The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. ~ Edward Dowling, Editor and Priest, Chicago Daily News (28 July 1941)
The people who are disassembling the social safety net in the United States offer two main arguments against social spending. One is that we can’t afford it; the other is that we shouldn’t do it.
The “can’t afford it” argument has no credibility because somehow we afford trillions of dollars for warfare. Why is it that we can afford to throw away trillions of taxpayer dollars on warfare, and its cousin the national security state, yet we are concerned that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are adding to the deficit and will all go broke before midcentury? Why is it right to spend huge sums of money spying on or killing people but it is morally and economically wrong to spend such sums on helping people?
That question raises the “we shouldn’t do it” issue. The right wing has been vocal about this. But they are just the bad cops in a good cop-bad cop routine. The right wing is willing to express ideas that alleged liberals and centrists will not state so bluntly: Devil take the hindmost.
Some people, like former Massachusetts governor and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-IL) continuously argue that social programs create a culture of dependency, victimization, and irresponsibility among the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some of the hardest working people who do society’s most necessary work are also the lowest paid. Consider farmworkers. Many of them are undocumented immigrants or “guest workers” hired by the agriculture industry to toil in bad conditions for horribly low wages. They do the backbreaking work of picking our fruits and vegetables. All human beings must eat, and it is recommended that to stay healthy, we should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. So farmworkers help everyone to stay alive and well. What do hedge fund managers do to benefit most of us? How many years would a farmworker have to work to make what a hedge fund manager makes in one hour?
The Koch brothers are billionaires who preside over a vast economic empire. They did not found this empire; their father did. They did not personally build any of the buildings that house their businesses. They do not make or distribute any of the products that the businesses in their conglomerate sell. They DEPEND on a vast array of suppliers, employees, and customers who buy their products.
Take, for example, Bounty paper towels. The company that makes them is a subsidiary of Koch Industries. How many of you even knew that, or learned it only recently because that fact was brought out in reports of the Koch brothers involvement in right-wing politics? If you use Bounty paper towels or any other product of Koch Industries, chances are very good that you use the product because of its price, availability, and performance, not because the Koch brothers own it.
So what justifies their becoming billionaires when they personally do so little to get their products into your household? What justifies Charles Koch sitting on his billions saying that the poor would be better off if we abolished the minimum wage? As we know from the fast food and Walmart workers strikes of 2012 and 2013, plus studies showing that taxpayers subsidize fast food’s and retail’s low wages through the very same social safety net people like the Kochs want to destroy, the current minimum wage is too low to allow people to adequately support themselves and their families. In a money-driven economy, the first consideration of any job is how much it pays.
Prof. Robert Reich of the University of California Berkeley, former secretary of labor under Pres. Bill Clinton, recently alerted his Twitter followers to a very important graph put out by the Economic Policy Institute. It shows that in all sectors of the economy there are more job seekers than there are jobs. The right-wing propaganda of poor people being dependent victims who only want government handouts is a total lie.
When you realize that there are not and never will be enough decently paying jobs–environmental, political and economic factors prevent it–you might start thinking about other forms of economics; that is, other forms of provisioning the world’s population. But you won’t get to that step if you buy the corporatist propaganda that working for a living is freedom while dependence on government programs is slavery and victimization. Both are bad because both give you as little as they can get away with and then blame you if you don’t have enough. You need to understand that, for most people, working for a living is as much a form of dependence as being on welfare. I’m not talking just about the people at the bottom of the economic ladder. I mean everyone who is in an employment-at-will situation, which, in the United States, is most workers.
Have you ever or do you know someone who has ever done a good job and yet been laid off? An employer only hires and retains people when his bottom-line dictates it. No one is guaranteed a job no matter how hard they work. Employment at will, the general rule of law in the United States, is, more often than not, the employer’s will. Employment at will means that an employer can fire someone for any reason that is not against the law or for no reason at all. According to this legal doctrine, employees have the same freedom to quit at any time. (Those under contract generally pay damages because it’s not considered viable to specifically enforce a contract for personal services). But due to the incessant demands of everyone’s master, the human body, people do not voluntarily quit as often as they are laid off or terminated.
If you think you are free because you are working for a living, guess again. You got that job only because someone else wanted you, and you retain that job only as long as that someone else wants you to. How good or loyal a worker you are doesn’t mean a hill of beans. How difficult it may be for you to find another job is not the employer’s concern. What matters is the employer’s bottom line.
You DEPEND on an employer for your living, who may not give you any paid time off or sick leave. Note that the United States is the only advanced economy in which employers are not required to provide paid vacations, and about 40 million Americans have no paid sick leave Your employer may expect you to take care of yourself in your old age by carefully saving for retirement while you’re living paycheck to paycheck in the here and now. Many employers who offer pensions at all have changed defined benefit retirement plans into inferior defined contribution plans (401(k) by which you are taking your chances with the Wall Street casino in the name of being free to manage your own retirement. If you were that good at playing the Wall Street casino, chances are you’d be working there now.
Beyond the dictates of the law, a private entrepreneur has to answer only to himself and to his investors. He does not have to care about the long-term well being of workers. The government, on the other hand, is responsible for the well-being of the entire community. If you don’t believe me, read the preamble to the Constitution.
In your role as consumer, you are also dependent upon the corporations. Someone recently said to me that she did not want to depend on someone in a gift economy giving her gifts. She wanted to be able to choose what she wanted. I pointed out to her that right now we only get to choose from what the corporations will give us. When I got engaged in 2011, I looked for a traditional white wedding gown. I wanted one with sleeves. Unless a bride is buying a dress hand-made to her specifications, she has to settle for a strapless or spaghetti-strap style. There are no sleeved wedding gowns in United States stores, even at high-end dress shops shown in bridal magazines and on TV; there haven’t been any for a very long time. You get only what the corporations will give you.
Let’s stop believing we are free and independent when we have to work for others or buy mass-produced goods. The corporations have most of us by the short hairs. The first step in solving that problem is to admit it exists.
About the author: Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. Her next major project will be an e-book called Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.