Even the Republican ‘skinny’ relief bill failed. How is such unnecessary suffering justified?

The following is a repost from The Guardian, September 14. It is still timely. And I’m a bit more than biased about the quality of the writing as the author is my sister. Enjoy.

Margaret Somers

Republicans shouldn’t be immune from being called out for their inconsistency. Let’s not forget they once said cutting taxes on the wealthy would incentivize them to work harderMitch McConnell’s sounded ‘all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election’ after the failure of the ‘skinny’ Covid-19 relief bill.Mitch McConnell’s sounded ‘all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election’ after the failure of the ‘skinny’ Covid-19 relief bill. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/ShutterstockMon 14 Sep 2020 08.44 EDT

The 31 million Americans struggling with unemployment today are not a whit less desperate and fearful now that Mitch McConnell’s “skinny” Covid-19 relief bill failed to pass the US Senate. Thursday’s performative theatrics did little more than provide cover to vulnerable Republicans and add one more day to the now six weeks since Senate Republicans refused to extend the extra $600 in Covid-related weekly jobless benefits. With McConnell sounding all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election, and the media’s attention pinned to shinier Trumpian objects, it is even more imperative to refocus on the crisis at hand and to dig beneath the hollow excuses for such demonstrable indifference on the part of lawmakers. It is time to find an answer to the question: how is such unnecessary suffering justified?The danger is now clear: Trump is destroying democracy in broad daylightJonathan FreedlandRead more

According to the Republicans, the aid is “too generous” and “disincentivizes” the unemployed from seeking work. So perverse are the effects of these benefits, they argue, that it is actually workers gaming the system who are slowing the economic recovery, not the Covid-driven loss of millions of jobs.

That these charges persist despite significant evidence to the contrarytestifies to the power of the conservative creed that few things in life are more perilous than excess government compassion: “unearned” income such as unemployment benefits perversely undermines recipients’ self-discipline and willingness to work, leaving them even worse off. It is a self-evident truth of human nature, conservatives avow, that relieving the suffering of those in need induces dependence and indolence, whereas deprivation incentivizes labor.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Here’s the secret sauce: since that which is “self-evident”, such as ideas about human nature, can be neither proved nor disproved, such truths are conveniently immune to debunking evidence. Thus they persist.

They should not, however, be immune from being called out for their stunning inconsistency. In 2017 these same Republicans trumpeted a radically different truth about human nature when they pronounced that cutting taxes on the wealthy would incentivize them to work harder, invest more and spur rapid economic growth.

But how is it that extra money incentivizes the rich to become paragons of moral virtue and economic rainmakers, whereas for working people it incentivizes them to become social parasites and economic saboteurs? How can there be one human nature for the 1%, and another for the rest of us?

It’s a question too rarely asked. So deeply rooted in Anglo-American political culture is this bifurcated view of human nature that it’s treated almost like natural law. In fact, it’s a product of history, originally designed to solve a problem not unlike our own, and tied to the early capitalist need for a new industrial workforce.

In the last decades of the 18th century, the English upper classes revolted against the tax burden of the centuries-old system of poor relief – so named not because it was welfare but because “the poor” were simply those who had to work for a living. As protection against cyclical structural unemployment, its recipients bore no stigma, and access to its benefits was considered a right.

When the need for jobless benefits escalated under the pressures of early industrialization, angry taxpayers found an advocate in Thomas Malthus, who turned centuries of social policy on its head by asserting that poverty was caused not by systemic unemployment but by government assistanceitself. Providing the template for today’s Steve Mnuchins and Lindsey Grahams, he explained that aid to the jobless perversely incentivized them not to seek work.

Malthus based his argument on a novel view of human nature: society consisted of two “races”: property owners and laborers. While the first embodied the high morality of Enlightenment rationality, the latter were not moral actors but motivated only by their biological instincts. When hungry, they were industrious; when full, they lazed. They did little more than think through their bodies.

As in the natural world, maintaining chronic scarcity was the necessary motor of the whole system. Since the pangs of hunger alone disciplined the poor to work, if you remove that scarcity by “artificial” means – and nothing was more artificial than government assistance – the incentive to work dissolves. But it was not enough to simply abolish public assistance, although Malthus is rightfully credited for his role in doing just that. He also railed apocalyptically against reducing scarcity through charity. Society’s very future depended on the unemployed being fully exposed to the harsh discipline of the labor market.

Malthus’s enduring contribution to social policy was thus to make hunger the virtuous suffering that underpins a productive workforce, and “too much” the virtuous luxury that unleashes the social contributions of the rich. Armed with these two views of humanity – the rich depicted as noble paragons, the poor as inherently indolent and parasitic – conservative social policy continues to declaim the unfounded “truth” that a strong economy depends on inflicting pain on workers while providing government largesse to the rich.

The most recent iteration began with Reagan’s massive tax cuts in tandem with his attacks on “welfare queens”. It continued through the derisive conservative trope of “makers and takers” to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” of “entitled” “tax shirkers” to former House speaker John Boehner’s 2014 claim that the jobless think “I really don’t have to work … I’d rather just sit around” to today’s tax-cutting Republicans, who announced that they will extend jobless benefits “over our dead bodies”.

To be sure, today’s policymakers would be hard pressed to name the Malthusian roots of their belief in the perils of compassion. But that makes it no less urgent to expose their policies as based on nothing more than historical fiction. For there is a darker message lurking within this view of human nature: Reducing working people to their bodily instincts robs them of their moral worth and, as we know from how our “essential” workers have been treated, makes them utterly disposable.

  • Margaret Somers is Professor of Sociology and History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her most recent book, co-authored with Fred Block, is The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (Harvard, 2016)

The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

Penelope Fletcher at the door of her bookstore, The Red Wheelbarrow

Before I moved to Paris in 2013/14, one of the most popular English language bookstores closed in 2009. Penelope Fletcher assures friends that it was for personal reasons and had nothing to do with Internet competition. Now that it has reopened nine years later, the outpouring of love and gratitude for the return of the Red Wheelbarrow got me investigating Penelope and her bookstore.

The name comes from a sixteen word poem by William Carlos Williams entitled The Red Wheel Barrow. I have yet to learn what the significance is. I sense it is important. When Penelope and her associates first opened the bookstore, it was located in the Marais. It has now re-opened at 9, Rue de Medicis across from the Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement. “People like Umberto Eco lived here,” says Fletcher. “There’s this very rich community of writers and characters here. I didn’t realize it still exists.” This location is poignant in Paris’s bookstore canon; the store’s building has been a bookshop since 1930, and before Fletcher and her associates acquired it last year it was the last remaining secondhand science bookshop in France.–Paris Update, Nov. 6, 2018

Tash Aw, Edouard Louis signing books at the American Library with Penelope and a volunteer selling the books.

I first learned about TRW because, from the minute it re-opened, it became the partner bookstore for the evening events at the American Library in Paris. One or two times a week, Penelope shows up on her bicycle with bags full of books to be sold and signed by the spotlighted author of the evening. The respect and admiration that surrounds Penelope and the many articles that have been written about the re-opening have made me extremely curious. I thought the most well-known Anglophone bookstore in Paris was Shakespeare and Company. It has resided in one form or another in Paris since 1919. I had stopped by a couple of times when I lived close to it but found the used books to be so expensive that I stopped going. After reading a lovely book about the Tumbleweeds (students and travellers with no where to spend the night and stay at Shakespeare in exchange for work) that have stayed there over the years, I returned about two years ago. I walked through the space which is a delight but was not greeted by anyone and when I tried to talk to the owner Sylvia Whitman, daughter of 2nd owner, George Whitman, and someone manning the cash register, I was greeted with total silence as if I was invisible. I haven’t returned since. My Anglophone bookstore of choice became San Francisco Book Co. I could buy and sell used books there and have a lively discussion with one of the two owners if I had the time.

David Downie signing books on a Sunday morning in April.

In April, I went for the first time to The Red Wheelbarrow for a book signing by an author I like: David Downie. My sister and Nancy MacLean will be doing an event there on July 3 and I wanted to see the space and how it might work. Peggy and Nancy are speaking at the Library the night before and I wanted to make sure that the 3rd would be low-key and very casual. I needn’t have worried at all. David was seated at a table and signing books and I knew almost everyone who walked in. I also ran into Michael Ondaatje which got my ‘groupie gene’ activated. There were ladders next to the walls and Michael was climbing up one checking out books that were very high, close to the ceiling. The bookstore is small and filled with books. The windows in front tell an immediate story of who Penelope and her associates are and what the bookstore is.

Penelope in the window still organising the windows in the first months of the re-opening.

At the old bookstore in the Marais, Penelope had created a ‘neighborhood’ of book lovers. Visitors to the bookstore became friends and Penelope would introduce new visitors to old. When this bookstore opened last Fall, the ‘neighborhood’ moved with her. Penelope has a dream of community. She wants to serve as a refuge of positivity in uncertain times. According to the Paris Update article I read: “The shop window makes the store’s politics clear: on display are Innosanto Nagara’s A is for Activist and Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works. An upcoming event with James Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart will promote the reissue of his uncle’s book Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. These choices are especially relevant, and perhaps brave, as right next door to the Red Wheelbarrow is an extreme-right bookstore.

“You never know what’s going to happen with a bookshop,” says Fletcher. “You have to roll with the haywire. Because we have the extreme-right bookstore next door, we have to be extremely attentive to what we’re doing and be an opposition, and be more powerful, and be more positive, and be cleverer than them. Which is a challenge, because they’re very clever.”

She feels a responsibility to oppose the kind of hatred represented by the shop near her peaceful little store. “One of our co-owners survived the Holocaust, so of course her whole life has been dictated by this. Another one is African American – we are all directly impacted by what their intention is.”

Michael Ondaatje

Paris Update article: https://www.parisupdate.com/red-wheelbarrow/

Artwork hanging in the re-opened bookstore

I urge residents and visitors alike to support this wonderful bookstore that is more than a bookstore.

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends

upon 

a red wheel

barrow 

glazed with rain

water 

beside the white

chickens. –William Carlos Williams

Canadian Penelope Fletcher, the founder of the English bookstore, has found new partners and is again dedicated to providing one of the best English literary experiences in Paris. The location is pure Paris postcard with large, bright blue picture windows overlooking the park. Afterwards, head to the park to spend the afternoon reading.

  • 9, Rue de Médici
  • 6th Arrondissement
  • Metro – Saint Sulpice
  • Website

A bientôt,

Sara

Go out and Vote–Democracy depends on you.

I hope the New York Times will forgive me for posting a part of Saturday’s editorial.  It is too long to put the whole thing here but it is good.

“It’s also true that when more people vote, the electorate becomes more liberal. If Americans voted in proportion to their actual numbers, a majority would most likely support a vision for the country far different from that of Mr. Trump and the Republicans in Congress. This includes broader access to health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, more aggressive action against climate change and more racial equality in the criminal justice system.

Republicans are aware of this, which is why the party has gone to such lengths to drive down turnout among Democratic-leaning groups. A recent example: In North Dakota, the Republican-led Legislature changed the law to make it harder for Native Americans to cast a ballot.

It comes down to this: Democracy isn’t self-activating. It depends on citizens getting involved and making themselves heard. So if you haven’t yet cast a ballot, get out and do it on Tuesday, or earlier if your state allows early voting. Help your family, friends and neighbors do the same. Help a stranger. Vote as if the future of the country depends on it. Because it does.”    NYTimes Editorial, Nov. 3, 2018

Unknown-3.jpegI have had quite an education in the last two months.  Thanks to my sister, Margaret Somers, University of Michigan; Nancy MacLean Duke University and Malcom Nance a retired Intelligence Officer, my eyes have been opened to what I’m sure many others have seen but I hadn’t.  The rise of market fundamentalism and, perhaps, the end of Democracy as we know it.  Or as Malcolm Nance said when I heard him speak at the American Library “It’s possible that Tuesday will be the end of the American Experiment”

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This isn’t a political blog but tomorrow everyone in the United States has the right to vote.  Many who want to vote are being prevented from doing so.  Many who can vote don’t.  Because they are lazy?  I’m old enough that I remember being taught about women dying  working to get the right to vote.  We were taught that voting is a privilege and not to ever abuse it.  People who don’t vote are actually voting.  The NYTimes says that the more people that vote, the electorate becomes more liberal.  So not voting is a vote for conservative.

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We live in a crazy, crazy world.  France fought off Marine Le Pen.  I heard she was one of the first, along with Donald Trump to congratulate the new President of Brazil.  The papers were asking how could someone like him win when he was so vilified a decade ago?  I think there is an answer.  It means reading and educating ourselves about the Far Right, Extremism and Russia.  It means having to stretch our brain cells to comprehend things that, to me, seem unimaginable.

So go vote tomorrow.  Then read and read some more.  Don’t get distracted by tweets and  stories that rise up and flame away.

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A Bientôt,

Sara