Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Economic Balance that is not Balanced Enough

Mark Zuckerberg is leading a campaign to make the Internet available and affordable to everyone on Earth. Pres. Obama pushed through his signature domestic policy initiative of providing affordable health care to all Americans. It falls far short of the health care access provided by most other modern countries, but it's better than nothing. But what do these two, seemingly disparate pieces of news have in common? They both are efforts to provide low-cost availability of essential services to the population at large. And that is a critical consideration for a functional society.

The world has struggled through two extremes in economic theory: One of them, communism, seeks to provide complete equality of condition for all its citizens through government-controlled output. The other allows free enterprise to run amok so that some people are so vastly wealthy that they could never spend all the money they have while others are so poor they are literally starving in the streets. Modern democracies and welfare states try to strike a balance between those extremes. But in the U.S. the balance struck is still not equitable. There are still far too many hungry and homeless people. There are still too many who can't afford basic services.

Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, they say, but government-assisted equality of condition is anathema to them. And so, we have a great divide in this country among those who have and those who do not. We have people who are homeless, begging in the streets for their very survival, let alone access to the Internet. On the other hand, we have those who can afford to buy and sell entire companies without batting an eye. Some have multiple homes, a slap in the face to the homeless. But, conservatives tell us, the rich have earned their way to the top. They deserve what they have. Sure, there are those who were born into money (or married into it), but ultimately someone earned it and is willing to share it with their family members who did not. And that's their right. And, besides, those who are well off are responsible for job creation so that others can also make a living. The vast wealth of a few will eventually trickle down to everybody else.

I admit; I used to believe that. And if the rich would spend the same proportion of their wealth on goods and services as the poor have to, perhaps there might be a little truth in the trickle-down approach to economics. But that's not what the rich do with their money. They invest it. They save it. They hoard it. Very little of it actually percolates down through the economy and lands in the pockets of paupers.

The system of capitalism we have in the U.S. today cannot be sustained for long. As the divide between the rich and poor widens ever larger, something is bound to give. Do we really want to go back to the type of society that existed in the nineteenth century, such as that depicted in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Sure, we have a social safety net, but there are holes in it big enough to filter through a whale. We have a safety sieve that allows too many to pass through. What we need is a shield that protects everyone from poverty.

And here's how to build one:

Make it the policy of the U.S. that essential services are available to everyone at a cost that is commensurate with each person's ability to pay. If that means providing free broadband Internet to those who barely eek out a living, then that's what we need to do. If that means providing free and unlimited health care to those who can't afford insurance, then we need to provide that. If that means building and maintaining public transportation systems that are cheap enough for everyone to afford then we need to build them. If that means providing free public education all the way through the college level then we need to provide it. And if that means providing every family or even every single adult with enough, dare I use the term, welfare subsidies so that they can survive without begging for money on the streets, then we should provide it.

We can't afford to do all that, you say? I say we can't afford not to. Yes, there will be expense involved, but just imagine the results: No one will be homeless. Every sick person will be attended to. Every child will have a free education through college. Everyone will be electronically connected through the Internet. Everyone will be able to commute to work and back home without having to worry about the expense. Poverty will be a thing that we read about in history books.

Yes but won't that just make people lazy? Why should those who work and make a good living have to subsidize those who want to lay back on the couch and play with their free Internet and eat the food they bought with their government handouts? And I admit that this image is maddening. It isn't fair for some to have to work hard in order for the lazy among us to eat well. I completely understand that. But providing a minimal living to the poor will not make them lazy. People are lazy already or they're not. More importantly, just because you provide someone with a minimal living doesn't mean you don't require something in return. For every food stamp or welfare check that's given to someone, they must give something back. If they are able, they must work at a government job. If they are not able to do manual labor, they must be assigned some type of community service work that they are physically able to handle.

In addition, there must be a wide enough gap between the subsidies they receive and the minimum wage so that those who have temporarily hit upon hard times will be compelled to actually look for a job rather than just accept what the government gives them. If they can make just as much from government assistance as they can from a minimum wage job, then most of them are not going to take the job. But make even the minimum wage an improvement over welfare, and most people will feel compelled to find work if they are able to work. And for those who can't, or even for those who won't, that then becomes part of the price for a social system without poverty.

This is not socialism. Socialism is where the government owns all businesses and hires all workers. Capitalism can still reign supreme. But for those who find it hard to climb the ladder of success from the basement, it means a boost to the second rung. It means they will be able to save a little money instead of using every penny for sheer survival. And the rich will still be rich. They will still be able to afford whatever they want to buy. Maybe it means buying a smaller yacht or buying a home with one less swimming pool. But it's a redistribution of wealth that would be good for society as a whole. And it would be a system that would be the envy of the world.

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