Tag Archives: individualism

It’s The Culture….

The other day, I was at the IKEA loading dock. I’d bought two porch chairs, and was wrestling their fairly large and heavy boxes into my car. A gentleman, probably in his late 50s, was walking by, and stopped to help me. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me: he saw a woman struggling with something heavy and stopped to lend a hand.

I thanked him profusely, but on the way home, all I could think of was how utterly impossible it is to picture Donald Trump ever noticing that someone was struggling and offering help. (Yes, I know I’m obsessed with our insane and dangerous President…)

If there’s a moral to this non-story, it is that nice people make life better for everyone–that thinking of ourselves as part of a community of inter-dependent members who help each other out– rather than as isolated and besieged individuals– creates a supportive culture that really does “lift all boats.”

And that–strangely enough–brings me to public policy. (Pretty much everything these days brings me to public policy….)

As I was doing research for my most recent book, I looked especially at the way social safety nets around the world are constructed, and then at proposed reforms of the U.S. “system.” (I put system in quotes, because it’s a stretch to call America’s inadequate, costly patchwork of social programs a system.) I concluded that there are two major problems with our begrudging approach to a social safety net.

First, and most obviously, America’s welfare programs are inadequate, purposely demeaning and poorly functioning. There are major gaps in coverage, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements–the critiques are plentiful and easily available.

The second problem is far less obvious. Most of the programs in America’s social welfare system are designed in a way that divides, rather than unites, Americans.

Think about the difference between public attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, on the one hand, and TANF and similar programs on the other. Social Security and Medicare are universal programs–everyone who lives long enough will benefit from them. Then think of the resentment frequently voiced about more targeted welfare programs: the government is taxing me to support “those people.”

When a tax-supported program or service benefits everyone, it tends to bring people together rather than dividing them.( I’ve never heard anyone protest that they don’t want the streets fixed or the garbage collected because “those people will benefit from a service paid for by my tax dollars.”)

One of the most compelling arguments for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that it would be universal.  There are many other virtues to a UBI, as Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center has noted: the structure avoids creating poverty traps; it would raise worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it would decouple benefits from a particular employer or local jurisdiction; and It would simplify and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency. But it is because a UBI is universal that it is so appealing at a time when Americans are so divided.

Programs that treat all similarly-situated members of a community or polity the same tend over time to support a more cohesive culture; they avoid contributing to racial and socio-economic resentments.

UBIs and/or similarly universal programs won’t turn self-centered and emotionally crippled individuals like Trump into nice people who stop to offer help to strangers. But such policies would go a long way to easing–rather than exacerbating– unnecessary and unhelpful social tensions and divisions.

Americans have always had trouble balancing between too much “I” and too much “we.” Social supports that are universal enable a mean between those extremes: providing individuals with membership in a common polity–the “we”–and liberating them to follow their own life goals–the “I.”

A girl can dream…

My Country ‘Tis of Thee….

If you are looking for an uplifting, “ain’t we great” post appropriate to the 4th of July, you probably need to stop reading now.

I began my reading this morning with Kurt Anderson’s Op Ed in the New York Times, on the downside of liberty. Anderson revisited the historic American tension between individualism and community, and concluded–in concert with many other contemporary observers–that Americans have confused a robust defense of individual rights with a wholesale abandonment of our civic obligations to the wider community. He argues that we have lost the ability to distinguish between individual rights and self-interested greed.

Anderson points to a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to the recent weather, I have been pondering a structural one.

As anyone who isn’t spending time in the arctic knows, we’ve been having an unprecedented heat wave. Much of the nation has also been battered by ferocious storms, and television news has been featuring visible evidence of the damage–especially shots of the downed power lines responsible for a massive loss of electricity. As of last night’s newscast, more than a million homes remained without power. Elderly people and children, especially, are at risk without air conditioning.

My question is simple: why don’t we bury our power lines? My answer is equally simple: because we have a political/economic structure that privileges short-term savings over long-term quality–a structure that rewards those who are penny-wise and pound foolish.

It costs more up front to bury our utilities. It’s cheaper–initially– to string lines. But not only does burying those lines improve the appearance of our cities and towns, it is much cheaper in the long run. It doesn’t take extraordinary storms to down the lines; more predictable weather also takes a toll. Over a period of years, utilities will more than save the extra dollars spent to bury the lines and consumers will enjoy more dependable service.

This same “penny wise, pound foolish” mind-set permeates our public services. Go to Europe (yes, I know, it is heresy to suggest that other countries might do some things better than we do) and walk on granite pavements that have lasted longer than most of our cities. Expensive to build, much less expensive to maintain and replace. Look at the current rush to sell off public assets–Toll Roads, parking meters, even the City-County Building–rather than spend what is necessary to maintain those assets for future generations.

In business, the triumph of the shareholder and manager over the entrepreneur-owner has meant that the next quarter’s bottom line is privileged over the long-term best interests of the enterprise. It’s more important to return an extra twenty cents per share now than to invest in improvements that will benefit the business ten years hence. In politics, it has always been the case that “long term” means “until the next election.” So we have the ridiculous spectacle of the State of Indiana returning $100 to each taxpayer rather than applying those funds to necessary improvements in education or infrastructure that won’t yield such immediate gratification.

Maybe it’s fitting that we have fireworks on the 4th of July. Children love fireworks, and we seem to have become a nation of children.