

“The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them” [ . . . ]

“Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

“If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.”

Worthless Non-Workers

Our society highly values work. This is true for Western society in general and American society in particular. Even poor people tend to mostly organize around work, such as with labor unions. Work is the defining feature of a industrialized capitalist society. Even those who don’t work are defined by the fact that they are unemployed.

Yet our society is increasingly making work obsolete for most people. In a traditional society, almost everyone works in one way or another. Even the toddler in a traditional society helps his family, including handling dangerous tools such as knives. That was still true in Western society until about a century ago.

Child labor in mines and factories was made illegal. Also, universal public education was implemented. Part of the motivation was that adults didn’t want to compete with children for work, because children would work for far less money. So, adult workers organized to eliminate the competition and store children away in babysitting centers that we call schools.

Along with mass education, there were other mass developments (mass institutionalization, mass incarceration, mass welfare, mass homelessness, etc) that also have contributed further to the non-working population. We now live in a society where most of the population doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the people who do work are working more hours than they have in recent history. Older people are retiring later and working more, which has forced young adults into unemployment and underemployment.

On top of this, offshoring of jobs, deinstrustrialization, and technological automatization has created a permanently unemployed underclass. This has hit poor minorities the hardest, but all poor people have been hit hard. The inner cities, once burgeoning centers of industry, have been hollowed out and turned into ghettoes and slums. The once great mining regions have spiraled into some of the worse poverty and desperation in the country. And the rural small family farms have been bought up by big ag that employs far fewer people (farm tractors are so advanced now that they drive themselves using GPS).

Still, we go on idealizing labor as if it is the most basic standard of human worth.

When Will the Inevitable Come?

I was thinking about trends. Nothing new, yet the wheels of my brain were going round and round. I can’t help but wonder how long this can go on.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Big business profits steadily increase as the middle class disappears and wealth inequality grows. The unemployed and underemployed are getting to around a quarter of the population and growing. Poverty and homelessness is on the rise. A large number of people are on welfare or in prison.

If you counted all these Americans, that might be around a third of the population (or more) that has become an apparently permanent underclass, a discarded and oppressed people, the so-called “useless eaters”. And there is no hope in sight of it reversing. If anything, it will just get worse and worse.

This is my theory for why the the prison population grows so much (even while crime decreases), more than most other sectors of the economy. The Prison-Industrial Complex is Big Business, the second half of the Military-Industrial Complex (the latter being the single largest part of the US economy). How many citizens have to be imprisoned before it can be declared we live in an authoritarian/fascist/corporatist police state?

I think we have long gone past that point. What is the step that follows authoritarianism? Do we go to more overt forms of concentration camps? Does the government create more perpetual wars in order to send all the excess population off to die fighting the poor and desperate people in other countries?

It isn’t even just the US. It’s not like immigrants are taking away our jobs for jobs everywhere are disappearing. Many people in other countries (most people in quite a few countries) have also become a permanent underclass. The same big businesses and big governments driving this trend in the US are driving this trend around the world.

I’m always surprised by how few people seem to see this happening. It is the one thing that rarely if ever (certainly never fully) gets discussed in the MSM. It will almost inevitably lead to world war, revolution or genocide. How this story ends is completely predictable in the broad terms: mass suffering and violence. The only thing stopping this from happening over night is the twin forces of the welfare state and the police state. Even my respectable upper middle class conservative father basically agrees with me that revolution would follow if the mass welfare and imprisonment suddenly ended.

The answer conservatives always offer me is that there needs to be more private charity, just put a few more band-aids on the gushing wound. Or else they say all these ‘lazy’ people just need to work harder. Really!?! What a brilliant solution! As soon as they can find work or get out of prison, they’ll certainly try that working harder idea.

I just never can figure out why those in power want to push the world over this ledge. The temporary gains for the powerful are alluring I’m sure, but the consequences are going to be ugly for all involved. How will all their wealth comfort them when the mobs rise up, when the bombs start dropping on their mansions and gated communities, or when the desperate armed men show up at their offices and boardrooms? You’d think the plutocracy would understand they have a vested interest in avoiding this tragic result of their own making.

The saddest part of all is nothing in this post is an exaggeration nor a conspiracy theory. It is just a simple explanation of the world we live in and where it is heading. People aren’t disappeared in our country. There is no need to speculate about it. We know what happened to these people. We know where they are. They are in prisons and jails, in inner cities, in poverty-stricken communities, in projects, in homeless shelters and on the street. They are hidden in plain sight. Their numbers are growing and at some point their numbers will be too large to control.

None of this had to be this way. It wasn’t always an inevitable outcome, but sure seems to be getting that way. We came to this point through a few decades of choices. The clear trends of this growing inequality didn’t become apparent until 1970s and could have been reversed early  on. Even with the 2008 economic debacle, major changes could have been put in place. People could have been held accountable and regulations could have been strengthened. Instead, the plutocracy just doubled down on the exact same type of actions that brought us here in the first place.

It feels like a collective madness. I guess we’ll just have to play it out and let events resolve the issues we are afraid to face.

I’ve said this all before and I’m sure I’ll say it all again and again.

American Winter and Liberal Failure

American Winter is a new documentary that is out right now. It’s about how easily families can fall from middle class into poverty, even when they do everything right.

I watched a free screening of it, along with my brother and a friend, at a community-supported theater that closed down years ago as a for-profit movie theater. That community theater seemed like an appropriate venue.

The turnout was fairly impressive as it was almost a full house. I wonder what impact documentaries can have. I put great faith in knowledge, but it is easy to be dismissively cynical about any positive change resulting.

If anything, I see the fact of such documentaries even being made, much less watched, as the result rather than the cause of changes that are already happening (whether or not it is positive, it would be a bit early to say). Just by casual observation, it is clear that public opinion is shifting and that the former consensus has been eroded. What profoundly saddens me, though, is the knowledge that such cold-hearted capitalism/corporatism not too long ago was strongly supported by so many average people. An entire generation of Americans turned their back on those in need, and too many continue to do so.

It wasn’t strangers far away who supported such moral corruption. Conservatives obviously supported it and even many liberals supported it, probably quite a few of the people around me at that theater. Those who got their slice of the pie thought everything was fine and it apparently never occurred to them what would happen when no one baked any more pies and the last slice was taken.

None of this was forced on the American people, although it could be said that the American people forced it on many others, both the struggling in this country and all around the globalized world. American voters bought the rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Meritocracy, trickle down, free markets… the rhetoric sounded so nice, just as long as it was only other people suffering the consequences.

What woke up the American public was their too late realization that they were part of the struggling masses. A refrain by the people interviewed in the documentary was that they never thought that it would happen to them. Only worthless losers, lazy deadbeats, welfare queens, moral failures, social reprobates, criminal leeches and other inferior types ever need or ask for assistance from others… or so goes the unstated rhetoric that these people had come to accept.

Predictably, people love to judge others for their problems until the same thing happens to them. It is such condescending judgment that allowed it all to get so bad. But why does it take immense personal suffering, not to mention near economic collapse, to remind people of basic compassion and common decency? This frustrates me to no end. Why do we have to let problems become so festering and overwhelming before we even allow honest public debate? All of this is as preventable as it is predictable… or rather it should be preventable because it is so predictable.

One of the major points of American Winter is that for these families poverty was preventable. None of this is a mystery or even complicated. All it takes is the collective will to implement what we know has been proven to work.

This point was expanded in an interesting direction. It is cheaper to prevent the problem than to pay for taking care of it after it becomes a problem.

That doesn’t even include all the secondary costs incurred if the poverty becomes established and continues, especially if it creates a permanent underclass of the severely impoverished: permanent unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, psychological stress and related issues, alcoholism and drug abuse, drug dealing, gangs, crime and imprisonment, violence, increase of homicides and suicides, prostitution, unstable families, divorce, single parents, low grades and lower school achievement, dropping out from high school, not going to college, lack of health insurance and quality healthcare, etc. Add to that all the other problems that go with a shrinking middle class, low socioeconomic mobility, and growing economic disparity: food deserts, obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, STDs, teen pregnancy, and on and on and on, ad infinitum.

All of it is preventable and is less expensive than the alternative. What is most interesting about this is that there isn’t a good criticism that can be offered by conservatives of any variety, especially not fiscal conservatives. Only the most hearltess libertarian or the most belligerent Randian objectivist could dismiss both the moral and fiscal reasons for ending and preventing poverty. It isn’t a matter of not being able to afford poverty prevention. Quite the opposite. We can’t afford to do nothing.

Besides, democracies that get too large of economic inequalities inevitably become banana republics. There is no way to have political democracy without economic democracy. Of course, many on the right would claim they don’t want any democracy at all or else as little of it as is possible, but they should be careful what they wish for. They will get it if they continue to push their luck, assuming we aren’t already past the point of no return.

Meritocracy is presented as a close enough approximation to democracy and/or a replacement for democracy. Hard work is the reward we are to accept for allowing ourselves to be politically disempowered. Voting with our dollars is supposedly all that matters, corporate personhood for corporate ‘democracy’ with the corporation that has the most dollar-votes getting to represent us the consumer-citizens, a la Citizens United.

Indeed, the ideal of a meritocracy is an odd thing, specifically as rhetoric meets reality.

In the documentary, one particular person (a guy with a down syndrome son) demonstrated how this oddness plays out on the personal level. He was one of those who never thought it would happen to him. It was clear that he was deeply ashamed. He said that a grown man in his fifties shouldn’t have to ask his father to pay the electricity bill. How I interpreted this was that he thought a mature adult should be an autonomous individual who is dependent on no one, not even on the closest of family during the most difficult of times.

What seems most odd about this is the simple truth that we all are interdependent on one another. It’s just a fact of reality, not something to be ashamed of. The entire planet is one big interdependent biosphere and humans are the most socially interdependent of any of the species. We humans will deny our interdependency to our own peril.

It has been said, “No man is an island.” Well, I’d say that a self-made man is a mystical beast living on an imaginary island. Even the fairies in fairyland have a hard time believing such a thing could exist.

It’s not just that behind every successful man there is a woman or vice versa. Behind every successful man, there is any number of things: a healthy community, well off social connections, a privileged childhood, etc. The strongest determinant of wealth in America right now, as was mentioned in the documentary, is growing up with wealthy parents. This is to say that most wealthy Americans inherited their wealth and/or the conditions of their wealth, rather than having earned it through hardwork and merit alone.

This isn’t the American Dream. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. Or to put it into Gilded Age terms, we’ve been railroaded. Plutocray has been the dream of rich white men for centuries, most of the founding fathers included, but plutocracy has been the nightmare of average Americans since at least when George Washington violently put down the first populist revolt.

With the plutocratic rhetoric of meritocracy, one of the great boogeymen is the welfare queen. It took corporate propaganda sold by an actor-trained president to convincingly sell this hatred of the poor, presented with a kindly-looking smile, but sold it was. In the standard narrative, the welfare queen is a poor black woman (the antithesis to the rich white man) who out of wedlock pumped out the children (slut) to get free government money (whore) so as not to have to do honest work (lazy) and so as to live the high life driving expensive cars (leech).

The poor black woman was the target of rich white men’s lust during the slave era, but now that she is free who knows what she will do in retribution for the sins of the rich white men’s fathers. Although a demented dark fantasy, it does have its own internal logic of sorts, not unlike the logic of portraying Obama as his father’s son come from dark Africa to seek his anti-colonial vengeance upon white man’s Western society. It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Fearmongering aside, who are the real welfare queens?

A welfare queen takes more than gives, especially those who assume benefits as privileges without attendant social responsibilities. This is anyone who personally benefits from publicly-funded services and whose lifestyle is dependent upon publicly-funded support. This is anyone who accepts any kind of community offering or public good, including public resources taken from the commons, without reciprocation and fairness. This is anyone who takes more than they need when others have greater need, anyone who takes advantage of those less powerful and less fortunate, and anyone who disregards precautions about and investments toward the long-term sustainability of society and the impact on future generations. A welfare queen is defined by their selfishness, greed, and sociopathy.

It is clear that I’ve just described the prototypical modern big business. Nothing surprising about that.  American Winter briefly touches upon an aspect of this, although all too briefly.

A weird form of corporate welfare has developed. The modern transnational corporation isn’t sustainable itself without massive financial support from public funds. What capitalism has perfected is the externalization of costs.

Without welfare and food stamps, without unemployment benefits and public health services, without  public education and state colleges, there would be no functional workforce that could survive on such low wages as offered to most employees. Governments subsidize corporations by paying for what citizens can’t afford with minimum wage. There is something majorly wrong when many if not most of the people receiving government funds and services are those who are employed, yet don’t make a living wage. And when corporations move factories, they leave behind massive unemployment and poverty that is taken care of by the government.

This is is just one aspect of externalized costs. Other aspects include social destabilization and undermining of local economies, bailouts and subsidies, pollution and environmental degradation,  and selling below the market value of natural resources from public lands, etc.

The majority of United States citizens would quickly descend into third world conditions if not for the government hiding the consequences slowly destroying American democracy and American communities. As Fran Lebowitz explained it, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” Or as the Borg put it, “Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own…”  and “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

This sad state of affairs demonstrates a rot at the core of capitalism. This is where American Winter fails to meet the problem beyond emotional appeal.

The documentary lacked a coherent and compelling narrative. I wasn’t inspired because there was nothing offered to be inspired toward. The problems were explained with data and real world examples. I was emotionally moved by human struggle and suffering. But then what? Where is the deeper analysis? Where is the vision?

In watching the documentary, I had an almost passive sense about the portrayal of poverty. It felt like a problem that happened by accident, an unintended consequence of focusing on other things such a decreasing federal spending.

In the documentary, people kept saying that such poverty isn’t what it means to be an American and that such downward mobility isn’t what the American Dream is about. That is fine as far as it goes. There was sadness and desperation, but I sensed no deep outrage. The people were worried about their families, but no one spoke about or was asked about their fears for the fate of America as a country, much less concerns for the suffering and poverty all around the world.

If they had used the middle class family as a jumping off point to get to a larger frame, so much more could have been communicated. As it is, the documentary is a lost opportunity. It isn’t particularly memorable. It is like a hundred other documentaries I’ve seen before. Nothing about it stands out and demands attention.

More importantly, I doubt it would be watched by many who aren’t already aware of the problem and persuaded that it is serious. I can hear in my head how conservatives would dismiss or ignore the view presented. Middle class families as a vague general category don’t make for a powerful symbol that can come close to competing against the dark vision of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, a single poignant image lingering in the collective mind for decades that simultaneously imagines the problem for honest tax-paying Americans and imagines how the cause of the problem is destroying America and the American Dream.

I have a soft place in my heart for liberal do-gooders. Nonetheless, the liberal lack of vision and insight ultimately just depresses me. American Winter is good for what it is, but not good enough for what is needed.