The Ethical Spectacle, August 1995, http://www.spectacle.org

Anchors or Life Preservers: A Welfare Debate

Anchors or Life Preservers: A Welfare Debate

During June, I exchanged the following letters with "Bob Wilson", author of one of only two flames I have received out of the many letters received so far:

Dear Mr. Blumen:

Browsing the liberal musings of your frustrated contributors as they bemoan the tide of conservatism that is sweeping the country in the wake of the Clinton disaster, I can only laugh at the hate and venom spewing from their keyboards. Face it people, liberalism is a bankrupt theology and the years of the "Great Society" are finally ending. Trillions of dollars wasted on social engineering has produced a society that is devouring itself. Long live Newt!

Please omit my E-mail address as I don't need the hate mail.

Bob Wilson

Dear Bob:

I will run your letter and omit your email address as requested. Yours is only the second negative letter I have received out of forty or so since I started the Spectacle in January. Actually, nothing I have written was with hate and venom, though much of it was with extreme distress. Let me ask you some questions: is compassion an important value? If so, given that the Democrat's approach has not worked, how would you help the poor? Finally, do you believe Mr. Gingrich is a compassionate man?

Dear Jonathan:

Thank you for your consideration of my input to your forum. You asked me two questions to which I am happy to respond. First, you asked if compassion is a positive trait. My answer is, of course it is. Unfortunately, to a person of the "Liberal" persuasion, "compassion" includes the concept that there is an "obligation" on the part of the government to "right a percieved injustice" to a class of people who are perceived (by the Liberal in question) to have been wronged. The real problem with that is two fold: #1. There usually are quite justifiable arguments to refute that the perceived "wrong" done to a particular group is anybody's responsibility other than their own. and, #2. The particular fix inevitably involves the transfer of wealth, from others who have, through honest effort and intellect, acquired it, to those who have and will not. This wasteful process constitutes a disincentive to work and an incentive to mediocrity on the part of those who are potentially most productive, and who create CAPITAL in this country.

When the propensity to create capitol is diminished, jobs become more scarce. You see, government does not create CAPITAL, and thus, does not create JOBS. When that happens, the very group that liberals want subsidized becomes larger. Thus, the ranks of the "oppressed," and the cycle of poverty becomes widened. But, in the eyes of the "compassionate" liberal, at least things are more equal. The misery has been spread more equitably. Without an understanding of basic economics, and with a large amount of what you term "compassion," you assail the "greedy capitalists." This wacky "left wing" mind set, albeit well intentioned at the lowest level (don't think for a minute that the left wing politicians like Ted Kennedy or Jesse Jackson believe it...their entire power base depends upon the existence of a class of dependent victims) usually disappears as you grow through your thirties and realize that in this country, at least for the moment, hard, intelligent work will usually pay off. Then when you notice that about half of your pay is "taken at the point of a gun" by the government for "programs" which cause more problems than they fix, you begin to understand. The liberal difinition of compassion assumes the worst in those who have achieved. Somehow, those who "have" have somehow taken it from those who don't. That, of course fuels the class warfare argument upon which liberals survive.

To answer your second question--Is Newt a compassionate person..Yes he is. He understands that bigger government is not the answer to most of the problems of our society. He knows that if you treat people fairly and offer opportunities, not handouts, more people will prosper than otherwise. But you won't buy that because you didn't buy a word of my answer to the first question.

Note that I have not used a single "hateful" invective in my answer, but I have yet to meet a liberal who can state their case without personal and hateful (their favorite term to apply to conservatives) rhetoric directed at me.

There now. I've answered your questions. I'd love to answer more if you have them.

Bob

Dear Bob:

Actually, though your replies were highly interesting, I don't feel you answered my questions. I conceded (as a preemptive strike, though I also believe it) that the Democrats failed, but you spent your whole letter telling me just how they failed. You never told me how the Republican majority would practice compassion, and you never said what they (or you) would do to help the poor.

Jonathan

Dear Jonathan:

You didn't ask me how the Republican majority would practice "compassion" and you didn't ask me how I would help the poor. I did, in fact, answer the questions you asked. They were, "do you believe compassion is good" and "do you think Newt has compassion". In fact, I don't believe either political party practices an abstract concept like "compassion". Political parties only attempt to acquire power. It is up to the leaders who are actually driven by an ideology and a sense of direction to create laws that are truly "compassionate." Again, remember, if you don't understand capitalism and the economic laws by which it operates, you may believe that handing out dollars (taken at the point of a gun from producing people) to "poor people" is "compassion." The whole point of my previous letter was that such policies only create more poor, dependent people. That is like the good hearted soul who feeds wild animals from her back porch in the winter. They become dependant on the handouts, and lose their innate capacity to survive otherwise. Honestly, you, and other "good hearted" liberals need to know that creating dependency is the opposite of compassion. What I would do to help the poor is rooted in the above answer. Think about it.

Bob

Dear Bob:

Your answer seems to be that you would help the poor by leaving them alone to fend for themselves. (You did have the honesty not to play the private charity card, a la Mr. Gingrich.) The comparison to wild animals speaks volumes. Wild animals die when they cannot find food. It has usually, not always, been a tenet to which modern society pays lip service that we will not let this happen to people. If this is your stand-- "let them die and decrease the surplus population"--why not come right out and say so?

Two criticisms I have of conservative Republicans is that 1. I don't agree with their beliefs, which seem harsh and cruel. 2. They rarely say what they really mean.

Would you pay $100 a year extra in taxes to save ten lives? How about one life? How about $10?

Jonathan

Dear Jonathan:

Again, you completely missed the point in my previous letter and attempted to read in your biases... Since you apparently assume that if one pays x amount in taxes that "saves" y amount of lives (a really goofy assumption which ignores the premise of my previous letters) then, your line of logic is that if you increase the amount, you "save" more lives. That logic, taken to it's conclusion, would mean that a TRULY compassionate person should give 100% of his money to the government (to save lives) and then become one of the lives to be saved. Your entire premise is bankrupt, and I knew that you would key on the "wild animal analogy" but your lack of acceptance of it is illustrative of the fact that you do not accept the fact that human behavior can be quite analogous to that of the behavior of animals. Perhaps some elementary psychology training would help. Anyway, consider the following: A 'poor' person who accepts the status of living on handouts, will forever remain a poor person. Please review my second letter if you want to understand why ever increasing handouts only increases the number of people who will depend upon them, and if they are content to exist at that level, never willing to improve themselves, (and not one program since 1963 has demonstrated a successful ability to cause that in any statistically significant degree, in spite of $trillions spent) then suggesting we solve the problem by handing out more is absurd.

Now, you say that my answer to helping the poor is to 'leave them alone', Bravo! That is a start! The first step is to stop doing what the government is doing--namely, creating dependence. These handout programs have precisely the opposite effect overall that you believe they have. Until you really understand that, you will never "get it." Once it is clear that people cannot make a career out of being a "victim" they will seek other ways to survive. Getting a job is a really good way. If the opportunity for employment exists, which is enhanced by a reduction in the burden on capital (taxes for 'programs' that are intended to produce ever more dependent people) more opportunities to work are created. Again, if you refuse to accept capitalistic principles, you will miss this point, and your come back will be, "but how much more are you willing to pay to help the poor?" The answer is again illustrated by taking a long look at this country's development and how modern capitalism has catapulted the world into the highest standard of living in its history. Capitalism creates such wealth for the vast majority of people who engage in it that the very definition of "poverty" in America is affected. By world standards, a poor person here is incredibly fortunate. No! I am not saying that poverty doesn't exist, but the liberal approach to "fixing" it does just the opposite. Can government help the poor? Yes. And significant resources devoted to that end are not unjustified. What I have seen happen however, is that politicians engaging in the distribution of resources to "help the poor" do so only to increase their power base. Creating dependency insures re-election. This has been a hallmark of the vast majority of Liberal Democrat politicians since FDR.

REAL assistance to people who claim that they need help to survive in this country demands that those accepting help improve their ability to make their way and that there be an end or limit to that assistance. There must be an obligation to repay. There must be some demonstrated effort on the part of the recepient to learn a skill to become a producing, marketable citizen.. The government can structure assistance programs to that end. (The GI bill is a good example of a program that worked.) That has not been the concept for the overwhelming bulk of "The Great Society." Unconditional and unlimited handouts do not help poor people become self sufficient.

Ask yourself this question. If increasing "handout programs" creates more poor people than decreasing "handout programs", how many more handout programs should we institute. That is the type of question you have asked me in response to my letters. Now, I have exposed a lot of theory and given you plenty to ponder/refute/debunk, I would be most interested in reading your "solution" to the problem of the poor?? Maybe I would agree with you.

Bob

Dear Bob:

There are many specific points in your letter that I disagree with, but let me give you a general answer and then follow up with detail.

You seem very sure about the psychology of welfare recipients. How many do you know personally? How many have you hired in your business? Perhaps you are the exception, but the majority of people I have spoken to who share your beliefs have never met a welfare recipient.

I think a large percentage of welfare recipients are women in hardscrabble situations, dumped by a man or otherwise trying to raise children on their own, who would work if they received the training and a job offer. I don't think in most states anyone makes enough on welfare to want to be on it.

Personally, I know only one former welfare recipient, a man who lost a job, spent three years on it, then found a job as a night watchman, then came to work for me looking after our facility daytimes. He is a hard worker and I do not hold it against him that he spent some time on the dole. I believe that as soon as he found something he went back to work.

I do not agree with a social theory of "benevolence" that says that we will dump all these people, and let the good go under (and possibly die) so that we do not support the bad. I am in agreement with welfare reform that involves better sorting, more job training, and which does not incent larger families. The job training under any Republican proposal I have seen is either nonexistent or a joke.

I am not at all certain why you think it is "goofy" to say that paying taxes saves lives. It is an infamous debater's trick--a reductio ad absurdum--to say that in that case, why not pay 100% of your income as taxes. There is a middle ground to everything. If someone is drowning in front of me in a two inch puddle, I will lift them up. If they are drowning in fifteen feet of somewhat wavy water but I am still quite confident that I can save them without undue risk to myself, I hope I will still do it. If I have to dive off a ship into a raging storm and my chances are 1 in 100 of survival and 1 in 1000 that I will effect a successful rescue, I will almost certainly not do it. The Contract Republican's rhetoric often seems to be: save no drowners; it is their own fault they are in the water anyway.

I happen to be a capitalist--I am a businessman, have created businesses of my own and am now the steward for someone else's. I believe nothing succeeds like job creation. The company I work for manages to take care of its clients, its employees, its shareholders and the public good all at once. That is the kind of capitalism I like. Capitalism which means maximizing shareholder value at everyone else's expense is cruel and selfish. I believe that this is the kind of capitalism the contract Republicans mainly stand for, as evidenced by actions as disparate as attacking the FDA or stripping environmental regulations. There is a wonderful quote in Walden to the effect that we are told that, if we all grab shovels and build the railroad, we will all ride somewhere together, very fast, for free. But when the smoke clears, a few are riding, and the rest are run over.

At the end of this letter, you finally seem to acknowledge that you are in favor of some (strictly controlled) public support for the honest needy. It took quite a few rounds of correspondence before you got there! Part of the bone I pick with conservatives is that they are frequently unwilling to say what they really mean. Many people are willing to accept a significant percentage of the homeless freezing to death in a cold winter. Many fewer, especially in public life, are willing to stand up and say they would find this quite acceptable. Why not? If its right, why not proclaim it?

(To learn more about what I think, check out two articles in back issues of the Spectacle--Compassion, Understanding and Welfare , and Welfare=Disaster Relief.

Jonathan

Regarding my personal knowledge of welfare receipients, I grew up in what was perhaps the poorest county in Missouri (circa 1950s). I went to grade school in a two room building for 8 years. Almost every child who was my peer, was by anyone's definition, poor. I was lucky to have shoes that did not have holes in the soles, and my pants were, for the first ten years that I can remember, hand-me-downs from my older brother. I hunted and ate squirrels, doves, and rabbits. Store bought food was the exception, rather than the rule in my home. Yet, I was better off than most of my friends who's parents lived for the monthly government check free butter and peanut butter.. and seemed to smoke and drink a lot more than my parents did. My family was not on welfare. I have known literally scores of people personally--who grew up in welfare families. A few went on and broke their cycle of dependence, but most self destructed and became permanent "bums". When welfare became a better (easier) existence than what was available through honest work and the pursuit of self betterment, most of those I knew who were content with a handout existence, decayed into oblivion. Your problem (as I see it from your letter most recent) is, you only knew one person in your life (your words) who was a welfare recepient. That person, an employee. You make the mistaken assumption that because I am a conservative, I must not know any real people on welfare...You couldn't be more wrong. I worked my way from absolute poverty, (married at 18, put myself with my wife's help, through college), to an existence which, while not exactly "affluent", is far better than my "peers in poverty" who chose to accept the status of "victim." My knowledge of what a Liberal's well intentioned politics will do to a poor person is "first hand." Your analogies regarding helping people who are drowning are (I'm sure) heartfelt, and sincere, but not founded in experience..The reality is, instead of the life jackets you believe you are tossing them, you are throwing them anchors. The contempt you hold for "Contract Republicans" seems to me to be a projection of the worst fears of a Liberal..The fear that the "grand experiment" is over....and it has failed. It seems to be very difficult to find that your belief system is groundless. The "Contract" is really the result of a rising tide of rejection of the failed socialist welfare experiment of the Liberal congress which has been in place since the 60s. Your contention that you are a "Capitalist" is nice, but you sound more like a "Socialist." Your line is one of a person who has never had to work your way up, but rather achieved through influence and family inheritance. As for "saying what they really mean"...you contend that is not a "Contract Republican" trait...the problem is, because you fail to understand basic human nature, you (Liberals in general) seem to have a difficult time understanding that what is said, is really meant. (It's those darned little wire rimmed rose colored glasses and all that acid...) (sorry, don't mean to paint you all with the stereotype). Fear not, my friend, people will not be "starving in the streets of America" as you seem to believe. Things will only get better. I have enjoyed your letters, and I respect your right to your opinions...If it is any consolation, I think Liberals are more fun at parties...You aren't connected with "Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream" are you?

Bob

Dear Bob:

I think you could do better than to move our discussion onto a personal level. I asked if you knew any welfare people, but I never made any suggestions about your personal background, which is exactly what you have done with your cracks about inheritances, wire rimmed glasses, etc. As a matter of fact (though our ideas should stand or fall for themselves, and I hate this kind of contest) you are wrong. My grandparents were immigrant shopkeepers, my parents went to public schools and became comfortable middle class through their own efforts, and I worked for everything I have. My life was much more comfortable than yours, but that doesn't make your ideas any better or mine any worse.

And I don't work for Ben and Jerry's but for a computer programming firm.

We have reached a point where we are not really arguing about anything. I acknowledged at the outset that the Democrats have failed, and you acknowledged much later on that there are some people, at least a few, you would help. So what is our bone of contention? Probably our differences could be summarized as follows: we both agree that a better effort should be made to sort out the cheaters from the truly needy. Assuming this could not be done perfectly, I would be willing to tolerate a few cheaters to make sure we were helping everyone who really needed it, and you would be willing to let a few needy people die to make sure we weren't supporting any cheaters. And you attribute this to differences in beliefs about human nature. If you really want to know my views about human nature, read my essay What I Learned From Auschwitz.

I have one more observation: you have been desperately poor in a rural area. I submit you know nothing about the urban poor. You had squirrels, doves and rabbits to hunt. The poorest people in New York City live on a different planet compared to what you know. In the first of my welfare essays, which I cited to you in my last letter, I suggest that we not judge people unless and until we really know them. Because you have been very poor, you think you are qualified to judge (and condemn) poor people totally dissimilar to you. I disagree.

Jonathan

Dear Jonathan:

Nothing "personal" intended in my last note, but you do make assumptions which are based on your deeply felt biases. My crack about the acid and rose colored glasses was an attempt to humorously demonstrate that such assumptions and biases can be perceived as an attack, and your terse response indicates that you obviously did not like being 'pigionholed' any more than I do. You seem to keep saying that I would allow people to die in order to weed out a few welfare cheaters...That is as insulting to me as I was to you by inferring that you wear rose colored glasses, dropped acid, and inherited your position. Your perceptions about conservatives being such cold, ruthless, privileged people is curious to me. Each of your letters contain such assumptions which you seem eager to lay on us "Contract Republicans"...yet, I believe that if nothing else, perhaps you and I both should understand that we could profit from a better understanding of each others philosophical position by holding a few less rigid opinions. As a matter of fact, my friend, I would not allow people to "die" as you suggest, but as I hold that a Liberal philosophy (in general) causes more misery and death (if you will) than an otherwise Conservative one, we will never agree on paper...I suspect, however, that we are not so different at heart. Your general perspective (if you will allow me a candid, non-threatening observation) seems to be one which says--"I, being a Liberal, CARE more about my fellow man than you--(Conservative person)"... That, sir, is where we disagree the most...While you may indeed care..the solutions you might propose to the betterment of man as a Liberal (and I have yet to see one from you specifically--so I must make an assumption that you agree with the Liberal politicians) are without merit, and have resulted in a worsing of our society. You first said that I (a Conservative) don't know poverty. Then, when you found that I do, you said, well, I don't know "urban" poverty. Sir, that's ridiculous. Poor is poor. I am not against helping poor people get out of poverty...Again, however, I will say that setting up a system that simply sends people a check because they are poor will never help them out of poverty. You and I probably agree on that. It is what to do instead of that which divides us.

Bob

Dear Bob:

Well, I think we've reached a point where we've each staked out and elucidated our positions. With your permission, I'll reprint our entire dialog in the August issue.

Stay in touch.

Jonathan