23 October 2007

We're All In This Together

When we put someone in prison, the vast majority of the time they will return to society, at least until we put them in prison or jail again. When someone drops out of high school, they don't drop out of our society. When someone has more children than they can afford to raise (or than they have the personal ability to raise), neither the parents nor the children go away. Far more drug addicts continue to struggle along, rather than dying of an overdose or in a gang fight. There are tens of thousands of ex-gang members. For every bipolar child who goes out in a suicidal slump or rage, far more endure a roller coaster ride of life with drugs that half work and difficulty keeping together a job and family.

Our society does throw people away. It locks people up for life or executes them. It lets homeless vagrants die at the hands of gangs or from exposure. It let's people die of cancer or diabetes or AIDS without proper medical care. We render them to foreign governments that torture them. We deport them. But, we throw very few people away. For the most part, a base principle of our society is that we're all in this together, and that no one is truly a stranger to our society. Government and civil society have assumed residual responsibility for almost everyone who can't either provide for him or herself, or find someone to provide for them.

The trouble is that our actions rarely acknowledge this social principle, which, as I understand it, is the core idea behind the political philosophy known as communitarianism.

Too often, our policy makers miss the big picture.

While we try to have school districts develop policies to prevent people from dropping out of school, we give little or no systematic attention to what happens to those who do drop out.

Our schools are hell bent on not undermining anyone's highest ambitions, no matter how unrealistic, by offering everyone a college preparatory curriculum (although rarely actually preparing even most of their students for college). But, they spend precious little time helping adolescents figure out what they are actually going to do with their lives and giving them what they need to get there. As a result, more than a million young men and women each year are tossed out into the world with no skills, few plans and little support -- most flounder to the point where sociologists are starting to call this decade of floundering a new stage in the life cycle, "Odyssey."

Many liberal arts graduates from colleges and universities end up in similar straights, although usually somewhat less dire, as they are, at least, vaguely literate, numerate and capable of behaving reasonably compliantly for many years in a row.

We allow people to be without access to paid health care, without trying to figure out how this will come back to bite us. We have not yet learned that there is no free lunch.

We have a parole system that marginally supervises felons released from prison, but this system is largely limited to a set of hurdles that ex-cons must clear to stay out of prison for the protection of the public; the notion that society has a vested interest in seeing ex-cons succeed per se is avoided lest society be seen to reward misconduct.

Both our current welfare system and unemployment benefits have time limits. Our policy makers have deliberately and consciously avoided dealing with the question of what to do about people who, while not precisely disabled, are essentially unemployable.

We have reached a sufficient state of justice in our society that just about anyone who can find and keep a full time job can secure for themselves a small not very nice place to live, food to eat, clothing, and, in many cases, even health insurance for themselves, given enough bureaucratic savy. But, few working class jobs are sufficient to support children and/or a stay at home spouse or dependent parent as well.

Both our divorce courts and our welfare systems place what seems to me an unreasonably high premium on putting single mothers of pre-schoolers to work, even when the mothers themselves earn only pitiful wages themselves, ironically, often enough, simply caring for someone else's children while someone else cares for theirs.

Our courts evict people, looking only at the equities of the unpaid landlord and the free riding tenant, without giving any serious thought to the fact that they have just added to the homelessness problem.

Our society is quick to identify failures and to try to cut our losses, and slow to see that the legions of people whose potential contributions to our society, with the proper attention, are underutilized opportunities. We assume that people who are cut off from some benefit will rise to the challenge of managing without it, but we don't even casually make any effort to see that this is the case. In practice, we often expect too much from people who can manage the ordinary, but not the extraordinary demands of life. While some people perform well under pressure, pressure simply crushes others.

Our primary approach to immigration is based upon the false premise that jobs are a fixed resource, like oil or land, instead of recognizing that a market based economy is really about finding the most economically worthwhile use for whatever resources, human and physical that we have. We fail to see unemployment as a failure of entraprenuership, as opposed to a shortage of jobs. If you bring a million carpenters to American, you have not put anyone who has a non-carpentry job, nor anyone who is not capable of being a carpenter out of work. And, because the carpenters need many things, they create jobs, as well as filling them.

Karl Marx was wrong. The wealth of capitalists is not, to any great extent, built upon the backs of the poor. The wealth of capitalists in our society is built upon the backs of the more successful members of the working class, the middle class, and especially, the upper middle class. The exploited in a capitalist system are far better off than those who aren't part of the system at all. Capitalism is a system that fundamentally involves mutual back scratching. Those most exploited are also the most comfortable. Amoral companies we love to hate, like Blackwater, sometimes pay their employees quite well.

The poor have such a tiny share of the national income (mostly spent on such low profit margin purchases as food and gasoline and used cars and low end apartment rents) that their spending barely makes a dent in the riches of the wealthy. The poor, if they work at all in the economy, work in the most marginally profitable endeavors and often receive benefits from government (and impose costs like prison costs and emergency room costs) paid for with taxes upon the rich. Usually this leaves the rich, on a net basis, a bit poorer. In America, the poor are not so much exploited as neglected, and the neglect is not benign.

Our economy, despite being an affluent one, manages with immense waste of human potential and corporate inefficiency. If we want to make this nation a better place, government and the private sector must work together to harness this potential by looking at the total impact of our policies, rather than only the immediate consequences of them.

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