Friday, September 24, 2010

Thoughts on a Friday Morning

What we need is welfare for the middle class.

The country is splitting apart because on the one hand, we're sick of billionaires and corporations getting handout after handout in the form of tax cuts and bailouts while robbing us of our pensions. On the other hand, we're also sick of people who don't play by the rules (illegal immigrants, or citizens who won't work because certain jobs are "beneath" them, or people who irresponsibly take on so much debt that they put themselves in a hole) getting free medical care, getting help with their mortgages, drawing welfare or unemployment compensation into seeming perpetuity.

Meanwhile, the vast middle class gets closer to bankruptcy, and we're pissed off about it. We have played by the rules, and we are TIRED of supporting everybody else when we're struggling to make ends meet ourselves.

So, we start pointing fingers of blame, and the politicians, who know we're angry, are only too eager to subtly guide those fingers in the direction of the person they're running against. (Or if you're watching Fox News, the word "subtle" doesn't even apply.)

Thus we have Republicans, who, in the spirit of Herbert Hoover or Ronald Reagan, blame everything on the welfare queens and the illegals and on "tax and spend" Democrats. (Oh, and the gays. Gays aren't responsible for the state of the economy, but they are responsible for the moral decline of the country and for general godlessness, chaos, and, just yesterday I read, body art in the military.) What Republicans believe is this: if rich people make more money, it "trickles down" to the middle class. If you give corporations tax breaks, that encourages business and leads to more jobs.

The problem is, history proves this to be a falsehood. History shows us that when wealthy people get wealthier, they actually don't share. All they want is even more, and they don't want to pay tax on their new capital gains, either. As for corporations, they don't create jobs just for the sake of conjuring them up. They create them when there is a need to produce more so more workers are actually required. In order to maximize profits, they will hire the cheapest labor they can. So, jobs are shipped overseas. These big multinational corporations don't have any loyalty to this country. They'll list their mailing address in any old country. Small businesses, maybe, but they keep getting crowded out by the big guys. How does a Mom and Pop operation compete with Wal-Mart? It can't.

So what the Democrats do is try to correct things by sticking bandaids all over the place. To encourage companies to keep jobs here, they'll offer a tax break. (How does that affect the deficit, and does it actually do anything to help small businesses?) Or, to keep people who've presently lost their jobs from losing their houses or going on food stamps, they'll extend unemployment compensation (how does this affect the deficit? Does it do anything to create jobs? If it's true that necessity is the mother of invention, does this actually stifle people's creativity and drive to get out there and do what it takes to earn a living?)

I could argue the flaws on both sides 'til the end of time. The truth is that both sides have run out of ideas. There are no solutions right now that aren't going to hurt or disenfranchise or be unfair to somebody. (My personal ethics tell me that in this case, "disenfranchise" those who can most afford it.) Some days, it seems to me, there is no solution to today's problems because everything is all tangled together in a knot that can't be undone. Every time we untangle one bit of it, we discover we've just tangled up tighter another part of the knot.

So, I step back from the knot and take a look at it, wondering how it all got so tangled up to begin with. The real problem, it seems to me, is indeed one of moral decline. (But it has nothing to do with the gays.)

No, it has everything to do with greed, a selfish "Screw everybody else; I deserve more" attitude. Who do you know who hasn't tried to bend the rules to their own advantage at one point or another? People cheat on their taxes because they feel they pay "enough damn tax as it is." People lie on a job application about what their salary was at their last job because "they didn't get paid what they should've been paid." This cheating or "gaming the system" mentality extends from individuals all the way up to impersonal entities (which have no conscience, because they're not even people). For instance, I've heard people blame Bill Clinton for the housing market meltdown. What actually happened? Well, during a time of economic plenty, he decided to offer more opportunities to the disenfranchised by encouraging home loans to the poor. It was a touchy, feely "right thing to do." Now, nowhere did he say, "Banks, lend your money to people who can't afford to pay you back." But, greed saw a win-win when that door was opened: Greed said, "let's lend money to people who can't pay it back, and when they default on the loan, it won't matter because our bank will have sold this bad loan to some other sucker."

Consider that those "irresponsible" people taking out the bad loans were merely told what the bankers and realtors were telling everybody: "look, you might have a tough time initially making the payments, but the way real estate is booming right now, you'll be able to resell or refinance the house and take a profit." So hey! Let's jump on the greed bandwagon and try to get something for nothing. Unfortunately, they got in too late, and the bubble burst.

THIS is the problem. We've become a culture of sharks who just prey on each other. We holler "foul!" when somebody preys on us, but then we turn around and shove it to somebody else the moment we're given the chance. I saw the other night on 20-20 or Primetime or one of those news shows something that crystallized the matter for me: more of us, acting like sharks descending on prey. Here were all these people, not wealthy by any means, but having enough income to snap up foreclosed homes on the cheap to fix up a bit and resell at three times what they paid for it. How many of you think, "I'd do that too if I had the money?" How many of you think, "Wow, that's sad."

I'm in the "that's sad" camp. Here are opportunists making money on somebody else's loss.

My natural impulse is not to consider profiting from someone else's loss, but to see if I can't figure out a way to help them help themselves. Not with a handout, but by brainstorming another solution, one where everybody can come out ahead in some way.

Jimmy Carter, snorted at as one of this country's most ineffective Presidents, actually tried to warn us that this Avenue of Greed was the road we were starting to head down, but in the early 80s, nobody wanted to hear it. No, we wanted to hear The Gipper tell us how great America is and what a mighty land of opportunity this is and let's bomb Iran to get our hostages back. Once elected, Reagan promptly made the head of Merrill Lynch (a freaking bank!) his Chief of Staff, and bombs away, all right. We've been in a steady moral decline since, but the problem is GREED, the "greed is good" kind that Oliver Stone also cautioned us about in Wall Street.

In the name of greed, everybody wants something NOW without any forethought as to the long-term consequences. We've all started thinking like corporate presidents and CEOs, who will do whatever it takes to see profits THIS YEAR, while they are still at the company. They want their bonus. If a decision makes them money NOW but will bankrupt the company later, so be it. They've already skeddaddled with their golden parachute. Somebody else can pick up the pieces.

And take note: What are the corporate billionaires with this set of ethics doing now? They're running for public office. Do you really believe they want to serve their country? No, their interest in public office lies solely in influencing policy wherever they can, in order to give themselves and their rich buddies more tax breaks, more deregulation, more whatever they can do to further enrich themselves. They want more Ronald Reagan.

It didn't work (except for the wealthy) then, and it won't work now.

But then you have the Democrats, who aren't much better. The Democrats need to stop trying to placate everybody (including their own corporate pals) and do what needs to be done. Stop being the "kinder, softer" version of greed--because it's still greed. Get out of bed with the profit-makers. Stop sticking bandaids on things so you can make it sound like you did some helpful little thing. What we want is for you to take the leg infested with gangrene off! Start serving the people who elected you.

We used to believe that an honest day's labor would provide us a decent living. Give us back at least this part of our American Dream. If you give us this, maybe we'll all stop throwing our morals into the breeze in the wild hope that we can all be millionaires--something for nothing, the middle-class "welfare" I referred to at the beginning.

Give us all something realistic, and with that will come the motive to do right.

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