Sunday, July 11, 2010

Some Modest Proposals

Jonathan Swift, author of "Gulliver's Travels" once sardonically suggested in an essay entitled "A Modest Proposal" that the best solution to the proliferation of poor people in Britain was to give them a useful role in the British economy as a food source; that is, to eat them. Since in America, we are in the middle of the most severe economic recession since the 1930s, with our "deficit hawk" politicians in Washington refusing to extend the unemployment benefits that have been a lifeline to millions of unemployed workers, we need to think seriously, as Swift did, about how we want to deal with the reality that there are an increasing number of very poor people in our society. The simplest solution is just to kill them. This approach has the great virtue of being in tune with the American value of pure rugged individualism and the lofty Social Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. If these people are unable to find jobs and take care of their own financial futures, if they have failed in the great America free market of competition, why should they be allowed to go on living? They are just taking up space that could be better used to provide luxury housing and retail outlets for those Americans who ARE good people and have proven this by becoming fabulously wealthy.

Furthermore, the extermination of the poor could be televised as a--naturally--"Pay Per View" program, to raise money for some worthy cause like medical research into the health problems caused by excessive wealth, in which super-wealthy Wall Street executives, oil company CEOs, multi-millionaire baseball and basketball players, pop music stars, and other examples of God-given success, are allowed to execute poor people in a manner of their choosing. Market survey research has proven that this kind of programming would be far more popular with the majority of Americans, including those who are sliding into poverty but prefer to think of themselves as "middle class," than programming that explores the actual circumstances of poor people.

Who needs the poor? Let them die. This would be somewhat embarrassing for our nation, it is true, but certainly far less shameful than forcing our government to go into debt to provide financial assistance to these worthless individuals. Given the choice between adding to the national debt by helping the jobless and simply exterminating them in a cost-effective manner, the choice is clear. It is the duty of every red-blooded, patriotic American to either become rich, or kill the poor.


The above is my attempt at satirical humor. My more serious thoughts on this subject are that we should absolutely take care of those who are losing jobs and falling into poverty in our society. I disagree with the way that this issue is being framed by most politicians and media pundits. According to them, the only way we can provide aid to the jobless and poor is by the government going deep into debt and driving up the deficit. There is another way to go. When a government budget faces a shortfall, the crucial choice is between cutting services and raising revenues. We have heard plenty of voices saying we must tighten our belts, we must cut back government programs, and so forth. I think we should consider the other possibility, of increasing revenues by raising taxes.

I know that the very phrase "raise taxes" is enough to mobilize a hundred million conservative Americans into an angry, frothing frenzy, but I persist in calling for this, because I think it is the only way forward without decimating services that are widely needed across this country. Let me add as an aside that not only are unemployment benefits on the chopping block, but many other government services from education to fire departments to you-name-it. Check out your local news to see how this is unfolding in your state or local community, as it is becoming nearly universal across the USA, with very few exceptions. I would also like to point out that there is a huge amount of research showing that from about 1980 onwards, with the Reagan tax cuts, the decline of labor unions, and other factors, the wealthiest 5% of Americans have seen an exponential growth in their income and assets, while the vast majority of Americans have seen their level of income and assets dwindle and diminish, while their level of debt has been rising dramatically and continuously. That is to say, there has been growing income inequality for decades. Since we now face a crisis that is hitting the most vulnerable members of our human community with brutal force, isn't it time for those wealthy Americans to give something back, to sacrifice a small amount of their vast wealth, to help those who are on the edge of despair and homelessness? It is time for the greedy to face the needy. We should move quickly to institute income tax increases on the top 5%. THEY CAN AFFORD IT. If we are unable to face this issue, then my joking proposal in the first half of this entry will prove to not be a silly joke, but a grimly accurate prophecy. Have we really become a "winner-take-all" country where the lucky few get to live lives of immense luxury, while millions scrape and struggle? That is pretty much the same as letting the rich kill the poor. It just not as direct and dramatic as what I mention above.

Though this blog entry is primarily one about American politics, it does also connect to one of my main concerns about American Paganism. I have detected--and please correct me if I am wrong--that among American Asatru believers, there is a general right-wing, conservative, or libertarian political orientation, that is totally opposed to the kind of tax policy I mention above. These are people who largely, in my experience, like to fancy themselves modern-day, Viking heroes, tough, independent, and not needing no help from nobody, least of all Big Government. Here is why I think their viewpoint is wrong, and here I must ask forgiveness of my readers for repeating a point I have made repeatedly in the early days of this blog. If we look to the homeland of the Vikings, to Scandinavia, we find that these societies have continued to evolve from medieval times onwards to embrace large, effective government, generous social programs including substantial jobless benefits, and progressive tax policies that require the well-to-do to pay high levels of tax to take care of the rest of society. The results have been spectacular: a healthy, well-educated population, much less of a gap between rich and poor, much less crime, and still, a very successful, thriving business sector, from Nokia to Ikea and beyond. It can be done, and the modern-day Vikings show how.

I believe that the most important thing in religion is to waken in ourselves our "higher mind," our greatest potential. I believe that the gods of any and all traditions represent the human attempt to symbolize and personify many different peoples' glimpses of that higher mind that speaks to us to beckon us to a higher level of awareness. In the Norse tradition, I see that higher mind symbolized and personified by Odin. I think modern-day Scandinavia is, in a certain sense, still listening to Odin and tapping into that higher awareness, and using that to create some of the most pleasant and equitable societies in the world. I wish America could do the same.

I regret deeply that my Asatru brothers and sisters in the USA seem to be only devoted to looking backwards, to trying to create some kind of fossilized version of tenth-century Viking heroism, combined with a particular brand of modern-day American "rugged individualism" wrapped up with love of the military and dislike of government. I think Odin has moved on, and they should too!

PS. We could also take money out of the military budget to pay for human needs in the USA, but I guess that is simply impossible. The military is sacred.


Kensei said...

I agree whole heartedly the US is on a seriously dangerous path. We must increase taxation on the top earners and build social support systems for those falling off the edge. I also believe that we need to drastically cut the military budget (and before you troll me know that I have served this country in the Army for fourteen years and have at least eight more before I retire). We waste more money in the military on a daily basis than most states spend on welfare programs in a year. Religiously I call myself Heathen. This is to specifically differentiate myself from Asatruars in the US. The viking wanna be culture so common to American Asatruar groups is simply silly and almost a irritating as the "spirit warrior" wiccans who believe that they are warriors even though they are not in the profession of arms. For those Heathens and other followers of the Norse gods and goddesses who believe that they have no responsibility to their community or the down trodden found there, I urge them to look again to hospitality and Frith.

The Raven said...

I favor Krugman's solution, personally: borrow now, get the economy going again. If there's still a need to raise taxes, there will at least be more tax later.

One possible outcome of current policies is the combination of austerity and unsustainable debt. It would be very easy to run up debts with, say, another war, or the expansion of the current wars.

And then there's health care costs...

Oh, well. More food for corvids!

Ali said...

The reality might be grimmer than your satire, in fact, if we admit to ourselves that, with "embedded" media stooges tagging along with our armed forces all over the world, our warfare has become in some ways another reality TV show. In a very real way, those of the lower classes who join up to serve on the slim hope of getting out and getting a leg up are the modern-day gladiators going off to kill and die in foreign wars to protect the assets of the rich invested overseas. The government pours billions of dollars into the military without anyone batting an eye about the growing debt. And the worse things get, the more they insist on the necessity of the military, and the more they market their propaganda-ads to the lower classes, selling them the salvation and glory of war.

So yes, raise taxes on the rich, and slash the military budget in half (at least!). That'll give us plenty of wiggle room to sponsor all the social programs we need to get this country back on its feet.

Katie McQuage said...

Thank you for blogging. I've been feeling called to Asatru and I'm just so thrown off by the practitioners that I have been slow to join or develop anything communal. This entry made me happy, and so did the comments.

Maelstrom said...

Since starting this blog in 2009, it never ceases to amaze me how many people write in saying they are interested in Asatru but turned off by the conservative,even right-wing orientation of many Asatruar in the USA. This gives me hope for the future that there may be the beginning of a liberal American Asatru movement here.

The Raven said...

Maelstrom, speaking as an outsider (my name comes from another source), it seems to me that one reason for becoming Asatru in the USA is to join a religion that validates a military vocation. But there are multiple ways to be pagan, and I know Asatru who are not conservative militarists. Your liberals are out there, I think.

Just us - Just me said...

I agree with what you said, mostly. But I see 2 problems:
1. Some people would stay jobless if welfare became "profitable". Some are not honest people looking for a way to work their way up to well-being, they are parasites and what you're talking about is exactly what they're waiting for. I know enough cases like that where I come from. Half the beggars on the street probably make more than my mother, who is a teacher.
2. Raising taxes is one thing, but it is also important what the government does with the money. How can we be sure half the money doesn't go into the politicians' villas and luxury cars?

Maelstrom said...

Just us, I think you are over-exaggerating certain things and ignoring the bigger picture. Are there some poor or jobless people who might abuse unemployment benefits or other gov't support? Sure. Does this mean that all benefits or support should be eliminated? I don't think so. In ANY system, whether government programs, the military, the corporate world, or charity organizations, there will be some dishonest people, some abuses, some corruption, but that does not mean that there is not good that is going on. We should look to limit and minimize corruption and abuses, but not throw away systems that benefit many people. I am also curious about your suggestion that beggars earn more than your teacher mother. Do you have proof of this? Do you actually know these beggars? Do you think begging is really easy to do and that people come to it with expectations of great profit? I am also a teacher and am frustrated about not earning more money, but I don't see this as reason to beat up on the poor.

Just us - Just me said...

I consider that people should get jobs, any kind of jobs. But I've seen beggars who didn't even bother to pretend they're handicapped or something. There was this one healthy young man, begging on a bus. There was nothing that could have impeded him from becoming a garbage man or something (where I'm from, they make about as much as teachers as well) but he was begging. I told him to get a job and people were giving me bad looks. I am sick and tired of parasites like that. I'd support someone who doesn't work if they were studying. Even for their whole lives. But for people like that...
I support cutting down the financing for the military.

Maelstrom said...

Just Us, one important statistic to keep in mind. Currently, there are five unemployed people for every job opening right now. It may not be so easy as you think to get even low-status jobs like garbage collector right now. I would also caution against judging someone who is begging without knowing his/her full story. Just because you think he is "normal-looking" doesn't mean he might not have other factors against him like mental illness, homelessness, or a prison record, all of which make employment very difficult.

Just us - Just me said...

Can something be done to know the genuine cases from the parasites? And if there are more unemployed people than there are employed... can one employed person sustain 5 unemployed?

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Being Poor is not a sin. It is not a sign of judgment, or some aspect of Theodicy. Though you would never know it from the ever popular Nameit and Claimit ministries, and the manner in which those mindsets influence even Pagans.

You cannot solve poverty by throwing money at poverty or poor people. You cannot solve it simply through education. You cannot solve poverty through job creation. Poverty is something that is generational. It is a mindset. If it weren't then we wouldn't have such conspicuous consumption by people who by all accounts are middle class, but who still spend their money like someone living on two minimum wage jobs.

And I have to point out that our government prefers us that way, as do our industries. More money for them, less control for us. We are too busy to call Bullshit on their antics in the Beltway or in the CEO offices. We work far to hard for too little, but it's not money we are missing. It's time, and appreciation of the good life.

You want to end poverty then you need to cultivate the idea of good living, even with a small paycheck.

Matt said...

Poor people and recent immigrants (legal or illegal-and most of whom are poor) are the only two groups of people that its still socially acceptable here to stereotype and demonize. Those most eager to stomp on these folks are in my experience just one or two paychecks away from the same fate. One of the great myths that the right has foisted onto the popular culture is that taxes are high because the government pays all this money to shiftless people on welfare. Plumb the depths of the web and you will see all kinds of fantasies like "the government buys new immigrants cars" and things like that.

I've worked with poor folks and immigrants for over a decade. I would say 10% of the people I dealt with do fit the stereotype, but thats about it. Most chronically poor folks are disabled in some fashion (physically or mentally). Most single parents who qualify for welfare benefits are not on them for long. In my state all you can get for TANF (formerly AFDC) is $363 per month for one child, and your food stamp allotment does not cover even the basic cost of food.

Job training and free daycare (to say nothing of the present unavailability of jobs) for the able bodied is essential, but there is no political will to enhance these programs so people can get back on their feet.

These problems are complex, but the tea partier mentality and the Fox News sound machine don't allow for complex solutions to problems anymore. "Throw the bums out", "cut off the welfare queens", "no more regulation" is all you will get for answers from these people. Its easier to hate and resent than it is to actually try to solve a problem and it has worked for the masters of the right. Look at where the money has really gone since the dawn of the Reagan era. Right up to the top.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks for the informative and thoughtful input, Matt.

The Raven said...

"Can something be done to know the genuine cases from the parasites?"

A lot is already done. The opposite problem is actually more common: honest people don't get support they badly need. This is most serious in health care, where people are literally dying for lack of money.

"And if there are more unemployed people than there are employed... can one employed person sustain 5 unemployed?"

There aren't--employment/population is 58%. There are five people for every job opening, though, so a lot of honest, competent people are out of work.

"How can we be sure half the money doesn't go into the politicians' villas and luxury cars?"

In the USA, problems of abused taxation tend to be more in what is legislated than in individual pols skimming taxes, though that does occur on a small scale. Here in Washington, we are building a huge, expensive tunnel that almost no-one (except the state road-builders association) actually wants. All perfectly legal, and makes no sense at all. I would count maintaining a world war-ready military in the current world as the greatest problem, though. Our militarists simply don't want to stand down, even though having a huge combat-ready military is an enormous expense and a temptation to military adventuring.

Heather Deirdre Awen said...

You make me so happy whenever I read your blog. Please know that a lot of us agree with you and that your words encourage us to make the world better, knowing others also share our views.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks for the words of praise and appreciation, Heather. May I ask what type of Paganism you are involved with? Though I mainly discuss Norse Paganism/Asatru on this blog, I am always interested in other forms of Paganism too, and like to hear how the issues discussed here relate to other branches of the Pagan family tree.

Ananta Androscoggin said...

Try reading something like this book:

The Culture of Inequality, by Michael Lewis, Meridian/New American, 1978

I'm still keeping an eye out for newer books on this topic.

There are days when I wonder if maybe we should make it a death-penalty offense to personally have over a billion dollars. Kill the greed-obsessed bastards and let the inheritors split it up, and if any of the heirs then have over a billion then, kill them too and continue on until nobody has such an unnecessary amount of loot.

But then, I'm seldom a totally practical type.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks Ananta. I haven't seen that book, but another more recent book that might be along the same lines is called "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Economies Stronger", by Richard Wilikinson and Kate Picket. Review at


Anonymous said...

Thanks, once again Maelstrom, for going straight to the heart of the matter on this issue! I have been unemployed for about 3 months and I can tell you that it is not an easy situation. Even as a college graduate with lots of work experience, finding a job in my area is pretty tough. Moving to a new area is not an option right now. My mom is 87 and having some health issues and I am in walking distance from her home. My boyfriend is also dealing with an elderly parent.
As an Asatruar, I agree with your statements about the right-wing ideas that infect members of our faith. Looking to the past is certainly worthwhile (the past creates the present), but this notion of "rugged-individualist" Vikings is largely a 19th century literary fantasy. The fact is that no one in, say, the 8th century could "go it alone". Everyone needed the community to pull together. Pagan Scandinavian societies had a very strong sense of community obligation (see, for example, Robert Ferguson's book, The Vikings, for further information). The worst form of punishment was outlawry - to be denied the protection of law and the benefits of living in society. Even the Gods live in society. And Tyr sacrificed his hand for the good of all.
I have spent a great deal of time in Scandinavia and I agree that they are continuing in the Viking way. We need to send out fact-finding missions to these nations to learn how they have accomplished such equality. I must also add that I found these well-off, largely secular, societies to have a spiritual core that I do not experience in America, for all it's "family values" and churches on every corner.
I have also lived in Mexico, a nation with vast disparities between rich and poor. I think that America is in many ways more like Mexico than like Scandinavia, except that Mexicans do not seem to actually *blame* the poor for their poverty. We Americans seem to think that the poor are at fault for their situation. This is probably why Sen. Orrin Hatch suggested drug testing the unemployed the same week that extended benefits were denied.

Maelstrom said...

Anonymous: Thanks for a very thoughtful response. I really appreciate your point about ancient Viking society being more community-oriented than individualistic. In our contemporary situation, I think the crux of the issue is how Asatruar interpret "community." Some, like you and me, see it as the larger society we live in, or maybe even all humanity. For more libertarian and tribalist Asatruar, like the Theodish, for example, your "community" is limited to your immediate social circle of family, friends, etc., and/or people they swear oaths with. For myself, I much prefer the larger definition.

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