The Civic Sacred Cow

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Recently someone left a pile of human shit on the back steps of my building. A neighbor was assaulted by a homeless person in the alley. A clerk at the 7-Eleven tried to get a beggar off the property and was slammed against the wall and threatened; the police said, “Well, you weren’t hurt, were you?” The secretary of a neighborhood church told me she was getting afraid to go to work, since there was always at least one drugged-out man camping on the steps. The front yard of another church was filled with homeless every day and night, often blocking the sidewalks. Fires repeatedly swept through the city property next to the freeway, site of homeless encampments and cookouts. A friend who plays in a women’s softball league complained that the restroom they formerly used in the city park was always occupied by homeless men. At that point, finally, I resolved to do something. The park is in my city council district, not hers.

There began a series of calls and emails between me and numerous city and police officials, in which I mentioned to everyone on the other end of the conversation that cops patrol the neighborhood but do nothing about its obvious problems. The result, finally, was that the invaders were out of the women’s restroom and the church secretary got some temporary assistance in evicting permanent transients from the property. The other problems have not been touched.

If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.”

My experience can stand for that of thousands of others who have tried to do something about the growing Problem of Homelessness, which in many cities of America is making life miserable for all classes except the rich. The interesting thing to me is that when people call public officials to complain, they are invariably admonished that “homelessness is not a crime.” I was told that too, right off the bat, in every conversation I had.

This seems increasingly peculiar to me. If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.” Now let’s try it the other way. If you threaten your neighbor, assault him, shit on his steps, camp in his doorway, and occupy, in your nakedness, the restroom of the opposite sex, what will happen to you? You will be arrested, forthwith.

So what’s the difference? The difference is that you are a lowly taxpayer, bound by every rule that anyone can think of; whereas the people who are making your environment annoying, tough, dangerous, or merely sickening are “homeless” and therefore above the law. In fact, they are some of the largest beneficiaries of the law; every community I know of gives them tax-supported aid in innumerable forms. In San Francisco it is about $37,000 per year, per vagrant.

If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

As a human being, I feel pity for most of these people, because they are crazy, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. True, many could kick their addictions and submit to treatment for their craziness; they could “take their meds.” But they won’t, and for that I also feel sorry for them, though not nearly as sorry as I feel for the people they happen to rob, kill, and infect with disease. My city has a very large and very good Catholic charity that is able and willing to shelter any homeless person who agrees, essentially, not to be disruptive; the charity’s beds are never fully occupied.

I don’t know how to solve this problem; I wish I could solve all of my own problems. As a libertarian, I would defend anyone’s right to wander on whatever streets he chooses, to drink and smoke and shoot up as much as he wants; all I insist is that he not impose himself on others, occupy their property, ruin their businesses, insult their houses of worship, rob them, threaten them, and appropriate for his own use the things that other people, many of them poor people, have paid for. If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask that city authorities sympathize with me in this dispute. The fact that their default position is that I’m wrong and the “homeless” are right and fully justified by the “law” can hardly be explained on rational grounds, even if we extend “rationality” to mean “honey up to the voters, or they may toss you out on the street.” To insult the voters with moral lectures or sham economic theories (“if housing weren’t so expensive, people wouldn’t need to live on the streets”) is an act of irrationality that can only be explained by the assumption that some mystical, religious value is at stake.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness.

And so it is. Our officials now believe that they have a higher obligation to the homeless than to everyone else, the kind of obligation that leads some people to sacrifice their self-interest on behalf of God or the Bible. One of the two major political parties now proclaims, by its every word and action, and particularly in parts of the country where “the homeless” abound, that in any conflict between the voters and the homeless (who do not vote), it will side with the homeless.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness. But it has the same effect as certain customs of the great religions. I believe that in some parts of India, cows are still permitted to wander at will through the people’s markets, eating what they will from the merchants’ produce, and, of course, shitting where they will. And why? Those cows are sacred.




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Seattle Solons Sideline Squatters

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Last month (Liberty, May 10), I reported on the Seattle City Council’s attempt to impose a per-employee tax on large businesses, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used to help the homeless.

The video of the meeting (June 12) at which the Council acted in response to public opposition and repealed the head tax is entertaining. The council chamber is full of people with signs — green ones saying “No Tax on Jobs” and red ones urging a tax on Amazon, the city’s largest private employer. The people holding the green signs are quiet and the people holding the red signs are noisy. When the council members come to a vote, the red-sign people set up a chant to drown them out: “We . . . are . . . ready to fight! Housing . . . is . . . a human right!”

The council members, who had voted unanimously for the head tax a month before, explain their votes (7 to 2 for repeal). First come the progressive Democrats who are voting for repeal. Not one of them admits that the head tax is bad policy. Referring to the success of the business-led petition drive to put the ordinance on the ballot, and polls showing that on this issue Seattle’s liberal electorate sides with business, Councilwoman Lisa Herbold says, “This is not a winnable battle. The opposition has unlimited resources.” By repealing the head tax, she says, the progressives are cutting their losses. “There is so much more to lose between today and November,” she says.

“We need more resources,” the councilman says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, who opposes repeal, talks of the vote as if it were not a defeat. What makes it not a defeat? Because she still believes in the cause. Her belief is what’s important. And also that a month before, the council did vote for the tax. “I’m proud that this council stood up in the face of intimidation and fear,” she says, just before seven of her colleagues vote to reverse their action.

Councilman Mike O’Brien says the city spent $94 million on the homeless last year, and that it is not enough. “We need more resources,” he says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

“We know what the solutions are,” says Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, who votes against the solution she is so sure of.

Finally comes our Socialist Alternative councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, speaking to her chanting groupies with the red signs. She calls this a defeat — and just the sort of defeat you get by putting your faith in Democrats. Her Democratic colleagues patting themselves on the back for caring about the homeless have nothing to be proud of. “This is a capitulation and a betrayal,” Sawant says.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building a socialist America.

And not of the homeless, really. The Democrats talk about the homeless. Sawant talks about working people, at one point saying that the vote to repeal the tax is a betrayal of working people, as if the squatters in Seattle’s public parks were waking up every morning, putting on clean clothes, and going to work.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building her movement for a socialist America.

Mostly Sawant was sore at her colleagues’ unwillingness to accept the business community’s challenge of a public vote. “There was a chance of winning,” she says.

A chance, yes. Not a good one.

Yes, Bezos is her enemy. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats.

Sawant berates her colleagues for surrendering to the business community and its supporters, though she characterizes it as a surrender to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Jeff Bezos IS our enemy,” she proclaims.

And I find myself agreeing with her. Not with her condemnation of Bezos or her advocacy of “social housing” and “taxing the rich,” but with her political clarity. Yes, Bezos is her enemy. Damn right. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats. They did betray her cause, and her. It was disgusting to hear them praising themselves even as they backed down, as if they could weasel out with talk. They lost, and because they lost, she lost.

It’s a glorious day.




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Clueless in Seattle

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In Seattle, where I have spent most of my life, I often walk around a lake near where I live — Green Lake, which is bordered by a strip of public park. It is the most popular park in the city, hosting walkers, runners, skaters, and bicyclists on the paved path around the water. In this urban idyll a coven of campers lives year-round in RVs and tents or, in good weather, sleeps in the open on the ground. If I drive to the University of Washington, I go past another encampment near the freeway exit. Under an overpass by the University Bridge is a rag-and-cardboard hovel surrounded by stolen Safeway carts and piles of garbage.

We didn’t have this when I was growing up here in the 1960s, or many years afterward. Then you could see alcoholics in downtown Seattle, where they sat on park benches and drank. We called them bums. They were male, and mostly white or Native American. They lived in missions and flophouses. They didn’t pitch tents under overpasses and in city parks, because the city didn’t allow it. Legally it still doesn’t, but legality alone doesn’t matter. Seattle does allow it, which is why people do it.

Seattle’s unemployment rate is close to 3%, which is as low as it ever gets. There is plenty of work.

The mix looks different now. I see modern nylon tents, some of them with bicycles parked next to them, or discarded office chairs. Many of the homeless have electronic devices to play music.

The situation is not at all like the famous picture from the 1930s of the “Hooverville” of squatter shacks with the pointed top of the Smith Tower in the background. That was a time of social emergency, of 20 or 30% unemployment. Today the city is booming. Seattle’s unemployment rate is close to 3%, which is as low as it ever gets. There is plenty of work. As I write, within one block of my house are two “Help Wanted” signs on restaurants. Within five blocks are several building sites where work has been repeatedly stopped, probably because of the shortage of labor.

Nor is the problem that Seattle is nasty to the homeless. Quite the contrary. I refer to The Hungry American, a book self-published 2004 by Tom McDevitt, an Idaho doctor who went slumming as his retirement project. Of all the cities in which he practiced being a bum — Pocatello, Salt Lake, Phoenix, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle — my city was the most generous. But in none of those cities, he said, did the homeless starve. The hunger he saw in the Sad Sacks around him “was not of the belly kind, but the gnawing hunger for tobacco, alcohol, drugs and relief for a tortured mind,” he wrote. “In America people are homeless because either consciously or subconsciously they want to be homeless.”

To Seattle progressives this is a cold, insensitive, reactionary, and racist point of view. Their view was correctly expressed in the Seattle Times last November by Adrienne Quinn, who earned $188,662 in 2017 as director of the King County (Seattle) Department of Community and Human Services.

When I see people living in tents on the shores of Green Lake, living out of rat’s-nest cars and RVs within a mile of my house, am I really to believe that it is not their fault?

“Homelessness is a symptom of failures in the child-welfare system, racism, wage inequity, the failure to adequately fund mental-health and addiction services, and skyrocketing housing costs,” she wrote. “Not being able to find an apartment for less than $2,000 a month, or being put on waitlists for housing or treatment, or living in foster homes as a child are not individual failings; they are societal failings.”

I have a relative who is adopting two boys from foster care. Before being in foster care they were living on the street and eating out of dumpsters. Their plight was terrible. But it was the fault of individuals, not “society.” The individuals at fault were their parents, who were heroin addicts.

When I see people — white men, mostly — living in tents on the shores of Green Lake, living out of rat’s-nest cars and RVs within a mile of my house, am I really to believe that it is not their fault? The other day I asked one of the Green Lake maintenance men about the camper that has been parked all winter in lower Woodland Park, a few hundred feet from the sign that says, “No Camping.”

“We can’t do anything about that,” he said. “They send social workers to talk to those guys.” The social workers’ job is to convince the homeless to use social services.

That’s Seattle.

The Seattle Times has a special team funded by outside donors — Starbucks, the Seattle Mariners, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others — that writes about nothing but the homeless. Recently the Times had a story about the death on April 5 of Sabrina Tate, 27, who had been living out of a camper in a city-sanctioned homeless parking lot the politicians called a “safe zone.”

Economically, Seattle is a stunningly successful city.

Sabrina Tate was from Spokane, a city less transformed by entrepreneurial capitalism than Seattle. She got into the drug lifestyle as a teenager, after her parents divorced, and she eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest’s big city. She became a heroin addict and was for some years. In February she had gone back to Spokane and seen her mother, who was alarmed that Sabrina’s legs were swollen and infected as a side effect of drug use. Her mother offered to take her to the hospital to treat her legs and kick the heroin, but Sabrina insisted on returning to the “safe zone” and her camper, where shortly thereafter she was found dead on the floor.

Her parents got back together long enough to come to Seattle to see where their daughter had lived and died. They had never seen it. Inside Sabrina’s RV, wrote Times reporter Vianna Davila

The place was trashed. Flies buzzed around rotted food. There was hardly any room on the floor, though investigators told them that’s where her body was found. Much of the floor was covered with wet clothes, possibly the result of a leak in the roof. This looked nothing like the picture she had painted for them.

Her parents may never know if this was how Sabrina lived. They were told by police that the RV was quickly ransacked after her death.

The Times reporter recorded the reaction of Sabrina’s father, Tommi Tate. “I’m furious,” he said. Furious with his addict daughter? Furious with himself? Of course not. He was furious with the government.

“This kind of stuff shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t need to happen, and it’s only going to stop if people quit looking the other way and if our governments really, truly care,” he said. “Shame on Seattle.”

Shame on Seattle?

Reading that, I wanted to say, “Hey! You're her father. Where wereyou? It wasn’t the government's job to care about your daughter; it was yours. And at age 27, it was hers, and had been for some time. She made years and years of bad choices to get where she was. It had nothing to do with whether public employees ‘really, truly cared.’”

The median price of a single-family house in Seattle has jumped to $800,000. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is pushing $2,000.

This story spoke strongly to me, because I have a son the same age as the dead girl. The difference is, he is healthy and has a career and a home. Why is that? Is it because the city employees here really, truly cared for him?

Enough stupid questions.

Economically, Seattle is a stunningly successful city. Recalling the city I knew as a kid back in the early 1960s, I remember the brick buildings downtown, most of them, like the Smith Tower, built in a burst of investment in the second and third decades of the century. That old downtown has been buried in a forest of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the latest of which are being built for Amazon. For most of my life, the city population was stuck between 525,000 and 550,000. Suddenly it’s at 700,000. Including Seattle, King County’s population is now 2.1 million.

Among the state’s 39 counties, King County, the largest in population, has the highest average per-capita personal income. Seattle’s figure is $40,868, more than 40% above the U.S. average. King County is the home to Boeing’s commercial airplane division, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco and Nordstrom. It is the home of Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates.

To the disappointment to the Democrats who run state government in Olympia, Washington does not have a state income tax.

The median price of a single-family house in Seattle has jumped to $800,000. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is pushing $2,000. Part of this is because of Seattle’s restrictive zoning code and King County’s growth-management policy, and the Left mostly ignores this, but the commercial growth is the most important reason.

Politically, King County is the most leftwing county in the state. Here’s the picture from 2016, in which Hillary Clinton easily carried the state of Washington. Statewide, Donald Trump took 37% of the vote. In King County, he got 21%. In Seattle, he got 9%. Since the 1980s, Seattle has been a one-party town. To be identified as a Republican in this city is instant political death.

But we do have a communist on the city council.

Am I “red-baiting?” I suppose so. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant calls herself a socialist and says she’s for democracy. But she has identified herself as a member of Socialist Alternative, which the Internet tells me is a Trotskyist organization — meaning Leon Trotsky, former chief commissar of the Red Army. Sawant’s campaign manager told me she was a Marxist, and in listening to her when she first ran for office, I judged that he was correct. She came out for nationalizing Boeing, for example. If all that doesn’t justify the c-word, then I withdraw it. Sawant is pretty far left, though. She voted against Seattle’s famous $15-an-hour minimum wage law because it wasn’t strong enough.

The rest of Seattle’s city council is all deeply Progressive. And given the view around here of the “root causes” of people sleeping in the park, there should be no surprise at the solution the council has reached.

Raise taxes on business.

Seattle is not a low-tax city. We have a property tax that hits most homeowners between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, and a retail sales tax at the nose-bleeding level of 10.1%. (Buy a car here, and feel the pain.) We have a tax on soda pop and a tax on disposable grocery bags. But to the disappointment to the Democrats who run state government in Olympia, Washington does not have a state income tax. The people voted for one in 1932, but the Washington Supreme Court threw it out, and statewide voters have since rejected it four times. Seattle has tried to impose a city income tax, and has been blocked in the courts.

This is a tax on employment to fund non-employment.

Now to the matter at hand, the head tax. This is how Seattle’s ruling class — its political ruling class — proposes to raise the $75 million it wants for the homeless: a 26-cent-an-hour tax on payrolls of companies with at least $20 million in annual gross sales.

Work out the math. Twenty-six cents an hour is more than $500 per employee per year. This is a tax on employment to fund non-employment. And the only employers obliged to pay it would be the for-profit companies. As I read it, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would not have to pay, nor would Seattle’s big multimillion-dollar medical groups — Swedish, Virginia Mason, and Kaiser Permanente Washington — nor would Recreational Equipment Inc., a membership cooperative. Neither Boeing nor Microsoft nor (except one store) Costco Wholesale would have to pay, because they are not actually based in the city. But Nordstrom and Starbucks would have to pay, as would Amazon, which put itself right where Seattle progressives wanted, near the light-rail line at the north end of downtown. Amazon would be nailed for some $20 million a year.

And CEO Jeff Bezos, who has Amazon looking for a second headquarters city already, doesn’t want Amazon to pay. Amazon has announced that it is suspending planning for its next Seattle skyscraper, and that if the head tax is passed, it will build somewhere else.

The push for a head tax has not gone unchallenged. An opposition now coalesces.

I haven’t heard anyone say the company doesn’t mean it. The leaders of the Aerospace Machinists did say that a decade ago when Boeing threatened to open an assembly line for the 787 jet transport in South Carolina unless it got a ten-year no-strike agreement in the labor contract. The union guys didn’t believe the company. They rejected the concessions — and Boeing opened the line in South Carolina, just as it said. People in Seattle also remember when Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago.

They believe Bezos’ threat.

And the Left’s attitude toward this? Katie Herzog, writer for The Stranger, Seattle’s left-wing entertainment weekly, quotes Bezos on The Stranger’s blog saying that he wants to put his personal billions into space travel. Confusing Bezos’s personal money with Amazon’s corporate money, she writes:

“WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK, JEFF BEZOS??? THE ONLY WAY TO SPEND YOUR MONEY IS SENDING IT TO SPACE???? Please, excuse me for a moment while I go burn my Prime membership. (Just kidding. I use my dad's.) Here's one way Bezos, who has yet to make any significant philanthropic mark on the world, could spend his 130 billion dollars: PAY THE FUCKING HEAD TAX.”

I hear people who are angry — and almost all of them are Democrats.

Socialist Councilwoman Sawant, Herzog writes, should lock Bezos in a room and convince him to “get his shining head out of his ass and start using his wealth to help people other than himself.”

That is the Seattle Left in full, in its ideas and its manners.

The push for a head tax has not gone unchallenged. An opposition now coalesces. It includes the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and other business groups long accustomed to the political culture called Seattle Nice. It includes the Seattle Times editorial page, which is urging Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to veto it. (Durkan, whom the Times supported for mayor, was Obama’s US Attorney here.) And when our socialist councilwoman and her groupies held a protest in front of Amazon’s new skyscraper, they faced a counterprotest of union ironworkers — the proletarians who would lose the chance to build Amazon’s new skyscraper.

The final vote is not scheduled until May 14. But whatever happens, much good has come of this. I hear people who are angry — and almost all of them are Democrats. Maybe Seattle will develop a two-party system — not a Republican-and-Democrat system, but some kind of opposition, some kind of choice. If it does, I will vote for whoever carries its flag.




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Farmers of Men

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When people use the term “the homeless,” they make them sound like a leper colony of the damned, invaders from outer space, or some sort of creeping fungus. This attitude dehumanizes homeless people. Which is highly ironic, since those most likely to use the term see themselves as brimming with compassion. How can people be recognized as human beings if they aren’t viewed as individuals? Yet almost never do I get the sense, from those who decry the plight of “the homeless,” that they visualize real faces or remember actual names.

We’ve been getting a number of homeless people at church. The sudden influx is startling. One lady brings her four little dogs. She has nowhere to leave them except in the yard of our parish house, next door to the sanctuary. She sits in a pew, slightly off by herself, and soaks up the liturgy the way a flower soaks up sunshine. We are a progressive church — we Care About The Homeless. But nobody seems to know quite what to do with her.

When we hand over to the government the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands.

Some are baffled that she’s got four dogs, when she probably struggles daily just to feed herself. They evidently fail to realize that the dogs may be the only living souls that show her unconditional affection, or perhaps any affection at all. Being one of those annoying people who get big ideas, I have several times wondered aloud what we might do to help our homeless guests. And I mean, really help them — not just go through a few motions to make ourselves feel better. Every time I do this, I get looks of horror.

Then comes the inevitable litany of “we can’ts.” We can’t give them hot meals, baskets of groceries, job referrals, or affordable housing. We are not, after all, a soup kitchen, a food bank, or a social service agency. But I’m pretty sure that though they may not know this the first time they come, it doesn’t take long for them to figure it out. If they keep coming back — as some do — they may actually want the same things out of the experience as the rest of us.

The homeless aren’t as different from us as I suspect we want to think they are. How did we ever come to think of them as a different species? As something alien, strange, and potentially dangerous?

I suspect it began to happen about the time we decided to hand all responsibility for the care of the unfortunate over to the government. It became Someone Else’s Problem — not our own. We tell ourselves we’ve done this because we’re so compassionate, but actually it has made us considerably less so. We have merely pushed the needy out of sight and out of mind, lulling our consciences to sleep with the narcotic delusion that Someone Else can do our caring for us.

We have no evidence, however, that the government overflows with compassion. And when we hand over to it the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands. Once we surrender anything to the state, it never wants to give it back, and certainly resents having to share it.

Much ado is currently being made about how persecuted conservative Christians are when the state does not mandate mass compliance with their beliefs. That this seems to be the highest purpose to which they think the Gospel calls them does not strike them as the least bit odd. But the same government they want to enforce their dictates has taken away much of their ability to minister to the needy. A duty they have surrendered, for the most part, without a whimper.

This past winter, when much of the country was gripped with arctic cold, a number of churches brought homeless people into their buildings to keep them from freezing. In more than a few cases, this may have made the difference between life and death. Now, one might think this was exactly what churches are supposed to do. But several municipal governments thought otherwise.

When we farm the homeless out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human.

Where were the cries of religious persecution, from the Right-wing Umbrage Industry, when these cities ordered churches that were sheltering homeless people to turn them out into the streets, threatening them with hefty fines if they refused to comply? I certainly didn’t hear any, and since I pay close attention to such matters, I listened for them.

Perhaps the best thing we can do for the homeless among us is really to see them as people — and I mean, before they turn into blocks of ice we must step over on the sidewalk. When we farm them out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human. Given the fact that it’s more likely to care for stray dogs or cats than for homeless people, it treats them as even less than animals.

The only way we can treat homeless people as people is to take back our responsibility to care what happens to them. When they come through the doors of our churches, we can recognize them as spiritual beings, who hunger for more than food. They need to know that they are valuable. That it matters whether they find a warm place to belong, or rot into oblivion in a gutter. This, no government can give them, and when we farmed out the responsibility for their care, all understanding of their deeper needs got lost.

Today we clamor, like baby birds, for the government to give us goodies. Our dependence has bred a malignant narcissism, in which we identify primarily as members of some grievance group to be appeased. The very convictions that form our core we see as somebody else’s responsibility to ensure. But the government cannot give us our souls; it can only take them. It’s high time we took them back.




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