Founders believed we had a duty to help

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on March 29, 2017.

From what some politicians are saying you’d think the makers of our nation were a bunch of bare-knuckled libertarians. A nation of hardy individuals and the Founding Fathers, this narrative goes, thought government an evil — the politicians say — because Americans don’t want help and feel no particular obligation to give it to others.

Government help, the argument goes, leads to weakness, making recipients dependent. Read the words of newly minted Kansas Congressman Roger Marshall. “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.” I cannot imagine the Jesus the Congressman is talking about, but I’ll focus first on the words the Founders used when they wrote our constitutions.

Their words reject the view that society is a brutish struggle by all against all. Instead, their words are the words that patriots would use who believe that we as Americans are all in this together. The documents they left to us presume the existence of a communal duty that each of us has to each other — through government — to provide for the basic welfare of all and, in particular, to victims of misfortune who cannot care for themselves.

Public goods, by definition, are the things that everyone, especially the least fortunate, need to live. Public goods are given by all — to all — and paid for by all through general taxation. There are good, practical reasons to recognize the existence of this communal burden, but that is for another day. Suffice it here to say that the legacy of our nation from the plain language of our national and state constitutions recognizes that promotion of the common welfare is a fundamental duty of democratic government.

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to provide for “the general Welfare of the United States.” Seventy years later, when Kansans drafted their constitution, they made clear what “general Welfare” should mean. Public schools certainly, but also a duty to care for people who are “mentally or physically incapacitated or handicapped”; and those entitled to public welfare include people “who, by reason of age, infirmity or other misfortune, may have claims upon the aid of society.”

Recently, when the Supreme Court ordered the Kansas Legislature to make suitable funding for public schools, how did Gov. Sam Brownback respond? He said a better solution would be for Kansans to have more choice and that they could get that choice from a voucher system. But we all know that vouchers siphon money from public into private schools. That makes schools a private, not a public, good.

The recently failed Trumpcare plan played a similar shell game. People would have received tax credits to buy insurance. But, like vouchers for schools, the government dodged its responsibility to provide for the general welfare — particularly for those at the bottom who need it the most. Whether you give people vouchers for education or tax credits for health care, it makes no difference for the poor; it just won’t work. They would never have enough money. The poor can’t supplement vouchers to pay for private schools, and 44 percent of American households don’t pay income taxes so they won’t have any tax credits to use.

They would fall right through to the bottom. Their children would be forced into schools stripped bare by tuition vouchers, and, lacking the money to pay private insurance premiums, by the tens of millions, they’d drop out of health insurance coverage. The Congressional Budget Office predicted 14 million in the first year alone.

Ebeneezer Scrooge said to the philanthropist: “Those who are badly off must go [to the poor house].”

The philanthropist replied, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

And Scrooge said: “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The words of Scrooge and Marshall are not the words of our Founding Fathers. They are not words of faith, and they should not be our words.

ERA not needed? Women still get raw deal

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on March 12, 2017.

So, there is hope. It’s not quite like the play “Lysistrata,” in which women used the ultimate trump card to stop their men from killing each other. First performed in Athens, around 411 B.C., Aristophanes’ comedy had women on both of the warring sides, Athenian and Spartan, come together, organize and use the power of their bodies to bring about sanity. When they withheld sex the war was quickly ended.

And now, for me, some 2,400 hundred years later, there was no breakfast at the Ladybird Diner. Dutifully, at 7 a.m., I was at the door, but a sign waiting for me announced the staff had gone on strike. The grad student with a wonderful smile and her friend who knows my order without the need of saying it were not there — gone out on strike. The Ladybird men were also gone. Unlike the Saturday in January when it was man-service only, while the Ladybird women did the Women’s March, on this day the men, apparently, had also gone out in solidarity. I’d have to find my breakfast elsewhere.

USA Today reports that women get paid 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. My wife has a relic of the ERA – for those too young to remember, the Equal Rights Amendment. Out of some drawer, somewhere, she pulled out a pin that simply says “59¢.” That’s what women made for the same work in 1982. At the time the main argument against the ERA was that women’s rights were already protected by the Constitution, and we did not need to mess up the simplistic beauty of the document by adding unnecessary words. Besides, why do women need a declaration of equal rights any more than men do? The ERA fell three states short of ratification. That means 35 of the 50 states voted for, and 15 did not. The amendment needed 38 votes.

So, 35 years later, how has it turned out? Here I’ll focus just on the economic issues, ignoring issues such as birth control and abortion rights. Using USA Today’s 80 cents and trusting the truth of the 1982 59-cent pin, it appears the Constitution’s gender neutrality has not yet resulted in parity of pay.

My experience has taught me that our legal system doesn’t recognize much of the value in many of the most important things that women — primarily — do. Things women do within our homes and within our families are never transactional, never bartered in marketplaces where Adam Smith’s capitalistic invisible hand relentlessly reveals final economic truths. Few women stay home like the mythic June Cleaver, and those with children must now be both breadwinner (at reduced rates) and a nurturing wife or mother. But when we value women do we account for all of these things — invisible to the market — that women do?

I’m reminded of Helen Earline Riggs Pearson. My mother-in-law died too young, just a few months shy of 78, from a brain tumor. I think she was the victim of sloppy medical practice. During life she was the center of the lives of her four children and their 10 children. Every grandchild, most of them already adults, knew Grandma was watching over them, interested in everything they did, sharing every joy and disappointment. They telephoned for her advice and counsel, and her death left a giant hole.

But in the eyes of the marketplace Earline’s life had little monetary value. She had never made a “living” and all her kids were “full-growed.” In our justice system Earline’s economic value was mostly invisible.

I have not read that any female CEO went out on strike. But, the strike was not about them anyway, or even about female doctors or lawyers or architects or engineers. It was about the most vulnerable of women, the women who work in menial jobs, or fast-food restaurants, and particularly those who are raising families. The college and grad students who work at Ladybird, apparently, can miss a day’s pay, but the most vulnerable cannot. There are millions of women who would strike in solidarity if they could afford to, but cannot. So, it seems to me that the women of the Ladybird, and their male coworkers, struck on behalf of and as a voice for the others. Nothing wrong with that. A missed breakfast well worth the missing.