Give People Nice Things and Let Them See You Do It

Because, as we often say on this blog, people have to like this crap. Ryan Cooper (boldface mine):

Frightened of waking the anti-welfare, anti-government beast, Democratic politicians have built convoluted means tests into their programs to make sure only the “deserving” receive benefits, or hidden them in the tax code out of sight, or both.

But it turns out that, when given the option straight up, the American people overwhelmingly support getting free money from the government. Joe Biden’s presidency could be one in which the toxic ideological bias against a proper welfare state and active government dies an extremely deserved death. Free money is both good and fun!

The side effects of the anti-welfare prejudice can be seen in the trap that center-left politicos often back themselves into trying to appease it. It goes something like this: We’re designing a new program to help the poor. In keeping with laissez-faire notions of the self-regulating market, which views government programs as an imposition on the preexisting economy, we assume that welfare payments are an immoral, unnatural drag on production, and hence only the very needy should get them. Thus we need to cut the middle class and the rich out, because we don’t want to waste public dollars on people who aren’t truly desperate. But on the other hand, we need to require recipients to earn at least some money from working to qualify, because otherwise we’d be undermining the incentive to work, thus possibly undermining the economic base on which the program depends. (The right primes everyone to believe this with a lot of racist stereotypes about single mothers and insinuations that people are only poor because they choose to be.) Hey presto, we just created an inefficient, annoying program that leaves out the people who need it most (the very poor who do not work at all), stokes resentment among the non-poor, and stigmatizes its recipients

Claiming the trapezoid benefit requires a lot of obnoxious paperwork, so even a big chunk of eligible people don’t actually get it. Then many middle-class people perceive their tax money as mostly benefiting others, so they get annoyed or use it as fuel for racist agitprop about how minorities are all living off the government dole… Similarly means-tested programs like food stamps or Medicaid inspire resentment among people who don’t receive them.

And then arrived the stimulus checks:

It turns out Americans love getting free money from the government. A poll from May 2020 found that 82 percent were not only happy with the checks, but wanted them to be sent out on a monthly basis so long as the pandemic lasts. Another poll in December found 78 percent supported the idea of $2,000 checks, as was being discussed at the time. In both cases, even a large majority of Republicans supported the idea.

The checks were only a modest portion of the various pandemic relief packages, but they seized public attention to an extent that made economics journalists despair. The grant program for small businesses was huge, as was the Federal Reserve lending program, but few noticed them compared to the checks. This has to be because they were so obvious. For the vast majority of people, the checks were surely the most blatant, direct, and easy form of government assistance they had ever seen in their lives. No application process, no paperwork, no filing your rotten taxes, just $1,200 in hand courtesy of Uncle Sam. A whole nation blearily came to the realization that the government can just send you money, for free, and moreover, nothing bad happens when they do. There was no instant spike of inflation, no destruction of jobs, no plague of locusts, and the sky did not fall. A whole vast edifice of libertarian agitprop about how “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” was vaporized at a stroke because, yes, there is.

People like having nice things, or just things at all! And when the government shows up and directly helps people, no muss, no fuss, it’s popular.

One caveat is that, during the pandemic, people realized many workers needed help through no perceived fault of their own. The question is will people revert to thinking that, if you can’t get by, that’s your fault, not a problem with the larger economy. If the former, then this might be a temporary phenomenon. If the latter, we might be in the headspace Cooper is describing. I’m leaning towards the latter because a significant swath of GenXers and a lot of millenials have experienced a shitty economy through ‘no fault of their own’, sometimes multiple times, while seeing well-off people do well by breaking the rules. In addition, if programs are made universal (or nearly so), then they will be perceived as ‘earned benefits’, not charity for the poor, who might be ‘undeserving.’

We just might get a 20th century welfare state. Because people have to like this crap.

(and 20th isn’t a typo either)

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2 Responses to Give People Nice Things and Let Them See You Do It

  1. I liked the 20th century. I’m not too impressed with the 21st century.

  2. Pingback: People Have to Like This Crap: The Child Benefits Edition | Mike the Mad Biologist

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