Republicans Don’t Care About Income Inequality Or Basic Human Needs

need work

 

We have come to serve the economy rather than the economy serving us. We ask people to suffer to save the system that produces suffering, instead of creating a system that seeks to eliminate suffering.

I have a confession to make. In the series of articles I have supposedly been writing about income inequality, I have really been writing about something else: need. Let’s not fool ourselves or think I have been naïve. Raising the minimum wage or making minor redistributions of wealth, while likely to help many in materially significant ways, will not even minimally move us toward something remotely resembling income equality. The average American workers or unemployed and underemployed souls wouldn’t suddenly find themselves rubbing shoulders with Jamie Dimon or some other fabulously wealthy CEO, even if such an infinitesimal narrowing of the wealth gap were politically orchestrated. What we are really talking about when we engage the issue of income inequality is finding a way to help those in “low-wage” jobs or in need of work earn enough to meet their basic needs, not actually equalizing incomes.

I am coming clean because I feel our political discourse is decidedly impoverished because of the absence of discussion about NEED. We dance about it in indirect ways, talking about raising the minimum wage, helping small businesses so they can hire, lowering taxes, creating middle-class jobs, etc.; but rarely, if ever, do we hear anyone talk about creating, or re-creating, an economy designed to meet basic human needs.

Perhaps ironically, New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bell most recently and unwittingly raised the issue of need when analyzing why he trails Democratic incumbent Cory Booker in the polls. “Single mothers particularly,” he said, “are automatically Democratic because of the benefits. They need benefits to survive, and so that kind of weds them to the Democratic Party.”

Did a Republican just admit that we have people experiencing real need in this country who really do require what meager assistance is available just to survive? While it easy to hear, as some have, in these comments the same old tired Republican rhetoric lambasting the poor and lazy for their dependence on government handouts, his exact words actually mark a telling departure from typical Republican double-speak regarding need.

Routinely issues of need get recast in our limited bi-partisan political discourse into the vocabulary of jobs; and when Republicans speak about jobs, they typically do so with forked tongue, at once berating individuals for being unwilling to work (and hence opposing the extension of unemployment benefits because they disincentivize work) and also excoriating President Obama for his failed economic policies for not creating jobs. Obviously, the approach begs the question, how can we blame people for not working when there is a scarcity of jobs?

Quite glibly, apparently. Just take Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who in a recent gubernatorial debate, defended his record of having created only 5,800 jobs (against a loss of 13,000!) when he promised 250,000 for Wisconsin, by asserting, “We don’t have a jobs problem; we have a work problem.” If Wisconsin citizens weren’t so lazy and possessed some initiative, Governor Walker would have created another 250,000 jobs!

Similarly, Republican lightning rod Newt Gingrich, in the height of the Great Recession in November 2011, dismissively admonished Occupy Wall Street protesters to “take a bath” and “get a job,” while around the country, from 2009 through 2012 the country witnessed the following scenes: in May 2012, 20,000 people applied for one of 877 jobs at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama; in Summer 2011, 18,000 people applied for one of 1,800 jobs at a Ford plant in Louisville; also in 2011, more than 41,000 people applied for one of 1,300 jobs at a new Toyota plant in Tupelo, Mississippi; in 2009, 65,000 people applied for one of 2,700 jobs at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

The approach is akin to blaming thirsty people in a desert for not looking hard enough for water—except with this key difference: in our world we arguably have enough water, but our system withholds it from those who can’t find jobs in an economy in which jobs are scarce, operating on a logic that not only defies social reality but is illogically punitive and inhumane.

If we were to recognize the reality of need in our country and understand that our current economic system actually generates inequality and deprivation, as Jeff Bell unwittingly did, we might actually begin to focus policy-making on re-making the economy to meet rather than exacerbate human need.

At times we almost get there, but the habit of political thinking in U.S. culture tends almost invariably to retreat from critique of our economic system, into blaming people for not doing enough to succeed in a system that affords little opportunity.

For example, a recent Harvard Business School study “An Economy Doing Half Its Job,” as you can tell from its title, highlights a malfunction in our economy manifested in the fact that working-class and middle-class citizens continue to struggle coming out of the recession while large and mid-size businesses are faring quite well. The study calls this divergence “unsustainable.” Despite its critique of our current economic system, the main recommendation has nothing to do with repairing the system or even with redistributing wealth; instead, the study calls for American workers to increase their value by acquiring skills to compete in the global economy.

The folly of this approach, as well as its prevalence as a default habit in American political discourse across the board, is evident in a rather conventional speech President Obama gave in April 2012 at the University of Iowa. While addressing college students and discussing the need to address the debt burden caused by student loans, Obama expressed his desire for everyone to graduate college and succeed. U.S. culture loves this story of the individual’s rise to success through education, ingenuity, or pure hard work. We love it so much it clouds our thinking. Certainly we can agree we live in a society in which anybody can make it. We see evidence of this fact all the time. But we don’t live in a world in which everybody can make it. Even if every person earned an advanced degree, would there be jobs for everyone? Additionally, we would still need people to perform the socially necessary though stigmatized “low-wage” work. Yet we neglect to recognize this reality that our economy generates inequality and need, that it is inveterately an economy that does only half its job.

During the Great Depression, while people stood and starved in breadlines, farmers poured milk down sewers and burned crops in order to create scarcity to raise prices; that is, in order to get the economy working again, food was destroyed while people went hungry. This scenario presents quite a contradiction and underscores the degree to which our economy has become more important than the people living in it. We have come to serve the economy rather than the economy serving us. We ask people to suffer to save the system that produces suffering, instead of creating a system that seeks to eliminate suffering.

When will we fully recognize there is a problem with our economy and work to create a system that works for people and stop asking people to suffer to prop up an economy that doesn’t work for people?

Perhaps when we truly recognize need.

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16 Replies to “Republicans Don’t Care About Income Inequality Or Basic Human Needs”

  1. Ronaldo Reagan: “Every American, pull yourselves up by your bootstraps”? How many laid off teachers have worn steeltoe boots in class? It’s the republican way. Tried that, both feet turned blue.

  2. I just finished watching Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl. What was true then is true now. Democrats are for helping people, ALL people. Republicans are for helping the rich stay that way and don’t give a flying F about anyone else but them.
    What’s really ironic is, the same people who were helped by the aid given by the federal government back then raised children who HATE it. Those brats (the 60 somethings) would not even exist had not FDR pushed through his New Deal. Amazing.

  3. This is a broken record message. Dems have been in power for 6 yrs and have not fixed it. Now they are trying to twist it to sound like the Republicans are the problem. Voters will decide Tuesday who owns this one.

  4. I understand many good folks have now given up on the political system–confident that neither viable party (since the money has eliminated the viability of a more-than-two-party system in the US) can “afford” to challenge the economic status quo and the whole range of assumptions (work hard, get ahead) that somehow perdure despite, as you point out, the failure of the whole thing to deliver since about day one, 1776. But unless we’re all going 2nd amendment and taking over buildings, I see no way to “change the economy”–by which you actually mean our economic system–without the action of governmental leaders. So we need to replace those, pretty much wholesale, and to do that we need people to vote differently–not just for Democrats etc. but for leaders who dare say things like you do here. And finally, to do that, we need to educate people to understand these problems at this level. So you continue to trash the education solution, but I continue to believe this is the key…

  5. Scherman,

    I mean only to trash “education” as the way to improve people’s wages. I think education is necessary for establishing democratic polity and economy–that is, we need educated people who can analyze and think critically about their world and approach our problems with enough sophistication to understand them. I don’t think the solution is to say, hey, if you want to make more money, get more skills and education. That solution doesn’t address the fact that adults doing socially necessary work are languishing in low wage work. The solution isn’t to have them not do the work we need done, but to re-value that work.

  6. Democratic Socialism is the way.
    Free Health Care
    Free Education
    A livable minimum wage

    There is no better investment a country can make than in the welfare of it’s citizens. A healthy, educated populace is productive and innovative. A strong middle class is the driver of capitalism and the economy.

    Note that the GOP stands firmly against all these truths.

    They want to have a scared, undereducated populace that is grateful for crumbs and willing to accept the slow erosion of their rights and environment.
    They want low wages in order to privatize the profits and socialize the costs by having underpaid workers utilize government assistance.

    They want a permanent serf class.

    They are the TRUE creators of a “Culture of Dependancy.”

    Vote Democratic-not because they are a panacea, but because, right now, the alternative is gruesome.

  7. Republicans ARE the problem. They destroyed the economy, then blocked every attempt to fix it. Dems have not been in power for the last 6 years, the House is in the hands of the plutocrats and fascists (aka the GOP).
    Here’s a challenge-I dare you to make a fact based argument that GOP policies are better for the country. Double dare you. It’s not possible.
    We’ll wait…

  8. I am trying to correct the world one person at a time. It is “Tinkle-On” economics. Didn’t you feel your golden shower? Reagan wasn’t a great president. He was a republican shill who started the great divide called “Income Inequality.” Let’s lower taxes on the rich and corporations, shift jobs overseas, reduce government safety nets, “privatize” everything so that those benefits can be shredded by republicans without intervention. That’s the republican mantra. If that’s the way you want to live, I could suggest any number of countries where you can get that treatment without asking.

  9. “During the Great Depression, while people stood and starved in breadlines, farmers poured milk down sewers and burned crops in order to create scarcity to raise prices; that is, in order to get the economy working again, food was destroyed while people went hungry.”

    Capitalism is evil. It supports those who worship at the altar of the almighty dollar.

  10. We need to stop relying on corporations to create jobs. That’s not what they do. They exist solely to create profit. They do this by lowering wages and/or decreasing the number of workers (jobs) required to get that profit. Corporate tax break ideology never worked and it never will.

    So let’s get real. It’s time to break the left/right ideological impasse with an Unconditional Basic Income.

    In a UBI, everyone gets a basic livable income, say the equivalent of a $10 per hour job. The same amount goes to EVERYONE, rich or poor, working or not, so there’s NO MEANS TESTING, so NO new bureaucracies. People can work and make as much money as they want to ABOVE the UBI so capitalism remains intact.

    The simplicity of the idea is its beauty. It has been supported by both left and right leaning politicians.

    We have many unpaid workers in our society. Volunteers, artists, homemakers, grandmothers, etc. It’s now time that they were valued monetarily by society.

  11. But…if everyone had an advanced degree, they’d be more likely to vote for individuals who would produce a government in which need was openly discussed and “low-wage” jobs given respect and sufficient pay; they might even realize, as Harvard seems to, that vast wage inequality is stupid and counter-productive as well as morally repulsive. But as long as the electorate lacks the knowledge of how the system can be changed–and as long as it continues to be fooled by the empty promises and tricks of the right–the better system you are right to say we need will never have a chance. All this is to say that even if some people are wrongly harping on education as the key to more money for the griping harpy individual, we can still tout it as a solution to greater problems and for different reasons.

  12. Tim, this article has a great point, but the part about blaming Republicans in general, and spending one third of the article blaming a few by name is becoming your own enemy. Blaming people that blame others instead of fixing a problem or improving themselves.

    Yes, we have a serious problem with the economy, and at the root of the problem we have too many people with FIXED ( “Win-lose” “Pass-fail” binary ) mindsets instead of with GROWTH mindsets. And our public education system is causing that type of mindset by praising grade achievement instead of praising a person for the amount of effort that went into achieving the grade. :(

    Read Mindset – The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. for more information on this topic.

    Coincidentally many Republicans have the FIXED mindset, and many Democrats have the GROWTH mindset.

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