A recent article in the NY Times, probably initially intended as a look at “hypocritical teabaggery” (not that the concept isn’t true), ended up looking surprisingly far into the rabbit hole known as economic class in America. Starting off observing one example, a Tea Party sympathizing small business owner from Minnesota, the following description comes into play (all emphasis from here is mine):
[This] year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.
There is little poverty here in Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, where cheap housing for commuters is gradually replacing farmland. But Mr. Gulbranson and many other residents who describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year.
Think: what has happened the past few years?
Mr. Gulbranson himself, for all we know, may just be one of those benefits-for-me-are-wonderful, benefits-for-them are terrible types. I’m not going to attempt to guess here. But there’s another consideration available here behind the cognitive dissonance: since from his perspective he is merely treading water, he doesn’t see it as “help”. “Help” brings up poorer people from the gutter, rather than maintaining a fiction of idealized middle-class life in the face of rising costs. How does someone with their own business even qualify for these things if his view of them is correct?
Not only have more “middle-class” ended up in the net, but the people they think the net is actually for are a much less significant part of it:
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.
Remember the scalability problem I referred to on revolt insurance before? I get the feeling this is how it’s being addressed, by shifting the meaning of it from keeping those disenchanted from the state from undermining it to keeping people who still hold the dream from waking up. When “middle-class” people need help that should throw up a huge red flag with regards to economic order — the term suggests a stability and relative comfort that has proven false. This scenario of some taking benefits to tread water at a point where they still think they’re doing just fine, along with the structural poverty outside their sphere, exists because of the fact that it’s more difficult to spot a thief that steals a dollar each from 1000 people than one who takes 50 bucks from one; the aggregate benefit of collusion is invisible.
That said, there is an element of this to lay specifically at the feet of right-wing “starve the beast” thought. Multiple rounds of expansion of spending without any corresponding revenue increases do make the state seem artificially cheap (that is, for the people not typically greeted by it at gunpoint). I question how much of the latest use is just “hey, it’s there” though versus the alternative.
[The] reality of life here is that Mr. Gulbranson and many of his neighbors continue to take as much help from the government as they can get. When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs.
“How do you tell someone that you deserve to have heart surgery and you can’t?” Mr. Gulbranson said.
“You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”
There is nothing wrong with compassion, with helping others. The problem is using force to help oneself. Yet, to direct the preponderance of anger at people like this getting scraps off the table sells far short the initial acts of systemic robbery that shifted such people into position to appreciate the crumbs in the first place. My argument is simple: subtract the ruling class force monopoly from the equation, and civil society would be able to operate to sustain itself just fine. As usual, the best that mainstream political discourse can do is get halfway to the problem, one side screaming about moochers and misidentifying them, the other stuck repeating “if only we handed the gun to the right people…”