There’s an old saying: pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered. If that’s true, there’s a reckoning due.
Let’s just review a few recent news items. Florida’s governor has signed a bill forbidding local government units from requiring businesses to pay sick leave. While this is somewhat less egregious than originally reported–early descriptions suggested the bill was an outright outlawing of sick leave–it is still horrendously bad policy. It’s particularly ironic that the governor who approvingly signed the bill is the same “job creator” who paid huge fines when his company (a company that depended upon government-provided medical care for its profits) was convicted of Medicare fraud.
Closer to home, Indiana Congressman Marlin Stutzman wants to separate food stamp authorization from the farm bill, so that it will be easier to reduce the SNAP payments that poor Americans depend upon to buy food, while retaining those all-important farm subsidies. (Stutzman knows how important those subsidies are because he himself has reportedly received at least 200,000 worth. And he’s hardly alone.)
Then there are all those “right to work” laws (while there is no evidence that they generate economic growth, there’s plenty of evidence that they depress the wages employers pay). There are all of the companies scrambling for ways to avoid compliance with the Affordable Care Act (wouldn’t want the cost of basic medical care for the most poorly-paid employees to affect that bottom-line!). There’s the GOPs hysterical reaction to any suggestion that our historically low tax rates be raised even modestly. There’s the stubborn opposition to equal pay for women (remember the howls over the Lily Ledbetter Act?), and even more stubborn resistance to proposals to raise the minimum wage.
These are just a few examples of the relentless campaign being waged by the most privileged against the working poor, a campaign accompanied by sneering references to “takers” and “moochers.”
Leaving aside issues of simple justice, what I want to know is, whatever happened to enlightened self-interest?
I often think back to a conversation I had years ago with a wealthy friend who explained his support for higher taxes on the wealthy and a more robust social safety net thusly: “I’m better off paying higher taxes than I would be if people get so desperate that they take to the streets. Social unrest isn’t good for anyone’s bottom line, and when you grind people down too far, eventually that’s what happens.”
Corporate America has evidently lost sight of Henry Ford’s central insight: workers should be paid wages sufficient to allow them to buy your product. The poor and the dispossessed can’t afford to participate in the market.
People with money and status will always be better off than those without. Most of us are willing to live with that reality. But at some point, excesses of greed will generate unpleasant consequences.
Pigs and hogs.
NPR aired a brief report yesterday on recent research into “framing,” the manner in which Americans make policy arguments. According to the researcher, Americans are less likely to respond to appeals to the common good or the public interest than we are to appeals to individual rights and benefits. Our Constitutional emphasis on individual rights, in this analysis, has led to a culture in which policies are evaluated through a highly individualized prism–what we might call a “what’s in it for me” approach.
If this research is correct, Americans have confused a healthy distrust of majoritarianism with an unhealthy disdain for the common good. Those aren’t the same thing. A distrust of the preferences of popular majorities–the “passions of the mob”–is built into our national DNA, and we are right to guard against violations of individual rights that can result. But that is different from civic behavior that elevates personal preferences and immediate gratification over consideration of the good of the community.
The discussion of mass transit is an example. Those who are opposed to a tax for transit are not arguing that transit would be bad for the community–an argument I disagree with, but a legitimate basis for opposition. They are arguing that they don’t want to pay for it, because they don’t believe it will benefit them personally. (Actually, as I pointed out, we all benefit in numerous ways–tangible and intangible–when we live in a community with a better quality of life, but that’s a different argument.)
The researcher on NPR recommended that policy arguments be framed to appeal to the individual–this is what is in it for you!–rather than with appeals to the common good. Perhaps that advice is strategically sound.
But what does it say about us as citizens?
We are often told that it is human nature to act primarily in our own self-interest. I tend to think that’s true (although there is an argument to be made about the influence of culture and socialization), and that efforts to construct altruistic or utopian societies that ignore human nature are doomed to go the way of the USSR.
That said, the old adage only takes us so far. We need to recognize that short and long-term self-interest aren’t necessarily the same; i.e., what policies and social structures are truly in our long-term self-interest? (It may be in my short-term interest to steal your money, but assuming a halfway decent police department, it probably is not in my long-term interest to do so, since a criminal record is rarely an asset.)
It may be that democracy just can’t work, since “long-term” in partisan politics generally means “the next election.” But leaving that particular argument for another day, recent events have reminded me of a conversation with a family member several years ago. This particular individual is wealthy; not only did he inherit quite a lot of money, but he himself has always done well. He has also always been a liberal Democrat and an advocate of a strong social safety net. During that conversation, I said something to him along the lines of “your politics seems contrary to your own self-interest,” and he immediately disagreed.
“Those who have a lot,” he said, “have an interest in keeping it–and security in one’s possessions depends upon the maintenance of a stable, law-abiding society. Stability, in turn, depends upon a general sense in society that everyone has opportunity, that the good fortune of the rich and powerful is a result of their efforts and abilities, and has not been achieved on the backs of the powerless. Resentment and too large a gap between the haves and have-nots more often than not leads to rioting and looting by those who have nothing to lose, and that is definitely not in my interest! Better to pay more taxes and work for a government that is concerned with social justice than to build high walls around my privileged neighborhood and hire personal security guards.”
As we watch the looting in London, as Washington continues to reward the rich with obscene amounts of corporate welfare while cutting services to the middle and working classes, it might be well to think about where self-interest really lies.