Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Peter Flom Is a Progressive, and Priscilla King Is Not

First, please read a logical, and I believe sincere, explanation of why a decent human being would be a "Progressive" (in the sense Hillary Rodham Clinton prefers).


Now, why I'm not one...referring to Peter Flom's article throughout...

There is actually a sociological name for my socioeconomic class, although it's obscure, as befits a small and obscure group: I'm one of Virginia's landed poor. Low incomes by U.S. standards, otherwise a very high standard of living. We tend to be perceived as privileged. In most ways we tend to be privileged. Our lifestyle is generally comfortable, sustainable, peaceable, and a pretty good model for others to adapt to their needs and circumstances, as they may choose. (However, the envy and resentment of the local "trash" class are bad enough without being globalized and politicized by Agenda 21, which reads to me like an all-out assault on my kind of people.)

Usually I write as a privileged person, because I'm well aware that the ability to write, much less on a computer, is a privilege. However, in the middle of March, having racked up an income of US$550 so far this year, I have every right to write as a poor person; this is a very low income; this is an income on which most Americans would not know how to survive. I'm surviving, but in order to tell you how I'd have to go into details that induce panic in the majority of U.S. citizens, like not owning a car, not having phone or Internet service at home, eating more than half vegan meals...

From time to time I meet a fellow member of the landed poor class who has, due to age, illness, or "the economy," slid down into the welfare class. I want to be very, very judgmental about some of these people. There's nothing wrong with accepting a handout if you are in fact unable to work. If you are able to work but aren't finding enough work to pay the bills, leaning on your in-laws is better than adding to the already unsupportable burden on our Welfare State.

I'm not writing this post in order to judge my mother unfavorably for having rolled into the welfare office, instead of my sister's or my homes, to ask for financial aid while she was in a wheelchair...but that's partly because I don't think anybody could pay my mother enough to stay in a wheelchair one minute longer than she had to. The doctor imagined that anyone that age, after that accident, would be permanently disabled. The doctor didn't know Mother. She was back at work within three months. She walked up the rough mountain road to visit the Cat Sanctuary, and enjoy the beautiful sunny afternoon, yesterday. That's her idea of a vacation from her full-time job. I don't think even Ayn Rand could object to paying to support somebody like Mother. I think Ayn Rand would have called that a point of honor.

But I think all of us need to be much more judgmental than we are about the people who've tried to alleviate their own feelings of guilt and discomfort by saying some of the things I've heard them say to me, now that the word's got out that, although I'm a rich man's widow, I'm not his heir, and am consequently penniless. I hear thoughts that are a logical development of what Peter Flom wrote about souls and bellies. From "My neighbor's soul is not my affair, but his belly is" it's a short step to "My neighbor's soul is of less importance than his belly."

Now, as a matter of fact, I personally don't like having a belly. Technically "belly" is the old English word for the section of the body also known by the Latin word "abdomen," but like most American women my age I tend to use "belly" only to refer, in a crass and derogatory tone, to one that is bulging with surplus fat. Some of us don't mind having "baby bumps." I'd rather have the ribby look implied by "washboard abs."

How irrelevant is that to the focal point of this post? I resent a political worldview that first categorizes (and stereotypes) people on the basis of their incomes, then relates to those with lower incomes as people who have only "needs" (no gifts to share), and then defines those "needs" in terms strictly of their bellies.

It translates to, "You don't need to do any of the things that matter most to you, that actualize your self and embody your soul. You need to focus on the priorities a lot of social workers have agreed are what poor people need...like having a lot of food, in fact having more animal protein and saturated fat in your diet than you might prefer to consume. And, well, having a "decent" crowded noisy vermin-infested hostility-drenched polluted ugly apartment has to be more of what you need than having a beautiful, historic old house that needs a lot of repairs that the average social worker wouldn't have a clue how to make, so why not just give up the house and move into a low-income housing project. And after that, if the public can be hit up for the needed amount of funding, we might be able to retrain you to do some sort of entry-level job so that we could place you as, say, a Wal-Mart greeter, or maybe a junior day-care assistant, or some other job that could be better done by a fourteen-year-old, but we've worked very hard on getting the fourteen-year-olds banned from the job market so that those jobs can be made available to skilled and experienced adults whose jobs have been submarined by corporate slave labor in China. Well, you need to think about the survival of your belly...you can always worry about having a soul later."

I've heard that line of argument expressed in close to those words, and I offer as evidence that Christianity works the fact that, although the people making the argument are lazier and therefore much weaker than I am, and although as a matter of objective fact I think the United States would be better off without its welfare-cheat population, I've never even tried to strangle these people. I am not a violent person. Because I have a sensitive soul. People without sensitive souls are violent.

My sensitive soul demands freedom, self-determination, self-actualization. My sensitive soul has no problem with material wealth, but has never made material wealth a priority. My sensitive soul actually prefers the sensation of hunger to the sensation of having compromised any principle for material gain.

A belly without a sensitive soul is a pretty good description of a caterpillar. My sensitive soul doesn't hate caterpillars, and feels sorry for the ones I find it necessary to kill...but my sensitive soul becomes very, very angry when people presume to make plans for me that presuppose that I am a caterpillar.

Now, as a matter of objective fact, we've had over a hundred years of "progress" toward the kind of Welfare State that those who define poor people in "belly" terms thought we needed. The result has been more poverty, and also dire economic developments. Exactly how dire the condition of the U.S. economy has become is a matter of debate. Different projections can be made from different statistical analyses. It takes a true math nerd to crunch enough different sets of numbers to form an intelligent preference for one projection over the others. I'm not a math nerd, so I'll settle for a generalization based on the amount of information we non-math-nerds can absorb: Any way you analyze it, the U.S. economy is in bad shape. We can't afford to allow any able-bodied person to depend on any long-term financial aid extracted from the U.S. government.

Passing the financial burden down to state and local governments is a short-term solution that can help if, and only if, it's consistently regarded as a temporary transitional measure. We don't need bankrupt states, counties, or cities any more than we need a bankrupt federal government. We need to wrap our heads around the idea that large equals inefficient. Or, big institutional systems for helping poor people equal systems that invite exploitation and will inevitably bankrupt themselves.

Many people who are not among Virginia's landed poor think the way Peter Flom does. "We don't live in small villages any more..."

Wrong, I say. I say this as a Virginian who expatriated myself into a big sprawling city for almost half of my adult life. When we don't live in small villages, we live in cities that consist of neighborhoods. Washington, D.C., has done a great deal with the "neighborhood" concept, both good and bad. The relevant aspect of neighborhood, for this blog post, is that your neighborhood is the functional equivalent of a village.

When you move to Washington, you pick a congenial neighborhood in which to buy or lease your city home. Whether that means buying a house or renting an apartment is a matter of choice more than class, in this context, despite the obvious relevance of your income level. Let's dump a lot of the garbage--if you have a full-time job in Washington you have a choice between a lifestyle that's beyond your financial means, a lifestyle that strains your financial means, or a lifestyle that allows you to live comfortably within your means and be able to help others.

While living in Washington I worked with the local part of the team that created www.volunteeroverseas.org, (yes, please click), and I'd like to borrow a word from How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas that describes my favorite urban Creative Tightwads. Their sensitive souls have been exposed to an awareness of real poverty--in the city, in their home towns, in other countries--and this awareness has "bent" these people. I've never been in Joe Collins' home but I remember that, before she needed a house with room for a growing son, Zahara Heckscher's home and office was one room in a group house. The house included a kitchen, bathroom, and downstairs "living room" that could accommodate good-sized dinner parties and a house library, but the bed, clothes storage area, and office were all jammed into one town-house bedroom, which is (typically) less than half the size of the smallest bedroom in a rural or suburban house. Zahara Heckscher was not a young student doing her first part-time job, although she was well enough preserved to be mistaken for one. She was trying to "stay bent" and use a good part of her decent income to help people in real need.

You don't have to go overseas to "get bent." If you want to help people who have real financial needs, you do need to be aware that most of those people do not fit the stereotypes for which massive, inefficient programs are designed.

Reading your local alternative newspaper may help. Around the time volunteeroverseas.org was launched, the Washington City Paper (warning: it's not family-filtered) ran a feature essay on paraplegics for whom federal programs weren't providing rehabilitation. The writers chose to focus on young men who didn't qualify for federal programs that addressed paraplegic seniors, paraplegic children, or people whose paraplegic condition was part of permanent brain damage. You might think this was the group of paraplegics it would be most profitable to offer physical therapy, education, and job training; social workers apparently disagree. The writers found more than two dozen men who had become paraplegic due to spinal damage, below the brain, and weren't getting the help they needed. Of course, the purpose of publicizing these guys' problem was to get a local company to create a private program for them, and it worked.

If you keep an ear to the ground in your neighborhood, though, you're likely to find a similar situation where someone needs help but doesn't qualify for a large-scale program. And if more of us actually do that, we can help scale back the bulky government programs before they collapse under their own weight.

Why don't more people do this? I seriously think the answer can be summarized as "Because they're not Virginians." Although our parents certainly weren't rich, could poor-mouth with the best and not even have to exaggerate their financial worries, my brother and I still grew up with an awareness that we were better off than most of humankind. We could look down on people whose behavior was "trashy" but were not allowed to look down on people who were poor, or whose solutions to their own financial problems weren't the ones we would have chosen. In fact we were told, when possible, to look for people whom we might be able, in some small and humble way, to help. We happened to know a lot of those people because one of Dad's part-time jobs had involved distributing free food to people who'd identified themselves as needing it. We were taught to look for them, and look for small, efficient, individual, and confidential ways to help those in need, outside of our home town too.

With all due respect and good will, I have to notice that it's possible--and wonder how it's possible--for people like Peter Flom not to do this. Some people actually grow up with their parents telling them to cultivate the rich people's kids at their school, instead of looking out for the poor ones. Some people are told to shop at the stores, dine at the restaurants, even attend the religious services, the rich people favor, rather than going to places where they're likely to meet a mix of Creative Tightwads and really poor people. Some people are warned off volunteering overseas, or even travelling to poor countries, or even taking jobs in the poor sections of their own cities.

For the first ten years or so I remember hearing that Anacostia, D.C., or "Ward 8" in general, was very hostile and dangerous to White people. Hostile to yuppies, gentrifiers, and bigots it certainly was, but there are decent human beings even in the poorest and shabbiest inner-city neighborhoods. There are scum everywhere, too. It's always nice if someone who lives in a neighborhood other than your own can introduce you to the decent people. It shows respect, and helps break down prejudice. Once this has been done, there's no reason to feel more afraid to work in a poor neighborhood than in a rich one. Both kinds of neighborhoods are occasionally targeted by evil people; both are likely to be the homes of nice people, and nice people in either kind of neighborhood can occasionally face financial crises.

"But knowing people in financial need doesn't make us better able to help than a large organization that has more money..." It does, and it doesn't. Individuals are better able to assess needs and meet needs in an efficient, confidential way. Individuals obviously don't have as much money to give, and large organizations can sometimes use large, awkward "programs" to do more good for large numbers of people facing a financial crisis--typically after a disaster--either a natural disaster, like a tornado, or a man-made disaster, like a Socialist government administration.

Civilization needs both kinds of help. But, in order for large-scale organizations to do more good than harm, in addition to the small-scale, private help that prevents people from overburdening the big organizations, there's also a need for society to check people's willingness and ability to depend on handouts as a long-term career strategy.

Merely saying no to welfare benefits will not, all by itself, make every U.S. citizen independent and resourceful. Even in my family, we can't just assume that everyone is going to be able to follow the example of "Grandpa Vito," who was sitting up and keeping track of his visitors in order to plan his hundredth birthday party during the week before he died. Most of us won't be. We do not need to revive the social attitudes that used to make people ashamed of needing wheelchairs or white canes, or other compensatory devices that may not show. We do need a system that makes people ashamed of depending on welfare when there is no medical reason why they're not working.

The reason why many Americans aren't working today is that there aren't enough jobs to go around. For this, too, I think the best thing Washington can offer the rest of the nation is neighborhood consciousness. If there is a lot of unemployment among able-bodied adults in your neighborhood, then your neighborhood is obviously depending too much on imported goods and services. Talk to your neighbors about what you are buying from sources outside the neighborhood that could be produced inside the neighborhood...and start producing it. That's the way to keep a welfare system sustainable for those who really need disability pensions, without turning what ought to be a safety net into a snare for able-bodied people who should be walking on their own feet.

I don't want to hear that caterpillar-type talk about how "the economy's down, and good jobs aren't available any more, and I can't afford to support you on my little old pension..." I have heard that from "Uncle Abner," who was technically born inside the Virginia border but brought up by people who ought to have been in Kentucky, and I have observed that a Virginia gentleman could comfortably support two or three people on a pension the size of his...but I'm not on the Internet to argue about anybody's pension. Some people are drawing out of Social Security much more than they either need or deserve, and some people are drawing enough to pay for groceries but not rent, utilities, or medical bills. That's a whole different issue.

My point here is that, if you are one of our retired population who are in the habit of saying (as if it hadn't already been said) that the economy's down and the job market is tight and no business is really thriving these days, you can do something besides parroting these stale remarks. George Peters did that, while living; most of you other retirees may not be as intelligent as he was, but most of you appear to be less physically disabled, and some of you have more disposable income. You can talk to a few other people who are making these remarks and decide what kind of job market you want to build.

If only ten people were paying me just $100 per month, either for one or two days' work (that's how much I charge for one day's work for a business or two for a disabled person), I'd be rich. Of course, you may want to support other underemployed adults who might not feel that they were rich if they were pulling in a steady $1000 per month. Some of them have different needs than I have, and some of them should hire me as a budgeting consultant. Anyway, my point is: if you can scrape up $100 per month, you can stabilize your local economy...if you just do it, and don't wait for Big Government.

As long as we go on pouring our $100 per month out of our local economy, blowing it out on imported products (including excessive gas and TV expenses), and waiting for the federal government to take care of our neighbors, the neighborhood will become poorer. It's a vicious cycle. More people will be sucking money out of the federal welfare system, fewer will be paying money in, the economy will collapse, and then our great experiment, our democratic republic, will collapse. If you want to see that happen, what are you doing in the United States--you should have been in Greece or Russia or some such country, years ago. As the bumper sticker says, put your heart in the U.S.A. or get your [Democratic Party emblem] out.

Peter Flom has been publishing on Yahoo for a long time, and I believe he's the sort of person he represents himself to be; he consistently writes like it. That is a decent, public-spirited, fairly young man who has never questioned what his elders told him about politics. And what they told him about politics was based on the way the world looked to them fifty years ago, when there seemed no end to American wealth and progress and even the old Soviet Union seemed to have some chance of making socialism work, and nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the only thing we thought we had to fear. We respect those older people, and we should...but we're not living in that kind of world any more.

If you've absorbed "Progressive" politics as the religious practice of your family, it may not be easy to wake up and make the transition, but you are trying to practice a lot of theories that are fifty or a hundred years out of date. It's like continuing to type "Basic" commands into a computer program that's running HTML.

This web site can fairly be described as liberal (we believe in fairness and generosity and ethnic diversity), as moderate (we're not emotionally attached to any political party), as conservative (we believe in preserving tradition and values), as Green (we believe in conserving the environment), as libertarian (we believe in civil liberties), and other things. One thing this web site definitely is not is "Progressive," in the sense that used to mean "believing it was possible for socialism to work" but now, relative to the world in which we're now living, means "having given up on ideals and settled for power grabs, e.g. Obamacare and 'Agenda 21.'" Even for caterpillars, what the new "Progressive" power grabs call for, in the long term, is for a lot of caterpillars to get squished.

If you have been a caterpillar in the past, like "Uncle Abner," you need to think about what happens to caterpillars who stay in their safety nets, or webs or tents, after the rest of the brood have climbed out on their own and turned into butterflies. Have you ever looked at those caterpillars? Not very pleasant, is it? The time has come to crawl out of that safety net and turn into a butterfly.