Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life-Saving Government?

One person who commented on my blog recently asked me whether government had ever saved my life, surely expecting that the answer would be "No."

The honest answer is "Yes," both directly and indirectly.

When I was an infant, I developed a serious infection that landed me back in the hospital. Penicillin had just become commercially available in 1945, and it cured that life-threatening infection.

What does this have to do with government? Although penicillin had been discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, it was an exceedingly unstable compound, and no method had yet been developed to produce large enough quantities to be used effectively in civilian populations. (It was used sparingly in the military during the latter stages of WW II.) This challenge was presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture chemical research facility in Peoria, Illinois, where scientists employed by the government understood the process of fermentation probably better than those in any other laboratory in the world. This facility, the Northern Regional Research Laboratory, is credited by the American Chemical Society as playing a critical role, along with industry, in developing mechanisms to produce penicillin in commercial quantities.

I was born in Peoria, and my dad, a Ph.D. research chemist, worked at that laboratory. But that's incidental to the story. Thanks to the government, thousands of babies were probably saved that year, and since then millions of Americans have benefited from the wonders of penicillin.

OK, that's the "direct" part. I can't tell you for a fact that my life has been saved by the safety devices installed in automobiles, since I've been fortunate in avoiding serious accidents. But thousands, perhaps millions, of lives have been saved by seat belts and air bags -- the installation of which was opposed by industry but eventually mandated by government regulation because of the slaughter on our highways.

I can't tell you for a fact that my life has been saved by the research linking smoking to cancer, since I never smoked. (OK, I tried it a couple of times when I was a teenager. But please don't tell my mom. LOL.) Anyway, millions of American lives have been saved by the knowledge that smoking causes life-threatening diseases -- despite sworn testimony to the contrary from tobacco company executives.

I can't tell you for a fact that my life has been saved by the food and water safety programs adopted by federal, state, and local governments. I do know that when killer bacteria (e. coli, for example) invade the American food supply, it makes the news, and recalls are mandated by the government. Would industry implement rigid contamination control measures on its own, without government mandates? Remember -- the purpose of industry is to make a profit, and contamination control costs money. Sure, proven contamination could shut down a meat plant, an event any smart executive would want to avoid -- but without the government, who would investigate where the contamination originated once it entered our complex interstate commerce system?

I can't tell you that my life has been saved by the efforts of government to reduce air pollution. But living in an area highly susceptible to the accumulation of dangerous particulates and ozone, I can tell you that I notice a distinct improvement in air quality over the last 15 years. And that has probably added several years to my life expectancy.

Yes, government has saved my life. Maybe it has saved yours too. Is this worth paying for? I guess that depends on whether you want to pay your fair share of taxes to support these worthwhile endeavors.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The End of Freedom and Liberty

Freedom and liberty are endangered. "America's founding spirit" has come under "devastating attack." Run, don't walk, to the nearest political bomb shelter and tune in Fox News, where "Heritage Foundation analysts appear more than ten times on a typical day."

"Our national identity as the beacon of liberty and hope is dimming toward a flicker. The Left is waging a successful counter-revolution on our nation's first principles. This is no doubt the most profoundly threatening time for our liberties for over three decades."

Can it really be that bad? Yes, it is, according to a recent fund-raising mailing I received (yes, with my actual, real name on it) from the Heritage Foundation, "America's leading conservative organization." No, wait -- it's even worse!! "The Obama Administration has made it clear that...they (sic) see freedom itself as the problem" (italics in original).

That's why the Heritage Foundation has continued its "promotional partnerships with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity."

Grab your muskets! One if by land, two if by sea, three if by Internet!

This litany of allegedly catastrophic facts and meaningless platitudes about freedom, liberty, the "fundamental principles of the country" (that's what my book will be about -- wink), and Big Government goes on for SEVEN nauseating pages.

OK, it's a fund-raising letter. I didn't expect it to be scholarly. But neither did I expect an organization that claims to be a "think tank" to utilize the linguistic legerdemain (yes, I made that phrase up, and I'm mighty proud of it) that is the quintessential opposite of critical thinking.

"Now is the time for you and me and other Americans who are upset by this wholesale abandonment of our nation's fundamental principles to challenge this expansion of government power and make the case for economically sound, truly conservative policies." Policies like deregulation of the financial markets -- the primary cause of the biggest government bailout of private enterprise in our nation's history, unfortunately required by eight years of Bush administration neglect, incompetence, and implementation of "truly conservative policies"?

"It is clear to many historians today that the New Deal did not end the Depression -- and indeed may have prolonged it." All right, I've heard that WW II had something to do with ending the depression, at least partially because the government incorrectly thought the problem was solved in the late 1930s and prematurely started cutting back on job creation programs. But I've never heard anyone say that FDR's policies "prolonged" the depression -- until now.

This is the "America" the Heritage Foundation wants: one that "upholds timeless moral values" and restores the family to its "primary role in civil society" -- one that promotes a "robust economy that rewards hard work." I wish they would just come out and say that it's OK for bankers to receive million dollar bonuses for nearly wrecking our entire financial structure and for heterosexual politicians to cheat on their spouses, but if you're a gay or lesbian in a committed relationship, working for close to the minimum wage, you're not a true American.

Here's the coup de grace! Your contribution to the Heritage Foundation is tax deductible! That's right, folks, even those of us who don't send in money are supporting this monstrosity, because the people who donate get to pay less in taxes as a result. Divine!

Well, I'm doing my part to impact the Heritage Foundation's "ten-year campaign to create an America that is once again animated by its First Principles" -- I'm writing this blog, I'm writing a book, and I sent the Foundation a sweet little note using its postage-paid return envelope.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Government, Cafeteria Style

In response to a recent post, "anonymous" pointed out the significant difference between deciding to be charitable and being forced to be charitable. I couldn't agree more! In fact, the latter is a contradiction in terms.

The real issue with regard to welfare (see last week's post, where evidence is presented that social service programs to provide subsistence-level existence are generally effective) is whether or not attempting to provide an economic safety net for people who legitimately need help is a required function of a civilized society or whether it should be voluntary and discretionary. Despite the Founders' inclusion of the phrase "promote the general welfare" in the preamble to the Constitution, Americans are divided on this fundamental question.

Let me hasten to clarify that I deliberately used the word "legitimately" in the preceding paragraph. I am aware that some people will "game" whatever system is set up and attempt to secure resources without putting forth a concerted effort to live up to the dictates of personal responsibility. (Gaming the system is hardly limited to welfare recipients, but that's an issue for a different day.)

I am also aware (although this will apparently take my detractors by surprise) that no government program is perfect. But that doesn't bother me as much as it bothers them. All human enterprises (including corporations, by the way) are less than 100% efficient and occasionally even fail miserably to accomplish intended objectives. (General Motors, AIG, and Countrywide come to mind.) Thomas Jefferson referred to "imperfect man" and was well aware that governments require complex structures intended to mitigate such imperfections (incompetence and greed among them). To me, imperfection is an argument for maximizing efficiency and effectiveness in the service of common objectives, to the extent that human frailty permits; it is not an acceptable rationale for throwing out the entire structure.

The Articles of Confederation failed because individual states chose not to comply with a weak centralized authority when doing so didn't suit their purposes. This was an early indication of the phenomenon economists refer to as the "free rider problem," which states essentially that some portion of the population will fail to pay its fair share of the cost of a good or service it can enjoy for free as long as enough other people contribute. (Sociologists call it "social loafing," but it's the same thing.) The significance of this concept will become apparent shortly.

Let us now, for a moment, envision a society in which all individual actions are voluntary (i.e. those that benefit others will be "charitable"). Some people will choose to contribute to projects that benefit everyone (including themselves). Others will not, in view of the aforementioned free rider problem. Most people will not contribute to projects for which they perceive no personal benefit (regardless of whether that perception is accurate or not). In other words, we'll "unbundle" the various segments of society (to use a marketing term), and people adverse to coercion (yup, that's most of us) can just pay for things we value and not pay for the things we don't value.

In such a society, how will public schools be funded? Most of the people without children will refrain from contributing. Even some people with children will refrain (in the absence of a coercive power).

In such a society, how will meat inspections be funded? Vegetarians can opt out! If you eat exclusively from a garden in your back yard, feel free not to contribute anything to the national effort to ensure food safety. Should you support the effort to curtail mining operations that deposit poisonous, cancer-causing chemicals in the water supply? Not if you live in California -- that happens in West Virginia! And if you're not an outdoors kind of person, feel free not to support the operational costs of keeping up our national parks.

In such a society, who will fund security at airports and the entire (governmental) structure that makes air transportation possible? Those who never fly will have no incentive to chip in. Likewise, people with cars will not support public transportation; people without cars will not support road repair and construction. Should you help fund child protective services? No way -- not unless you're abusing YOUR child!

No, as ideal as it might sound, giving everyone the "liberty" of picking and choosing would soon result in chaos. Our national situation is considerably more complex than selecting basic cable or a more extensive package with more channels and paying the commensurate rate. Not only would cafeteria-style government be a logistical nightmare if it were attempted, but nearly every important function of an organized society would be under-funded, because a significant portion of the population would opt out.

So, let's return to the fundamental issue: is or is not the general welfare (just one example: families with breadwinners laid off because the economy tanked, through no fault of their own -- yes, those breadwinners who line up by the hundreds or thousands for the few jobs currently available) a central concern of every American? If it's OK to let these people and their children go hungry, live in cars or under freeway ramps, receive medical care only in dire emergencies, etc. then the discussion is over. Let those who are "charitable" do what they are willing to do -- which will be more than nothing but considerably less than enough to make any significant difference. If it's not OK, then we need a system (one that will undoubtedly be imperfect) to ensure that everyone shoulders his or her fair share of the responsibility.

While we're at it, why don't we set up a system for ensuring that ALL generally agreed upon functions of an organized society are funded at least to minimally effective levels and these functions are carried out by reasonably capable people? Since not everyone will agree on what is required and what is "minimally effective," let's establish a mechanism for making such decisions -- a mechanism that will not please everyone all the time but will at least be functional.

If we're going to talk about these things, we're going to need names for them. Let's call the system "government." Let's call the money we pay to keep the essentials of an organized society running "taxes." Let's call the reasonably capable people who implement the policies "bureaucrats" or "government employees." Let's call the people who make decisions about priorities "public officials." And the condition most of us enjoy as a result of having these things -- to live our lives pretty much as we please, to thrive in a relatively safe environment -- let's call that "liberty."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Does Welfare Work?

That, my friends, is a billion dollar question with no easy "one size fits all" answer.

For starters, "welfare" as commonly defined consists of a number of totally independent programs, including unemployment compensation, food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and Section 8 (HUD) housing. It is entirely possible that some of these are more effective than others. It is also possible that the same program is effective for some segments of the population and not for others -- or even for specific individuals and not for others.

A sophisticated analysis would necessarily include both "macro" and "micro" viewpoints. In other words, both the aggregate impact of these programs nationally and the impact on specific people (or at least sub-population groups) would need to be considered. Another complicating factor is that statistics on the number of people living in poverty or taking advantage of various forms of government assistance, by themselves, do not lead to incontrovertible conclusions. Trend analysis helps, but sometimes the question still remains: what would the statistics be if the programs didn't exist? What would the statistics be if the programs were fully funded and accessible to all those eligible who desire to participate (which they aren't)?

A short blog post clearly cannot do justice to this infinitely complex issue. However, a few interesting points can be considered.

Let's start with a little macro-analysis. If social welfare programs work, then countries with more extensive programs should report a smaller percent of their population living in poverty. And that is exactly what we find. According to UNICEF, the percentage of children living in poverty in 2005 was: Denmark, 2.4%; France, 7.5%, Norway, 13.4%; Canada, 14.9%; United Kingdom, 15.4%; United States, 21.9%. (Thank goodness for Mexico -- 27.7%.)

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures general well-being, with special emphasis on child welfare. Ratings released in 2009, covering the period up to 2007, reveal the following: the U.S. ranks 13th, in a virtual tie with Austria, Spain, and Denmark, surpassed by some countries noted for extensive welfare programs: Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Finland.

Here's a statistic that might surprise some detractors of welfare programs; among all households receiving food stamps, almost twice as many include at least one working adult as those that don't. In other words, receipt of this particular type of government aid does not discourage work (at least in many families); it supplements a wage that is inadequate to provide the essentials of life. (An anonymous commenter to this blog recently accused me of being "deluded" because I get my information from the Washington Post and the New York Times. I plead guilty to the latter and not guilty to the former. But the information in this paragraph comes from the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

According to the Food Research and Action Center, only 56% of people eligible for food stamps nationwide actually receive benefits. Some people are not aware that they are eligible; others are dissuaded from participation by misunderstandings about the nature of the program and/or difficulties in getting to offices during the work day.

Tired of macro-analysis? If you are unaware that literally millions of individuals (including some people who made six-figure incomes prior to the bursting of the bubble in late 2008) are out of work through no fault of their own and hanging onto life itself only by virtue of the social service safety net, then you're out of touch with reality.

Should all this matter? It only matters if we Americans truly believe in the principles enunciated by our founding documents. (Remember the Pursuit of Happiness? Have you tried doing that on an empty stomach? Recall that business about Promoting the General Welfare? I don't think the founders had bankers and sellers of financial derivatives in mind when they wrote that.) According to a study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, poverty actually results in a loss of 8.2 "years of perfect health" -- exceeding the effect of either obesity or smoking.

Since welfare apparently works at least some of the time for a large number of people, how should we pay for it? Should it be voluntary (charitable), as "anonymous" recently recommended? Tune in next week for my thoughts on the matter.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I Really Cared About You -- Last Week

The holidays are over, and now it's back to business as usual. It's time once again for segments of our population to regard economic assistance to the poor as a socialistic welfare scheme that reduces self-esteem on the part of the recipients, teaches them to be indolent and dependent on hand-outs, and confiscates the discretionary income of people who are already taxed nearly to death.

Now, last week was different. There was a spirit of generosity in the air. Toy and food collections were omnipresent. Bell-ringers graced the sidewalks of a thousand grocery stores. One local businessman and his partners brought more than 100 families together in a shopping center parking lot, handed out turkey dinners and gift cards to local merchants, and even brought in Santa Claus via helicopter.

I was there (no, not as a recipient, but as a representative of a participating non-profit agency that helped identify deserving families). Nobody I talked to expressed any concern that such giveaways would have a negative impact on the beneficiaries' self-esteem. What I observed was quite the contrary -- people seemed exceptionally appreciative of being considered "special," if only for a few hours. Some of them returned, immediately after the event, to their jobs paying little more than minimum wage. One such person, a grandmother whose son was incarcerated and who had taken in her grandchildren to care for them, looked forward to cooking them a nice meal and putting a present or two (probably clothes) under the Christmas tree.

I have mixed feelings about all this holiday cheer. On the one hand, I feel it's somewhat hypocritical to claim to really care about people but oppose funding for a well-designed welfare program that keeps the unemployed out of abject poverty until they get back on their feet. On the other hand, maybe caring about less fortunate people about 2% of the time (1 week out of 52) is better than nothing. Sometimes, feeling special for a few hours gives you hope that life will eventually get a little easier.

Happy New Year, everyone! And please don't wait for Christmas 2010 to exhibit your generous spirit.

P.S. I do not intend by any means to imply that the particular people associated with the event I describe above oppose government assistance programs. I do not know them well enough to make such a statement, and I have evidence that they do in fact engage in philanthropic activities throughout the year. I do believe, however, that many people behave in the manner suggested above. Otherwise, how do we explain the outpouring of goods and services during the holidays and the reluctance at all other times of year to spend government resources to establish a high quality safety net?