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Krugman Flogs a Dead Horse (Just Kidding)


The New York Times’ resident economist, Paul Krugman, has published a new column entitled, “The Insecure American”, ) in which he reports some more statistics that point out the continued, possibly worsening, economic insecurity that plagues middle America.  For example, the Pew Research Center reports that “more than 3/4 of conservatives believe that ‘the poor have it easy’ due to government benefits.”  The same poll reports that “only one in seven [conservatives] believe that the poor have hard lives.”

Krugman claims that “punishing the poor has become a goal in itself”, resulting in the refusal of Republican-run states to accept a Medicare expansion that would be paid for by the federal government; refusing the expansion leads to a group of people caught in the middle, too poor to afford private health insurance, and too “rich” to qualify for Medicaid.  These millions of in-between people are unable to obtain health insurance of any kind and are actually worse off than they were before.

Krugman continues by repeating a contradiction to the widely-held belief that the age for Social Security should be raised because people are living longer.  In fact, only the wealthy are living longer: the average life expectancy for those in the lower half of the income curve has hardly risen at all.  Those who need Social Security the most are worn out by chronic diseases (some of them induced by their work) and die just as young as they did when Social Security was first implemented in the late 1930’s.  The facts of this distribution of life expectancy have been well known for years, and yet it is almost a part of neoliberal dogma to claim that the retirement age should be increased because people are living longer.   People are living longer, but almost the entire benefit of this increased life span is limited to the well-to-do, and the physical battering that poor people suffer in their jobs has not improved.  The average coal miner, janitor, or street sweeper is worn out by age fifty, and lucky to reach sixty-five alive.

This problem is reflected in the rate of people applying for permanent disability, which allows immediate access to one’s Social Security savings; unfortunately, it does not result in eligibility for Medicare for two years after being declared disabled, an absurd restriction which theoretically saves money for the government but usually results in doctor’s visits not made or emergency room bills not paid.  The only exception to the two year waiting period is for people afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, who are not expected to survive the two years.

Krugman also reports on the results of a study run by the Federal Reserve, which reveals that three in ten nonelderly Americans have no retirement savings whatsoever.  That is a surprisingly low figure, and I suspect that the retirement savings reported by the typical survey respondent are minimal when they exist at all.  In addition, 47 percent of respondents stated that they would not have the resources to pay for an unexpected $400 bill, such as a car repair or noncovered medical expense.

Here is a “conservative” commenter’s argument against welfare:

“I am certainly not devoid of compassion. Its a basic human instinct. If you read what I said carefully, it is that permanent entitlements create dependencies, lead to anti-social behaviour and in the end a burden for society to maintain those dependants in a state of managed care that minimises violent “protests”.”

You can see that this person thinks that “permanent entitlements create dependencies” and “lead to anti-social behavior” and a “burden for society” that puts those dependents in “a state of managed care that minimizes violent ‘protests’ ” –surely this is a poor form of reasoning that argues against providing the type of help that is really needed,  that is “permanent entitlements” for fear of “anti-social behavior” in those who are given the help they need.  It seems to claim that those who are helped are actually hurt by “creating dependencies”– as if a “burden for society” does not already exist in the situation in which people who really need help are present.  This is twisted reasoning that creates a specter of entitled, dependent, angry people who demand help as their right and are “anti-social” if they don’t get it, staging “violent ‘protests’ ” and generally causing trouble by asking for help.

In reality, people who need help are suffering and society will be helped by giving help.  There is no reason not to help people by providing paid work, paid health care, and payments for housing, clothing, and food.  Society and the economy are helped because those who are helped will spend all the money they receive; the economy heats up because spending increases, and those who do not appear to need help are benefited by a stronger economy.  The bugaboo of “permanent entitlements” is just that– a fear that functioning people have of people who cannot function.

It is true that poor people are scary.  Just looking at them reminds one of the possibility of one’s self becoming poor and helpless.  Rather than indulge fear by turning away from needy people, we should banish fear by helping them.  All of society will benefit from our help.

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