SAFETY NET

Posted in Rants on August 11th, 2014 by Ed

I see American society, and most societies around the world, as a hierarchy of three groups. At the top is the 10% of the population that owns all of the wealth and controls all of the institutions. Within this group is an even smaller elite that really owns everything, but for the moment let's set that aside and take a slightly more expansive view of who is included among the Haves. The second group is the 75% of the population that exists in the margin between comfort and total ruin. This includes (unless some of you are wealthier than I realize) all of us who essentially live paycheck-to-paycheck or close thereto, from menial service industry jobs to well-compensated professionals. Even those of us who are doing well aren't truly wealthy, though, since we're never more than a stone's throw from ruin. The people who have real power compensate us because we're in some way economically useful to them, allowing them to make more money and/or live more leisurely lives. They also ensure that we graduate college with enough debt to be servile in perpetuity, in addition to or instead of running up enough credit card debt to keep us in a state of constant readiness to accept whatever terms of employment and existence they dictate. Here, have another payday loan and pre-approved Platinum Card.

The third group is the bottom 10-15% of society. To the people in power, these people serve no purpose. They have no economically valuable skills to exploit. You just have to get rid of them somehow. And that's what the War on Drugs is all about. In a society that doesn't want to pay to educate its population well or pay for a social safety net or strive for full, well paid employment as an economic policy goal, there are only two options for dealing with the third group. In many countries around the world the leaders can just send out death squads and various uniformed skull-crackers to physically eliminate them. The second option preferred by societies like ours that fancy themselves above such tactics is mass incarceration. And the nice part about incarceration, aside from appearing more Civilized and Proper, is that the ownership class can profit handsomely from it and you can pay some of the would-be useless people to lock up and watch the others.

We are very slowly beginning to dismantle the War on Drugs as an act of national policy faith. We are doing this, and I sincerely believe that within a decade or two it will be complete, for all the wrong reasons. We're moving toward sentencing reform and marijuana legalization not because our previous policies make no sense but because states cannot afford the gargantuan systems of incarceration, punishment, and monitoring that they built beginning in the 1970s. With large states spending literal billions annually to maintain their leviathan departments of "corrections", it is finally dawning on some formerly gung ho drug crusaders that filling the prisons, jails, and parole systems with non-violent drug offenders is remarkably expensive. Add to that the fact that cash-strapped state and local governments realize what a tax cash cow marijuana is and it seems clear now that the first few dominoes have fallen that drug legalization is going to continue to spread in the near future.

I wonder, then, what will be the new national policy toward the third group in society – the underclass for which there is no practical economic use. We sure as hell aren't investing in education to increase the balance of useful skills. We aren't creating more jobs, and in fact there are not enough to go around even for people who do have the skills and willingness to work these days. My guess – and this is why I've been talking about "Brazilification" of the American economy for years now – is that we will take that final step toward Second World status as a nation by allowing First World wealth and opulence to exist immediately alongside massive levels of desperate Third World poverty. Of course poverty is already visible in the U.S., but there is another level of economic and physical segregation – think Rio or Mexico City – of inequality for us to achieve. We see it already in places like Chicago where rich, perfectly safe neighborhoods are cordoned off by law enforcement and local government to coexist alongside poor neighborhoods that are essentially free fire zones where city services barely operate, infrastructure is crumbling, and the policing policy is "Call us when there is a corpse to pick up."

If we're not going to incarcerate or employ everyone and we have no intention of creating a social welfare system that allows people to live like human beings even if they lack the Puritan sacrament of daily toil for a soulless corporation, then there really is no other option.

(PS: Don't worry, we'll still incarcerate tons of people even if the WoD is scaled back. I promise.)