The Heritage Foundation's concern about making idle people merry

>> Friday, July 22, 2011

If you want the quick and dirty, you can read this summary/critique of The Heritage Foundation's new report on poverty in the United States. Or, if you like the taste of throwing up a little in your mouth, you can read the abstract/backgrounder for yourself, here.

And then I suggest you read the best thing John Scalzi ever wrote. Again, if you've read it before.

Come back when you're done, if you'd like.

I'm not even sure where to begin. That the sanctimonious bastards at the Heritage Foundation think the benchmarks for American poverty are the living conditions of 1911--

As scholar James Q. Wilson has stated, "The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago."

--is completely unsurprising, but that doesn't make it any less repulsive. It's hard to read the abstract without hearing the echoes of Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge responding to the pair of gentlemen soliciting for charity:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough;1 and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Of course, we live in a far more decadent age than 1843: we no longer have workhouses nor do we have treadwheels in our prisons. And it's impossible to conclude the rat bastards at the Heritage Foundation aren't nostalgic for those fine historical institutions, too. Just think how unnecessary the Troubled Asset Relief Program would have been if those facing defaults on their mortgages could have simply been gathered up and forced to work off what they owed in debtors' prisons! A fine sight, thousands of American men, women and children pushing the wheel! We could have them making shirts for bankers, mowing their lawns! And just think: the ready supply of slave labor would kill the demand for underpaid, under-the-table illegal aliens--why pay a family of Mexicans to pick fruit, bus tables or perform some landscaping when you could drive down to the local prison and sign out a few debtors for the afternoon? Capitalism at its finest, eh?

A particularly delicious twist, obviously, is that the Heritage Foundation has chosen to release a report particularly harping on the luxuriousness of air conditioning the same week the United States is being hit by a massive heat wave that has already claimed human lives in several states (with more expected). Well--I suppose the surplus population can stand the decrease.

But seriously? One doesn't just wonder about the morals of somebody who is arguing that because air conditioning was a luxury a hundred years ago, people who have it now can't possibly be poor: one also wonders about that individual's mental health. As David Atkins points out in the Hullabaloo piece linked to in the first paragraph, indoor plumbing was a rare luxury in the 19th Century (and remains unavailable in some parts of the world, actually), yet one would be nuts to argue anyone can or ought to do without it now; just because rich Americans had to put up with cholera epidemics back in the good ol' days doesn't really say a damn thing about contemporary American poverty.

Or perhaps it does, ironically. After all, one of the reasons contemporary billionaires can avoid exposure to cholera and similar nastiness is precisely because public sanitation has become ubiquitous to the point that the miracle of it gets taken largely for granted. Put another way, the fact that rich peoples' taxes made it possible for municipalities to install plumbing in poor peoples' tenement buildings has gone a long way towards their own benefit.

That is, there are completely selfish and non-altruistic reasons for loving things that promote the public welfare. Sure, one can--and in my opinion, should--value public education because being educated is an inherent good in and of itself that should be spread about and promoted as much as possible; but if that's not compelling to you for whatever reason, try on the possibility that maybe an education will give somebody job opportunities and a stake in society that provide them with incentives not to rob your sorry ass. Or: I happen to believe that making sure people have access to medical care that keeps them from getting sick and cures their illnesses when they inevitably do get sick is good on its own lights, but if that's not sufficient for you, how about the fact that rich people can get influenza as easily as poor ones, and wouldn't it be helpful if you could treat an outbreak before it's an epidemic rolling up to your own doorstep? Or: one might not posses the empathy to care if one's neighbor's house goes up in flames, but do you at least have enough sense of self-preservation to hope the fire department puts out the blaze before the flames leap across to one's own roof?

Remarkably, altruism can be the most self-interested thing one does. Ironic?

Good gods. Look at the Heritage Foundation's report, and they have refrigerators and stoves listed as amenities. Refrigerators and stoves, because the ability to store food so it doesn't spoil and to cook it to kill harmful microorganisms and parasites is a luxury. Hear that? If you were responsible and lived within your means, you'd eat nothing but processed canned goods, I suppose, or you'd live on a farm and raise your own fresh food, perhaps. And then I imagine it's your own fault if you get scurvy eating nothing but canned goods or go hungry because you had a bad Summer and nothing to harvest come Fall. Along the same lines, possessing one of those devices that allows you to call for emergency help and communicate with current or prospective employers is also the height of swank.

At some point one thinks about all this and becomes a blob of inarticulate rage capable only of typing, "Fuck the Heritage Foundation." One wonders if that's a part of their plan, reducing their opponents to sputtering, incoherent rage and then claiming a sort of default victory. They are horrible people and one's embarrassed to recognize them as the same species, much less as one's countrymen.

1Scrooge, in point of fact, is willing to pay his taxes but not to donate to charity. The Heritage Foundation wants lower--perhaps even no--taxes and would prefer people donate to charity, or, really, to their churches (which have a right to attach conditions to their charitable activities, such as making welfare dependent on the recipient being proselytized to, sort of like getting a free vacation only if you sit through the presentation extolling the advantages of a time-share, only with more Jesus or Allah or L. Ron Hubbard or whomever). Quite a lot of libertarians, one suspects, don't want to pay taxes and probably don't give much to charity, either (though many no doubt do--I don't want to paint with too broad a brush). I will leave the appropriate arrangement of the moral hierarchy to you, as reasonable minds might differ as to whether social welfare is better administered by the state or by churches, but will point out that there's no reasonable arrangement where Scrooge ends up on the
bottom of the heap. Do what you will with that.


vince Friday, July 22, 2011 at 9:35:00 AM EDT  

You know, I'd love to take these people, take away all their earthly possessions, and force them to live for a year below the poverty level.

And constantly remind them during that time how good they really have.

Fucking useless excuses for human beings.

Janiece Friday, July 22, 2011 at 10:03:00 AM EDT  


Smug, self-indulgent, privileged, self-righteous FUCK-KNUCKLES.

Thanks for the hypertension, Eric.

Eric Friday, July 22, 2011 at 2:40:00 PM EDT  

I hadn't seen that Vince, and now I have to echo Janiece: thanks for the hypertension.

I remain a firm believer in a premise I've agreed with for as long as I can remember: that a society is to be judged by how it treats its worst-off and weakest members. How, then, does ours rate when we have apparently decided that roasting the poor is preferable to asking our most comfortable members to put a little more in the till, please? And no complaints, if you will: ten thousand years ago rich people lived in caves and had nothing to their monosyllabic names but stone knives and bearskins, so clearly our poor are enormously well-off by comparison.

I was thinking about the Heritage Foundation's twaddle again over lunch, and it crossed my mind that the very worst thing about it is that the idea that technological improvements to basic living ought to be available to everybody regardless of class or wealth doesn't even come from empathy so much as it seems somehow rationally self-evident. That having a refrigerator or air conditioner or indoor plumbing ought'n't be seen as a sign of wealth so much as a sign of civilization and that we share them not just (or even primarily) because we're "nice" but because that's why we invented them; the people who created these things were, mostly, less interested in luxury than they were inspired by a vision of a better world in which nobody would die of heatstroke in their own homes, where everybody would have access to "fresh" food that had been flash-frozen and shipped across the world, where distances would be shriveled and rendered obsolete by leaps in transportation and communication so that nobody would ever suffer or die because of weeks lost to mere transit. What the Heritage Foundation treats as "amenities" are things that were made not just because most inventors want to get rich or famous but also because many (if not most) inventors are to some degree utopians or idealists who believe the world can stand improvement and have imagined a way that could happen.

Perhaps I'm blinkered by a youthful intellectual development that was keen for The Enlightenment and postwar Science Fiction; but if I'm the stupid one and the miserly Heritage Foundation represents the eyes-wide-open, sophisticated perspective on things, call me stupid and naive.

Warner Friday, July 22, 2011 at 4:03:00 PM EDT  

Most below the poverty line rent. Many communities require that a rental property include heat, how water, a stove, a refrigerator, electricity, indoor plumbing.

If we could just do away with these socialistic laws the poor could go back to the way the Heritage foundation wants them to live.

I do wonder why they have picked a modern date such as 1911, my father was a live then, 1811 is some much more realistic.

And the year 11, if I recall from Latin it takes one person a full day of work, just to grind the wheat for tomorrow's bread for 6.

Eric Friday, July 22, 2011 at 4:53:00 PM EDT  

Warner, re: 1911: Heritage was quoting James Q. Wilson's comment in 2002 that "The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago", so presumably he meant circa 1902 and they implicitly believe the comment would still apply to 2011/1911. But your point's solid, in that it certainly seems Wilson and/or Heritage should be saying "poor" Americans are better off than the richest Americans a hundred and fifty years ago or two hundred years ago.

What the hell is wrong with those people?

Warner Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 12:27:00 AM EDT  

I've no idea what is wrong with these people.

I offer:

I didn't even know most poor people had insurance, yet (and not if the teaparty has it's way).

Brent Holman Friday, December 21, 2012 at 3:05:00 AM EST  

The day after President Obama was elected in 2008, John Boehnor(?)
& Mitch McConnel held a press conference.
Mitch McConnel Stated 'We will destroy the Democratic party once & for all'

Instead, The Republican Party is committing suicide to achieve that end, by beating their heads against the wall of history.

Brent Holman Friday, December 21, 2012 at 3:11:00 AM EST  

The day after President Obama was elected in 2008, John B. & Mitch McConnel held a press conference.
McConnel stated'...we will destroy the democratic party once & for all'

Instead, the Republican party is committing suicide by smashing their heads against the wall of history.

These people never had a real job, ya know, where they had to LABOR, as work.

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