A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Thinking in Scale

Is that someone in trouble or the tip of your nose?

In "Beating up baby" I wrote about shortsighted "conservative" wealth working to cut support for children in poverty. The topic elicited some instructively shortsighted comments. One writer recommends sterilizing long-term welfare parents. Another, "Melissa," tells us she has risen above poverty, values self-reliance like the rest of us, and has no use for "behemoth" government

Even good people have trouble thinking in scale. After a few zeroes, our fabulous brains begin to fuzz. Some people resist the idea of evolution or climate change, for example, because they have trouble grasping the vastness of the phenomena. Stupendous size isn't just hard to figure; it can be intimidating. Crushing. So, mentally we scale down our world to a picture we can master.

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As it happens, both comments misread "Beating up baby." Both ignore the predatory behavior of the rich and politely trash the "dependent" poor. Let's be clear: several decades of "lean and mean" ideology, deregulation, and cronyism have created a super-rich elite and depressed wages for everyone else. The resulting gap rivals 1929 and the robber barons' Gilded Age. Yet "conservative" wealth keeps squeezing: and poor children are the most disturbing victims. Food programs have been targets, but so have teachers, early childhood programs such as Head Start, and medical care.

In scale, the damage caused by the worst welfare sleaze can't compare to the devastation caused by bankers and CEOs in the recent busts. Reckless greed undermined economic safeguards and spread ruin—literally—around the world. Instead of jail time the top of the top have wangled bailouts, golden parachutes, and the revolving door to a new life. Money begets money. The more you have, the more free time you have to scheme for more, and the more influence you can buy to get it. It's the force-multiplier effect. There's nothing virtuous about it. Meanwhile there aren't enough jobs that pay a living wage. Squeezed consumers can't afford the products they produce, which means declining sales, more unemployment, and demands for "austerity." This is an American, but also a global problem.[1] It's also how we're built.

In such a jam, people get stripped down to survival income. In a complex nation of 300 million, the scope of the problem is enormous. Melissa complains that I'm "passing judgement on those of us that are austere," and she vows to "go about saving this country for my children. I want my neighbors to be self-sufficient, and if they have a real need that I see, I'll help them when I can."

This old-fashioned community ethos is crucial but, alas, not enough. Even if Melissa could "save the country for my children," her children have to share the place with 300+ million other "children." As for the promise to "help [people in real need] when I can"—well, if only people could survive by eating "when they can" and earning a living "when they can."

The sentiment is wishful, but also callous about the casualties nobody wants to see. Only some kind of government can manage that. And the overwhelming scale isn't just numbers, it's also the staggering variety of things that can trip a family into poverty and social death. It's a stupefying number of individual stories, each of them implicated in other mind-boggling stories. Melissa is coyly "a little offended that you think Americans would let their neighbors starve. Why would I let them get near starvation?" What if her neighbors are a whole city or a nation? Is she going to feed them all? 

The point is, in an affluent country "conservative" wealth is actually squeezing people toward the "near starvation" Melissa deplores. Don't take my word for it: that's what the Dept. of Agriculture study shows. Maybe Melissa means she's only "austere" sometimes.   

 Exactly because the super-rich are too big to be accountable, only collective action—the government "of the people"—stands any chance of making everyday voices heard.  "Behemoth government" may be sloppy, but it does prevent more suffering and death than any one of us can. The point deserves emphasis: "big" government prevents a lot of suffering and death with food, retirement insurance, medicare, education, and so on. Of course it needs reform—what huge, complex organization doesn't? Look at Wall Street and the bloated corporate military. But without some government, the sociopaths among us will continue to prey on the unwary. Bernie Madoff and the Enron executives broke crime records, but the 2007-08 meltdown was incalculably more devastating, and nobody went to jail.

There's an undertone of aggression in the comments that's poignant. The writers take pains to be civil, but you can hear a mild growl. Melissa's "a little offended." And if poverty spiraled out of control, "I'd hate to have to shoot my neighbors when they try to steal from me or see property values decline because of increased crime." If you'd shoot a desperate neighbor for stealing, your kindness has a dark side. Lets hope this is just talking tough, a fashion that matches a taste for "trousers."

The other writer proposes sterilization in exchange for welfare, which harks back to Victorian "survival of the fittest" eugenics. It suggests "only giving long term welfare benefits to those who have been 'snipped.'"  With the witty euphemism "snipped" substituted for "sterilized," you might forget that this was the dream of racists in early 20thC America, not to mention the racially hysterical Nazis. Nazi propaganda insisted that "defectives" were about to overrun "us." Yes, overpopulation is stressing ecosystems across the planet. But suppose you "downsize" someone who's just immature or temporarily depressed? How can you tell? Who gets to decide? The Nazis started with "medical" sterilization, but fear escalated into the sadistic panic of extermination. 

The writer justifies the proposal by claiming that "people who should not have kids are having most of them." It's true, evidence shows that single parents and unplanned pregnancies suffer greater economic and health distress. At the same time many successful professional women are electing to have no children at all. But "Only about 40 percent of women who needed publicly funded family planning services between 2000 and 2008 got them, according to the Guttmacher Institute." Meanwhile, professional women have nearly none of the maternity benefits mandated in Europe that make parenthood less stressful.[2]

These are matters of policy: stinginess and sexual prejudice directed toward the poor, and stinginess and "lean and mean" business prejudice up the scale. If you were in favor of eugenics, presumably you'd want to improve policy. 

Instead the ideological hatchet sharpens: "These parents pass their stupidity to the kids genetically and by example and the horrific Liberalized education system which can barely educate bright kids ends up further destroying them." The problem of course is that poor kids aren't actually "destroyed," so it makes sense to help them be the most successful citizens they can be. In fact we have no idea how stupid or otherwise limited individual poor people are. Meanwhile, "austerity" politics and business lobbies have been attacking teachers and educational budgets. The US has 1600 different school districts. What does a cliché such as "liberalized" mean in reality? The present craze is for reducing public education to industrial-model tests while stripping out civilizing arts and other programs. At the same time television, which could be a potent educational vehicle, demands dumbed-down commercial programming the way corporations chase the cheapest labor. 

Finally the sterilization proposal concludes that "the government should [not] be in the charity business in the first place."  Private charities proved hopelessly inadequate during the Great Depression. Who else can help us cope? Calling it "the charity business" insinuates that "our" government's safety net is merely a racket. If the distress is real, then even if "our" help is somehow compromised, it would make sense to demand improvement, not abandonment. 

There's plenty of infrastructure work to be done that only government can do. So. Hire people. Yes, that makes the government a sort of corporation. Good. The truth is, it already is: but a corporate state run for the rich, with a smash and grab mentality that's been growing more brazen since the Vietnam War. Let's have a corporation that honors its shareholders.

When toddlers hear another child cry, they may cry in sympathy. Not out of some doctrinal conviction but because that's the way we're built. But we have many other conflicting motives, including survival greed. The job of a healthy culture is to mediate.

  

1. Cf. this explanation by Heiner Flassbeck, director of the division on globalization and development strategies since 2006 for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

 <<http://truth-out.org/news/item/12118-low-wages-and-high-unemployment-are-paralyzing-the-global-economy

 The man is describing a self-confounding system—a form of cultural neurosis.

The problem's complex, but not insoluble. At least you can imagine ways ot navigating the difficulties once you appreciate the tremendous current of da Nile.

2. Sharon Lerner, "Knocked up and knocked down: Why America's widening fertility class divide is a problem" (Slate, Sept. 26, 2011). ,,http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/09/knocked up_and_knocked-down.single.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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