July 20, 2013

Land of the free and mean

Hunger Games, U.S.A. - Paul Krugma, New York Times 

The occasion for these observations is, as you may have guessed, the monstrous farm bill the House passed last week
For decades, farm bills have had two major pieces. One piece offers subsidies to farmers; the other offers nutritional aid to Americans in distress, mainly in the form of food stamps (these days officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).
So House Republicans voted to maintain farm subsidies — at a higher level than either the Senate or the White House proposed — while completely eliminating food stamps from the bill.
To fully appreciate what just went down, listen to the rhetoric conservatives often use to justify eliminating safety-net programs. It goes something like this: “You’re personally free to help the poor. But the government has no right to take people’s money” — frequently, at this point, they add the words “at the point of a gun” — “and force them to give it to the poor.”
It is, however, apparently perfectly O.K. to take people’s money at the point of a gun and force them to give it to agribusinesses and the wealthy.
Now, some enemies of food stamps don’t quote libertarian philosophy; they quote the Bible instead. Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, for example, cited the New Testament: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Sure enough, it turns out that Mr. Fincher has personally received millions in farm subsidies.
Given this awesome double standard — I don’t think the word “hypocrisy” does it justice — it seems almost anti-climactic to talk about facts and figures. But I guess we must.
So: Food stamp usage has indeed soared in recent years, with the percentage of the population receiving stamps rising from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most recent data. There is, however, no mystery here. SNAP is supposed to help families in distress, and lately a lot of families have been in distress.
In fact, SNAP usage tends to track broad measures of unemployment, like U6, which includes the underemployed and workers who have temporarily given up active job search. And U6 more than doubled in the crisis, from about 8 percent before the Great Recession to 17 percent in early 2010. It’s true that broad unemployment has since declined slightly, while food stamp numbers have continued to rise — but there’s normally some lag in the relationship, and it’s probably also true that some families have been forced to take food stamps by sharp cuts in unemployment benefits.
What about the theory, common on the right, that it’s the other way around — that we have so much unemployment thanks to government programs that, in effect, pay people not to work? (Soup kitchens caused the Great Depression!) The basic answer is, you have to be kidding. Do you really believe that Americans are living lives of leisure on $134 a month, the average SNAP benefit?
Still, let’s pretend to take this seriously. If employment is down because government aid is inducing people to stay home, reducing the labor force, then the law of supply and demand should apply: withdrawing all those workers should be causing labor shortages and rising wages, especially among the low-paid workers most likely to receive aid. In reality, of course, wages are stagnant or declining — and that’s especially true for the groups that benefit most from food stamps.
So what’s going on here? Is it just racism? No doubt the old racist canards — like Ronald Reagan’s image of the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy a T-bone steak — still have some traction. But these days almost half of food stamp recipients are non-Hispanic whites; in Tennessee, home of the Bible-quoting Mr. Fincher, the number is 63 percent. So it’s not all about race.
What is it about, then? Somehow, one of our nation’s two great parties has become infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness, a contempt for what CNBC’s Rick Santelli, in the famous rant that launched the Tea Party, called “losers.” If you’re an American, and you’re down on your luck, these people don’t want to help; they want to give you an extra kick. I don’t fully understand it, but it’s a terrible thing to behold.
It can be a harsh, nasty, small minded place in first world countries, not least in America, which continues to carry the burden of much to admire and much to despise.

Down under, we are no better though.  No food stamps, but we sure as shyte come up mean, petty and accusing when it comes to the unemployed, the unable, the sole parent and any poor bugger who is beyond helping themselves. 


  1. The GOP is a disgrace and not only on the subject of social justice. It still insists that the cure for an economy's ills is tax cuts for the rich and barons of business: the ridiculously stupid notion of "trickle down" dis-proven repeatedly in every generation since the invention of coined money. The "Tea Party" is the GOP's embarrassing, reactionary inner sanctum of self righteous sanctimony.

    Krugman - nice fellow he is - can't bring himself to call Representative Fincher and his fellow travelers for what they are: morally bereft pietistic parasites on the public purse.

  2. Our ALP and Libs are no better, Father.

    In the US, tens of millions of people are affected, here it might be 100,000 single parents, or 200,000 temporarily unemployed, all treated like scum. But it looks so much smaller, I guess, so the electorate laps it up and urges ever harsher treatment. The voters are ignorant of the real figures, and our leaders - oh yes, they follow, don't they - do nothing to present the facts, not if it means they might miss out on one vote (which they won't). The high churn of single parents, for example - did you know most are only on support for a couple of years? Most of the women kicked-over to Newstart were already working or studying, at least part time, but now can't afford to. The unemployed, similarly, are not sitting around for years on $35 a day. It's NOT the same people month after month, let alone year after year.

    We're a mean and nasty lot too, except that here, both of our major parties are busy dreaming up the worst, most destructive, and most punitive policies possible. The GOP is despicable, but jeez, we're an ugly lot in Oz too,

  3. I don't necessarily disagree. It is the current playbook - and has been for some time - for both political parties to demonise those on welfare. Particular forms of welfare especially (as you noted). No matter where you sit on the political fence, historically, this cycle always begins (or intensifies) during an ALP term on the treasury benches. The LNP opposition read from the Book of Political Exodus (that comforting tome which offers hope for a return to their rightful place), chapter one, verse one: Labor is economically incompetent - it is pandering to the welfare class. The examples are many: the single mothers who are "paid to have children"; the dole bludgers living the high life; those with a disability who refuse to use their abilities. And don't mention the "queue jumpers".

    In recent years this has become a little blurred. Howard spent the better part of the "mining boom" largesse buying votes with middle class welfare. Welfare that's now so entrenched that neither side of politics has the balls to tinker with it. When one side does (the baby bonus comes to mind) it is criticised as taking money from those in need.

    Rudd's leap to the right will bite him - or should bite him - on the arse. An ALP of former years would find the current crop a revolting collective of self-serving slop. The sole reason is, of course, votes. The ALP needs to court votes from an electorate that had simply ceased to listen to it. What it was listening to was the execrable garbage that nowadays passes for political discourse or "debate". The garbage trolled relentlessly by the opposition on queue jumpers, "illegals", boat people and any other branding epithet that can be dreamed up. Ditto for those on welfare.

    Unfortunately for the modern ALP, years of conditioning under the former government - now followed by the current - makes older social views redundant. We've near enough to a generation which has grown up with a pervasive background noise that, in its relentless application, convinces those exposed of the invasion of this country by "illegals"; an invasion that now, seemingly, must be met by a force commanded by a three star officer!! It is fucking ridiculous.

    Both sides of politics are to blame. The ALP does not have the balls to deal with this other than to out-tough the opposition. It has to because this is now what the electorate (or, more importantly, those who listen) expects having been convinced by the language of marginalisation, of criminality and of invasion.

    There will be those voting for the first time in this coming election whose entire view of refugee policy are "informed" by the incendiary bullshit of "invasion" and "queue jumping". Unless they look for themselves, they will know little else.

  4. It was Gillard who took from single parents, and refused to entertain any increase to Newstart (which has no real increase in about two decades?). Then there's the new ALP idea, to send unemployed youth off to boot camps. I guess older unemployed will be sent to labor in mines, for free, to enhance their job-readiness.

    The Liberal maternity leave is more expensive than the ALPs, but both parties remain committed to throwing money at well off women who choose to breed. I believe there used to be a time when families looked after themselves, including paying for nappies for their own babies! Strange how these things are, now, apparently unaffordable without tax payer subsidies! You'd almost laugh if it wasn't all so economically stupefying.

    I can't agree that the ALP is out-toughing the Libs, I think they are, simply, no longer a Labor party. They haven't been for years. Take a bow Gillard and Rudd, and every MP who helped them to do this.

    As I wrote the other week, Rudd's strategy, plain and simple: go hard, go right, go Abbott.

    Oh, and hire you're family and some Americans.

    God help Australian democracy.