Dispatch From the Trenches Part 1: Classism, Paternalism, Neoliberal Assault On the Poor and UBI As the Deus Ex Machina

Warren Buffet famously said, “There’s class warfare, alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Indeed. The War on the Poor has been going on for the past 40+ years, if not longer, starting with the Powell Memo which served as the blueprint for successfully waging that war.


But there is also a blueprint for successfully fighting back and winning that war. It’s key components entail two main things: (1) A solid understanding of the history of our geopolitical and economic landscape and the Edward Bernays-style propaganda machine used to silence neoliberalism’s victims over the past 40 years, and (2) A solid grasp of macroeconomics and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). 


Real Progressives host Steve Grumbine gives regular YouTube broadcasts on MMT, and breaks it down so that it’s understandable for those of us who don’t have an academic background in economics and who are struggling just to survive and therefore lack the mental bandwidth, time, and basic economic stability that would allow us to spend lots of time reading and learning complex economic concepts. It’s hard to avail yourself of online materials and study them when your electric and Internet is about to be shut off (again) for lack of any income to pay the bills and put food on the table, so his broadcasts explaining MMT and rebutting its naysayers are a huge help for those of us who don’t have the luxury of being able to digest tons of advanced academic material around struggling just to make it through one more day in deep poverty. 


So, I will focus on addressing the history of how and what led us to the mess we’re in from the position of experience as one of neoliberalism’s many victims struggling with lifelong poverty and the repercussions of neoliberalism’s assaults on jobs, on social programs for the poor, and on consumer protection measures (i.e. public utility deregulation and privatization, etc.). And for the MMT aspect, I strongly recommend that everyone who is able to have stable access to electric and Internet to avail themselves of Steve Grumbine’s broadcasts delving into the MMT discussions.


Neoliberalism’s destructive policies by consent


Words are powerful ‘sticks and stones.’ 


The assault on worker protections, on social programs for the poor, the elderly and the disabled, on human rights in general, all began with words. It was words that nourished the minds of those with a vested interest in maintaining their economic privilege near or at the top of the food chain regardless of what their privilege has cost others. 


It was words that brainwashed many well-meaning people into an unshakable belief in a system of ‘benevolent’ paternalism (sometimes referred to as ‘white saviorism’) - a system of “free market” solutions (such as crowdfunding) and private, “non-profit” charities/NGOs and “faith-based” social agencies instead of government programs - as the only allowable solution to poverty. 


What you don’t know can and will hurt you - and a whole lot of other people, too.


“I donate to charity to help the poor.”


“The poor should go to the charities for help instead of begging for money.”


“There is all this help out there for the poor.”


“It’s for their own good.”


All of this may sound caring, but it’s not. Depriving poor people of access to money, to livable incomes in addition to non-cash material resources, has not helped one poor person ever. 


Policing poor people’s spending and barring their access to money so they can make their own choices about what’s best for their situation is not empowering or helpful. It’s paternalistic, selfish, cruel, and counter-productive.


It speaks volumes about the degree of entitlement that privileged people have where they feel they have a “divine right” to control poor people’s lives - even when that control deprives them of agency, human rights and dignity, and access to real options and a real equal opportunity to improve their lives. This does nothing except keep poor people in the ‘one-down’ social and economic position under the guise of “helping” them.


All of this violates poor people’s basic human rights and perpetuates the stigmatizing of the poor and lends credence to paternalistic claims that the poor can’t be trusted with money, choices and access to options to dig themselves up out of the deep hole of poverty. 


If giving enough money to poor people to live on with some extra to spare on top of what’s needed for the basics so that there’s discretionary income that they might want to use towards lifting themselves up out of poverty, if doing that makes the poor “lazy” and “dependent”, then why give more money to privileged affluent people who don’t need it? Nobody ever argued that the well-educated, well-employed, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed middle and upper-middle classes would become lazy or dependent if more goodies are given to them!

Propagandizing the masses


“Government programs like SSI, welfare, and social security are a failure because they don’t give the poor enough income to live on and police the poor to the point where they’re discouraged from improving their lives, so we should just give poor people money with no strings attached.”


This is where UBI promoters are being deceptive. They’re using poor people’s legitimate grievances in order to usher in their neoliberal “solution” - their deus ex machina -  to problems caused by neoliberalism in the first place. 


Poor people’s valid grievances include the fact that a poor disabled person cannot even get a paltry sub-poverty SSI benefit of about $700/mo unless they have no assets and are indigent and unable to work at all, and if married they must get divorced from their slightly less poor spouses and live separately, losing access to any meager marital wealth they might have had prior to becoming disabled and in need of an SSI check. 


Forcing poor disabled people to get divorced, splitting up their families and marriages, and losing all marital assets as a condition of getting a disability income benefit that’s far below the antiquated federal poverty level, is cruel. It deprives the disability community of the same basic human and social rights that everyone else has that they take for granted as ‘normal.’ It punishes people for having a disability by condemning them to permanent poverty and depriving them of the basic human and social rights to get married and form a family - for the “crime” of being disabled and unable to economically provide for themselves with employment. 


A better solution would be to fix the social programs so that you don’t have to be utterly destitute to get helped or remain at or below poverty as a condition of that support. Increase the SSI benefit amount to a dignified living wage equivalent and scrap the blanket denial policy and the requirement that a disabled person first becomes utterly destitute and have their marriage and household broken up in order to get the benefit. So, expand social security and increase the benefit amount and make it non-punitive. Problem solved.

But neoliberals and Libertarians aren’t interested in solving the problem of exponentially growing poverty and homelessness and all the attendant problems that unrelieved poverty entails. They’re not into fixing existing social programs and repairing the safety net they’ve devoted the past 40+ years to destroying. They’d rather use the excuse that “government programs don’t work” as justification for eliminating them altogether after starving them for funds and piling on punitive measures to make it impossible for those who are eligible and who need the help to get anything, rendering the programs useless. 


Once you get rid of the social programs, they’re gone for good. There is no special snowflake exception - as many formerly middle class people found out in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 when they fell into poverty and needed help so they could remain economically stable only to find that they couldn’t even get enough food stamps to eat for a month and after 90 days they’re thrown off the benefit, whether or not they’ve been able to find employment and whether or not they were able to get any income at all. 


Many of those formerly middle class people who lost everything in the crash of ‘08 - their jobs, their 401(k)s, their cars, and their homes - were never able to financially recover because they were never rehired once the economy began to recover. They were permanently pushed out of the economy due to rampant age and/or disability discrimination in the job market. Many ended up becoming part of the growing permanently homeless population in “tent cities” and homeless shelters across the country as a result.


You don’t get to spend 40+ years shredding the social safety net and then claim that “government programs don’t work” and expect the public to accept that as gospel truth.


We don’t need government to rein in price-gouging and ensure quality goods and services for the public customer when market forces alone solve that. UBI won’t result in hyper-inflation or price-gouging, the free market will take care of that because markets only bear what people can afford or are willing to pay.”


UBI proponents claim that the “free market” will be enough to rein in price-gouging and other exploitative practices from the rentier and employer classes. Except that never happened and price-gouging was never reined in by market laws of supply and demand without government intervention. Two cases in point: The airline industry and the automakers. 


Having grown up with things like school recess, two-party landline phones, and muscle cars, I’m old enough to remember the “then” before the “now.” I lived it and I have a very long memory. 


Prior to 1978, airlines were regulated like utility companies (which have also since been deregulated and privatized since 2001). Before the utility companies were deregulated by the government, rates were more affordable even for the poorest Americans on low fixed incomes. You didn’t have poor seniors and disabled people freezing to death in the winter or dying of heat stroke in the summer due to utility cut-offs for lack of enough income to pay unaffordable rates, and LIHEAP was better funded so that there was adequate help available to the very poor. 


Because there was actual help for the poor and for those on low fixed incomes, homelessness also did not exist. There was only one “bag lady” who was homeless in the entire city of Philadelphia when I was a child growing up there in the 1970s, and she was actually an eccentric who couldn’t bear to stay in her home alone after the death of her husband, and after the city made her get rid of her 30 cats (her “babies”). Everyone knew her. Her name was Mrs. Orday. She refused to go into a nursing home, and I didn’t blame her. “Nursing homes are dismal dumps where people are sent to die, I don’t want to die”, she’d tell anyone who struck up a conversation with her.


Back to deregulation. Airlines were regulated before 1978, and were much safer and more comfortable for passengers and far less expensive - even low-income senior citizens on social security could afford a coach ticket and be assured of a comfortable high quality travel experience. 


Almost all domestic flights had zero stops (one stop at most). Meals were offered on all flights except for very short ones on “puddle jumpers” that are mostly for connecting regional flights. Flight attendants used to hand out menus on longer flights with delightful meal choices (with actual real food) that even coach passengers could get. Seating in coach was more comfortable with a lot more leg room and bigger seats - pregnant passengers didn’t have problems fitting into the seats, unlike today. There was ample storage space for carry-on bags and no extra charges for checked bags. The government determined the fares, routes, and flight schedules but also guaranteed private commercial airlines a reasonable profit in return. 


But wealthy neoliberal/Libertarian/fascist types weren’t satisfied with this arrangement. They heavily promoted their “free market” fairy dust logic of deregulation and privatization and convinced Congress to deregulate the airline industry in 1978. 


Initially, prices for flights decreased as new “low fare” airlines entered the airline market. But none of those new airlines lasted. Neither did the low prices. The once-regulated airline industry quickly morphed into an unregulated monopoly with CEOs calling all the shots instead of public officials. 


Airline CEOs implemented cost-cutting measures that made air travel far less comfortable and efficient for passengers. Travel time grew longer as passengers were bounced from hub to hub instead of being flown directly to their destinations. One of the reasons for this was that passenger travel (and the quality of it) took a back seat to air freight and interstate commerce. Airlines eliminated meals, comfortable seats and ample leg room for coach passengers. Then they began over-booking, packing almost every seat on every flight, which created even longer delays in boarding and exiting.


Ever since the airline industry was deregulated, the ethos of “the customer is always right” has changed to “the customer can like it or lump it, if they don’t like it they can choose not to fly.” The customer became the least important part of the transaction (unless he/she was rich and paying top dollar for a first class seat). Instead of being valued for their patronage, the customer is now viewed as a nuisance and treated with contempt - as evidenced by the way United Airlines assaulted David Dao, an elderly doctor who was a coach passenger that was physically dragged from the plane  by burly airline cops when he refused to “volunteer” to relinquish his seat when the airline decided it “had to” bounce four coach passengers because United overbooked and needed four seats for airline employees.


Travelers who are able to afford to fly first class never have to worry about being assaulted and bodily dragged off a plane due to airline overbooking. America’s airline industry bends over backwards to ferry their richest biggest-spending customers in the greatest of comfort and convenience. 


United and other airlines even provide first class customers who have connecting flight schedules with gate-to-gate chauffeur service in Porches and Mercedes Benz. Once aboard, these lucky few can relax in seats that double as fold-out beds with lumbar supports and bed linens provided by Saks Fifth Avenue, and they are offered hot meals and wine. 


But most airline passengers can only afford to fly coach (now called “economy class”) and the majority of the general public can’t afford to fly at all. An increasing number of us can’t even afford a reliable car, or qualify for a loan under favorable terms to buy one. Not having a car means not being able to access the job market if you don’t 24/7 public transportation available where you live and lack the money to relocate to one of the coasts’ overpriced, gentrified yuppie meccas where you’ll still likely get passed over for a chance for a job and still be poor anyway if you’re not young, conventionally attractive-looking, know the “right” people and aren’t deemed “a good culture fit” by employers’ gatekeepers. (“Not a good culture fit” is really nothing more than backdoor job discrimination.) 


And airline executives who are fired or forced to resign by shareholders and board members over federal corruption charges (like former United CEO Jeff Smisek) aren’t bodily hauled off airline property like paying customers traveling coach. Smisek “failed upward”, walking away with a golden parachute of $37 million in compensation, including a car, free flights, and lifetime free parking at two major airports - all of which was paid from the public purse. 


But what’s truly scary is that much of the public simply accepts this abuse and blames the victims of violence at the hands of “too big to fail” unelected and unaccountable rich overlords who’ve usurped our government and seized all the levers of power - which by definition is a fascist corporate state, an inverted totalitarian regime.


It’s telling when “free market” cheerleaders who rail against government regulations that protect the customer and the worker from employer abuses and exploitation and decry “socialism” when it comes to providing economic support for the poor and working classes, the disabled and the elderly while using government as their own personal armed thugs and helping themselves via “theft” of public money. 


Their thinly veiled hatred for the poor, whose lack of privilege paid for theirs, should be enough to send up a big red flag when that same over-privileged over-entitled overclass starts pushing a “poverty solution” of a $1,000/mo UBI that isn’t enough to lift single individuals without dependents above poverty. Yes, poor people need incomes. But we also need access to healthcare and affordable prescription drugs and dental care (including dentures), too.


After four decades of blaming the victims of poverty for our suffering and misery and telling us we don’t deserve good lives, that “no one owes you a job” while collapsing the floor from underneath the poorest of the poor as punishment for taking resources away from “hard-working taxpayers”, I do not trust them when they come to town waving a $1,000/mo UBI under the noses of desperately poor people who never chose to be economically excluded and forced onto society’s margins. 


My lived experience as a woman from generational poverty, as a poor marginalized human trafficking survivor that was denied employment and spent two-thirds of my adult life homeless because of being forced out onto society’s margins and denied jobs and access to an income, has taught me that:

  • When you’re poor without any income and can’t get any money, nobody cares about you.

  • Everyone else kicks you when you’re down

  • Everybody thinks you should “just get a job” - while telling you why YOU don’t “deserve” one, especially at their workplace (“We don’t serve your kind”)

  • Most offers of help either come with strings attached, or aren’t offers of the type of help you need that you asked for (you can’t buy a car to get/keep a job with donated food that you can’t have anyway because you’re diabetic)

  • People all say they care, but they don’t care enough to help you by giving you money so you can get what you need in order to get on your feet.

  • Everyone that's better off than you has an agenda, and your health, wellbeing and life is not it


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