Distrusting Not Trusting the Government
To the Editor:
In his December column, Jason Stern wrote: "I had a rare conversation about politics with a friend. He argued we need to support the right candidates and engage in the political to make a societal change. I opined that the system is broken and unfixable...I don't trust government. Never did...There is a deep and justified cynicism about the whole structure of the US's 'democracy' and 'representative form of government.' These ideas, with which children are indoctrinated in schools, have proven to be farcical and empty descriptions, so opposite to reality as to make George Orwell's 1984 read as a realistic description of the present rather than a frightening but fantastical dystopian future."
What doesn't he trust? Roads? Bridges? Uniform weights and measures? Does he not use money? Is Luminary Publishing not incorporated by the State of New York? The question is not whether we should trust government—we have no choice—but how we can make it more trustworthy?
Our system may be broken, but to declare it unfixable is to counsel despair. Despair is easy, but not useful. To equate George Orwell's 1984 to our world today is ignorance. Orwell was fully aware of the evils of crony capitalism and government bureaucracy, but he nevertheless recognized the virtues of free speech and elections. 1984 was precisely a warning against those who would equate British democracy with totalitarianism. He despised such thoughtless assertions.
Our world today is certainly in some ways worse than Orwell's, but in many ways it is better. His was a world soaked in the blood of more than 100 million recent victims of war and revolution. In that world, a Winston Churchill could openly declare that he'd be damned if he would negotiate with "a half-naked Indian Fakir," i.e., Mahatma Gandhi. If we are experiencing a return of that kind of language, it is because of 48 percent of eligible voters who failed to vote.
George Orwell might not have died of tuberculosis at age 46 in 1950 if the British Clean Air Act of 1956 had been passed a decade or two earlier. This is a species of the good to which governmental powers can be applied, but which Jason debunks. He would seem to take clean air for granted, without acknowledging the political struggle of which it is the result.
If the arc of history bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King declared, it is not in a straight line. History has swung from one disaster to the next, even as we have developed ideas and institutions most of us cherish. Including the fundamental idea that "all men are created equal." Except that today we would say all humans.
This idea was born during what modern historians call the axial age around 2,500 years ago, by such thinkers as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Zoroaster, and the Buddha. Since then many others, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Henry and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, have labored to extend this idea and give it reality.
Prior to the axial age, conquers boasted of slaughter in terms that held commoners as of no value but as battle fodder. Since then the idea of equality has kept eating away at the privilege of the few, creating the ideas of constitutional government, trial by jury, the abolition of torture and of slavery. Within the last 100 years, we have extended the idea of human rights to include the right of women, the poor, and minorities to vote, of workers to organize, of the eight-hour day, time and a half for overtime, and now even health care and a living wage.
All these ideas were won at the cost of much struggle and blood, and are still highly contested. They are chiefly secured today by 535 members of Congress, nine Supreme Court justices, and the president of the United States. Nevertheless, Jason dismisses representative government by observing that elections and court decisions are commonly bought by the rich. This is obviously so, nevertheless the rich and powerful do not always win, as the above litany of expanding rights—and even the election of Donald Trump—prove.
Trump was opposed by virtually every mainstream power broker, and precisely for this reason, masses of angry and fearful white men and women in a right-wing populist uprising voted for him in protest. Had more of us made better use of the powers allowed us by the Constitution, Bernie Sanders might now be president instead of Donald Trump.
The idea that we should not trust government or elections is straight out of the playbooks of Karl Rove and Ronald Reagan. Trump was elected by 26 percent of eligible voters because 48 percent of eligible voters, thinking, like Jason, didn't bother to vote.
Jason suggests that the only way we can affect history is by "balancing oneself." By which he means, I assume, meditation and mindfulness, among other things. These are very good. But when balancing oneself becomes a substitute for political struggle, it turns into asphalt on the highway of good intentions by which the road to hell is paved.
TW, via email
Need vs. Greed
To the Editor:
Thank you for republishing economist Karl Widerquist’s 1999 article The Money-Making Ethic, which discusses the value of work, in its broadest definition (toll, effort, production), rather than as a means to make money. Inherent in this discussion is his concept of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) and the option for people to work or not.
In your editorial, you stated that “we all work because we need money, not because we love work” and invited your readers to write if they disagree.
Your statement spun me back to my childhood when I lived on a farm in the tough times of the ’40s. We kids were expected to work and never received a dime of money. I chopped wood; gathered, cleaned, candled, and packed eggs in a crate; fed the animals mash and hay; shoveled manure from the barn; plucked and dressed chickens; carried slop to the pigs, and churned butter.
For the most part, I loved the chores. My older sister Mary Lou hated them, especially when Dad made her stay home from school. She and I, however, did share a love of learning. Eventually she ran away and refused to come home. She told a judge that her father was breaking the law by making her work and miss school. The judge believed her, granted her request to live on her own, and found a family to fund her education.
I am now in my 81st year and still love work and learning. What I would like to know is how will the UBI be funded? Doesn’t someone need to work (make money), to pay for this scheme?
Widerquist provides answers in a 2017 article. His simple estimates are based on the net cost of a UBI set at about the official poverty line: $12,000 per adult and $6,000 per child with a 50-percent “marginal tax rate.” Key findings include the following. The net or real cost of this UBI scheme is $539 billion per year: about one-sixth its often-mentioned but not-very-meaningful gross cost of about $3.415 trillion. The net cost is less than 25 percent of the cost of current US entitlement spending, less than 15 percent of overall federal spending, and about 2.95 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The average net beneficiary is a family of about two people making about $27,000 per year. The family’s net benefit from the UBI would be nearly $9,000 raising their income to almost $36,000. (For further details, see The Cost of Basic Income: Back-of-the-Envelope Calculations, Basic Income Studies.)
The majority of wealth in America—and around the globe—is in the hands of one percent of its households. Ghandi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Sounds like it’s time for the UBI or some other form of viable sharing.
Fay Loomis, Kerhonkson