Monday, April 6, 2015

"If I were President - Part 3 - Welfare, Education & More

Welfare. Welfare, like health care, challenges society to balance justice with mercy. Historical campaigns to end poverty are well intentioned but doomed to failure based on the most fundamental realities of human consciousness. Did not Jesus himself (no slacker in the compassion department), say “The poor ye shall have always….?” Can you imagine a legitimate politician saying something like that? Privately, perhaps. 

This is a difficult subject. Political and cultural correctness demands that welfare programs continue in one form or another. Yet, apart from their charitable good intention, institutionalized charity is an oxymoron and few are willing to shout out, "The emperor has no clothes." Welfare as we know it today didn't exist until 1935 under FDR as president. Noblesse oblige. [There are times of great stress, indeed, the Great Depression during which strong measures are called for. But you can't run a nation at top crises speed forever.]

It's not mercy that is at issue or question for me: it's the proper role of the national government that is the question; it is the long-term impact and effectiveness of the current welfare system that is in question. As human beings, our ethical obligation to help others in need is unquestioned. But how to do it? What helps? What, in fact, constitutes "help?" What perpetuates? Whose duty, nay, privilege is it? Voluntary or enforced? Does the exchange of subsidy for votes enter into and taint the system?

Wouldn't the nation be more in line with our founding principle of self-determination and individual liberty to express our merciful nature by helping the disadvantaged to help themselves? Poverty is not a parasitic disease that can be wiped out by inoculation. It is far more complex and, like health, requires the active will and cooperation of the one being offered assistance. To a person of high moral character, a helping hand creates both a bond of gratitude and a desire to give back in return. Do we see this, in fact, in our "welfare system?"

The causes of large scale poverty are far too complex and beyond the scope of my life experience. But two aspects are uppermost in my view: the one, objective, is economic and has its roots in lack of education from which follows lack of job opportunity. The other is subjective, and has its roots in consciousness, manifesting as exploitation and prejudice. What results for the one disadvantaged is a paralysis of will born of resignation descending into hopelessness. Wishful thinking is pressed into service as a substitute for practical action and common sense starves for lack of scope. Unyielding hardships shape and mold the personality into that of the helpless victim. The rest needs no further elaboration.

A society that works to improve the opportunities for the disadvantaged while disabling structural exploitation or prejudice offers the greatest hope to those who want to raise themselves from poverty. The success of a measurable few gives hope and practical examples to others, far more than a check in the mail from a nameless, cold benefactor.

It’s one thing to step in and offer relief in a crises, it’s quite another to perpetuate that relief without addressing the underlying conditions, at least to the extent such conditions can be addressed. What is needed is a policy that leaves the ultimate improvement in a person’s life in his own hands. Rescues are for crises; it is not a way of life to be handed down from generation to generation. 

I do applaud those who work to mitigate some of the more obvious causes of poverty; and, to offer solutions to those wanting to rise from poverty’s grip. It’s just that one’s goals should be realistic and should take into account the crucial need for motivation and self-effort.

I'd rather see, therefore, a greater emphasis placed on education, child care, job training and creation, and other opportunities for those who want to better themselves.

"Charity begins at home." Charity that is legislated is by law an entitlement. Entitlement robs its recipient of the ability to give back. It asks little beyond its need to satisfy documentation requirements; it strips the recipient of his humanity by affirming his impotence and bleeds away his will to face the challenge of his difficult circumstances.

I know little of the details of welfare programs but I know something about human nature. Perhaps targeted tax credits for donations to qualified and eligible charitable institutions could be one (of many) ways to substitute private charity for legislated entitlement. I consistently read reports of the high percentage of American citizens on food stamps and cannot but wonder “How did we (formerly, at least, a "rich" nation) get to this point?”

Education. Evidence-based and principled broad national policies can be promulgated and supported by the federal government, but, again, let the states, counties, cities and private schools do the heavy lifting. We need less governmental overhead and more on-the-ground education. Education through college ought to be available to everyone who wants to learn. I don't say "free" but I do say available.

You cannot force a student to learn if he or she doesn't want to. Compulsory education was a progressive breakthrough a hundred years ago but why waste so much money and creative energy helping those who won't lift a finger to help themselves? Or, worse: oppose being educated or simply do not care? 

College level or job-specific training should require a student to assume some of the cost (lest they be wasting their time and taxpayers money). But if a student later becomes a tax-paying, industrious citizen is this not a good investment? Let him defer repayment to his working life, or through community service, or, even, by his future tax paying status. 

Good grades, hard work and application of initiative should be what we encourage and seek in every student to whom we offer a quality education. Anyone who wants to be, say, a doctor, should have that opportunity provided he proves him or herself worthy of the opportunity. Our educational system is already "hooked-on-tests" so it shouldn't be very difficult to measure effort. [I don't wholeheartedly support blind dependence on tests but our system is bent that way already.]

And what of our education? Is its stalwart purpose merely to get Johnny or Sue a job so they can earn money, pay off their student loans, buy useless stuff, mortgage themselves to the next generation and pay lots of taxes? What about strength of character, inspiration and ideals, compassion, cooperation, and a living a sustainable and healthy life? We need more than bread for the table; we need food for the curious mind, and inspiration and high ideals for the soul. We need meaning, purpose, connection and enriching relationships. (The Living Wisdom schools of Ananda inspired by the principles of "Education for Life" offer just such a whole person education.) An education should creatively foster dialogue, cooperation, teamwork, initiative, compassion and a love for learning and respect for differences.

Social Security has proven itself acceptable and beneficial in American society, in spite of its being enforced savings. I think most Americans feel that there is still some correlation between what I put in and what I receive. The fact that those who do not need it when they retire end up forfeiting (some or all) of their share for the benefit of others seems fair and reasonable. Let us not forget that it was intended to be a safety net, not a retirement system. There will always be some who will not put aside for retirement despite the many excellent government tax incentives for doing so. "You can lead a horse to water....." Let us avoid legislated "charity" and let charity “begin at home,” meaning locally.

Unions. Like all powerful economic institutions, unions can help or harm. The current debate around "right to work" seems odd to me. If a company hires me into its ranks and among co-workers who voted to be unionized, it seems selfish of me to refuse to join (and pay dues) while I receive the benefits of its representation. Maybe there's some issue besides sheer cussedness (i.e., anti-union sentiment) that is at stake here?

Foreign policy. I'll say it again: "Charity begins at home!" Maybe it really IS time to tone down the American Imperial Cowboy Empire! It is embarrassing and worse that we should have earned the opprobrium of nations and peoples who seek to be free -- from OUR domination and influence! 

Nonetheless, the last fifteen years have proven what Yogananda said: that there ought to be an international police force to deal with he called international criminals (we call them terrorists or rogue states). It is right that our country join with other nations who share our values. But why must we pretend to have to work with those nations who are our self-styled enemies and who do not even try to uphold the principles upon which our nation was founded. In many respects, the United Nations has failed: particularly at and as a result of the Security Council being paralyzed by nations who are sworn enemies. 

I acknowledge, however, that whether wisely or foolishly, sincerely or manipulatively, our willingness, courage and self-sacrifice to step up to the plate in past decades has its admirable side. But, we have too much and too often played the "Great Game." We have supported regimes unworthy of support only because we wanted to thwart bigger game. In the name of expediency (the ends justify the means), we have diluted our first principles too often. Those who try to play "God" fly too close to the sun. They will crash and burn.

Security. The terrorist attack of 9/11/01 will forever demarcate a turning point in American history. It is safe to say we responded as best we knew how but, in retrospect, we overreacted (torture? Gee whiz!) and overreached. Whether by design or circumstance, Americans have made significant concessions to privacy in the name of security: at the airports, on the computer and on the phone. Gathering and holding the "big data" of digital communications of Americans (and other countries) is the equivalent of having the government open and scan all U.S. mail (back before the internet). Would we have accepted such a practice "back when"? 

Intelligent intelligence gathering (and common sense) suggests focusing one's search and resources towards the most likely suspects and behaviors. We confuse profiling with prejudice. A soldier or a policeman can defend his country or confront potential criminal activity without hating or being prejudiced. While I don't give a hoot if the NSA reads my email, I think we have succumbed by fear to something we may not be able to stop. Let intelligence be intelligent and let citizens go back to being innocent until proven guilty. Yes, this is messy and risky. Freedom is always messy and risky. I know we will experience more terror, and, on our soil, to boot. But diligent, cooperative, and intelligent security-driven awareness doesn't have to rob us of our hard-won freedoms. "Be as wise as serpents," Jesus counseled, "but harmless as doves." 

Financial. Cries of conspiracy in the financial world have been with us since money was invented. I've written before about the need to restrain speculation in favor of worthy and sound investments. The "Main Street" vs. "Wall Street" issue is one worthy of a second American revolution, but it is far too complicated for this space. So far as I can see, little has changed since the near-collapse of our economy in 2008. Government debt is so large and so difficult to pinpoint, that all I can say is that someone ought to go to prison! 

I would prefer to see savings vehicles more akin to credit unions (locally owned and managed) and banks sticking to the simple service of holding deposits and making loans. It was a mistake to slip back into allowing banks to enter the investment field. 

I’ve never understood why rating services and auditors are paid by those whom they rate or audit. Yes, the financial services industry must shoulder the cost of regulation but not in such a direct fee-for-service relationship which any first year law student can see is, at best, the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Future is to the Local. I have written before that the pendulum of power is moving inexorably from the national level to the states and local levels. A similar trend is taking place worldwide. This trend will continue for a long time to come. "Power to the people" will never happen in the way the slogan suggests but it is happening in a wide variety of applications and circumstances. Large institutions will be the dinosaurs of the third millennium. The federal government is too big and unwieldy and the political process is burdened by self-interest and secrecy. I read an interesting article that pointed out how one dynasty of Republicans (the Bush family) might have a member run against another dynasty (Clintons). The reason this might be acceptable to the ruling class is that government is too big and unwieldy and real democracy too unpredictable. The only way to get anything done is through "who you know." (Guess how that plays out!) 

My adult life for the last thirty-eight years has been dedicated to what Swami Kriyananda, founder of the nine intentional communities of Ananda worldwide, called "The Small Communities Solution." (The subtitle to one of his 150 books, "Hope for a Better World," available wherever good books are sold.) I don't want to change topics but America's destiny and the emerging future of planetary consciousness rests in individual initiative working in harmony and cooperation with others of like mind for the greater good of all.   

Personal relationships, guided by high ideals such as respect, creativity, and harmony with divine law, and then expressed outwardly and expansively, is the only sane way of life on a planet that is globalized and connected. We have to be personally and creatively engaged in life lest we become a new kind of cog in a new kind of global factory for the rich and powerful.

Conclusion. "We the people" must continually assert our presence, our will, and our strength. "We the people" are sharply divided between haves and have-nots. Fear and greed have invited too many to bury common sense and respect with the mud we sling at one another. I believe that after a period of great hardship, a second American revolution will come to America. "We the people" will one day re-discover the power we have when our minds and hearts are guided by the high and noble ideals that not only founded this country but are the essence of the universal Golden Rule that affirms we are One and Indivisible under God. Change will come not by treaty nor by legislation nor by war, but by a shift of attitudes and awareness in the minds and hearts of billions. 

Thank you for reading!

Nayaswami Hriman