The Long Goodbye

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On April 19, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Fidel Castro delivered his “farewell” address to the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana. Fidel’s farewells now rival Francisco Franco’s farewells — or notices of his departure from this world — in both length and credibility. Though he first temporarily stepped down as president of Cuba in 2006, and then retired permanently in 2008, Fidel Castro’s influence as his successor’s elder brother, his continuing physical presence, and his moral standing as the “conscience of the Revolution,” preclude any serious change in Cuba’s political system.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to him that his time on earth is done. As a consequence, he’s urging his successors to keep the faith. No one expects the country’s first vice president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 56, to succeed in any meaningful way. Though Raul Castro has said that he’d step down in 2018 when his term is up, his second-in-command, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 85, is expected to continue wielding power by leading the Party. So, Fidel: rest assured — for now.

Word on the street is more nuanced. Raul was head of the armed forces and security organs before becoming president. His G2 security apparatus is second only to the CIA and Mossad (forget the KGB according to Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Fidel’s personal bodyguard of 17 years). As head of the Armed Forces, Raul designed and engineered the very first tourism joint ventures with foreign governments and firms, loosely following the model of the People’s Liberation Army in China, whose commercial interests are widespread. The effort helped Cuba overcome the difficulties of the Special Period imposed by the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to Fidel that his time on earth is done.

Raul and his late wife, Vilma Espin, have three daughters. One is married to a general whose public persona is so behind-the-scenes that my informant couldn’t recall his name. The general is not a politician and doesn’t wish to draw attention to himself. However, he is the architect of most of Cuba’s successful mid-to-large state enterprises. His military, family and commercial positions endow him with unrivaled power; power that in my informed informant’s opinion he will not easily give up, but will continue to wield behind the scenes.

In spite of the government’s efforts to encourage self-employment in its own passive-aggressive way, again — according to this informant — the state is terrified of mid-level independent enterprises gaining a foothold on the island. Disincentives, from limits on the number of employees to accelerated taxation schemes, abound.

On March 28, as a response to President Obama’s visit to Cuba, Fidel opined in an editorial in the official organ of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma, that “we do not need the empire to give us anything.” This time, Fidel, rest unassured: one of the primary sources of foreign exchange in Cuba is family remittances, to the tune of $2.5 billion annually (2014 figures; probably more now). But rest even more unassuredly, Fidel, because some of the money indirectly comes from US taxpayers, i.e., the government.

Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty, I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

Here’s how it works: Cuban refugees are automatically granted asylum in the US and are provided with food stamps, heath care, and a stipend, i.e., welfare. Some of this is sent back to family in Cuba. With Cuban hustle, many refugees get jobs but continue to collect benefits. The remittances give a whole new definition to Cuba’s being a “welfare” state — in this case, one that’s dependent on the US dole. Cuban refugees who came to the US in times past recognize the problem and are urging the US government to change the automatic acceptance rule for Cubans and apply normal asylum procedures to present-day Cuban immigrants.

This past February, I contributed to the remittances motherlode.

On my recent trip to Cuba I was bringing a small laptop computer to a relative — allowed, but ordinarily subject to declaration and a 100% tariff, something that would make the laptop unaffordable. At Jose Marti airport, and before I crossed passport control, a clipboard-wielding functionary spotted my group of five and targeted us as an irregular group. We were coming legally from Miami, as opposed to illegally through Mexico or Canada, venues from which American tourists aren’t the subjects of much concern. Our US State Dept. category was “Educational.” We were in Cuba to assess the opportunities for running bicycle-based adventure education courses covering history, environment, anthropology, etc. However, my personal objective was research for a proposed book, a purpose that would raise much concern with the Cuban government, and a travel category that would have required a Cuban government minder to accompany and “help” me at my expense. Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty (a quasi-journalistic position — another category the government is wary of and upon which they impose many requirements), I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

The functionary walked up to one of our group and asked our purpose in coming to Cuba. My partner blithely and absent-mindedly said he was a writer. My wife, ever alert, rushed to the scene and corrected the impression, saying we were there for educational purposes. By now our whole group surrounded the man. He asked for our itinerary and formal proposal. I dazzled him with paperwork which I’d painstakingly composed with every computer tool available: detailed schedule, educational purpose of the trip, lengthy resumes of each participant along with their professional positions, and letters of support and intent from three universities.

The man (his English being only passable) glanced at the professionally printed matter and, satisfied, returned it to me. He then asked if we were carrying any electronic devices, cameras, computers, etc. reassuring us that these were permissible for personal use. Going round the circle, each participant pulled out camera, laptop, phone, whatever. By the time he got to me and I’d pulled out my camera and was about to declare the laptop for my relative, the man lost interest and dismissed us, figuring we were what we appeared to be.

I’d successfully taken a laptop into Cuba — one small ruse for a man; one satisfying step for liberty in Cuba.




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The Pope: Enough Already

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Everywhere in the American media, Pope Francis is lauded as a “humble” man. The evidence? He sometimes has himself driven in a Fiat, rather than a Mercedes, and he has abandoned the papal apartments in the Vatican for a smaller residence. Isn’t that a waste of money, by the way? The magnificent papal residence will still be maintained (I hope), despite the Pope’s refusal to sleep in the bed provided for him.

The real problem, however, is that no one seems to be asking whether he is humble in any other way.

Certainly he isn’t humble about throwing his weight around. He isn’t humble about broadcasting his opinions on global warming and what should be done about it. He isn’t humble about attacking capitalism. He isn’t humble about demanding that Europeans provide free livelihoods for as many Islamic immigrants as want to force their way across the borders. He isn’t humble about addressing the United States Congress and dispensing his views about America’s duty to welcome its own illegal migrants.

I have a proposal. Politicians should curb their tongues about religion, and priests should curb their tongues about politics.

Of course, there is no reason why any of this should be of any more interest than the views of any other individual who (1) knows little or nothing about science, (2) knows little or nothing about economics and history, and (3) will not be paying for the policies he recommends. When one weighs the Pope’s moral pretensions against his intellectual abilities, the thud on one side of the scales is deafening.

It is noteworthy that the very Democrats and other leftists who are always demanding that Christmas be called the Winter Holiday and political candidates refrain from religious utterances have gone completely over the top in pushing the Pope to endorse their own positions on immigration, “climate change,” and welfarism. The Republicans have been equally giddy about welcoming the Pope to the spiritual feast that is Washington politics. On September 24, Speaker Boehner was so overwhelmed by the Pope’s political presence that he broke down in tears.

I have a proposal. Politicians should curb their tongues about religion, and priests should curb their tongues about politics: no pols addressing the crowds at Sunday services, and no Pope addressing Congress. The very idea of inviting a religious leader to lecture American legislators is a nightmare vision to anyone who actually values the separation of church and state.




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The Sequester Effect

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At this writing, the Republicans have refused to cave in on sequestration. Because half the cuts will come from defense, I thought the GOP would do almost anything to prevent the sequester from happening. But I was wrong. Whether they are operating on principle (i.e., sticking to their belief that spending must be brought under control) or simply doing what they think is politically advantageous, I couldn’t say. In either case, it may provide a lesson in political economy for all Americans.

Back in 1990, Bill Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts. Upon taking office, he instituted relatively minor cuts in social services. I can still remember the street protests and wailings from advocacy groups that the cuts would cause homelessness, starvation, and other enormities. Of course, after the cuts went through, nothing of the sort happened. People suddenly discovered that they could work at a job, or call upon relatives for assistance, or rely on private charity. It was an object lesson in how bloated and dishonest the welfare state had become since LBJ put in place the “Great Society.” Recipients and advocates of government largesse in Massachusetts had for a time persuaded a majority of their fellow citizens that welfarism was just, honorable, and necessary. But when Massachusetts ran into a fiscal wall, with deficits looming and taxes just too much of a burden, a Republican (Weld) squeaked into office and — poof! — the illusion that the state alone stood between the less well-off and a Dickensian fate burst like a soap bubble.

The sequester may prove this point again, and on a national scale. The Obama administration has been ratcheting up the hyperbole as the dread date of March 1 approaches. Beware the Kalends of March! Children will be thrown off Head Start. Small business loans may be delayed, or even (gasp!) unobtainable. National defense, on which we spend about as much money as the rest of the world combined, will be compromised when civilian employees of the Pentagon are required to take a day off per week without pay. And God alone knows what else may happen.

In fact, sequestration calls for the elimination of a little over $1.1 trillion in federal spending over a period of ten years. That’s about three cents out of every dollar in a budget that has doubled under Bush II and Obama. If the American economy can’t survive that, then the country may as well pack it in and become a province of China.

Probably the Republicans will cave later in March, as defense contractors join food stamp recipients and the long-term unemployed in bleating that the trough is no longer full. But maybe not. Maybe they’ll stand firm long enough for the public and the establishment media to realize that sequestration ain’t so bad after all.

Sequestration is a lousy way to trim the federal budget. But it’s better than business as usual. And it just might teach the citizenry that it can live with a little (or even a lot) less government.




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Not Just Your Typical Zombie Film

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"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, / A pair of star crossed lovers take their life." These words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet suggest that humans are controlled by destiny and fate, not by choice and accountability. Romeo and Juliet meet by fate; their families are at war by fate; and their story ends tragically by fate.

The foundation story appears in Greek mythology as "Pyramus and Thisbe," and is oddly set not in Greece, but in an unnamed location in the Orient. This suggests that the story has an even earlier foundation. It is also found in the Old Testament in the form of the story of Dinah, the Israelite daughter who goes for a walk in a heathen town and is taken by a local boy who wants to marry her. Shakespeare set his version of the story in Italy as Romeo and Juliet, and was so taken with the myth that he presented it again in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the clownish traveling troubadours. Prokofiev's ballet is another favorite, especially the powerful "Dance of the Knights" (Montagues and Capulets). Choreographer Jerome Robbins saw the exciting possibilities of Irish and Puerto Rican gangs duking it out through dance and convinced Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents to write West Side Story. Other musicians and artists have adapted the story as well.

Often the sole focus of R&J is the love story, with the feuding families fading so far into the background that it is hard to understand why they are fighting, but that isn't always the case. One of the most fascinating interpretations I have seen of R&J was a recent production by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival set in modern Afghanistan. In this version, Romeo is an American soldier, and Juliet is a local Muslim girl. Audiences truly "got it" in this interpretation when Juliet's mother appeared dressed in a burqa and her father smacked her so hard across the face that she fell down screaming. Still, her love for her soldier endured.

The core story of Romeo and Juliet has resonated throughout the centuries because it represents change and resistance to learned cultural values and prejudices. The star-crossed lovers from warring families epitomize independent thinking, change, tolerance, and acceptance. And it's a great love story to boot.

The latest offering is Warm Bodies, a film that opened this week. The movie focuses more on the differences between the two families, and the allusions are subtler than in most adaptations; in fact, it didn't hit me that R&J was the core story until the balcony scene, and then it all fell into place: the girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer), her dead boyfriend named Perry (Dave Franco), her new boyfriend known as "R" (Nicholas Hoult), her friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) who wants to be a nurse. Oh — and did I mention that R is a Corpse?

The "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

This unusual adaptation is set in a dystopian future where an incurable disease has turned humans into walking corpses who feed on living humans. Truly serious cases become "boneys," who "will eat anything." Uninfected humans have built a gigantic wall around their city to protect themselves, but they need supplies from the other side. At the center of the film is a love story between Julie, who goes outside the wall with her young friends to forage for medicine, and "R," a cute and quirky young Corpse who narrates the story. He communicates through grunting and doesn't know his own name, but he begins to change because of his growing love for Julie.

The film is fun and clever despite its zombified cast, and the young lovers are fresh and sweet. (Well, she's fresh. He smells like rotten meat — in fact, he protects her from other Corpses by smearing goo on her face to cover her fresh scent. But he does it in a way that is as likely to elicit an "Awww" as an "Ewww" from the audience.)

What sets this film apart is the depth of possibilities provided by the core story — the star-crossed lovers from warring cultural groups who find a common ground of understanding and tolerance. I don't know what director Jonathan Levine and author Isaac Marion intended audiences to think, but that's the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor — it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. I think this version makes an insightful statement about the conflict between working Americans and nonworking Americans.

As the film opens, R is wandering through an abandoned airport. Other Corpses wander there too. "I don't remember my name anymore," he thinks out loud. "Sometimes I look at others and try to imagine what they used to be. We're all dead inside." Like Gregor Samsa, the traveling salesman in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a bug, R and the others in the airport have succumbed to the rat race. Work has dehumanized them. "It must have been so much better,” he muses, “when we could communicate and feel things."

Corpses don't work or produce anymore. They just eat people. I see this as a metaphor for the welfare state, in which more and more people are being infected by entitlements. A wall of intolerance is being erected today between working people and nonworking people. There is a deadness in the eye of people who scurry from business meeting to business meeting without time for love and relationships, but the tragedy of not working or producing is even more deadening. As the infection spreads and more people become nonproducers, even the producers begin to suffer. The collapsing standard of living is not caused by the wealthy having too much, but by the 47 % producing too little. Ironically, the "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

Another interesting social commentary in this film is the way young people are treated. They are the draftees. While the older folks remain safely behind the wall, the youths are given a pep talk about honor and patriotism by Julie's father (John Malkovich) and then sent out to face the dangers of the Corpses and Boneys. Their mission is to bring back supplies for the grownups inside. Julie and Nora look sexy and buff as they cock their rifles to defend themselves. (And that's a little creepy, given all the crazy shootings that have been experienced in America lately.) When the older folks do go outside, they travel inside tanks and jeeps. They are the cavalry; the kids are the infantry. I guess that's where the word "infantry" comes from. How despicable is war.

What changes R? Partly it's the chemistry of love: his attraction to Julie reboots his heart. But it's more than that. Caught in the world outside the wall and surrounded by Corpses and Boneys who want to eat her, Julie needs protection. She needs food. She needs warmth, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. And R has to provide all these things for her. In the process of producing and providing, he becomes human again. I love that idea, whether Jonathan Levine intended it or not.

What changes the other Corpses? Hope. As they see R change through the power of love (or the power of producing), they gain hope that they might change too. They begin to sleep and to dream again, which is something Corpses aren't able to do. Their dreams cause them to wake up and act for themselves. They begin to come alive.

But they Boneys don't like it. They are like the politicians and welfare bureaucrats who want to keep the poor in their place, receiving their spiritually deadening entitlements but never learning to live or to feel joy. As R laments, "The Boneys are too far gone to change."

The Corpses are not "too far gone," however. They just need to wake up. We are surrounded by welfare Corpses today, and the infection is spreading to epidemic proportions. Some have become Boneys, but others can be cured. They can be changed through the power of pride and production and love. If they will join the Townies to fight against the Boneys, they can dream again. And wake up again. And live again.

#39;s the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor


Editor's Note: Review of "Warm Bodies," directed by Jonathan Levine. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 97 minutes.



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More on Buying Votes

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In a recent analysis of President Obama’s fabulous reelection victory, I argued that one of the reasons he won was his unprecedented use of existing (and new) federal governmental giveaway programs — he played the game of buying votes with taxpayer dollars like no one before him. But the extent of this gargantuan giveaway spree is only now becoming clear.

Take just two of the programs he expanded. First, food stamp programs exploded in size — by 15 million people. The record was set in the year of his reelection. During fiscal year 2012, the main food stamp program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” . . . a snappy name, indeed!) — spent a record $80.4 billion, up a whopping $2.7 billion from the year before. (SNAP was spending “only” $55.6 billion when Obama took control, so he raised it by nearly two-thirds.)

When you add in all the other nutritional programs — such as the $18.3 billion spent on the second main food stamp program, the “Child Nutrition Program” — total food stamp spending hit a total of $106 billion.

In the year before the election, the Obama administration aggressively advertised these programs, to increase the number of recipients — no doubt under the theory that people who get the freebies would gratefully vote for the regime that gave them. This was public choice economics of the crudest variety.

Left unexplained by the Obama administration is why such a massive increase in food stamp usage was necessary, given the vibrant, no, glorious economic recovery brought on by its stupendous spending programs.

Also left unexplained is why if people are really needy you need to advertise to them. Everyone has surely heard of food stamps, so is the advertising here intended to amplify the demand?

Another recent report out of New York informs us that at least our tax dollars are being well spent. Welfare recipients are using their Electronic Benefit Cards — really, they don’t so much get welfare checks anymore as pre-paid credit cards — at some fun places, such as bars, porn video stores, liquor shops, and strip clubs. Yes, the cash assistance program of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has a “cash assistance” program (programs within programs, like Russian dolls) that allows recipients to pull as much as $668 in food stamps, and $433 in cash, each month. The cash can be spent at bars, booze shops, and sex shops.

Finally, let’s turn to the Federal socialist student loan program, nationalized under the Obama administration, so that 93% of all student loans are in effect given out by this administration. The program ballooned by 4.6% in the last quarter before the election, a whopping $42 billion rise — in just three months. Now standing at over a trillion bucks, student loan debts exceed those for auto loans, credit cards, and home equity loans.

This debt is beginning to get problematic for those holding it — delinquency rates are way up. Loan payments that were 90 days past due recently hit 11%, higher than the percentage for credit cards.

But all this has served the purpose of electing Democrats, so the administration has good reason for its current fit of self-congratulation.




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Europe’s Next Tax Horizon

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If they weren’t so snide, smug, and supercilious, you would almost be tempted to pity the wretched Europeans — you know, the culturally superior members of the human race. I mean, they are more or less bankrupt, what with their “generous” and “compassionate” welfare states now running out of tax money. And, brother, do they have taxes — in the matter of taxation, they are the wet dream of Obama-worshipers. They have confiscatory income taxes (in France, now set at 75% for the highest bracket), massive property and gas taxes, and national sales taxes (aka VAT taxes) in the mid-20% range that is standard in the rapidly declining continent.

The idea of cutting the sickeningly bloated welfare state is unpopular in these benighted regimes, and normal tax sources are now taxed to the max. So the challenge to the welfare statists is to come up with new tax sources.

The Germans — ever keen and crafty — may have solved the problem. It was recently reported that the more left-wing German political parties (the Social Democrats and the Greens) are now suggesting a wealth tax of 1% on total assets of 2 million Euros or more. So even if you are retired or otherwise unemployed, but along the way you and your spouse have managed to buy a nice home, jewelry, perhaps a portfolio of stocks and bonds, maybe some artwork — the total value will be assessed (at no doubt inflated valuations — remember, the entity doing the assessment will be precisely the one that pockets the money), and looted.

Anyway, that’s where it will start. Remember, the original American federal income tax started very low (top rate of 7%). So did the VAT tax in all the European countries cursed with it. What happens is that the burst of new revenue always results in not just the expansion of existing social welfare programs but the creation of whole new ones, which — like bay cockroaches — will only grow and multiply further.

Indeed, one German “thinktank” has called for a one-time tax of 10% on all wealth over 250,000 Euros. This would likely bring in about the equivalent of 9% of GDP, and an eager exit of capital from the country.

But again, who believes it would be done just once? The same egalitarian arguments for doing it once will be used to justify doing it (say) every other year, or even every year, or even every 6 months, or even . . .




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Nanny Tries to Resurrect Pappy

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This recent story has gone virtually unnoticed. It is a report that the federal government — yes, our very own nanny-state — has funded anew one of its many websites: www.fatherhood.gov. The site is devoted to teaching American men and — let’s not be sexist! — American women how to be good fathers.

The site gives just tons of terrific tips about being a good dad, such as: it is the father’s job to provide healthy meals for his kids, and actually to eat meals with them. (This is a revelation: I thought that since the government is advertising to get people to apply for food stamps, the rolls for which have swollen to an all-time high of 47 million, it is in fact the government’s job to feed the kids.) And there is other vital information, available nowhere else. There is a video about how to wash your hands, with narration that instructs: “Wet hands under running water, add soap, and rub all parts of the hands and fingers for 15 seconds.”

The things you can learn from government! I never knew you had to use soap!

The site offers some even more desperately needed videos on reading, “constructive play,” and — most amazing — brushing your teeth.

There is a richly layered irony in this. Begin with the fact that the website was funded most recently by the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The idea that deficit reduction is advanced by funding completely superfluous government websites is self-evidently ridiculous.

Now add the bigger point. Here we are, nearly 30 years after the publication of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, the definitive analysis of the massive destruction brought to the American family (and society) by the benighted changes to the welfare programs in the early 1960s. The new form of welfare basically paid young girls to make horribly bad life choices, mainly to have children too young and out of wedlock. The illegitimacy rate in the inner city spiraled out of sight, hitting 25% by the mid-1960s (when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on the black family crisis). In the inner city, the first of the month was dubbed “Father’s Day,” in grimly humorous recognition of the fact that the only “father” in these broken welfare families was Uncle Sam.

Over the decades since, the welfare state’s iatrogenic pathology has spread from the inner city to mainstream America. Now over 70% of all black children, 50% of Hispanic children, and 25% of non-Hispanic white children are born out of wedlock. The rate of illegitimacy for all American births is currently 41%, and for American women under 30, it is a stunning 53%.

So the richest irony of all is that the nanny state that did so much to eliminate fatherhood is now trying to train men to be fathers.

In fine, now that nanny has choked pappy to death, she is trying to resurrect him.




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Wage War on Dependence

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Recently, I heard a school administrator promoting the importance of making all of the parents at our schools aware of the existence of government programs for the homeless. “Lots of people don’t even know that they qualify for these programs.” she enthused. “If they are living with family members and not paying rent, they can qualify as homeless!”

What would that do for them, I wondered?

According to the website of the Oregon Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), its “re-housing program” can provide these kinds of services to the "homeless":

Re-housing programs work with people who are already homeless to help them quickly move into rental housing. Re-housing programs can provide housing location, financial assistance including security deposits, rent assistance and payment of arrearages and case management. Both homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs coordinate with other community resources to ensure that participants are linked to ongoing assistance, such as housing vouchers, intensive case management, or assertive community treatment.

So if a family (in this community often a new immigrant family) is managing their finances by living with relatives until they can get on their feet, government agencies can arrange to give them financial assistance in the form of security deposits to rent a place they otherwise couldn't afford to rent, and participate in a program of government “rent assistance” or “housing vouchers.” The person recommending this seems to think it would be a good thing to move someone into a situation where he was dependent on government for a place to live. Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Connected to that assumption is the proposition that any well-meaning person, such as a teacher or school administrator, has an obligation to convince stiff-necked individuals that their pride is hurting their children, and they really should accept the government’s largesse. This assumes, however, that one’s quality of life is measured simply by the dollar amount of the things one receives, without regard to how one obtained them.

Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Not so many decades ago it was commonly understood that there was something demeaning about being on "the dole.” People did not want to accept charity if they could make their own way in life. There were the pejorative terms “kept woman” and worse still, “kept man,” meaning a person who did not have a job but was supported by a sex partner. Many of the social programs we have today were sold with difficulty to an American public for whom public assistance and dependency carried a stigma.

According to Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, Social Security was presented not as a needs-based program of charity in which today’s workers pay for the benefits of today’s elderly, but as “a system of social insurance under which workers (and their employers) contribute a part of their earnings in order to provide protection for themselves and their families if certain events occur. As a result of this 'earned benefit' status, collection of Social Security benefits has never carried the stigma associated with food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or other welfare programs.”

That has been the pattern with a number of “entitlement” programs. Instead of being needs-based charities, which show one’s dependence, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are made for everyone. Therefore there is no stigma and everyone should be happy to receive benefits from the government. Of course, the effect is that these programs have ballooned in size and are currently unsustainable. (Odd that sustainable houses and buildings are all the rage, but sustainable social programs, not so much.) We have a huge financial burden looming ahead of us as these entitlement programs become ever more costly as more of us baby-boomers retire and expect to collect benefits. Because there is no stigma associated with these programs, we all intend to capitalize on them.

Here lies the problem — and also the solution to the problem. Instead of a War on Poverty, we should have a War on Dependence. All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance. They would still require considerable effort and would still employ many social workers for years to come, but the war could be won! We could get to the point where everyone had a way to support himself.

How would that look different from today’s social programs?

For one thing, we’d begin by applauding all those who already take care of themselves. We would hold them up and give them recognition. We would put them on talk shows and news programs to tell their story of how they manage in life without government assistance. They would become our role models. We would applaud and appreciate the fact that they do not need to collect on the various social programs to which they are “entitled.”

For example, people over 65 who were working at a job or who could afford their own medical insurance would be honored for their ability to be independent of Medicare. Right now of course, you virtually have to take it, because no one will insure you at age 65 unless you collect all the Medicare benefits you can. So right now we are forcing dependency — but the War on Dependence would change that.

We should encourage everyone to avoid having to depend on Social Security as well. Anyone over 65 who doesn’t need to collect “benefits” from the payroll tax in order to survive in old age would be a hero in everyone’s eyes. If people keep working, that would be super, because they can be independent thereby. If people save enough to retire with dignity, that would be even better, because they would be permanently independent. What’s more, their children would be well on their way to permanent financial independence, when they inherited the principal of their parents' retirement fund. As part of the War on Dependence, social workers would help younger people set up various retirement savings plans. Each person who had a workable retirement savings plan could stand tall in the knowledge that he would not become dependent on Social Security.

All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance.

One of the sad byproducts of the endless and hopeless War on Poverty is that self-sufficiency is no longer valued as it once was. Someone is considered a fool to turn down government benefits if he can “qualify” for them. What’s more, someone who gets a first-rung-on-the-career-ladder-job at a low wage still feels bad about himself. Instead of being proud of being independent, he sees that he is still in relative poverty, and that is what’s bad. People who are supporting themselves, no matter how meager their circumstances, should be encourage to take pride in not being dependent. We should make self-sufficiency the goal, the prize, the honor.

Social workers could help farmers who accept government subsidies find ways to become self-sufficient so they can be respected for making an “honest living” without help. Businesses that sold products abroad without help from the government would be recognized and patronized. Similarly, industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes. Students who found a college they could afford without government help would be seen as more resourceful and valuable future employees. Colleges that keep themselves in business without whining for more government money would be seen as more competent than those that couldn’t manage on their own. This turn of events might even drive down the cost of college. Primary and secondary schools that focus on helping their graduates prepare for the real world would also be recognized and respected; the ability of their graduates to avoid dependence would be the final measure of the schools' own worth.

Success would no longer be a nebulous and ill-defined chimera, but would be identified as the ability to support oneself and one’s family. Families that took care of their own (whether the young or the elderly) without government assistance would be honored. People with disabilities would be helped to develop as much independence as possible, and honored for every bit they could obtain — instead of scorned for their efforts to contribute to their own support.

Industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes.

Oddly, poverty could, in a sense, be eliminated overnight by simply writing checks of the proper amount to all the poor. It would help if all our programs of assistance were rolled into one program, so we could keep track of how much we were giving to each person. We might find that we had already eliminated poverty — that the cash value of all the various forms of assistance we provide to the needy would total enough to give them an income over the poverty line. But few people really believe, deep in their hearts, that mere dollars will eliminate the problems of the poor.

Independence is the solution — and we need to return to the habit of valuing it. There is still truth in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” That means focusing our efforts on reducing dependence instead of fostering it. A War on Dependence would be infinitely better than the old, unwinnable War on Poverty.




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Safety Nets and Slippery Slopes

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There’s been a theme hammered in dull thuds recently by the establishment media: anyone who opposes expansion of the welfare state is a hypocrite because everyone is on the dole. The New York Times has run several such stories; lesser outlets have followed suit.

Before you gag on this rancid bit of partisan meat, let me say that I think this is a hopeful sign. The hacks are framing the argument in this way because they expect criticism of the welfare state to pick up through the course of this election cycle. As it should. They hope to inoculate the administration against such criticism; in the process, though, they’ll draw attention to related issues that don’t help their cause. These related issues include:

  • the sloppy logic and language of welfare advocacy,
  • the growing role of moral hazard in public policy,
  • the effect of high marginal tax rates on productivity, and
  • the slippery slope of unintended consequence.

Let me sketch out quickly how these all connect with one another.

The recent charges of hypocrisy are merely the latest example of the establishment media’s obtuseness and doublespeak on the topic of welfare. In the statist catechism, the terms “safety net” and “earned entitlement” are supposed to refer to sharply distinct sorts of programs — the former involves straightforward income redistribution, the latter involves a group of programs into which beneficiaries have paid. But the two are often confused. The headline of one Times article reads “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.” The article proceeds to focus on the effects of growing middle-class dependence on Social Security and Medicare, which are supposed to be “earned entitlements” and not part of the “safety net.”

The jargon is all so imprecise and indirect that the headline-writing mediocrities at the Times might be forgiven for getting confused.

Of course, there might be a more devious impulse at work — intentionally confusing programs into which people have paid with those into which they have not might be an attempt to blur important distinctions. To make “middle-class” recipients of earned entitlements the moral equivalents of the “poor” recipients of safety-net money. And if everyone’s the same, statist catechism goes, no one can criticize.

The “moral” in this equivalence gets to my next point. The sloppy logic and fuzzy language — intentional or not — may create only an ersatz version of moral equivalence but it encourages very real moral hazard.

Moral hazard has been an interest of mine for a number of years. It takes various forms in various circumstances, but the common conclusion is simple: If people are insulated from the effects of bad outcomes, they produce more bad outcomes.

In matters of public policy, the most evident example of moral hazard is a high marginal tax rate. And this is more closely related to welfare policy than it might seem on first glance.

On the low end of the income spectrum, a high marginal tax rate creates a permanent underclass; on the high end of the income spectrum, it encourages productive people to go Galt. More important, the moral hazard of taxing people stupidly creates a slippery slope; when a person drops down the socio-economic ladder, it becomes harder for him to climb back up.

If a person’s annual income falls from $40,000 to $20,000 because of a lost job or a business reversal — but that person picks up $15,000 in benefits as a result — he’s being insulated from the effects of his lower income. The benefits, which he’ll lose if his income recovers, become part of the effective marginal tax rate that discourages the climb back to $30,000 or $40,000. He’s more likely to accept his reduced circumstances and welfare benefits. Said another way: the same mechanism that acts like a safety net to someone sliding down the slope can act like a barrier to someone scrambling back up.

The problem with managing marginal tax rates is that tax systems are crude tools. The U.S. income tax tables create a roughly-hewn “stair-step” system of increasing rates. And the government benefits made available to low-income earners exaggerate the steps. At some points, a slight increase of income results in a much larger effective tax rate. In these cases, the slope isn’t just slippery — it’s negative. One solution to a negative slope would be modify the tax table to include thousands of tiny steps rather than a few rough ones; another would be to reject the step system entirely and move to a nonlinear formula for calculating the income tax rate each earner pays.

If the establishment media is right and everyone is on the dole, we need to criticize the welfare state more. Not less.

In the 1970s, Milton Friedman suggested a third option that he called the “negative income tax” (based on earlier proposals by Henry Hazlitt and Juliet Rhys-Williams). This negative tax would replace all other benefits; instead of numerous programs subsidizing food, shelter, child care, health care, etc., there would just be one lump-sum payment which would be phased out gradually as a person’s income increased. His idea was mauled and transformed into what we know today as the Earned Income Tax Credit; but the current incarnation is a far cry from what Friedman had in mind. His goal was to minimize bureaucracy and control fraud in the welfare apparatus. Our system today, an income redistribution scheme that pretends to be an “earned entitlement” program, maximizes all of that.

We’ve always known that income redistribution strips all parties — sponsors and beneficiaries — of their humanity and, especially the beneficiaries, of their dignity. Forty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted that the U.S. welfare state would damage beneficiaries, precisely as it has. If the establishment media is right and everyone is on the dole, we need to criticize the welfare state more. Not less. And we need to get rid of any administration that enables it, even if the alternatives aren’t inspiring.

This sharp truth will cut through hacky charges of hypocrisy from outfits like The New York Times.




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Immigration: Meeting the Challenge

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A deeply contentious issue in American politics is immigration, especially illegal immigration. As recently as 2007, the issue caused major fissures in both major parties. And the debate is equally heated in many European countries.

Stepping boldly into the immigration debate is economist Gary Becker, who proposes a novel — nay, radical — solution to the problem in a short new book by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Becker is the 1992 Nobel Prize winner in economics, receiving it for producing a wealth of research using the standard microeconomic model to explicate a wide variety of human behavior, including behavior in fields traditionally considered outside the domain of economic analysis. He has done seminal work in areas such as addiction, marriage and family economics, human capital, criminal behavior, national demographics, and discrimination.

Becker begins by reviewing the international immigration trends. He notes that one of the main motives for immigration is the large average income gap between rich and poor countries. Despite the fact that poor countries have progressed economically, that gap is still large. Another big influence is fertility gaps among nations, with almost all European nations having fertility levels well below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), while in many areas of the developing world, the fertility rate is still high.

Becker notes that opposition is strong against unrestricted immigration in developed countries; and accordingly all of them — including the US since 1925 — have more or less restrictive immigration laws. But as he adds, while many other countries (such as Australia, Canada, and the UK) allow people in for work-related reasons, our law permits immigration primarily for family and humanitarian reasons.

In an aside, Becker mentions a common feeling among his libertarian friends, who say we ought just to go back to our (alleged) historical position of welcoming all comers. But while he usually inclines towards libertarian principles, he objects (as did Milton Friedman) that modern America is a welfare state, and this will give an incentive to some people to come for governmental benefits.

To the idea of just limiting by law how quickly new immigrants could receive welfare benefits, he replies that such laws would be hard to implement, and anyway, the immigrants would soon be voters, so unless we could select people inclined to vote against welfare programs, the new immigrants would simply vote for the limitations to be lifted.

Becker points out the anomaly of America's limiting immigration by the most highly trained foreigners (for example, by means of the low cap on the H-1B visa program), and indicates that these limitations on legal immigration lead to large amounts of illegal immigration.

Recognizing that besides bringing benefits, immigrants bring costs (crime, welfare, and medical costs, etc.), Becker devises a characteristically direct and simple solution: countries should just sell the right to immigrate. The government could exclude the obvious cases (such as criminals, possible terrorists, and people with communicable diseases) and charge everyone else who wants to come, say, $50,000 (Becker’s figure).

He argues the merits of this simple scheme by adducing a number of points. First, it would attract the most skilled immigrants — such as those with technical degrees — who could easily either pay the fee themselves or find employers who would pay it for them. Again, more young people would immigrate than old ones, because the young would have more time to pay off the fee or earn it back (if they borrowed it from a third party). Moreover, his system would attract the immigrants most committed to being permanent citizens, because the ones who only plan a temporary stay would be deterred by the loss of their fees.

Another argument Becker offers is that his system would lessen the resentment citizens feel toward immigrants. In a welfare state, ordinary taxpayers fear that immigrants will be “free riders,” taking government benefits but not fully contributing to pay for them. The revenue brought in every year by the immigrants’ fees (about $50 billion for America under its existing rate of legal immigration) would help to offset the costs incurred by them.

A problem with this argument is that in America, hostility to immigration grew dramatically in the 1910s and 1920s, leading to legislation in 1925 that virtually ended it, but welfare programs as such were virtually nonexistent at the time.

Becker also argues that his system would not block poor though highly skilled workers, because they would be able to get loans, which their employers would be ready to pay. A counter here is that if other nations don’t charge a similar fee, the skilled immigrants would likely choose to immigrate to those nations. Similarly, his system would incentivize domestic high-tech firms to move their operations to countries with no immigration fees.

Becker concludes by noting that the fee amount he picked is arbitrary, and might be set higher or lower depending upon how many people we would want to allow in, and that there are many details that would have to be worked out, such an how to set the fee for spouses, children, and people fleeing persecution. In a later discussion, he admits that a variant on his scheme might be to set an annual quota and let prospective immigrants bid, with the highest bidders getting the available slots.

But this brings up another problem with his proposal: it is silent about how high to set the limit for legal immigration. This is no minor matter, for research done by Robert Putnam and others seems to show a significant cost to society from widespread immigration, especially when immigrants cluster in a community. The issue is that of “social capital” — the depth and breadth of social networks in a community, from which spring the valuable but hard to quantify habits of mutual trust and reciprocity. Under Becker’s proposal, how do we know whether asking even $50,000 for each immigrant will keep immigration to a level at which assimilation will occur quickly enough that social capital is not undermined?


Editor's Note: Review of "The Challenge of Immigration," by Gary Becker. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2011. 66 pages.



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