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Public Assistance is the opiate of the masses? - Journal of Omnifarious

Aug. 29th, 2006

09:43 am - Public Assistance is the opiate of the masses?

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I had an interesting conversation with someone yesterday. I told her that I felt being poor was demoralizing and that if I were to live on foodstamps I'd be a leech. She was quite upset by my opinions and decided that I was no longer someone she wanted to talk to because she felt that I held opinions she wasn't interested in being arund.

But it always really irritates me to be cut off like that over politics. So, I pushed the conversation further.

Her reasoning was that the system was broken because so many people weren't paid a living wage, and that public assistance and social programs were necessary for this reason. This led me to an interesting conclusion, since I also think the system is broken for a very similar reason.

Because of a book I've read, Linked: The New Science of Networks (a book I push a lot because I feel it has some really important insights into the fundamental forces governing how large systems work), I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible to have a functioning economy where there isn't a curve in which a disproportionate amount of wealth is concentrated at the top. It's a phenomena that reoccurs in absolutely every 'naturally' grown network in existence. Everything from the food web to the web of neuronal interconnections in the brain, to the web of chemical interactions in cells to the world-wide-web. It's such a powerful natural force that I do not believe it can be escaped.

Given this, you can't make judgments about an economic system based on this disproportionate relationship. You can make judgments based on a couple of other attributes though. Those are how steep the curve is. Is it 80/20 or 90/10? You can also base it on how common it is for someone at the high end of the curve to have once been at the low end. America falls down badly on the first measure. We have a numerous systemic problems that create this situation. America does pretty well on the second measure. Most of the millionares and billionares we have today didn't have parents who were in the same class. Of course, I'm just throwing this out there without pointing at the studies that back me up. So, if you can dispute my data, feel free.

Anyway, one view of public assistance is as a way of avoiding violence, revolution and the upset of the social order that creates the economic system that the people at the high end of the curve are currently enjoying. But, it does this by cannibalizing the middle, in essence steepening the curve. People at the high end have numerous ways to hide their money from taxes, and they have the ears of those who make the laws, which also allows them to get laws passed that hide their money from taxes. So this means that taxes are paid disproportionately by people in the middle, pushing them farther down.

Now I realize that public assistance programs actually comprise a fairly small portion of the total US federal budget. But I would argue that most of those budget items directly transfer money from the middle to the top, and this only strengthens my argument.

Placing a lot of responsibility in the central government inevitably has the effect of making the current structure more entrenched. Those in power will use the power people have given the central government to achieve their own ends.

Anyway, as a final parting shot I point at Wal-Mart, and their instructions to their employees to rely on state health insurance since the company wouldn't give their employees health insurance. If this isn't direct evidence of precisely the sort of thing I'm talking about, I don't know what is.

BTW, I think bad karma inevitably comes form public assistance programs. The money they get is taken from people using the threat of force. It's tainted, and the bad feelings people have about receiving it will never go away because at base they know this is true. So, in addition to pushing the middle down, public assistance pushes the lowest even lower by making them feel that they are a burden.

Current Mood: [mood icon] contemplative

Comments:

From:rosencrantz319
Date:August 29th, 2006 04:49 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 05:32 pm (UTC)
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I don't really like the idea. Something is wrong with medicine. A piece of equipment for a hospital will cost 10 times what the exact same piece of equipment would cost for any other business. I think that addressing that problem would be significantly more fruitful than simply saying "Well, medicine is too expensive for most people to pay for, so we'll just tax everybody a whole bunch of money and pay for it that way."

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From:sfllaw
Date:August 29th, 2006 05:01 pm (UTC)
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This is only one implementation of public assistance. In your Wal-Mart example, the free market is too strong and forces people to rely on public assistance when they shouldn't have to. This can be corrected by making it compulsory for corporations to contribute to the well-being of their employees.

To prevent wealth concentration, you can have systems that basically bracket how much money someone can make. Of course, people who want to get ultra-rich move to countries without this restriction, but that doesn't seem to have such a negative impact as one may presume.

Of course, pure socialism is just as bad as pure capitalism. You have to choose the right system for the right circumstances.
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
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I think that adding socialist elements to capitalism in certain situations is an indication of a disease and sickness in capitalism that you're attempting to band-aid rather than a reasonable solution to a problem. Or, in a different light, it should be looked at as a purely temporary measure until you can figure out why it was needed in the first place and fix it.

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From:sfllaw
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:10 pm (UTC)
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From:klicrai
Date:August 30th, 2006 11:00 am (UTC)
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From:noveldevice
Date:August 29th, 2006 05:17 pm (UTC)
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I don't even know what to say about this.
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From:prettydark
Date:August 29th, 2006 05:35 pm (UTC)
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I think bad karma inevitably comes form public assistance programs. The money they get is taken from people using the threat of force. It's tainted, and the bad feelings people have about receiving it will never go away because at base they know this is true. So, in addition to pushing the middle down, public assistance pushes the lowest even lower by making them feel that they are a burden.

Most of your post was pretty waffly. This part I've run into before, from other libertarians. What a filthy way for white males to make themselves feel better about their priveliges.
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC)
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Everything I've ever seen about government run public assistance makes me think that it does nothing but destroy, except possibly in the case of some programs targeted towards children. But even then, though the intent of the program is noble, it often places children in places that are bad for them, or does other things that are generally bad.

And whenever I hear the term 'white male privelege' I hear code for "I don't want to argue with you, so I'm going to haul out this term designed to make you feel guilty about your race and sex.". Well, I can't change those things, so I'm not going to feel guilty about them. If you can point at something I can change, please do.

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From:prettydark
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:03 pm (UTC)
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White privilege is not about shutting a conversation down, but it certainly highlights the chasm that stands between you as a white male, and me as a darker-skinned female.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is an article in which the authour investigates her own white privilege. I really admire her for the introspection and illumination this piece sheds on the subject.

My subjectivity never fails to note that the libertarians I have 'met' largely happen to be white males with good incomes. They also are often quite 'good people' that care about their families and communities. This does not negate the fact that some of their viewpoints are so counter to my socialist beliefs that it makes me feel nauseated.

Your belief there that I quoted is what makes the lowest people lower, in my opinion.
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:51 pm (UTC)
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From:prettydark
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:58 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC)
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From:noveldevice
Date:August 29th, 2006 10:45 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 12:22 am (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 01:55 am (UTC)

I sort of take that back...

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From:noveldevice
Date:August 30th, 2006 03:05 am (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 04:57 am (UTC)
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From:noveldevice
Date:August 30th, 2006 05:05 am (UTC)
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From:najalaise
Date:August 30th, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)

Re: I sort of take that back...

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From:d_e_l_i_r_i_u_m
Date:August 30th, 2006 10:26 pm (UTC)

Re: I sort of take that back...

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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 03:02 am (UTC)
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From:klicrai
Date:August 30th, 2006 11:07 am (UTC)
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From:prettydark
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:50 pm (UTC)
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Date:August 30th, 2006 02:56 pm (UTC)
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From:d_e_l_i_r_i_u_m
Date:August 30th, 2006 10:30 pm (UTC)
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From:ex_butterfl246
Date:August 30th, 2006 05:05 pm (UTC)
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From:d_e_l_i_r_i_u_m
Date:August 30th, 2006 10:22 pm (UTC)
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From:prettydark
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:32 pm (UTC)
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From:ex_butterfl246
Date:August 29th, 2006 05:58 pm (UTC)
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The money they get is taken from people using the threat of force.
I don't think that this is a true statement. Personally, I pay my taxes because there must be a source of funds for government (our form of government, and whether that source needs to be taxes and how it is used is discussion that wouldn't fit in comments), not because I'm afraid of The Man throwing me in prison, etc. I'm willing to say that most people pay taxes because "that is the way that it is done", as a matter of the norm rather than something that they have thought about.

Those of us in the middle are the ones, not used to being eligible for any assistance programs or government aid, who feel awkward using them. I have never collected unemployment, even. I was surprised to find that the state (CA, when I lived there) would pay for some non-emergency medical care. (And hurrah for Planned Parenthood.) Food banks? I wouldn't have thought to use them until things were dire, maybe not even then. In the middle, we tend to have more option, family that we can go to, CDs we can sell, friends with couches.
Do those taking assitance feel guilty? I don't know that this is true. It's not as if you always have to go to the assistance office, wait in a long line, fill out forms, and feel like a worm. Once you're set up, they mail you a check or directly deposit it in an account. Food stamps are no longer paper, but a card that looks like an debit card. (This was enacted to reduce the "shame".) Those whom I have known who have used gov assistance have taken the money because it was there.

Unfortunately, the way public assist is set up, it discourages a person from going off of it. [to the best of my knowledge, things may have changed] On Welfare, you are not allowed to work to bolster the small amount you are given. (Recieving disability checks is a different matter.) If you do work, it has to be something where you get paid without record: babysitting, housework, labor... or criminal activity. So your choice is to do nothing, and get a little money, or find a job, work all day, and make only a little more than you would for not working. Also, there is a reason you qualified for assist, and that reason may make getting a full time job difficult.
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From:leora
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:30 am (UTC)
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There are a lot of problems with disability too. I am intimately familiar with some of them. However, it's still better than not having it, because it's something you can find and try to get when you need it. It's not great, but it's better than nothing. And when you are barely able to function, you can't find private organizations to help. There are probably charities that would have been willing to help me, but I have no idea who or where or how to get that help.

Also, California's social services were fairly good. Virginia's almost killed me. I am not pleased with Virginia.
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From:sassy_54
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:27 pm (UTC)
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I have a couple of opinions about this. When I was pregnant with Spencer, I didn't have insurance because I was a temp, so I had to be on Medical Assistance, which I greatly appreciated. I also had the option of being on WIC (Women, Infants, Children), which basically gives you free juice, milk and a couple of other items to make sure you are eating healthy. I thought this was great for about 5 minutes. The first time I used a voucher I was given such nasty looks by people, including the cashier, that I was shamed into never using them again. We were very poor and I could have used the free food, but there was no way I was ever going to go through that again. I will always appreciate the help I got while pregnant so that I could have appropriate health care so that Spencer was a healthy baby. I did get insurance from a full time job very shortly after he was born, so it wasn't a long term thing. This is the type of situation where I think public assistance is helpful. To make sure that people get through a tough time so they can get back on their feet and start taking care of themselves again. That is the ideal situation.

And then there's the people who abuse the situation. Like my ex-husband's ex-wife. I have a real problem with how she abused the system. She got $1500 a month in child support, she got subsidized housing and day care, she lived in a nice townhouse in Eden Prairie and drove a brand new car. Oh, and she worked full time making a nice amount of money working for American Express Travel. I had a real issue with that, especially since she took the ex back to court every 3 years for more money. Unbelievable!

Don't even get me started on the people who showed up at the food shelf the one time that I ever went because we had no money and Spencer had no diapers. They were driving a very nice Cadillac and had on designer jeans and leather jackets, tons of jewelry, etc. They all came piling out laughing and talking like nothing was out of the ordinary. I was in tears and Spencer remembers going there. That one really surprised me. He wrote about how much it bothered him having to go there for something he had to write in 4th grade. The thing is, he was maybe 1.5 years old when we went. The emotion of the event was so great that he never forgot.

The system can work, it's people that make it bad. That is my opinion.
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From:phaedra_lari
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:32 pm (UTC)
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IMO, people in need who use such systems should not feel guilty. People who abuse and take advantage of it should.
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From:sassy_54
Date:August 29th, 2006 07:03 pm (UTC)
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From:phaedra_lari
Date:August 29th, 2006 07:29 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:59 am (UTC)
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*nod* I'm sad that you went through that, and I would've liked to have helped, and might even have been able to. Though, come to think of it, at that time I was largely racking up debt because I wasn't being paid enough for me to live and afford the tools I needed to work, so I doubt I would've been able to.

I don't know what to answer to the rest of it. I know getting public assistance is an awful experience. I think it would the experience would be a lot nicer if it weren't public assistance. :-/

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From:sassy_54
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:32 pm (UTC)
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From:klicrai
Date:August 30th, 2006 11:20 am (UTC)
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*HUG*

I've been there (as the kid). It pisses me off when cashiers and general populace (who have never felt what it's like to be REALLY hungry) pass judgement and pissy looks along to the poor folks in line with their WIC vouchers. If I'd been in line behind you I so would have raised a stink about their crappy attitudes (I've done it before).

Grrr...

I disagree with Omni. Mostly, because I grew up poor and occasionally homeless. I know just how fragile the social network he'd like society to rely upon is. Without social services thousands of children would be homeless, malnourished, begging and (fairly often) dying in the streets. I prefer the crappy system we have to the notion of state sanctioned child starvation. I mean, WIC covers only the bare, bare, bare basics... and that's the kind of thing that would get cut if folks like Omni had their way.

Sorry Omni, but the "Get help from the people who love you" notion just dosn't work.
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From:sassy_54
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:34 pm (UTC)
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From:phaedra_lari
Date:August 29th, 2006 06:29 pm (UTC)
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All taxes are ultimately taken from people using the threat of force, and everything paid for by taxes is going to be utilized by some more than others. Since none of us get to specifically agree to being taxed or directly control how the taxes we each pay are used, and since nothing that is done with taxes benefits everyone equally at all times, I don't see how receiving public assistance is worse than, say, sending your children to public school (paid for by taxpayers who both do and don't have children in public school) or receiving a salary from the military (many taxpayers don't support the actions or size of the military, and some don't think it should even exist) or even driving on public roads (utilized disproportionately by those who don't carpool, walk, bike or use public transit) or taking the bus (subsidized by taxes but not everyone uses it). While I can certainly understand an argument for decentralizing government power or perhaps even abolishing taxes, or an argument that a given public service program benefits or harms society in specific ways, I don't see how that relates to how individual people should feel about appropriately utilizing a publicly-funded service that does in fact currently exist to help them.
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 05:43 am (UTC)
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That's also an interesting point.

I will say that I do find it somewhat distressing to take tax funded busses. :-/

And I also found it slightly distressing that I was taking unemployment as well when I was laid off. I consoled myself with thoughts of the unemployment insurance I know employers have to pay. I think if I'm ever in the position of being an employer I'll see what I can do about writing severance clauses into employment contracts explicitly. Because really it would be an awful problem currently for society right now if every layoff resulted in a bunch of people with no income for a few months.

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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 05:52 am (UTC)
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I think I know why the shame exists. It's for two reasons. First, those programs can be easily abused so people are automatically suspicious of anybody who uses them and assumes they are abusing them until they know otherwise. Secondly, the transfer of money is very direct, and so it's easy to point out how that person is using money that you gave to the government.

Lastly, of course, America has a very strong culture of self-reliance. Much stronger than Europe or Canada's where I don't think there is nearly so much stigma attached. I don't know how these kinds of problems are handled in Asia at all.

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From:phaedra_lari
Date:August 30th, 2006 01:53 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 04:27 pm (UTC)
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From:d_e_l_i_r_i_u_m
Date:August 30th, 2006 10:56 pm (UTC)

culture of self-reliance?

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From:leora
Date:August 29th, 2006 10:27 pm (UTC)
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I'll be fine with decreasing social programs after public education is working (and the past few years have gutted it further) and after the rich are no longer allowed to physically attack and destroy the poor without any consequences.

The problem I've never seen a libertarian address intelligently (and I'm not saying you're a libertarian, just that this usually comes up when I talk with them) is immeasurable harm. Take pollution. A certain kind of pollution may give a known risk of decreasing the ability of a certain percentage of people to breathe well, which will decrease their ability to work and function. However, there is no way to know which people were effected, so any particular person cannot sue for damages.

Now, take the trickier problems, say random pollution with unknown affects. We're not sure what caused my health problems, but it very well matches the kind of damage done through poisoning, but not any known poison. I may well have lost my ability to work for an entire lifetime, a host of my memories, my body's functioning, and a good portion of my brainpower, because of someone else's pollution. But I will never be able to know for sure or say whose. So, if not for public programs and my family's assistance, I'd be dead by now. And there are millions of people with unknown health problems, and there is no way to say which of those people would have been harmed anyway and which have been attacked and brutalized by other people's actions that are allowed to go on with no cost or consequence because the people who worry that it may be harmful cannot prove it is.

Find me a good solution for that problem, and then I'll start thinking about the rest of it.
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 10:54 pm (UTC)

I agree with you about many Libertarians

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The problems you mention are very interesting, and they are one of the big reasons I have unrealized externalities listed as an interest on my LJ.

The problems where the damage is known, but those affected can't be unambiguously identified can be handled in some regards by modifying current liability law to allow class action lawsuits based on this problem that have real damages.

The problem where the damage isn't known is a lot harder. Especially when it's only known to be damaging long after the fact. I don't have any pat answers for that.

I also think there's good to be done in making sure that certain kinds of behavior that have no known specific problems but are known to be generally bad to have a cost to them. I'm thinking of carbon emissions as a prime example. I think that you should have to pay a certain amount for every kilogram of CO2 you release into the air. The hard part is deciding how much that cost should be and where the money should go.

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From:leora
Date:August 29th, 2006 11:03 pm (UTC)

Re: I agree with you about many Libertarians

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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:13 am (UTC)

Re: I agree with you about many Libertarians

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From:leora
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:24 am (UTC)

Re: I agree with you about many Libertarians

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From:ex_butterfl246
Date:August 30th, 2006 12:30 am (UTC)

Re:carbon emissions

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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 01:58 am (UTC)

Re: carbon emissions

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From:ex_butterfl246
Date:August 30th, 2006 05:00 pm (UTC)

Re: carbon emissions

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From:omnifarious
Date:August 29th, 2006 10:59 pm (UTC)

Oops...

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I just realized that 'unrealized externalities' is reduntant. According to Wikipedia externalities are unrealized by definition.

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From:daisykitten
Date:August 29th, 2006 11:18 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:August 30th, 2006 02:04 am (UTC)
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See this reply.

Also, why hasn't the stock market system which is a big part of why the huge speculation based boom and bust cycles have happened been changed to remove the effects of the kinds of idiotic speculation that lead to things like the .com crash? It might be because people have accepted it as an inevitable fact of life and think that if worse comes to worse they can fall back on the public assistance system when things go south.

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From:daisykitten
Date:September 3rd, 2006 02:34 am (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:September 3rd, 2006 03:38 am (UTC)
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From:daisykitten
Date:September 3rd, 2006 06:09 pm (UTC)
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From:omnifarious
Date:September 3rd, 2006 06:59 pm (UTC)
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From:mizemm
Date:August 30th, 2006 10:20 pm (UTC)
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BTW, I think bad karma inevitably comes form public assistance programs. The money they get is taken from people using the threat of force. It's tainted, and the bad feelings people have about receiving it will never go away because at base they know this is true. So, in addition to pushing the middle down, public assistance pushes the lowest even lower by making them feel that they are a burden.

I agree.
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From:bansheewail
Date:September 5th, 2006 12:20 pm (UTC)
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Late to the party as usual, which works for me, because I avoid the to-do phase of the talkback....

I think the idea put forth in one comment that employers should be forced to provide certain benefits to their workers is naive...the only way it would not backfire horribly would be to unite all the nations of the world so there was no other population to exploit for cheaper labor in a place without those laws to "burden" the companies.

In my revisions to current policies, I would do away with all welfare, as it is now. I would make a massive increase, however, in unemployment benefits, as well as essentially socializing all emergency medicine. It's easy for people to exploit a program that will pay them indefinitely for doing nothing; at the very least, it's easy for that to be the perception of the program, which naturally weakens the program and stigmatizes those who receive the benefits. But everyone in the world is equally vulnerable to circumstances such as injury, illness, and joblessness. Those things can happen to us at any moment, reversing what positive progress we've made in life, setting us back immeasurably, and too often destroying our lives completely just by outlasting the resources we had on hand.

I'd make it so all involuntary job terminations resulted in automatic unemployment benefits at 100% of the salary (no benefits, as the medical necessities are covered anyway for all people) for 6 months minimum (or until they get a job of course), without any micromanagement or having to prove your diligence as a jobseeker, and a program available to facilitate retraining and further education to help people move into a new field if their job search is failing due to their expertise or experience being outdated. The only catch is that these benefits are only available so simply and unquestioningly for 6 months within any five years. If you're repeatedly unemployed, you have to jump through hoops to get anything beyond the cumulative 6 months, and if you decline on the third time within 5 years to avail yourself of the job-training services offered, you will be compelled to demonstrate your lack of need for these services by taking a position teaching one.

As for my medical necessity socialism idea, I just think that nothing that can happen to a person without their intent should have the power to destroy their entire life, their family, their future...so the only medical procedures that should require payment are those that can be planned and prepared for, and yes, that includes making and having babies. I am so sick of the attitude that someone's choice to give birth is any kind of claim on the rest of the world's energies or resources.
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From:omnifarious
Date:September 7th, 2006 12:25 am (UTC)
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That's an interesting comment, and a nice, clear rationale. :-) Sometime soon I think I'm going to make another post in an attempt to pull this whole thing together and say something about it. :-)

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