The Moral Question

Via New Deal 2.0, Tom Scocca has an incredible post dissecting David Brooks’ anti-entitlement, anti-poor people writings. Or, as the person who manages the New Deal 2.0 Twitter account put it, “Tom Scocca argues that deficit hawks are really just irritated by the existence of poor people.”

The debt—the runaway debt—has nothing to do with morality. Casting the debt as an object of moral concern is the work of minds that have come detached from human experience. The debt is an epiphenomenon. It is the side effect created by the specific moral decisions about what the country wishes to see funded, and how it is willing to fund those things.

Talking about the deficit is a way of cutting morality out of the discussion. Waste! Mismanagement! Incompetence! Unaccountable earmarks! These things are noise. The actual questions are: is money to be spent on people who do not have money? And where is that money going to come from?

There are people who do not have money. Some of them do not have money because they are children. Some of them do not have money because they are old or sick or otherwise unsuited for the labor market. Some of them do not have money because the labor market has stopped paying for the work that they know how to do in the places where they live. Robots and other machines can approximate the things these people used to do.

This may be hard for Brooks and other elites to understand, but Scocca is exactly right. There are real moral questions at play here, but the deficit hawks aren’t being honest about what they are.

What happens when there is no money to give to the people who have no money? That is the moral question. It’s fine to say that the old people should have saved more, they should have worked an extra job, they should have done without cable TV, they should have invested more wisely. Saying that doesn’t change the fact that there will be old people who do not have money. These old people will believe that they need food and shelter and medical care.

Will they get it? At the arch-plutocrats’ end of things, the Koch brothers’ end, the end occupied by the most devout worshippers of Ayn Rand, the answer is: no. That’s the goal. It’s long since time for the sloppy, implicit, badly supported social contract to go away. Rich people have been trimming their contribution to the general revenue for decades now. They are not interested in paying the premium that keeps old people and ailing people or just backward people out of the streets. If the day comes that they have to travel to and from their various compounds in armored helicopters, they can afford the helicopters. It’s not their problem.

With all the talk about America being the greatest country on earth from Republicans, it’d be great if some of them recognized what has allowed them to do so well. The Masters of the Universe don’t exist in a vacuum – their successes are built on the efforts of working American. Being glib about the need to make Tough Choices and Hard Decisions when it comes to social spending ignores the real consequences of being so Serious. People will lose their homes. They will get sick. They will be hungry. They will die. These are real moral consequences. Conversely, the color of ink on paper is not a moral question.

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