Fear and loathing in the United States

Posted: 27 February 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

Take_the_rich_off_welfare

There are two ways of responding to the charge that the poor are unjustifiably dependent on state handouts.

One is to argue that the rich are also dependent on the state. As Amia Srinivasan explains,

Conservatives champion an ethos of hard work and self-reliance, and insist — heroically ignoring the evidence — that people’s life chances are determined by the exercise of those virtues. Liberals, meanwhile, counter the accusation that their policies encourage dependence by calling the social welfare system a “safety net,” there only to provide a “leg up” to people who have “fallen on hard times.” Unlike gay marriage or abortion, issues that divide left from right, everyone, no matter where they lie on the American political spectrum, loathes and fears state dependence. If dependence isn’t a moral failing to be punished, it’s an addictive substance off which people must be weaned. . .

But if the poor are dependent on the state, so, too, are America’s rich. The extraordinary accumulation of wealth enjoyed by the socioeconomic elite — in 2007, the richest 1 percent of Americans accounted for about 24 percent of all income — simply wouldn’t be possible if the United States weren’t organized as it is. Just about every aspect of America’s economic and legal infrastructure — the laissez-faire governance of the markets; a convoluted tax structure that has hedge fund managers paying less than their office cleaners; the promise of state intervention when banks go belly-up; the legal protections afforded to corporations as if they were people; the enormous subsidies given to corporations (in total, about 50 percent more than social services spending); electoral funding practices that allow the wealthy to buy influence in government — allows the rich to stay rich and get richer. In primitive societies, people can accumulate only as much stuff as they can physically gather and hold on to. It’s only in “advanced” societies that the state provides the means to socioeconomic domination by a tiny minority. “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other,” the writer John Berger said about the 20th century, though he might equally have said it of this one: “It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.”

The other, as I’ve tried to do before, is to contest the whole idea of dependence on the state.

In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules. . .

While I’m at it, how are the profits that are received by private-equity companies (like Bain Capital), not to mention the multimillion-dollar payouts to CEOs, not themselves a form of dependence on the surplus created by workers in enterprises they invest in and manage? Don’t venture capitalists and other members of the 1 percent feel entitled to receive their large share of the booty society produces—and then to pay lower and lower taxes on their cut?

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