Friday, September 28, 2012

"Common Sense: A Musing"

"Common Sense: A Musing"
 by Craig Wiesner

"Mitt Romney’s 47% comments have really been on my mind the last few days. Two things prompted me to post something here today. One, I had a long conversation with a homeless man who came by our shop on Friday. Two, Rev. Jim Burklo shared a new “musing” somewhat inspired by Gov. Romney’s secretly videotaped musings. I’ll share a bit about my Friday conversation, share all of Jim’s musing, and then close with a bit about how it all fits together. And… in case you’re wondering, the photo to the left is not Rev. Burklo or our homeless friend, it is Thomas Paine. You’ll get the connection when you read Jim’s musing.

In 2007 Mark (not his real name) had a good job, a small apartment, a little bit of savings, and a pretty normal life. When the Great Recession hit he lost his job and his health care. For a few months he was able to hold onto his apartment but he got hit by a really bad medical condition that hit his legs hard, and things started to go down hill quickly. Soon money got too short and he ended up living in his car. His main focus was on getting his legs back in working shape so he did physical therapy every day until he was able to walk well again. That took around a year.

When his health improved enough so that he could walk well, he thought that one way he could make a living was going back to something he’d done many years ago, washing windows. He wandered from shop to shop and house to house offering his services. When he came into our shop for the first time I had no idea that this articulate, healthy-looking, friendly, handsome, 60-something year old gentleman (and I use that term on purpose) could possibly have been homeless. Having been in our shop for only a few months, I had learned that the art of “traveling salesman” had not disappeared after my grandfather had mastered it. In fact, we had traveling salesmen coming into the shop all the time. A window washer seemed like just another entrepreneur.

Mark did all the windows lining the front of our shop and they looked great. His price? $20. Not bad for about 45 minutes work. Over the last two years I learned that Mark was, in fact, homeless. He’d lost the car after it died and he couldn’t afford the repairs. You can live in a car as long as the car can move from place to place. Once the car dies, you’re just a short time away from the police taking it away… and they did.

On Friday this week he hung out in the shop for around an hour, and, because I asked a lot of questions, I got to learn much more of his story. Right now he’s got congestive heart failure and a couple of plugged arteries that need stents. He sleeps in an alley and would give anything to have a car, any working car, that he could sleep in instead of on the street. A car could also help him go a little further with his window-washing business. He doesn’t use drugs. He doesn’t have any mental problems. He doesn’t drink. I could have guessed all of that from the conversations I’d had with him in the past.

With a little bit of help he could start climbing out of the hole he’s in, but he doesn’t want that help to come from the government. The government would force him to do things their way (true), including forcing him to live where they wanted him to live (also true). He doesn’t want to be dependent, even though, as a veteran, he is ENTITLED to help from the VA. So where does a guy like him fall in Mitt Romney’s 47% v 53%?

This brings me to Rev. Jim Burklo’s most recent “musing.” In it, he tells us about Thomas Paine’s 18th Century idea that all Americans should have a system of guaranteed income, an income that would promise a basic level of survival and basic comfort. Mitt Romney lamented that 47% of people think they are “entitled” to health care, food, and housing. I actually personally do believe that those basic bottom-line needs should be universally met. It seems Thomas Paine thought of it first! What if our friend Mark had been guaranteed a certain minimal level of income, plus cradle-to-grave health care, no matter what. Would he be sleeping in an alley? (I know the answer is “maybe” but I think in Mark’s case the answer is no.) Check out Jim’s musing and then let’s reconnect on the flip side.
"Common Sense"
by Jim Burklo

"In 1776, Tom Paine published “Common Sense”, a widely-read pamphlet that rallied the colonists of America to declare independence from Britain. You can almost hear the penny-whistled tune of “Yankee Doodle” in the background at the mention of his name. But his role as a founder of our nation was but one of his causes. In 1796, he agitated for governments to institute systems of guaranteed income for all, in order to wipe out abject poverty in society. He argued that the same inalienable, natural, God-given rights that endowed people with political freedom also endowed them with a basic level of sustenance. In “Common Sense”, Paine wrote: “…the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same.”

At the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, Tom Paine’s common-sense proposal was resurrected by a medical doctor from Long Beach, California. Francis Townsend wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper, proposing a universal old-age pension system for Americans. The “Townsend Plan” concept swept like wildfire. Grassroots groups formed to promote it all over the nation. Some say that Franklin Roosevelt proposed the Social Security old-age pension system in order to stave off the momentum of the Townsend movement.

In 1969, the idea surfaced again in a new form, the Family Assistance Plan, championed by Republican President Richard Nixon and New York independent Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Their idea was to guarantee a base level of income for all Americans. It proposed a paltry benefit, but the concept would have cut through the bureaucracy and disincentives to work that plagued the AFDC welfare system. It would have established the principle of universality – thus increasing the likelihood of ongoing political support for it, and removing the stigma of the term “welfare”. The proposal collapsed in the US Congress, but it led to the creation of the Earned Income Credit, a small but important reverse income tax for low income workers.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently disparaged as “victims” the 47% of the country’s citizens who receive government benefits. He complained that these people are not taking personal responsibility for themselves. But 100% of Americans get government benefits. Everybody is dependent on government-provided sewers, water, roads, public health programs, national defense, and a host of other essential services. What does Romney mean by taking personal responsibility? Digging a hole in your back yard for your own personal outhouse? I think the problem is exactly the opposite of the one Romney suggests. Americans aren’t as dependent on their government as they should be.

 If Tom Paine’s plan had prevailed in 1797, if the principle of universal income had become integral to the culture of this country from its founding, a whole range of problems we suffer in America today would not exist. Poverty would be substantially if not virtually eliminated. If everyone received enough money from the government to survive at a basic level, if every American could count on access to health care no matter what, if no one starved for lack of a job, capitalism would flourish like never before. Creativity would flower. Risk-taking job-creators would abound. Taxes would be higher for everybody, but the overall costs of many basic services would be lower. People would get more for their money, all told, and the economy would benefit from greater efficiencies. We could replace a whole array of complicated needs-based subsidies and benefits with a simple universal income check. It could be instituted through a simple, non-bureaucratic system. No forms to fill out, no eligibility tests, no paternalistic political tinkering, no stigma attached to receiving it. Everybody would get the same check. They would pay taxes on whatever they earned beyond that check. Nobody would tell anybody how to spend the money. Political support for such a system, once established, would be much stronger than it has ever been for needs-based welfare programs.

To be sure, some folks would be lazy and try to live off the universal income check alone. But lazy people are to be found in all economic classes today. Their lack of virtue is its own punishment: they miss out on so much of what life has to offer. A universal income system would not be perfect. But it would be more humane, efficient, and practically sustainable than the systems we have today. Tom Paine’s idea is still just common sense. Let’s demand a system that protects the most vulnerable by protecting everybody!"

I can’t imagine anyone looking at our homeless friend Mark and calling him lazy. He walks mile after mile after mile, right now with an ailing heart, carrying a big bucket, rags, and a few window-washing tools up and down the streets of three cities, going door to door and offering to wash people’s windows. He does a great job too. Would a guaranteed level of income, something that could promise basic human needs, help him? I think so. Would he be lazy if that bottom-line-income was guaranteed every month? I don’t think so.

My small ways of helping Mark are usually saying yes when he comes by the shop (whether the windows are really dirty or just a little), spending time talking (or actually mostly listening), and always making sure he gets a cup of tea and some chocolate before he leaves. The guilty part of me laments that I don’t offer to let him sleep in the shop at night (I’m afraid of doing that). I’m not perfect. Mark’s not perfect. The 100% of us aren’t perfect. But wouldn’t it be a better country if we all worked together to ensure that losing your job and getting sick didn’t result in losing everything? Thomas Paine may have had it right."
Craig Wiesner is co-founder of Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company. His shop is located in San Mateo California. Reach And Teach manages web operations and online sales for Tikkun/NSP.

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