Strange Perspectives on the Welfare State

Yesterday, the Cato Institute was hosting an event on the Welfare State, so Claudia and I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear some alternative viewpoints to what we have been learning in our "History of an Injustice" class.

James Bartholomew who wrote a book called, "The Welfare State We're In", was speaking. Michael Tanner from the Cato Institute (== Libertarian) was moderating and Dr. Wendell Primus, the Senior Policy Advisor on Budget and Health Issues to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (== Democrat) was there to provide an alternative view.
In many ways this was my first exposure to DC politics (even though the author was British and the book is about the UK) and really my first exposure to non-liberal thinkers in person since I started caring about social justice.

It was pretty shocking and disappointing all around.

Bartholomew struck me as a too absurd for reality cartoon character. His talk was all disjointed anecdotes about how things were better 100 years ago, and his solution is to figure out how to go back to those times. This was the killer quote from his talk:

"At the lower class level, there used to be a large number of really decent, honorable, admirable, low paid people in Britain. I don't think you would stand up in England and say that was the case now, that would be absurd." (@9:25 in the talk)

Not only does he want to eliminate any kind of unemployment and housing assistance, but he also thinks publicly funded education needs to be eliminated. His main argument for eliminating public schools was a story about a poor Welsh boy from 100 years ago who was educated by a local church charity school, read classical literature and went on to become Prime Minister. He claimed that if this boy had been bussed off to the school of today he probably wouldn't have learned how to read.

As he was saying all of this stuff I was shocked. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to remember some key statistics from my class. Bartholomew spoke about welfare as a trap that lures in the poor and they can never emerge from it, yet I recently learned that 75% of all Americans will live below the poverty line during the course of their adult lives. In other words poverty is cyclical, it is often the result of a short term circumstance (health problem, recession, divorce, etc) and it will hit most of us at some point in our lives, but we will probably emerge from it. Unfortunately I could barely remember the 75% number, and I was sadly realizing that my grasp of the class's material was less than what I needed for it to be functionally useful.

Luckily, Dr. Primus (who also worked in Clinton's administration) was speaking. I expected someone like Josh Lyman from the West Wing to passionately tear Bartholomew to pieces with rational arguments and hard data.

I was greatly disappointed. He certainly didn't agree with Bartholomew, and he wanted to talk about health care companies, but beyond that I didn't really follow much. He also used anecdotes. His were mostly about how poor people "make mistakes" and need things like health insurance.

Certainly the most intelligent speaker was Michael Tanner from Cato. Intelligent but totally out of touch. He kept speaking about how much money was spent on welfare related activities. He used real numbers, which was good, but the crux of his argument seemed to be, golly gee those numbers are high, shouldn't we care that we are spending so much money on these government programs? He didn't mention caring about the poor.

One thing was mentioned that all speakers seemed to agree on. They all had a great appreciation for the challenge of getting things done in a democracy. With these sorts of old white men standing at the front of the room I also had a great appreciation of just how hard it must be.

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