More on Pelosi and Maher; The “Entitlement Culture”
March 19, 2012

It should be noted that, for all of Pelosi and Maher’s pretensions to being fearless truth-tellers, their denunciations of the “entitlement culture” are nothing new. Here’s Barbara Ehrenreich from last week, talking about the history of the “culture of poverty”:

It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other AmericaIf this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out.


At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote, “There is… a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”

It’s a wonder that you don’t hear nearly so much pearl-clutching over the “culture of wealth” explored in The Atlantic’s 2011 profile of the new global elite. That’s despite the recent proliferation of studies like this, which suggest that corporate executives are five times more likely than the general public to display psychopathic tendencies.

But so anyway. The point is, paternalistic assumptions about the culture of poverty are an old, old trope. And anyone who doesn’t think they’ve already gone a long way towards shaping the modern welfare state hasn’t been paying attention. Ehrenreich again:

So it was in a spirit of righteousness and even compassion that Democrats and Republicans joined together to reconfigure social programs to cure, not poverty, but the “culture of poverty.” In 1996, the Clinton administration enacted the “One Strike” rule banning anyone who committed a felony from public housing. A few months later, welfare was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which in its current form makes cash assistance available only to those who have jobs or are able to participate in government-imposed “workfare.”

In a further nod to “culture of poverty” theory, the original welfare reform bill appropriated $250 million over five years for “chastity training” for poor single mothers. (This bill, it should be pointed out, was signed by Bill Clinton.)

Even today, more than a decade later and four years into a severe economic downturn, as people continue to slide into poverty from the middle classes, the theory maintains its grip. If you’re needy, you must be in need of correction, the assumption goes, so TANF recipients are routinely instructed in how to improve their attitudes and applicants for a growing number of safety-net programs are subjected to drug-testing. Lawmakers in 23 states are considering testing people who apply for such programs as job training, food stamps, public housing, welfare, and home heating assistance. And on the theory that the poor are likely to harbor criminal tendencies, applicants for safety net programs are increasingly subjected to finger-printing and computerized searches for outstanding warrants.

Unemployment, with its ample opportunities for slacking off, is another obviously suspect condition, and last year 12 states considered requiring pee tests as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have suggested drug testing as a condition for all government benefits, presumably including Social Security. If granny insists on handling her arthritis with marijuana, she may have to starve.

 Pelosi and Maher aren’t being bold contrarians; they’re helping to lay the groundwork for the extension and entrenchment of these policies.
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Pelosi, Maher, and Cosmopolitan Bigotry
March 18, 2012

In the above clip (via Ta-Nehisi Coates), Bill Maher says, “When I see the toothless guy, as a liberal, what I say is, I want to help you get teeth. Why does that make me an asshole?”

Of course, wanting dental care for the poor is not what makes Maher an asshole. What makes him an asshole is that he feels compelled to add a crude imitation of a Southerner saying, “You damn Yankee, trying to get me teeth!”

That moment perfectly crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the above clip, in which Maher and Alexandra Pelosi (documentarian and daughter of Nancy Pelosi) take aim at “both sides” by portraying both poor white rural Southerners and poor black city-dwelling Northerners as equally grotesque, stupid and lazy. Maher may support policies that would ease the suffering of the poor, but he’s also roundly contemptuous of the poor’s experiences. Those experiences aren’t real and meaningful in the sense that the white coastal elite’s experiences are real and meaningful — instead, they’re just a canvass onto which Maher can impress his own moral sophistication and enlightened sensibilities.

The irony is that Maher and Pelosi’s “enlightenment” corresponds to a total incuriosity regarding the lives of people who don’t reside on their lofty socioeconomic stratum. While Pelosi might pat herself on the back for having, “intelligent conversations with these people,” (these people being poor white Southerners), the clips she shows of those conversations don’t tell us anything about them beyond their willingness to reiterate certain right-wing shibboleths. “This is what they believe,” she says, but she never bothers to explore the nature of their belief, the why of it, nor anything of the world in which they live. By the same token, she thinks she can score a point against the “entitlement culture” by showing a clip of a young black man in New York who admits he can’t find work because he has a criminal record. But she never asks why a young black man in a city with notoriously racist policing policies has a criminal record, or why that record might disqualify him from finding work.

But perhaps the starkest moment of willful ignorance comes when Maher uses a permutation of the “some of our best friends are black” defense as a way of excusing Pelosi from charges of racism (Pelosi actually uses the expression “welfare queen” repeatedly, evidently without irony). “I mean, I, after all, just gave my imaginary child’s college fund to Barack Obama,” he says, “and your mother is Nancy Pelosi.” The charitable reading of that defense is that Maher has absolutely no understanding of how racism perpetuates itself, and no desire to learn.

Moments like that make Maher’s mockery of poor Southern ignorance especially pungent. “Maybe it’s you,” he says, addressing the camera. Of course, there’s no way it could ever, in a million years, be him.

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Liberty and Pity-Charity
March 15, 2012

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

John Locke, via Wikipedia

I’m working my way through Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy right now. It’s been slow going, but I’ve managed to claw my way all the way up to the Enlightenment, where I was struck by this quote from John Locke (emphasis mine):

I can as certainly no this proposition to be true as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones. Again: ‘No government allows absolute liberty:’ the idea of government being the establishment of society upon certain rules or laws, which require conformity to them; and the idea of absolute liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases: I am as capable of being certain of the truth of this proposition as of any in the mathematics.

In Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Philip Pettit defines the classical liberal position as being that liberty equals freedom from interference. That’s not exactly what Locke, the father of liberalism, says here. Instead, he offers up what would seem like a fairly commonsense definition of liberty as the freedom to do whatever you’d like. (Russell writes repeatedly that Locke championed common sense at the expense of a lot of other philosophical virtues.)

But as blandly intuitive as Locke’s definition might seem, the small-r republican must take exception. I think the classic republican master-slave thought experiment can help us understand why Locke’s definition is lacking. As an added bonus, contrasting the republican definition of liberty with the Lockean understanding might shed some light on the philosophical roots of certain modern policy disagreements.

Republicanism, as I’ve previously explained at length, takes liberty to mean freedom from domination, not interference. To illustrate what he means, he makes frequent reference to the case of the master and the slave (a recurrent theme in republican writings going all the way back to the days of Rome). The question we should be attending to is, what makes a slave unfree? (more…)

When the Work Stops Working
February 29, 2012

I have an essay out today in The New Inquiry that is essentially a wide-lens adaptation of the ideas expressed in these two posts. Here’s a taste:

This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months. Emphasis here belongs on the word forcing, because employers — faced with an oversupply of labor in the broader job market — have the upper hand in negotiations. These same employers can feel free to deprive their employees of the basic security needed to stay off welfare for good. After all, once the fallow season ends, the state will subsidize those workers’ subsistence until the business community needs them again.

Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.

 Read the whole thing.
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What is Welfare For?
February 17, 2012

I see Kevin Drum has replied to my criticisms. He writes:

Actually, Resnikoff’s response was pretty weak. Yes, sanctions are penalties. That’s the point: to push people to take jobs when they’re available. And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

The race argument is the only decent one, but Mike didn’t excerpt nearly enough of that in his post to make it clear what’s really going on. Besides, with a race-neutral correlation of .95, there’s really not much room for anything else to have a big effect.

However, I endorse Bill Cat’s suggestion below that anything coming out of Florida should be suspect by default. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this program is worse than it looks on the surface.

A couple small points and then a big one:

First, Drum and I must hold very different understandings of what penalties are supposed to be for. By my lights, the application of a penalty implies that some sort of infraction preceded it. Not only that, but a penalty, justly applied, would be in response to what was understood to be an infraction by both parties under the terms of a prior agreement. So for example: if I break the law, I can rightfully expect some sort of penalty from the state based on our mutual understanding that penalties are what happen to people who break the law.* However, the law and legal repercussions cease to mean a whole lot if the state just arbitrarily punishes me whenever it wants to modify my behavior for whatever esoteric reason. But when it comes to welfare sanctions, Drum seems to not only be fine with that sort of lawlessness, but encourage it.

Second, I’m not quite sure what Drum means when he says it’s not clear that “the race argument” is “what’s really going on.” I assume he means that neither Mike Konczal nor I provided evidence that Florida welfare caseworkers are being maliciously, intentionally racist. And that’s true! But it’s also irrelevant. All that Mike and I are doing is pointing out that the statistical correlation I alluded to earlier becomes stronger in counties with larger African American populations. Here’s the graph:

And now for the big takeaway: these other issues aside, I think my disagreement with Drum comes down to a broader philosophical disagreement about the purpose of welfare. Here’s Drum again, but the emphasis is all mine:

And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

Should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down low-wage, temporary, degrading work that represents only an intermediate step between this welfare check and the next one? Are welfare recipients grown ass adults who should have some say in the way their lives are run? Yes to both.

Let me flip it around and try out a little thought experiment: You’re a welfare recipient in Florida. March is rolling around, which means that soon college kids are going to be flooding in from up north, and local businesses are looking for some temporary work. The money they’re offering is not significantly above that you receive in your regular welfare check — in fact, it might even be a little less. And there is absolutely no chance that the work you do for them might lead to steadier employment. In fact, the only significant that working this job will affect on your life is that you’ll have to do more menial labor, and that you’ll temporarily be at the mercy of a boss instead of a caseworker.

Now here’s the question: Why should you chase after that job? Is there something wrong with you if you choose not to do so? Is the problem with you, or with a policy regime that forces you to pick between two flavors of shit sandwich?

If welfare is to be a social good, it cannot just be a means of putting the spare worker bees on ice until the capitalist class finds them to be of use again.

*Whether the law is just is a question we should bracket. Let’s also bracket the point that penalties are often applied inconsistently and on the basis of socioeconomic status.

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Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012

From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.

In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.

Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.

Drum misses a few things.

Shameful Revelation
July 11, 2011

After reading my last post Mike Konczal suggested that I look into philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s argument against what he calls the “shameful revelation.” Wolff first sketched out the argument in a paper called “Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos,” and while I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy, I did find an interview excerpt in which he outlines the problem:

The main argument is that the forms of conditional systems of benefit that appear to follow from theories such as those of Dworkin can create a division in society and undermine self-respect, neither of which sit comfortably with the idea of a society of equals. Very soon after my paper was published, Elizabeth Anderson published her very influential paper ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ which coined the phrase ‘luck egalitarianism’ to describe the views of Dworkin, Cohen, Arneson, and others, and made a number of criticisms which seemed to be closely related to those I had made….

However, because of the affinities between some of my arguments and those of Anderson and Scheffler I have sometimes been ‘rolled up’ with them as a critic of luck egalitarianism. However, my real target in that paper is not so much the theory of luck egalitarianism but with what would happen if we tried to implement a system of making people bear the costs of their choices when we haven’t yet moved to a full, enlightened, system of equality. Essentially the argument is that the implementing luck egalitarianism requires society to filter out would-be free-riders, but to do this will often have costs (in self-respect) for those already at the bottom of the heap. In some cases they will have to declare that they lack employable talents others have, and this can be humiliating for them. I do not argue that it is necessarily humiliating, or that we couldn’t imagine a society where no one is humiliated by having to admit to themselves and others that they lack employable talents, but that in the circumstances of real societies this is likely to be a fairly common response. In that paper I argued that policies required in the name of fairness can undermine self-respect, and therefore we have to accept that the egalitarian ethos can have conflicting elements which need to be accommodated in some way.

You don’t hear this sort of argument in most of our public debates over welfare. The closest equivalent that springs to mind is the libertarian argument that welfare is injurious to the personal dignity and autonomy of its supposed beneficiaries. But Wolff’s argument is distinctly not libertarian, insofar as he stresses that he is not criticizing luck egalitarianism per se. Or, rather, he’s offering constructive criticism and inviting luck egalitarians and proponents of social welfare to figure out ways around the problem.

If there’s a way for luck egalitarians to escape the problem entirely, I can’t see it. But there are surely ways to minimize the effects. Where welfare programs that provide necessary services also fall into the “shameful revelation” trap, it’s worth considering alternative models.

For example: programs, like single-payer health care or a guaranteed minimum income, that get extended to all citizens regardless of individual need or competence. Or: cooperative models like trade unions, in which citizens — rather than having to supplicate themselves before a higher authority — form powerful coalitions and bargain for aid through their own agency and initiative.

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Shame and the Welfare State
July 10, 2011

Cory Doctorow:

“Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” a paper by Cornell’s Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions Suzanne Mettler features this remarkable chart showing that about half of American social program beneficiaries believe that they “have not used a government social program.”

Nona Willis Aronowitz:

Half of people getting federal student loans don’t think they’ve ever used a government social program. Forty percent of Medicare recipients have no idea their health insurance is funded by the state. And 25 percent of the people receiving that emblem of All That Is Bad About Big Government, welfare, don’t connect that paycheck to the “enemy.” Given the fact that one in six Americans use anti-poverty programs alone, there’s a hell of a lot of people who are deluded about how much the government helps them out.

Contra Doctorow and Aronowitz, I don’t think it’s obvious that all — or even most — of respondents who denied they used a government social program believe this to be the case. We need to admit the possibility that at least some of those people, rather than being deluded, are simply not telling the truth.

Liberals should find that possibility considerably more troubling. If welfare recipients only oppose the welfare state because they don’t realize how much it has helped them, then welfare’s proponents can do a lot of good for their cause through effective political communications and voter messaging. But what do you say to people who are already educated but unwilling to admit what they know? Before you can say anything, you must first figure out why they’re lying.

When people lie to pollsters, it’s usually because they’re ashamed of something. And if that’s the case for a more-than-insignificant number of respondents to this particular poll, that’s bad news for the left. It’s one thing to remove the stigma from social welfare by pointing out that many honest, hardworking people take advantage of it. But when it comes to people who both use welfare programs and stigmatize them, the problem is much deeper. Questions of dignity make voter education look easy.

I couldn’t tell you how many, if any, of the respondents are lying. It’s plausible — perhaps even likely — that the percentage isn’t statistically significant. But it seems unreasonable to assume that 100% of those respondents are misinformed. And if that 100% figure is more than, say, 20% off, then that raises a bunch of really tough policy questions.

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Pity-Charity Liberalism and Non-Domination
April 13, 2011

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

Freddie DeBoer — whose blog is an absolutely indispensable critique of the left from the further left — is now blogging over at Balloon Juice. His first post over there summarizes a crucial component of that critique:

There’s a troubling form of liberalism that is increasingly found in the wonky, think-tank-and-establishment-media blogosphere that is so influential these days. I’ve called it, in the past, globalize/grow/give progressivism. Mike Konczal of Rortybomb has referred to it as pity charity liberalism. (I hope you all are turned on to Rortybomb; it’s essential reading.) Whatever you want to call it, this vision of the liberal project defines itself through the social safety net. Its orientation is towards expanding and protecting a redistributive social welfare system. Meanwhile, it is at best uninterested in (and often downright hostile towards) worker organization, unions, regulation, and other attempts to empower workers in relation to capital and poor people in relation to the rich. The idea is that, if you get the economy going well enough, you can redistribute enough money to the poor that they’ll be alright, even while you’ve undermined their ability to collectively bargain, raise the value of their labor, and exercise power.


Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.

Freddie asks us to “forgive the Marxian cant,” but this part sounds less like Marxism to me than republicanism. As I mentioned a couple posts back, I’m currently working my way through Philip Pettit’s Republicanism, a work of political philosophy which imagines a state dedicated to maximizing freedom through non-domination. Domination, Pettit argues is not the same as interference: domination is no less than the capacity to interfere in another’s affairs on an arbitrary basis, which is to say on a basis that has nothing to do with whether the other consents or objects.

Pettit describes the policy implications of his vision as being generally left-leaning, but he would clearly agree with Freddie and Mike about pity-charity liberalism. As long as political power remains concentrated at the top, he would argue, the rich will continue to dominate the poor.

I’m not all the way through Republicanism just yet, but I’m finding a lot to like in it so far. I’d encourage Freddie and other left-wing skeptics pity-charity liberalism to go check it out.

By the way, one last thing about the book that might interest fellow lefties from an organizing/messaging perspective: Marxian cant or no, Pettit identifies his vision of liberty as non-domination very closely with the American founders. I try to stay out of arguments that involve an appeal to authority, but someone more interested in that sort of thing could make the argument that his vision of maximizing non-domination is more in tune with traditional American values than the Tea Party is.

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