Saturday, March 28, 2009

Economic Paradigms

Before I jump on my soapbox, I’d like to beg your forgiveness. While I’m not sure that I could have made this all make sense when I was at my best, I am really afraid that this might be incomprehensible, as it seems like my IQ has dropped 20 points since I started this medicine, but I feel like I need to try to get it out anyway, whether or not it makes any sense or any difference.

Next, I should say that I don’t understand the economy. I’ve never really wanted to. I’ve never taken a class on it, or even read a book on it. I have an IRA that I don’t pay attention to that I got from my high school graduation. But I do have a love-hate relationship with politics and news, so it is hard to avoid economics these days. And I know, generally, what each side is fighting for and against, the principles and theories that each side says is guiding them. But I can’t claim to have any idea what is best.

But it isn’t just a lack of education and understanding of economics that prevent me from feeling like I can claim what option is “best.” It is that there is also the question of “What is BEST for what and for whom?” For someone who holds the belief that the country is best as a strictly capitalist economic structure (which it hasn’t been for a long time, but whatever), then they would think that it would be a necessary evil for people and corporations that couldn’t hack it to go under, for the country to go through more economic strife if it meant maintaining and/or reasserting a strict capitalist structure. Most of these people think that capitalism is best for the general good, that capitalism provides the best opportunity for innovation, for people to rise through the work force, for individual and group liberty, etc. And many also believe that it is what is best for them. Even if they aren’t rich now, they still think they could be rich, could run a successful company that they don’t want heavily regulated, and that they don’t want to give more of their money to the government in the form of taxes. This goes for every theory. The theory that a person or group prefers benefits them in some way, just as it also benefits the greater good. I used capitalism as an example, but it is true of all these theories and, also, it is almost impossible to follow one of these economic or political-economic theories completely. There’s always a mix of something else in there too.

But I guess what’s been bugging me lately is the attitude around me. “Both my parents taught me about goodwill and I have done well by their names.”-Ani. We’ve never had a ton, though we’ve never wanted, but my family always encouraged the idea of spreading it around. I remember my stepdad inviting guys he worked with over for Thanksgiving when they didn’t have family nearby to spend the holiday with. This Christmas, I overheard him in the other room telling someone about how all the guys he worked with pitched in to get the poorest among them proper clothing to shovel show in. It was all second-hand work gloves and boots, but it made all the difference to him. So, how can this same man unsympathetically advocate throwing people on the streets if they face foreclosure, without any recognition that some people were tricked into ARMs or the simple economic fact that it would be net a lender more to change the terms of the mortgage than just foreclose? Who calls those to use government help, not just welfare but even unemployment benefits, bums? Who doesn’t want to pay more in taxes, to have less personally, because he says that, even if it were to JUST go to create more jobs, those jobs would only go to the same old people, not actually employ those who are currently unemployed? I could go on, but it’s depressing.

But the fucked up thing is that, if I present a specific example, he usually agrees with me, has a more compassionate stance, based on the reality of the situation. When I asked him if I was a bum, as I’m currently living off of him and my mother, he said that I wasn’t a bum, that I was just going through a difficult time, but that it was different because I was relying on family. When I pointed out that, if for example I went on disability for one reason or another, I would be taking money that I had paid in on my paychecks, which is also what unemployment benefits are. These things are part of why we pay taxes. When I asked him if he didn’t think that the government should take taxes that go to public education, he said that he thought that was ok. So, he obviously doesn’t think that the government shouldn’t do anything. Or he at least believes that there is not a current privately funded system to do those things for us. But the big picture answer stays the same. No higher taxes. Let companies and corporations fail. Let us go through what we’ll go through, as a country.

One of the high-profile liberal bloggers that I read regularly, John Arvosis, recently wrote about how tired he personally is of the sob stories surrounding home foreclosures, especially as he’s worked hard, sacrificed, and maintained his payments on a condo he bought after saving a sizable down payment and doing his homework on loan terms and interest rates. His biggest point is that he might care about home foreclosures if the news stories he read didn’t use people who did stupid things or were planning on flipping the house for more than they originally paid as examples, but instead showed real people that had been taken advantage of by fast-talking, misleading mortgage brokers. While John got a lot of flack from commentors, a few did share their personal stories of being mislead or outright lied to, while others pointed to stories in their local paper or on their local news stations that highlights real people who had been mislead or lied to about the terms of their loans.

To me, the lesson seems to be that when one gets down to specific examples, to the level of the individual, the story can often change. One part of me things that this means that the best way is to bring up a specific real life example of an individual to sway someone who might only be thinking of themselves or sticking to their larger economic and political views, rather than the good of those currently less fortunate, along with the reminder that they could be that less fortunate person at any time. An example of this might be to talk about the real life person I know who was just laid off from his job at a small company that didn’t have to give him any notice during which he could look for another job and doesn’t currently have much saving because he just paid for the burial of his son. If he doesn’t take the unemployment benefits, which he has been paying into all of his working life, he and his working wife could lose their home and cars while he is looking for a job. There is no reason this man shouldn’t take the benefits available to him and he is not a bad person for making use of this safety net, which seems to me like a mass savings account. And I do think that this might be able to sway the person, get them to agree with you in the moment, maybe even make them change their idea on a vote, but I’m not sure it’ll make any long term difference. I suppose as I think about the larger liberal movement and also all the –ism movements that I follow, the real argument needs to be about everyone, what rules and rights and privileges should be afforded to everyone, not just a few, based on what one thinks a human is entitled to from their government and from other people. For example, saying that no recently unemployed person who is eligible for unemployment benefits under the current law should be denied them, have it made difficult to get them, nor should they feel a stigma attached to taking a security net benefit that they have been contributing to for the duration of their working lives. Unfortunately, that broader argument is going to be more difficult to sway someone on, as they already have their own view of what a human is entitled to. So I’m not really sure how to answer this or fix any of this, except to share it with others, knowing most people won’t change their mind.

I’ll leave you with another Ani song. I guess I paid attention to it for the first time tonight when she was playing on PBS. It highlights what I feel right now, the difference in my head and my stepdad’s head between what is right and what is wrong in this situation, when I learned a good deal about helping others from him.

Sorry, it's sideways. What do you expect from youtube?

Paradigm - Ani DiFranco
I was born to two immigrants
Who knew why they were here
They were happy to pay taxes
For the schools and roads
Happy to be here
They took it seriously
The second job of citizenry
My mother went campaigning door to door
And holding to her hand was me
I was just a girl in a room full of women
Licking stamps and laughing
I remember the feeling of community brewing
Of democracy happening

But I suppose like anybody
I had to teach myself to see
All that stuff that got lost
On its way to church
All that stuff that got lost
On its way to school
All that stuff that got lost
On its way to the house of my family
All that stuff that was not lost on me

Teach myself to see each of us
Through the lens of forgiveness
Like we're stuck with each other (god forbid!)
Teach myself to smile and stop and talk
To a whole other color kid
Teach myself to be new in an instant
Like the truth is accessible at any time
Teach myself it's never really one or the other
There's a paradox in every paradigm

I was just a girl in a room full of women
Licking stamps and laughing
I remember the feeling of community brewing
Of democracy happening

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