Monday, May 28, 2018

That Wacky Old Testament (11)

A hundred years ago the social safety net didn’t exist. The earliest U.S. government assistance program was conceived in 1910 and most of the rest were enacted post-1935.

Sure, there have always been rich parents that coddled their children through adulthood, handing them fully-operational businesses to destroy or trust funds to bleed dry. And there may even have been a certain number of less-well-off parents willing to sacrifice their meager savings on a dissolute youngster who stubbornly refused to pull his weight and bear his family responsibilities.

But beyond the family level, no institutions existed to provide for the welfare of society at large. There was no taxpayer-financed crutch available to help failed or unfortunate citizens get back on their feet.

Good thing times have changed. Or maybe not.

The Institutional Crutch

The purpose of a crutch is to help you get around and function semi-normally while you heal from an injury. It is intended to be a temporary solution. I went to work on crutches for a week after a bad sprain years ago, up and down stairs and walking five to ten blocks at each end of the transit system. I can tell you I had no love for those crutches. Getting around on them just about killed me. But I wasn’t supposed to love them. Their purpose was to keep me functioning and earning while incentivizing me to get off them as speedily as possible. Believe me, I did.

Not so the institutional crutch. Any bureaucracy has a vested interest in living on interminably. Once you set up offices to process employment insurance claims, welfare applications or disability benefits, you must staff them. The staff must be decently compensated, and those fortunate souls should reasonably anticipate a well-funded retirement from the public purse after years of faithful service. A budget must be drawn up, and that budget must increase every year. If you cannot demonstrate that you are helping more people in 2018 than in 2017, you cannot maintain current staffing levels, increase their wages and benefits commensurate with the cost of living, upgrade your systems or renovate the office space.

At a certain point it becomes counterproductive to encourage your “patients” to get off their crutches; after all, there’s a headcount that needs to be maintained.

Fairness and Sustainability

You will understand I’m not criticizing the motives or work ethics of people who find themselves forced to make use of the societal resources available to them. Life is not always easy, and short-term assistance that keeps you on your feet while you recover from a physical or financial hit can be a great benefit.

But unless you are genuinely and permanently disabled, the institutional crutch ought to be a temporary solution. A system that endlessly pays a significant portion of its citizens not to contribute cannot survive long-term. It is simply unsustainable, not to mention anti-biblical, and immensely destructive to the character and mental health of those who become conditioned to lean on it indefinitely.

Paging Moses ...

Israel had all kinds of laws, but none designed to perpetuate a permanent underclass of impoverished Hebrews just squeaking by. Individuals with means to do so were to make provision for the poor in every third year out of their personal wealth, and property owners were to leave behind sufficient gleanings in their fields that the poor might be fed by them. (Of course this required the poor person to be industrious enough to get out in the field and gather, so the responsibility was not all one-sided. In Israel, the poor were not incentivized to sit around at home watching soap operas and eating Kraft Dinner.) And those who hired the poor as casual labor were commanded to pay them their wages before sundown on the day they worked.

Personal loans to the poor were to be generous and interest-free.

Holidays and Hands-Up

Then there was the Jubilee, the name given to every fiftieth year in ancient Israel, a holy year-long celebration in which bondservants became free citizens, land and houses that had been sold to pay debt were returned to their original owners and nobody did traditional farm work. The Jubilee served as a giant economic reset button that gave a new lease on life to any Israelite who had fallen on hard times. Poverty need not last more than a generation, and children and wives whose fathers and husbands had made sub-optimal business decisions knew that whatever property or status the head of the family had lost through laziness, incompetence or lack of life skills would be returned to them in due course.

Further, God’s law had a built-in “Sabbath” every seven years in which landowners were not to work their fields, vineyards and orchards, but leave them to grow wild for the benefit of the poor and their animals.

Opportunities and Incentives

The upshot? While the Law of Moses assigned a built-in cost of doing business to productive Israelites that was hardly insignificant, no bloated, poorly-managed bureaucracies soaked up the gross domestic product of Israel and perpetuated themselves throughout the millennia. There were no institutional crutches to encourage the poor to stay poor, and multiple opportunities and incentives to climb out of poverty if you were sufficiently motivated.

That was 3,400 years ago or so. Kinda makes you wonder if we’re really as sophisticated and progressive a society as we claim to be ...

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