Wisdom and Tough Love

Anson Burlingame’s latest post, “Intoxicated by Government”,  prompts me to reply with a post of my own, wherein I can access more writing tools than on just a comment.

A street in Elora after an ice storm - frozen ...

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Anson addresses the age-old conundrum of the relationship between the government and the poor, a.k.a., welfare.  He makes valid points such as government assistance being addictive, similar to substance addiction.  It is no doubt true, a case in point being a front-page story in today’s Globe, “Winter Triage”.

The story, not entirely available online, reports that the number of people applying for help with utility bills here in Joplin has recently doubled from a typical line of about 50 people to one of about 100.  One individual who was about to have his electricity turned off blamed property taxes and court-ordered payments due to a car accident 6 months ago.

One can, I assume, always find an example of both deserving and not-so-deserving recipients of assistance.  Demand will always rise to meet the supply.  Some people are lazy, some industrious.  Some are lucky and some seem to be under a cloud all the time.  And in American culture where we have a very low savings rate and are used to living on credit, unexpected misfortune can easily collapse a family’s finances.

STI Gauge Sweep 2

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As an example, the check engine light came on the other day in our little 1993 Honda, our second car.  The Honda dealer charged me $80 just to diagnose it, and would have applied that to the repair, but it was the “cylinder position sensor” in the distributor and a new one would be $813!  I have decided I don’t need to know where the cylinders are.

Let’s face it, when you consider the social problems of society, like crime and substance abuse, it’s a wonder that unemployment is only 5% or 6%.

What makes it really hard to dispense assistance fairly is that money is fungible.  “Fungible” of course means mutually interchangeable, financially.  Assistance money for utilities can free up money from other sources for cigarettes, booze, lottery tickets, or whatever, particularly if the other money is from undocumented sources such as the underground economy.

Habitat For Humanity volunteers constructing a...

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Anson advocates “tough love”.  He says that feeding the addiction solves nothing in the long run, and it’s hard to argue with that.  I agree with him that there needs to be a significant contribution from the individual to incentivize her or him to become independent of aid.  A prime example of this is Habitat for Humanity which requires “sweat equity” from individuals receiving a cheap or free house.  It may be that this is the heart of the problem:  life is not meant to be easy.  A healthy economy thrives on competition, and that means risk and hard work.

Charitable assistance is typically sporadic and, as Anson notes, does not affect the root causes of the poverty (the parable of teaching a man to fish).

If government assistance is rendered then, it seems that it should be done in a way that incentivizes the individual to re-enter the work force.  This means that assistance should always fall short of the comfort level, as in the utility assistance case mentioned above.  The Economic Security Corporation runs out of money before the end of every month and then directs people to other sources such as charities.

However, in the current Great Recession it is clear that merely providing incentive to the unemployed is not enough.  There’s lots of incentive out there but not lots of jobs.  In olden times one could tough it out down on the farm by scrimping or doing without, but now in the age of specialization and

lemonade stand!

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a global economy we are dependent on jobs, mostly from small businesses, and running a small business is not that easy.  About half of all new businesses fail in the first five years.

So, where is Wisdom in all this?  Republicans say to reduce taxes to encourage business start-ups and meanwhile “starve the beast” by reducing assistance, basically a survival-of-the-fittest philosophy.  Democrats say to maintain assistance such as unemployment benefits indefinitely, until the economy improves.  I say, we are probably handling it all about as well as we can by compromising for the middle and with neither extreme happy and some driving with their check-engine light on all the time.

The artist and poet William Blake, who lived i...

William Blake, via Wikipedia

As William Blake said,

Without contraries is no progression.Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.”

 

 

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
This entry was posted in charity, Economics, Ethics / Morality, Fiscal Policy, Personal Finance and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Wisdom and Tough Love

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    Not bad Jim,

    When I saw your link on my blog, I thought, oh, oh, here comes a blast from the middle about insensitivity, etc. Not so. You framed your views without resort to invictive, which you usually do (Citizens United being the exception), and made good points of your own.

    But I would like to try, herein, to “reset” the argument. Let’s take the “check engine” light example. Usually that nuisance is related to an emissions system malfunction that left unfix may well burn up your engine. (I never heard of the cylinder position thing before). Now a car owner usually has to pay attention to the damn light out of fear of major future malfunction. Your $80 troubleshooting bill, much less the ignored repair bill of $813 can be directly laid at the feet of environmental “improvement”.

    Is that light and the system to which it usually relates worth it to you? If yes, quit complaining. If no, then go shoot a tree hugger!! You might also shoot the garage that charged the troubleshooting fee for doing maybe five minutes of “checking”. Damn fat cat mechanics!!! Or the parts vendor charging $800 for a, what, $100 part (plus shipping!)

    I recently read an online promulgated Letter to the Editor someplace in, yes, Texas. It’s title was Put Me In Charge. The letter contained some sound ideas. One was allow all the food stamps in the world to pay for bags of “beans and rice” (I would add flour and few other “stables”) but not a nickle for a “ding dong”. Makes sense to me.

    Just think about that idea. We can start to attack obesity on the part of at least the poor through the food stamp program!!!!

    You are absoultely correct in pointing out the fungibility of money. So why give money to those in need. Why not coupons for only the “things” they need to live and survive. NO ONE needs a ding dong. But a helluva lot of people want them and will fight for such a “right”, right?

    But the heart of my blog of course was our collective inablitity of society to make individuals really change their needs and habits through “giving”. Read my latest column in the Globe about NOLA. That is a perfect example in my view. The “grand dame” has not changed a whit from what I can see, despite all the lessons of Katrina.

    Now go “give” a poor man a $14 Billion levy to protect his govwernment provided home and food stamp provided substances, along with the beer he has used “other money” to purchase. His reaction will be that government should have had the right levy there in the first place, should have pulled his ass out of the attic after he refused to evacuate the area when warned, sent a government helicopter to haul his ass to Baton Rouge when the stuff really hit the fan and God forbide, put more toliets in the SuperDome after the storm hit!!!

    Finally, of course tough love must be applied with great wisdom and discrimination. Doctors and nurses do it all the time in detox centers for the loudmouth and belligerent drunks that attend such places. I have seen people on the verge of death in such places prescribing their own preferred medications and become insensed when they did not get what they wanted which was a continuing “high”!!! I have even seen such folk “put down” with a heavy dose of Thorazin when called for, medically!!

    And guess where he/she will be some 10 days later after appropriate medical care is rendered, for “free” to save their sorry lives.

    Now please don’t tell me that is the exception rather than the rule without first spending some time being there doing that in such places.

    Tough love is just that, love with a modifier. It is not insensitive or for sure “easy” to render. But it sure as hell is needed in my view. And such sentiment applies, GR or “normal times”. It just has to be applied to more people during a GR.

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You are right about the check engine light being there principally for exhaust emissions, but that wasn’t the case this time. I’m guessing, but I suspect the cylinder position sensor is there to tell me if my timing belt has stretched, and I know it hasn’t because I had it replaced last year. Actually I do approve of government’s intervention in that way because I want decent air for me and my descendants to breathe. Now if I lived in “Cally-fornia” I believe I would have to get some kind of emissions check. In MO, not so. The down side to the light being on all the time is that it won’t warn me about the PCV valve or other emission parts, but I’m happy to use my own judgement on that, which government is allowing me to do. The car is a little two-seater and while it has 17 years on it, it only has 75,000 miles on the odometer – it’s our “backup car” and our summer fun car (the top comes off). It is unlikely to clog the environment with the little use we are giving it.

      In advocating that assistance should be given “in kind” rather than money you are echoing my own position on the matter. Note that I said, “assistance should fall short of the comfort level.” And for sure New Orleans is as you say an appropriate place to find those extreme examples. Now wait for Duane or others to come up success stories about people who have been restored to full function by government assistance. I know one myself, a recipient of a Habitat house – single mom, and very hard working. I can easily imagine her descending into depression without the assistance she was given.

      William Blake was right – struggle is necessary to the human condition.

      I think you and I are very close on this one.

      Jim

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  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    A final note related to Duane’s potential rebuttal. We should not government anecdotally. A very careful review of what is right for ALL Americans should be our criteria. Taking from some and giving to others inherently establishes such conflict.

    When taken to extremes it becomes class warfare or at least argument. Sum up the Russian Revolution and THAT is what it was all about. NOT so in the case of the American Revolution in my view. The latter was all about “ideas” of freedom and liberty for ALL not just a selected group.

    At a fundamental level what exactly is “breaking the back” of our federal government, financially, right now. It is SS and Medicare followed closely by national defense and “other” entitlements.

    SS and Medicare only supports one group of people, older people. “Other” entitlements do the same for selected groups. Defense at least applies to ALL Americans.

    If that is true (the above view on spending for groups), where is the EQUALITY in such spending (other than defense)? And on a legal front where is the CONSTITUTIONALITY of such spending on selected groups?

    Every dollar spent on defense goes for the protection for ALL Americans, even when some fat cat contractor takes too much off the top. The intent of such spending is protection for all and is clearly provided for constitutionally.

    SS, Medicare, and a host of other federal programs do not even try to be so equal. They are designed to be discriminatory for selected groups. I am not arguing NEED herein, just the idea of equality.

    NOW, I challenge Duane and other liberals to find fault with the idea of providing assistance to the poor through coupons for really necessary items rather than fungible money that can easily be misused. First, stick to food, clothing and shelter and within those three catagories stick to BASICS needed for life. For example (using “tough” love) is power for Air Conditioning a basic necessity of life?

    Today it is 20 degrees outside. Heat for a shelter is indeed a necessity. But when it is 95 degrees outside someone can sit in a bath tub of cold water to “survive”. What is fundamentally different in providing money to pay electric bills for AC as opposed to money to buy “ding dongs”?

    And IF you provide money for “rice and beans” or heat, how does anyone know how it is really spent and for what “needs”.

    At a level of survival, we all have the same needs. But when it comes to comfort and convience, well that becomes an argument over equality but not survival, does it not.

    Given limited resources, where should government decide to begin to make “cuts”?

    Anson

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  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    Anson,

    Actually, air conditioning can be a basic necessity in a heat wave. People in marginal health can and are pushed over the edge every year in that way. It’s always problematic to generalize when the devil is in the details.

    As far as government assistance is concerned, it would surely work a lot better if there were realistic budgets and fiscal discipline, but that’s not the way economics works and in a modern global economy where everyone relies on interlocking technology it isn’t simple like it was down on the farm.

    I don’t want to live in a society where bodies lie unattended outside ER’s or old people die of heat stroke in stuffy tenements because of their own misfortunes or incompetencies and I don’t think you do either. But, we agree that some line has to be drawn somewhere.

    I commented on one of Duane’s posts yesterday about the estate tax. I hope you see the relevance of that to this case. If “tough love” philosophy is to be applied to welfare, why not apply it also to the estate tax issue by limiting what is handed down in wealthy families? That might free up a little more electricity for the next heat wave.

    The devil is in the details, isn’t he? 👿

    Jim

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  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim, Jim

    Did you have AC in your home when growing up. I did not. AC became a fact of life across a broad spectrum of America in, what, maybe the 60’s. I don’t recall Bancroft Hall being A/Ced while attending USNA. Now it is. I recall my grandmother, a lady of limited means sitting in the shade on her front porch on hot summer days, relishing a slight breeze. An electric fan was a true luxury on those hot days and nights for me as well.

    Same with medical care. Technology advances to provide more and better services. But have BASIC NEEDS for survival changed dramatically over the years?
    “Moon Pies” became a great “deal” when I was a youngster. Up until that “breakthrough” in food production a homemade chocolate cake was the treat to be relished and I sure didn’t get one of those every day. Give the poor some flour and sugar and let them make their own cakes (along with bread, etc) but no money for “ding dongs” in my view.

    My real point is that if we suddenly changed food stamps to coupons for ONLY selected items, consider the uproar we would hear. The term “ding dongs” I hope you realize is symbolic as something as “nice to have” but for sure not a stable of life.

    Consider this little thought.

    To drive a vehicle on public roads the law requires insurance paid for out of individual pockets, right? Do “poor” people get subsidies for automobiles, gas or insurance? Not that I am aware of, at least directly. Is an automobile and the use of it a basic necessity of life? Sure people drive w/o insurance, but they suffer the consequences of law when they get caught. And guess who pays the bill when they have an accident. You do with increased insurance premiums, right?

    Did you also see recently that when one has an accident now in NYC requiring emergency response from a fire department, the responsible individual for the accident gets a bill from the city, a substantial bill it seems. I doubt that insurance companies pay such bills.

    Now apply that logic to someone showing up at a “public” hospital w/o insurance. Sure they get treated but not fined, right? Would THAT be constitutional?

    And then there is the little matter of 50% of our adult citizens pay no income taxes, state or federal. Is that something needing fixing?

    My basic point in all of this I suppose is that if we begin to apply the concept of “tough love” to situations rather than wholesale giving of lots of money, we might well come up with all sorts of ideas how to keep people from dying in the streets so to speak but not supporting bad habits while doing so.

    It is a different perspective, not a lack of compassion, that prompts me to give it thought.

    Anson

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  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    Anson,

    No, we sure didn’t have refrigeration A/C, but we did have a water-drip type of fan. The water flowed down through straw-like stuff and the fan pulled air through it – evaporative cooling. It was better than nothing. I vividly remember a heat wave hitting us in central Kansas about 1953 or 1954. It set all-time records and the highs hovered around 108 to 110. It would literally make you gasp for air. Then when I reported to USNA for plebe summer in July, 1955 we had another record summer for heat in the East. We would shower 3 or 4 times a day trying to keep cool. Drinking thick “Marine lemonade” on the rifle range, running. It was all double-time, no walking. I assume you experienced the same. Oh yes. 🙄

    People in those days accepted those conditions because there was no alternative, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rough. I’m sure you recall that movies had banners advertising “Cool Inside” and many would buy a ticket as much for comfort as entertainment.

    But when it comes to the poor, the sick, and the elderly it is hard for me to see any difference between hypothermia and hyperthermia. Not everyone can open a window and get a breeze. It’s a matter of society taking care of those who for whatever reason aren’t capable of doing it themselves. Sure, it might be their own fault, but at some point we have to draw a line. I guess we are discussing where the line is.

    Your coupon idea is interesting, but on searching I find that food stamps ARE in fact restricted to only certain items. Here is a link:

    http://www.hss.state.ak.us/dpa/programs/fstamps/howto.html

    Again, the problem is the fungible nature of money. People use the stamps for necessities and other income for unapproved stuff. That would be true even if you set up special stores for redemption of the stamps. Just because people aren’t wise, it doesn’t mean they aren’t sly.

    I just called USAA about the auto insurance idea. A lady in claims told me that bills for emergency responders would be covered under my policy, unless it was a case of the “STUPID DRIVER” rule. Huh? She said that’s what they actually call it, at least in AZ. It means that you aren’t covered if your accident involved doing something you clearly shouldn’t have done, like driving into water next to a sign telling you not to. Can’t argue with that. 😆 But, there ARE states where it is NOT covered. Here’s a link to that:

    http://www.insure.com/car-insurance/emergency-response-fees.html

    I agree with you about the principle though. Anytime we can attach cost to action in a way that rewards responsibility and penalizes irresponsibility, we are improving society. That ought to be on a check list for legislators, similar to the Powell Doctrine’s eight-question list for declaring war. A second item should be the other thing you mentioned: NOTHING should be completely free. Sweat equity. Let’s start a list for them! 😀

    Jim

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  6. Nice article, Jim. I think your point about the Blakean middle ground as an answer to the debate is an intriguing way to answer the question and is probably the wisest approach. That being said, I wanted to take issue with the idea of “starve the beast” that is espoused by much of the American Right.

    I have some fundamental disagreements with the “starve the beast” approach advocated by most folks on the right. William Niskanen, a policy expert at, believe it or not, the Cato Institute, really annihilates the practicality of the argument in this essay (http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/starve-the-beast-just-does-not-work/) This by the way is a shortened version of a longer article which is even more fascinating. So, first and foremost, my problem with the idea is that it doesn’t work.

    A second, and more significant problem I have with it is that I believe that the Horatio Alger myth is not really something that happens all that often. There are scores of people who are not poor because they don’t work hard enough or because they are lazy but because circumstances have not put them in a great position. I’m sure you could find some people who are “addicted” to welfare, but I am also sure you can find many, many people who have worked hard and have not had the American Dream happen for them. Quite honestly, the addiction metaphor is a bit silly. It is a lot easier to blame the poor for their circumstance then to accept that much of our national mythology about how the hardest working among us are those that go the furthest is an overhyped delusion.

    The starting line is rarely the same for people. Luck, circumstance and biology are much more significant factors than any social program. I have other issues with the approach used by the American Left as well, but I’ll save that for another day.

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  7. ansonburlingame says:

    GOOD. We agree, rather firmly it seems, on principle. Now we just have to “make a list” that complies with such prinicples. And I agree with your comparison to using the principles in the Powell Doctrine when going to war.

    SOMETIMES, but not often, certain principles must be violated even though they seem sound in isolation. Take the Ten Commandments. In priniciple, if all people lived in accordance with those principles, the world would be a better place.

    But as I write we have men under arms sent into the field with “God’s blessing” to go forth and kill the enemy.

    Take today’s Globe edit on Justice and Politics. Some judges read a law, compare it to the Constitution and ask “is it allowed”. Others, particularly those that think the law is a “good idea” ask, “is it prevented?”. An honest man can come up with two different answers by approaching the problem with different “perspectives”, can they not.

    Same with “tough love”. “Is my action employing the idea of toughness while still being loving”. The other may ask, “why should I be tough in this situation”.

    I must admit that when I first embarked on reading Rawl’s Theory of Justice as advised by Duane, I thought “here we go”. Justice is Fairness sounded far too liberal for me so I began to read it already in an argument mode.

    But as I progressed through the reasoning, which I admire, I like the idea. Rawls see fairness as something that universally “lifts all boats” in a rising tide. If EVERYONE benefits (with some perhaps benefiting “more”) then his definition of fairness is met and the action is “Just”.

    Now compare that idea of no tax hikes for anyone or tax hikes only for the rich. Depends on how you ask the question or “approach” the problem, right?

    Anson

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  8. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ All,

    I haven’t read Rawls and will have to put that on my to-do list. While admitting that my economic education is incomplete and continuing I am compelled to reflect on my own lifetime impressions. As happens often in history, war jumpstarts economies, and that happened big-time after WWII. People were optimistic and new technology flowed into the marketplace. That included television, which had been delayed by the war, radar, and the plastics industry. The GI bill was a massive stimulus plan conceived before stimulus was a concept, buoyed by patriotic fervor. Then we had the Cold War, the arms race (which was to last 5 decades) and the space race. Few things bring people together like fear and shared danger. The baby boom fostered high demand for consumer goods and that in turn made it easier for management to accede to labor demands for higher wages and benefits. All of these things fueled a half-century of growth, the sine qua non of economic health.

    Where is growth now? Nowhere in sight. I think the power of unions reached its peak in the 50’s or 60’s and has been on decline ever since. The tech boom of the 1990’s was a classic bubble. I think a lot of our economic steam also came from vigorous immigration, both legal and illegal. In the current political climate that source of growth is now anemic at best.

    What does the future hold? I am not sanguine about it. We have only one “solution” to the medical dilemma and the GOP has vowed to eliminate it without a good replacement in mind. Unions are a pale shadow of their former selves. Manufacturing has almost disappeared. The wealth-gap between the few rich and the many poor continues to widen. I see class warfare in our future and an endless series of bubbles and busts with no sustainable growth.

    Please, somebody show me I’m wrong. 😯

    Jim

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  9. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ All,

    As reinforcement to Keith’s point about “Starve the Beast” not working and also to Anson’s and my agreement that welfare should be maintained below a comfort level, please see the below link from the Cato Inst. on the failure of the War on Poverty. It’s hard to argue with real numbers.

    http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=12146

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  10. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ All,

    Also, relative to the inefficiency of welfare and the fungibility of money, I found this today in Parade Magazine, one of the most inspiring stories of philanthropy I have ever read and one I know Anson will approve of:

    http://www.parade.com/news/2010/12/19-the-shoestring-philanthropist.html

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