Alex Blaze

Our Coming Culture of Poverty: Now Everyone Will Be Greedy

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 02, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: budget, david broder, greed, Japan, lady gaga, leone kraus, morality, social security, suffering, unions, Wisconsin

Over the last 24 hours*, I read four items where people were called greedy:

inequality-page25_1.png1. An article from Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on Salon, where she talks about taking a professional opportunity in Japan for six months and leaving her children with her now-ex-husband (she called all the time and her kids also went to Japan to visit her, so it wasn't even six months of no contact). I also read some the comments, which mostly chastised the woman for leaving her children behind, being greedy, thinking only about her career. One person said she was "a gutless wonder. A narcissist. Totally self involved. Your children are lucky they had a more involved father. SHAME." That was one of the nicer comments.

2. David Brooks's column in the New York Times, where he gets mad at old people for wanting luxuries like visiting the doctor and not having to eat out of a dumpster. Greedy old folks who vote seem to think, for whatever reason, they have a right to live, and that's why schools are facing budget cuts. Raising taxes, of course, isn't something Broder's willing to consider as a solution to the problem.

3. Leone Kraus's post on Bilerico yesterday**, where she said that she didn't much like Lady Gaga's latest video. Lady Gaga, who hyped herself for her depth to get in the national spotlight, hyped this video as being something that would be a gay anthem, a message song, something with more meaning than a bunch of pretty people dancing. Leone thought that it was, in the end, just a bunch of pretty people dancing and commented on how the video fell short of expectations. The comments generally disagreed, which is fine, but the ones calling Leone selfish stood out. One example: "You think it's right to ask for more? To be greedy?"

4. This I didn't read; I watched. Jon Stewart rounded up a lot of the commentary calling teachers and public workers in unions greedy in Wisconsin. It's no secret that the American ruling class hates teachers (especially public school teachers), so it's no surprise that they're the ones bearing the brunt of anti-union sentiment:

That's just this morning and yesterday afternoon.

I also read a great post from digby where she discusses a bunch of cable stars (on MSNBC, naturally) talking about how politicians are too afraid of constituents to cut Social Security benefits and other social spending programs, which they really need to do (tax increases, increased deficit spending, and military spending cuts are not options). This needs to be done, but Americans just don't want to lose even more than they've lost in the past few years. The polling bears this out - people may want a balanced budget, for whatever reason, but they don't want valuable programs programs to be cut.

Digby didn't describe it this way, but the pundits she highlighted basically said that Americans hadn't been propagandized enough to accept poverty. And when those sorts of people are saying that, that means that other people who don't care how the public views them have already been conditioning us to accept less.

Is that's what's been happening? I know that we Americans can be unforgiving as a people and our Calvinist streak means that we see suffering as necessary and moral, which can be a good and a bad thing, but it seems like that's gotten worse than it was, say, three or four years ago. Obviously, there's no way to prove that. This is one of those things where it'd be immensely useful to have hard data but none can exist. But I've been noticing this for several months now and those examples were mainly just because I chose to write about this topic today and they were the most recent ones.

Is it just me or are we experiencing a cultural shift on this front? If we are, the people who benefit are those who are really decreasing the size of our piece of the pie as we fight amongst ourselves over what's left.

I don't just mean that in terms of dollars. When we're trained to act as if there isn't enough to go around, to believe that our survival and comfort depends on others not having the basics and that other people wanting a fair share are morally wrong, it becomes less a thought and more a worldview. Which means it's less a reflection and more an instinct.

It'd be a smart path for the rich and powerful to set us down, since it keeps us from allowing others to ask for more, which keeps us all from getting more.

*I wrote this post this morning even though it's going up this evening. So the 24 hours are a different 24 hours.

**I know it's never a good idea to bring up the comment thread from one post in another post, but Bilerico is a big part of what I read every day. While no one has to agree with her, what she wanted - cultural representations with meaning, cultural representations that will lead to positive social change, and for people promising those to deliver - are not at all unreasonable.

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It's David Brooks, not David Broder. Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post.

Most of the anger isn't directed toward old people wanting to see the doctor and eat well, but at the enormous prices we pay for Medicare (especially Medicare Part D) and Social Security and the amount of money those programs will sap from things like education and infrastructure as the Baby Boomers start retiring en masse. Two ways to decrease costs would be to raise the retirement age to 70 and cut benefits for people who have enough in their savings and 401k plans to pay for their costs of living and buy their own health insurance.

People who say we need to cut costs on entitlement programs so that we don't end up in the kind of situation Greece was in last year or like Argentina in 2001, such as myself, aren't saying we want old people to get sick and starve, and it's unfair and disingenuous to characterize those kinds of position as such.

Re broder/brooks, thanks for catching that.

On the other stuff, that's not how economics works and that's now what brooks was proposing.

The former: we have enough revenue to cover SS now with 17% under/unemployment (people not paying into SS at an optimal rate), more people retiring isn't going to change that. Is there anyone predicting a SS shortfall before the 2030's?

Also, raising the retirement age won't do much other than keep people in jobs longer, leaving fewer jobs open for younger people, and keep people unemployed longer since a lot of unemployed people are in their 50's and 60's and won't be employed again before they hit retirement age. If anything, as economist James Galbraith points out, we should be lowering the retirement age to get 60-65 year olds out of the workforce and open up jobs for everyone else. If the economy really is more efficient now (and it is), and that means that jobs have been eliminated (we all seem to agree on that), then that should mean that we all have to do less work (the logical conclusion, although some people want the conclusion to be "rich people get more money").

Plus Greece doesn't apply because our bond rating and debt burden isn't anywhere close to theirs, and Argentina's crash was caused by the junta taking on private debt, presidents refusing to cancel illegitimate debt taken on by the junta, and capital flight in the late 90's, all with inflation spinning out of control. We're nowhere near either of those situations.

The latter: Don't get your opinion mixed up with brooks's, because his is different. Apparently his column is password protected now, but before he said that his plan would be to cut down medical expenses at the end of life and cut social security payouts across the board (his rule #1 of austerity: make everyone hurt) without respect to whether people have other sources of income. My characterization was legitimate.

But on the main point: You're basically saying what I'm talking about in this post, that we're being conditioned to believe that there's not enough when there is, in fact, enough. But it's easier to get people like you and me to believe that the retirement age needs to be raised to 70 if we can be convinced that there won't be enough money to cover everything and that SS is somehow taking money away from education (even though it's funded separately from other federal spending and has a surplus of funds). This is exactly what I'm talking about.

I don't buy that. Jobs aren't a finite resource of permanently fixed quantity like oil -- their number goes up and down depending on economic conditions and technological developments. Raising the retirement age would also save money for companies and government agencies that wouldn't have to pay out as much in pensions, thus freeing up more capital to create new jobs.

Second, it's a fact that entitlements -- especially Medicare -- are going to get a lot more expensive as the baby boomers retire, more expensive than the country can afford with current revenues.

My comparison to Greece and Argentina wasn't based on the country's credit rating or purchases of the debt. It's based on what would happen if we lost our AAA credit rating, which is a distinct possibility. Basically, it would be a signal that the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government was no longer trustworthy. Interest rates would shoot up, driving up the cost of borrowing and making funding for both the public and private sectors more difficult to procure, thus forcing austerity on the country. On top of that, the dollar would sink, driving up inflation.

I'm not advocating throwing granny out on the street, and neither is Brooks. The point is that while we should provide for the elderly, it shouldn't mean sacrificing future prosperity.

And Desiree is right about AARP. It's an enormously powerful lobby and a major reason why entitlement reform never gets anywhere.

The retirement age doesn't affect private pensions, those contracts do.

But you're right, jobs aren't a finite resource. Why did so many disappear over the last few years? why aren't they coming back? Why isn't anyone doing anything to bring them back? All questions that should be asked before benefits are cut.

And we're not in danger of losing our AAA rating.

Kathy Padilla | March 2, 2011 6:10 PM

Except that social security isn't something that saps from anything else as it's off budget and everyone pays their own insurance. It's also solvent for about the next 20 years - it has zero effect on the deficit.

I'm always surprised that when discussing social security and that it might need to reduce benefits in the future if we don't increase income that .....increasing income into the program so future generations receive the same benefit as today is verboten. A few pennies over the next twenty years would do it - like removing the exemption on wages after the first $100,000 you earn.

On this one - give it a minor tweak on the income side - you're just paying yourself. It's only the most successful program ever - has been around since your great grandparents - and again - pays for itself. Why mess with that kind of success?

That's why it isn't even counted as part of the GDP - it isn't buying anything. It's just transferring wealth from one group of people (workers) to another (retirees). There is no price in the traditional sense, just a question of how good of a retirement do we think we should/can have.

But I am surprised by the idea that, after working just fine since WWII, suddenly there's not enough today and benefits have to be cut. I explained this to Alberto today and he was just like, yeah, that's how capitalists talk. They always find some reason to take stuff away from workers.

It may sound like paranoid delusions. But, I explain this process in a similar way. The ruling class is literally preparing the US for a massive deflation in the standard of living.

It's fair to point out that AARP is a staggeringly powerful political lobby with a very strong tendency to oppose anything which so much as inconveniences senior citizens without the slightest regard for the facts of the situation.

For example, AARP has been the primary force behind shooting down every single effort to require driver retesting even when applied to all drivers and not just the elderly. As an EMT-B, I find this pretty damn horrifying -- senior citizens are second only to teenage boys in causing car accidents, and most of those accidents could be prevented by driver retesting which takes unsafe drivers off the street. I saw the fliers AARP sent my grandparents the last time the issue came up in California, and they were blatantly dishonest fearmongering along the theme of, "The government wants to TAKE AWAY YOUR CAR just because you're old!!!"

How do you even think it is fair to cut benefits for those who saved and can therefore afford their own insurance? My mother, who holds a PhD, retired at age 67 from teaching high school where she never made more than $25,000 per year. She always saved her money, invested wisely and has plenty. My friend's mom, a DO, lost her medical license at age 50 after making around $200,000 per year. But, she had no savings and even ended up declaring bankruptcy. So some people are saying that my mom's benefits should be cut because she did not spend like a loca but rather was financially responsible? It's not that my mom is "greedy", but why should she deserve less than my friend's mom. BTW, this is not a hypothetical, but a real situation.