The Road to Hell
February 19, 2011
Many years ago before I'd left college, I read an article about the "Me" generation, questioning what kind of world this newly affluent, comfortable, coddled, self-centered group of people would make in the coming years. I'm at the tail-end of the Boomer generation and missed most of the stuff I would have liked to participate in: anti-war protests, Woodstock, feminist marches, in part because of my age, and in part because of who I was then. But I was lucky to grow up with the benefits of a generation who though that government should have more of a role in our lives than just providing for the protecton of the country. I went to good public schools. I benefitted from new highways built in our rural area, and the streetlights that came with it. I had decent food, safe medicines, buses to take me to school. We never needed it, but some of my friends made use of welfare programs that kept food on the table and clothes on their backs in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, one that had no industry and few jobs that weren't tied to farming or tourism. But as more of my generation joined politicis, there was a constant tug of war between those who felt some social responsibility toward their fellow humans, and those who just wanted to get everything they could for themselves. It's not entirely a clear-cut division along party lines but it's definitely a liberal-conservative split.
The current budget slashing is just an extreme example of it. And so much of it seems penny-wise and pound foolish. Out go funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides not just abortions (a small fraction of their service costs), but family planning which helps keep people from having too many kids that they can't support. Out goes funding for public broadcasting, which supports a number of educational programs for children that commercial TV wouldn't touch, giving them a boost up the ladder to help them succeed in school. Stripping the FCC of power to regulate the airwaves assures that only those who can pay for internet access will get it, leaving a huge number of rural and urban poor out of the greatest communication and information revolution in human history, and giving other countries a huge education advantage. South Korea has more people with broadband internet access than we do. This is not really a war about ideology. Or rather, it's a war about a different kind of ideology than we commonly think it is. Sad to say, it's really a war between compassion and privilege.
I'm not even talking about the haves vs. the have-nots. A lot of the folks who are screaming bloody murder against what they call big government, are not particularly well-off themselves. Some of them are middle class folks who got screwed by Wall Street and are turning their anger on the government. Some of them are the working poor who feel that "other people" (read: minorities) are getting more of their share than they should be. But most of them feel put-upon in some way, and feel they're being taxed to death for things they don't use, or that the government is somehow interfering in their lives for no good reason. And yet many of them fail to realize they are recipients of that same government's investments in infrastructure (things as basic as sidewalks and highways) and the bare bones safety net of programs like Medicare. When you see protesters carrying signs against Big Government that say "Keep Govt. Out of my Medicare" the cognitive dissonance just boggles. Who do they think provides it in the first place? There's not some privately owned or publicly traded insurance company called Medicare.
There are very few people still alive who remember what it was like without any safety net at all, before Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and various welfare programs existed, or before government took a hand in regulating the safety of food, drugs, dangerous manufacturing industries, and enforced building codes, before unions helped guarantee a decent living wage for workers. If you want to see what that's like, spend some time in China, which is now undergoing its own early industrial period similar to the age of the Robber Barons here.
For example, take a look at coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to the Dept. of Labor, a total of 71 miners died last year in the U.S.
In 2010, 19 coal miners in addition to the 29 who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine were killed in mining accidents. Twenty-three miners in the metal and nonmetal mining industry also died in mining accidents – 45 percent were contractors. Not including the Upper Big Branch-related deaths, it appears that more than half of the 42 additional miners died in accidents involving violations of the Rules to Live By standards.
1907, the year the Bureau of Mines was created, saw the deaths of 362 miners in one disaster alone. By contrast, in 2008, 3,215 miners died in Chinese coal mine disasters alone (down from 5,986 in 2005), not including other mining disasters. China has a huge number of small coal mines, many illegal and under the radar, but even their large official mines do not have the safety regulations ours do. Our government decided that mine owners did not have their workers' best interests at heart and stepped in to regulate safety codes. Whenever those rules are disregarded, people die. That's one of the benefits of so-called Big Government. That's why we elect people: to represent our interests where we're powerless to do so.
Take away the govenrment's ability to regulate, to fund where market forces would not, to provide a safety net for the poor and powerless, and you would live in the country of snake-oil salesmen, company towns, disease epidemics, and grinding poverty, a country without decent highways, police, fire fighters, or health care for anyone who could not pay.We've experienced that in the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl, in the Pinkerton strikes, in the years of labor organizing. Why would we want to go back to that? Are the people crying for the end of Big Government merely short-sighted or more selfish than even the Robber Barons?
What saddens me about this turn of events in American history is the utter lack of compassion it demonstrates. We've put such a high price on independence and self-reliance that we fail to see our obligations to each other and our interconnectedness. Social institutions that provide services for the poor have always been with us, whether private, religious, or governmental. Behind those institutions are people who are well-aware that not everyone is as lucky, capable, or healthy as they are, people who are privileged by class, income, intelligence, or race to be able to make it on their own. But with 45% of the wealth in this country concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population, do any of us really think private funding is going to pick up the slack? I don't see anyone stepping up to help cover health care costs for those who can't afford it. Oh, in individual cases, yes, but no one is stepping up to offer affordable health insurance for the 45 million of us who are unable to afford its currently exorbitant rates. I see new cell phone towers going up but not much in areas that don't have enough customers to recoup the cost. This is what government does: builds infrastructure and funds programs that are not all about the bottom line.
I'm all for austerity measures, and I'm willing to bite the bullet myself, but when you are already in the lower brackets of income, there's not much bullet left to bite. Austerity for the rich is not austerity for the poor. And when you ask the poor and the middle class to bear the brunt of the tax burden AND the austerity measures, you are risking exactly what's happening in the Middle East right now. People who are unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to put food on the table, afford a place to live or send their kids to school have nothing to lose, and the rich have everything. Spreading the wealth around via taxation and government sponsored social programs keeps everybody happy. If the rich are not going to help support the society in which they live, and from which they benefit, they deserve neither its privileges nor its protection, and certainly not its accolades.
That 1% of the wealthy are happy to make money off of the rest of us, but they don't give back much. This is not to say that all the wealthy are, by definition, greedy bastards. But it's interesting that FDR, one of our most socially conscious presidents, was considered "a traitor to his class" and that the Kennedys are so much more the exception than the rule. Even Andrew Carnegie must be ashamed of the current crop of super-rich. And the anti-government fools are happy to help them.
It's not your party that matters. It's not your religion. It's not how much money you have or don't have. It's how much empathy you have for the people around you: your next door neighbor, the people on your block, in your town, in your city, whether you know them personally or not. The new motto of this country seems to be "I"ve got mine. Fuck the rest of you." And that's just sad.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.