Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 September 2013

Selfishness is Not a Plan

[For a brief addendum on the GOP’s reason for shutting down government or causing a first-ever fiscal default, click here.]

Introduction: Ideology, Facts, and Consequences
Food-Stamp Folly
Stiffing our Youth

Introduction: Ideology, Facts, and Consequences

We humans are strange creatures. Most of us have little experience in abstract thought. So we’re not very good at it. Yet we try to practice it nevertheless. Often we do so in the fields that most affect our future welfare, happiness and prosperity: politics, policy and how we get on together.

In most cases, we don’t tie our abstract thought down to real life. We leave it floating at both ends. We don’t base our abstract opinions on facts, and we don’t explore the consequences of applying them to real life. So our views on how we should manage our life together, as a society, float in space like limp pieces of string, untethered to reality at either end—their origin or their effect.

Facts and consequences. These are the contact points of any theory with reality. They are the “experiments” that validate, or invalidate, any scientific theory. Ideology is no different; it’s just another theory applied to politics.

When we Yanks neglect these endpoints, as most of our pols do, we get no working pragmatism, but a toxic brew of wishful thinking, fantasy, theology and self-delusion. For a people who began our collective existence with the enlightened pragmatism of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, that’s a sorry turn.

A case in point is the right wing’s current obsession with the deficit and “entitlements.”

Nearly all competent economists—especially the most distinguished and smartest—think our deficit is a long-term problem. The same is true of our chief “entitlement,” Social Security.

The latest published projection of the Social Security Trustees estimates that the Social Security Trust Fund (excess of income over expenses) will become depleted in 2033. [search for “depletion of total”] That’s the same as last year’s projection, without accounting for our very slowly recovering economy. In any event, it’s twenty years away. (Medicare’s trust fund is projected to last only until 2026, but health-care cost increases are dropping so quickly as to make that projection meaningless. Unlike health-care costs, Social-Security costs, which depend only on promised benefits and demographics, are predictable.)

The thing is, we have ten other grave national problems. They are much more threatening to our future welfare than the deficit, which is resolving before our eyes, as our economy slowly pulls out of stagnation. And they have festered now, on the average, for over nineteen years. (I wrote my post on the subject almost two years ago, and the average was 17.5 years then.)

So why should we, as a nation, obsess about a problem that won’t become real for another generation, when we have so many unresolved problems right now, which have already festered for about the same amount of time?

Why, indeed. You can get a good idea of our motivation from slogans. It may surprise you that the slogan “It’s your money!” long predates Dubya. In fact, it came out of the mouth of Ronald Reagan, in 1981.

What does it mean? It signifies a series of political campaigns, and a political ideology, based on selfishness. The notion is simple: the taxes you pay are your money, and you can best decide how to spend it. At least you can better spend it on yourself than on government.

That simple notion became part of the GOP’s ideology with Reagan. Funny how, in the intervening 32 years, most of our long-festering problems either started or got worse. They include: foreign oil dependence (getting better now with domestic fracking), infrastructure decay (still unresolved), economic inequality (getting much worse), finance going rogue (still in doubt), public education decaying (still a big problem), the decline of American science (ongoing), endless wars (maybe ending?), immigration (still in doubt), broken government (worse than ever), and global warming (accelerating).

Not all these problems are curable with money alone. But money certainty won’t hurt any of them. And some of them, including foreign oil dependence, economic inequality, finance going rogue, and endless wars, made our money problems worse. They might easily do so again.

But I digress. The subject is selfishness. It would be hard to find a clearer indication of that motivation than the consistent GOP mantra of 32 years, “It’s your money!”

That’s what passes for the “factual” tether for that part of GOP political ideology. It’s certainly not a fact. But it taps into a deep well of human emotion, unfortunately not from the better angels of our nature.

The facts suggest that financing for Medicare and Social Security are good for now but need long-term tweaking. The facts also suggest that we have a lot more serious problems, which have festered already for some time.

Now let’s look at consequences. What are the consequences of the ideology of selfishness that the GOP has peddled, with all the power of Madison Avenue and modern public relations, for a generation and a half?

There are far too many even to mention, let alone analyze, in a short essay. So I’ll just focus on two: (1) feeding the destitute and (2) higher education.

Food-Stamp Folly

If there’s any single book that young people ought to read to appreciate the cataclysmic recent changes in our national personality, it’s Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression. This marvelous easy-reading book is available on Kindle for less than ten bucks. In it, readers will find stories of how past economic agony affected real people, not through dry statistics, but from the mouths of the people who suffered.

They will learn two undeniable facts. First, in those days we were a generous and compassionate people. Our farmers left sandwiches on windowsills for unemployed migrants to eat. (Now we call those migrants “freeloaders” or “takers.”) The same farmers who handed out sandwiches were losing their own livelihoods, due to the collapse of farm-commodity prices. Many were even losing their farms and homes to foreclosure—losses that some resisted by organizing.

Everyone had so little, but all shared what they had. That was America some eighty years ago.

Second, government came to the rescue of ordinary, destitute people. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) gave millions of people (mostly young men) honest pay for honest work. If you visit our national parks today, you’ll find plaques recalling their labor and monuments to it: roads, bridges, buildings, dams, aqueducts, flood-control measures, and other improvements in the land.

The work these men did was mostly hard manual labor. It was tough but it was healthy: working in the outdoors, in clean, fresh air. It built some of the infrastructure of this nation, including the gems in our crown, our national parks. We saved these workers and their families from destitution and built our nation, in ways we still can see.

Now fast-forward to today. We have just experienced the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. (I would like to say we have come through it, but we’re not quite out of the woods yet.) Have we Yanks cooperated and helped each other out of it, as we did in the Great Depression? Hell, no.

Our stimulus was miserly, a pittance compared to what we invested in the Great Depression (relative to GDP). The vast majority of it went to tax relief and private welfare, such as insulation for individual homes. Less than 17% went for infrastructure improvements that benefit all of us, like those the CCC and WPA made almost a century ago.

Because we were so stingy with our stimulus, a lot of people ended up out of work for a lot longer than they otherwise would have. Many, if not most, of them ended up using food stamps so they could eat. Every reputable, let alone quantitative, analysis of the explosion of food-stamp usage since 2008 attributes it to that cause: people losing jobs. Shirking may have occurred, but it was quantitatively negligible. (Right wingers love to quote anecdotes of rare individual abuse because the numbers are all against them.)

So what does the GOP House try to do? It tries to cut food stamps by forty billion dollars, or five percent, just at the time when people most need them.

Five percent may not sound like much. But out of 47 million current food-stamp recipients, that’s more than 2.3 million people. Should we let them starve?

Think about that. In eight decades plus, we have gone from putting sandwiches on our window sills to feed the unfortunate, and paying with our taxes to put them to work for our common benefit, to refusing to give them either work or food when broken markets won’t.

And what’s our primary motivation for this neglect? Keeping our own money.

The factual theory underlying this selfishness is that all those destitute people are shirkers and freeloaders. Yet every solid investigation shows the vast majority are looking for work and have been for a long time. So much for facts.

As for consequences, need you ask? If you live in a city, and if you don’t try hard to avoid seeing them, you will find homeless and destitute people in your streets. Some cities try to keep them out of sight in jails or shelters. Others, it appears, deport them. San Francisco and Los Angeles are investigating whether a mental hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, dumped its homeless mental patients on them. Stalin, who deported millions for purposes of ethnic cleansing, would be proud of that.

So the next time you step over a homeless beggar in your city streets, or fear to go down by the river where the hoboes have their fires, thank the Tea Party, if its exercise in selfishness succeeds.

Stiffing our Youth

The second sour fruit of our selfishness is much less visible than homeless beggars. But in the long run, it’s much more important. It’s what we are doing to our college students and to our system of higher education.

In the 1960s, I went to college at the nation’s most prestigious public university, the University of California, Berkeley. I paid no tuition, none whatsoever. I paid only a so-called “incidental fee,” one hundred dollars per semester. The state and federal governments subsidized my education as an investment in my and our nation’s future.

To support myself, I had scholarships based on merit. But after my first year, I also worked.

The University employed me. First I installed towel racks in dormitories. Then I helped teaching assistants grade papers. Finally, I helped a physics professor, whose first language was not English, edit his superb book on thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.

All this work was useful. But for me and for society, the important thing was that I got paid. I could concentrate on my studies and be confident in my future, untroubled by ever-mounting debt.

Fast forward to today. There is tuition at Berkeley. Along with other fees, it amounts to $7,611 per year for state residents and $19,050 for nonresidents. For a four-year college education, that’s $30,444 for residents and $76,200 for nonresidents. For me in the 1960s, my total tuition, aka “incidental fees,” added up to $800 for four years.

Those sums don’t (and didn’t) include room, board, books and incidentals. Adding in those living costs brings the price of an education at a first-class public university today up to a small fortune. At a private university it’s a medium-sized one, well over $120,000.

No wonder the average college student today emerges with his or her degree burdened by debt of $26,000.

When I graduated from Berkeley in 1966, I had no debt and money in the bank. Not only that, when I graduated from UC San Diego with a Ph.D. in physics, aided by merit-based fellowship and a working research assistantship, I also had no debt and money in the bank.

I was not alone. That was the norm for students of my day.

Who was responsible for the change? For California, which led the nation downhill, I know, because I was there. I lived there until well into adulthood. That selfsame Ronald Reagan made the change, not out of any brilliant economic insight, but because he saw the University and its intellectuals and students as inimical to his right-wing views. Only later, in retrospect, did he justify gutting the University of California (and a lot of other things) with the slogan, “It’s your money.” Like lemmings, the nation followed.

These are the facts relating to higher education. What are the consequences? There are many, all bad.

First of all, the financial pressure of enormous debt destroys the educational experience and what is left of the delights of youth. College should be (and once was) a time of searching and experimentation, in which young people discover themselves, their interests, aptitudes and talents. Many make lifelong friends and find lovers or spouses. It’s a time when our society, with parental care, tolerance, and lots of freedom, once turned adolescents lovingly into adults.

That nurturing experience made us the world’s most creative and innovative society. But no more.

The menace of mounting and crushing debt has changed all that. Now students must think of money, and little else, as they choose their majors, pick their courses, and select their careers and life paths. What was once a brief interlude of exploration, discovery (of self and world) and experimentation has become a pressured exercise in risk-averse financial strategizing.

If you want to know why we have a surplus of lawyers, investment bankers and specialists in public relations, political consulting and lobbying, and a dearth of scientists, engineers, deep thinkers, and risk takers, you need look no further than that. (Medicine is one of our few remaining bright spots; its high salaries still attract talented people despite the crushing debt of medical school.)

I have written a long essay analogizing the current conditions of our college students to the indentured servitude by which ordinary people came to our shores in Colonial times. I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that we are reverting to a system from the 1700s, after trying a system of free, universal subsidized education in the last two centuries, which made us the world’s most successful nation. That’s hardly progress. It’s backsliding.

A colleague who teaches molecular biology at a leading public university reports that all of his best Ph.D. students, for the last decade or so, have been Chinese. This is just one anecdote, but you hear the same story from all over American academia. In serious courses of study in science, engineering and technology, Chinese and Indian students dominate. Students born in America are a small minority, if not absent entirely.

Some of these foreign students stay here after graduation. But many of them don’t. And as their home countries improve in standard of living and social organization, more and more will take their native talent and our expensive education and go back home. There they will invent the next breakthrough in health care and medical devices. So some day you (or your children) may have to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi or Mumbai to get the world’s best health care.

And why are Chinese and Indians investing in higher education when we won’t? It’s not just their greater populations. It’s also the fact that they value higher education, individually and collectively, more than we do. No Chinese or Indian would ever write an article, like the vapid nonsense in our press during the last year, “explaining” why higher education is not a good “investment.” They know the open secret of our national success even if we have forgotten it, and they buy it at any price.

Not only do we burden college students with enormous debt. When they worry so much they take food stamps (for which many are eligible) to reduce their debt, we threaten to cut those, too.

If you are a college student today, you might think, without a trace of paranoia, that the society around you is out to make you poor. Making higher education an exercise in poverty and risk-aversion is not an effective educational strategy.

And why have we done that? Just to keep more of our own money. For over thirty years, individual selfishness has replaced rational national educational and industrial policy. And, so far, it shows little sign of abating.


No people has a lock on history, however “exceptional” it may think itself. We are not a chosen people, any more than the beleaguered people of Fortress Israel. Our destiny is no more manifest than that of any other people on this planet.

We have succeeded so far because our leaders have been smarter and more foresighted than others’. We have done well because we thought clearly and planned well.

All that is changing now. We “plan,” if at all, only for the short term. We no longer invest for the long term, whether in our youth, in industrial policy, or in our infrastructure. We are penny wise and pound foolish.

These are facts, plain to see. The consequences are just as plain. If we continue on our present path, we will decline, and others will rise. China and Germany already are, and other nations are jostling in the queue behind them.

Our planet has no dearth of wisdom and talent. It’s a competitive world out there, in which people and capital can move freely, almost everywhere. If we want to succeed in the intense globalized competition that we helped create, we must think and plan better. Selfishness is not a strategy; it’s a vice.

Footnote: Reagan’s success in politics, and its ultimate cost, illustrates what I modestly call “Dratler’s law of brains and politics.” People with high emotional intelligence and low analytical intelligence make poor leaders.

Reagan rightly saw that an appeal to people’s selfishness would make him president and keep him there as long as our law allows. What he didn’t foresee (or didn’t care much about) was the consequences, which are still with us today. His strategy was effective emotional manipulation but ultimately not good for us.

Although I wouldn’t liken Reagan to Hitler and Stalin, they all did similar things. The salient difference is that the base emotions the tyrants exploited were worse than selfishness, namely, fear and hate. And once they gained power, they stayed there until removed by death. Their method was murdering anyone who objected.

That’s not so easy in a democracy. But there emotional manipulation can live on long after a leader, as it did in Reagan’s case. We may have as much as another decade to go before “It’s our money!” yields to “We’d better start planning again.” If we wait much longer, we can put a banana on our flag.

Update. After having worked on this essay for several days, I was pleased to find indirect confirmation on PBS last evening. A feature by Paul Solman, PBS’ economics correspondent, explored the growing custom of unpaid internships for students (and other people seeking paid work), and what they are doing about it.

Now current and recent students have three strikes against them: (1) crushing debt for their education, (2) proposed cuts in food stamps, and (3) the notion that they ought to work without pay for a while just to “earn their spurs.” It all makes you wonder why so few youth register and vote, let alone organize. If they were a racial or ethnic group, the Justice Department would be suing for civil rights violations. Maybe they can claim age discrimination, although the relevant statute was adopted to cut bias against old people like me.

Unlike other oppressed groups, youth grow out of it. But this generation’s youth will be stunted, economically and maybe educationally, when they do. The “generational theft” that the right wing constantly conjures up is not the deficit: it’s making youth pay for people my age by denying them the same opportunities and advantages I had. Fox and other propagandists are so effective that many of them even think this real theft is a good idea.

No parents worthy of the name would do this to their own children. Isn’t it the same sin to do it to someone else’s children? And isn’t it a sin against society and our collective future to hobble the people who will make it when they are most vulnerable and just starting out? The only force dark enough to make us sin so much is love for our own money. Scrooge and Silas Marner would be pleased.

Addendum: The Party of “No” Goes Garden Trampling

An old Russian joke explains why Russia is still a poor country, enjoying little global respect, while Britain (with a much smaller population) enjoys widespread respect. In Britain, if Jones grows a beautiful garden, his neighbor Smith will work late at night and on weekends to grow an even more beautiful one. In Russia, if Ivan grows a beautiful garden, his neighbor Boris will come out late at night and trample Ivan’s.

Now we have the spectacle of Republicans acting just like Boris in this joke. Having torpedoed universally desired immigration reform, they have no positive plan for national renewal whatsoever. They don’t even have a plan to reduce the deficit and rationalize the Sequester—a drum they’ve been banging in the last three electoral campaigns.

Instead, what is their plan? It’s to destroy the President’s signature electoral achievement, modest and incremental health-insurance reform. Like Boris, they’ve tried 41 times to trample it, by repealing, defunding or delaying it.

If the GOP were really confident that so-called “Obamacare” is that horrible, what would it do? Would it try to gut it before it goes into effect, while the public is still confused about it? Or would it wait until the reform fails miserably, blame the whole thing on the Democrats, and score big political points?

No, the GOP is doing with Obamacare precisely what the coal industry’s PR hacks tried to do about wind and solar power. Both the GOP and the coal barons know full well that health-insurance reform and renewably energy, respectively, are the future of this country’s health and energy systems. They are terrified that all their bad-mouthing so far will soon prove demonstrably false. (A new post on this point for energy is coming here soon.)

So what do they do? They grow desperate. In just a few days, people who don’t have health insurance (and whose state governors haven’t also elevated bad-mouthing above their constituents’ interests) will access exchange markets on line and discover that insurance policies explained in plain language are available at subsidized and reasonable prices. Slowly but surely they will come to know the GOP’s anti-reform propaganda for what it is: careless, thoughtless and baseless lies—a combination of absolute mendacity and a political hail-Mary pass, destined to fall far out of bounds.

That’s why the GOP is eager to do anything and everything to kill reform before it takes effect. Not only is it willing to shut down the government—which is a long-time goal anyway. It is even flirting with causing a national default, for the first time in history, with potentially catastrophic consequences for all Americans.

As you evaluate the GOP’s antics, action and political theater, you should ask yourself two questions. First, is this a positive program or part of the GOP’s relentless stream of negativity? [search for “uplifting”] Second, what would you think of an individual who spent all her energy trying to tear down someone else’s achievements, rather than achieving anything positive on her own? Should you think any better of a whole political party, or a strong wing of it, that acts the same way?



  • At Mon Sep 30, 03:22:00 PM EDT, Blogger Greg hodges said…

    Jay -

    As always, an insightful post.

    I must concur with your observations about Chinese & Indian graduate students in the sciences - I was in a Ph.D. program in Atomic Physics at the University of Toledo in Toledo, OH from 1998 until 2005, and I saw only ~50% of our Physics & Astronomy department comprise of U.S. born students, almost all of them in the Astronomy graduate program. Now that I am working as a board-certified Diagnostic Medical Physicist, I have also found that many of our newest medical physicists are also of Chinese & Indian origin. Outside of my colleagues, most people treat my profession like wizards - no one know what I do or how I do it, but everything seems to work because of my efforts. It's flattering, but there seems to be little enthusiasm from other Americans to want to take on academically challenging professions. The exception, as far as I can tell, is Astronomy/Astrophysics, since it is perceived by many to be the world's greatest photography club.

    As always, I enjoy and agree with your viewpoints in your articles. Thanks again for posting.

    - Greg

  • At Mon Sep 30, 09:21:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks for your comment and your confirmation.

    As a physics graduate student from 1966 to 1971, I Iearned early the importance of physics in biology and medicine. Before I even got my Ph.D., one of our professors, David Wong, had been using X-ray crystallography to study complex organic compounds.

    Applications of inorganic physics like that to organic chemistry, biology and medicine led to the discovery of DNA, understanding of protein synthesis and folding, use of radioactive substances for all kinds of diagnostics and cures, and CAT scans, MRIs, etc.

    What the general public nearly always fails to recognize is that science and technology are all of a piece. Fall behind in one area, and you fall behind in others, too.

    Part of the reason we could develop atomic weapons so quickly is because of seemingly unrelated advanced in science and technology. We invented teflon (using organic-inorganic chemistry) to save stainless-steel centrifuges from the corrosion of uranium hexafluoride gas. Our metallurgy helped enrich uranium and test both reactors and weapons. And our advanced electronics helped build reliable triggering devices.

    That’s why I cringe now when I read stories like yours about American kids forsaking basic science (like physics) and technology for clinical medicine, astronomy (which can't be understood without physics) and investment banking.

    Our most depressing recent developments are: (1) the disparagement of evolution—the foundation of all modern biology and one of our species’ greatest conceptual achievements; and (2) our minority but substantial disbelief in climate science, for reasons of politics, ideology and wishful thinking.

    Anyone who understands the impact and consequences of these developments has a hard time being optimistic about the future of us Yanks. Maybe some of those Chinese and Indian students will settle here and continue our noble but beleaguered tradition of studying reality with real experiments, not selfishness and self-delusion.

    If we won’t, it’s now clear that others will, especially Europe and China.




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