Is Voting Enough?

By Vanessa Holguin

As children, our parents have absolute responsibility for our lives. Without their willingness to constantly supervise and direct us we simply could not survive. However, once we attain a certain degree of economic self-sufficiency and maturity it simply becomes unacceptable to let anyone but ourselves take control of our lives. How many of us would willingly agree to have our parents ultimately decide whom we date, what we eat, where we live, what we study, or even something as seemingly trivial as what to wear for work everyday? Only a few”•the physically incapacitated, the mentally challenged, the emotionally immature, and lastly the plain indolent”•fail to ever cut the strings of dependency.

So why is it that so many of us are happy to regress back to our childhood state when the relationship at hand involves adults and governments? Although we find sufficient cause for complaints against governmental leadership our passive behavior indicates at worst an equivocal and dangerous “government knows best” mentality and at best a complete disconnect with politics.

It is not just that Americans do not have the time to stay up to date on important issues. Many of them do not want to make the time. When faced with such enormous challenges as fixing the broken school system, confronting the threat of climate change, and improving economic opportunity for all, acting like a child is a privilege that many Americans would gladly embrace. In Oregon, we need to be aware that this privilege comes at the great price of having vested interests and ideologists make decisions that will unduly affect our lives and our communities. If we truly want change, we need to do more than cast a ballot.

Vanessa Holguin is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center.

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  • Jerry

    I agree completely with your assertion and applaud you for stating it well.

    One thing people could do right away, in addition to voting, would be to quit whining.

    Another might be not to fall for every gloom and doom scenario presented to them by an agenda driven, left-wing media. People might actually try thinking for themselves, although it is difficult.

    And the one thing everyone could do that would improve our education system would be to volunteer daily in a school and/or visit classes repeatedly and often to see first hand what is happening. It would make more of a difference than anyone could possibly imagine. They are your schools – visit them often and in depth. Please.

  • John Fairplay

    Really, this is the central issue. We will get as much government interference in our private lives as we allow – there’s no limit at all. Multnomah County is moving toward regulating what foods can be served by some kinds of restaurants. The government is considering sending an agent into every maternity ward to interview new mothers to ensure they will make good parents – and to find out ways the government can get involved in raising her child.

    Most people don’t see the curtailment of rights for some as a threat because they are not part of the group whose rights were curtailed. It’s scary how passive people are on this issue.

    • dean

      John…government interferance is limited by the federal and state constitutions. For example, your right to say or write what you think and now to have a loaded, no-trigger lock handgun in your home.

      If Mult Co is considereing regulating the use of trans-fats in restaurants that serve the public, as some other cities have done, that is not a regulation saying what CAN be served. It is a regulation that prohibits one particular food item that is proven to be harmful to human health, served to unknowing customers. We don’t let people serve arsenic either do we?

      As for the last part, I expect the “agent” will be a trained social worker, not a gun packing cop. What is the harm of interviewing new mothers, many of whom are poor and single parents, to see if they need help? I recall many years ago when I picked up a young single mother froma hospital after she delivered, and took her to her rental home, which was a drafty, uninsulated, run down old Portland house in a dangerous neighborhood. It was about 40 degrees in the place. My wife and I made a fire, got her some supplies, and went home thinking….what in the world is she going to do tomorrow? A visit from a social worker in the hospital would have been a good thing in her case. Fortunately things turned out okay for her and her kid, but she had some very difficult years ahead of her and in the end benefited from welfare, food stamps, and education loans and grants. She became a teacher and her son graduated with honors from University of Washington in engineering a few years ago. She was one of the lucky ones.

      • Vanessa

        “What is the harm of interviewing new mothers, many of whom are poor and single parents, to see if they need help?”

        Dean thanks for posing this question! This is exactly the type of question that I had planned for my article to generate. You see the problem is that we haven fallen prey to the misguided idea that “good intentions/goals” by virtue of being “good intentions/goals” should be exempt from receiving any criticism. This is an extremely problematic mindset because as anyone in the policy world knows, almost every policy has an unintended consequence. Example: If I give out money on the street to alleviate someone’s hunger, I might in fact be unintentionally enabling a substance abuse problem. In his book, “The Quiet American, Graham Greene does an excellent job of bringing this theme to life through his depiction of an idealistic young American whose fervent believe in the goodness of democracy leads him to commit atrocious acts in Vietnam. But I am being too esoteric right now. Let me provide you with a more concrete description of my thought process as it relates to your rhetorical inquiry. I will start by saying that I find the goal of providing guidance/support to new needy mothers a genuinely worthwhile and commendable pursuit. However, this belief does not prevent me from questioning why is it the government’s job to provide this service. In fact, I would argue that having the government provide these types of social services is the least effective way to secure these benevolent goals. This idea is counterintuitive because governments are all about power, and people tend to think that forcing policies is an easier approach to actually convincing people about the potential merits of their policies. What people unfortunately forget is that with every democracy, there is a majority and a minority. So right now in Portland, the majority is liberal, but what, (I know it does seems very likely now), just what if this political dynamic changes? In the last few years, we have seen such human service programs as welfare fluctuate greatly in correspondence with the rise and fall of democratic and republican power at the federal level. If we really care about living in a state which practices compassion and aims to improve economic opportunity for all, then why are we so quick to let these allegedly moral values be determined on the whim of elections? Voluntary charitable organizations are certainly a better solution. Bear with me and go back to college for a second. When you had a group research project, and you presumably cared about scoring a good grade, you certainly wanted the teacher to pair you up with the kids who had genuine interest in the topic. You knew that those kids would do the work, and you wouldn’t have to worry about some procrastinator leaving everything for the last minute, or about doing the extra leg work for the apathetic ones. Voluntary charitable organizations are smarter, not only because they are comprised by members who have chosen to support a common agenda, but also because they allow members to remain more connected with the process. As opposed to writing a general tax check every year, members of voluntary organizations invest time and money for a specific purpose, and thus they are more likely to demand accountability as well as to contribute their own creative ideas. The gist of my article is that we need to be more involved in our government. Only by doing so can we truly recognize the limitations of relying on governmental institutions to carry out our moral values. The million dollar question is how do we make these voluntary organizations prominent?

  • dian

    Over my lifetime I’ve seen us allow more and more government intervention into our lives. Sure there has always been some, I remember the McArthy era when my favorite radio show was “I was a communist for the FBI” but overall there were a lot of freedoms and goals to be all you could be.

    Now it seems to me, we just sit around with our thumb in our mouth and wait to have it given to us. Even those of us who still like to think we don’t do that, we do.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Excelent article! People really do need to become more involved in government than just voting, although voting is extremely important. Remember, that’s how we go about hiring many of the people who run government, set policy, implement programs, etc..

    That having been said, it’s so much easier to influence how government performs by working from the inside through community volunteering, public involvement programs, helping out at schools, etc.. Untill I began doing work for the Hamlet of Mulino, I’m the webmaster and registrar for the hamlet, and I started finding out how many opportunities there are to work within government without having to become an employee of government, I too thought of government as this big monolith that was like an irresistable force pushing the public around.

    But when you go on the inside of government, you can see things from a different perspective, and come up with ways to improve things that you might not have thought of had you stayed on the outside. I think a good example of this would be volunteering at the schools. There is a lot going on at schools that people don’t see from the outside. The teachers and staff see them, but may restricted from saying anything due to their status as employees. But you as a volunteer, and just a regular private citizen, can be free to opperate as you see fit. In fact, your suggestions may even carry more weight with administrators and the public because of your status as a non-employee.

    Citizen involvement is so incredibly important to the propper running of government. Clackamas county has an entire committee devoted to doing nothing more than encouraging public involvment in government, its opperations, regulatory functions, etc.. This committee is staffed mostly by volunteers from the public. The Hamlet board in Mulino is completely volunteer. I’m a volunteer from the public serving on the policy advisory committee for Clackamas county in the Urban/Rural Reserves process.

    There are so many ways that we can make government better and make it work better for ourselves, and make it more responsive to as broad a selection of the public as possible. But we have to get out there and do it. The government is us after all….. Perhaps that’s one of the biggest problems – peoples’ perception of what government is in the first place. Government isn’t some big monolithic alien entity ruling over us. We’re the government, all of us. And, if all you ever do is to vote, you’ve just cut your influence in half.

    Government is like a business. If I ran a business by hiring someone to head my business or a division of my business, every 2 or 4 years, and then, after hiring that person, I turned my back on them, when their contract came up for renewal, unless I was very lucky, I probably wouldn’t be too happy with the job they had been doing. If I kept running my business that way, my business would either fail or eventually morph into something other than what I had originally intended when I formed it.

    That’s what’s happening with government, and has been for quite some time now. We hire people through the election process, then, by and large, we turn our backs on them during the terms of their contracts. Oh, every once in a while, we catch wind of some particularly egregious and offensive actions on the part or our employees, the public elected officials and the ones that they hire, and then we get all bent out of shape and proceed to beat our employees about the head and shoulders for it. We may even fire one if things get too bad. But by and large we’re content, the bulk of us that is, to hire someone and then proceed to ignore them until their contract comes up for renewall. Then, too often, one group of us or another gets all honked off at the poor job the employee has been doing and we either let them go all to gether, or we grudgingly rehire them telling them to straighten out their act. The we promptly turn our backs on them again. No wonder so many people are disolussioned with government and disappointed in it’s actions.

    • Anonymous

      Excellent anology

      • dean

        “Government isn’t some big monolithic alien entity ruling over us. ”

        Joanne….but that is what many of the people who manage this web site, read and comment here seem to believe. As Reagan said, government is not the solution, government is the problem…or words to that effect. And he was 1/2 right. Sometimes government IS the problem. But sometimes it is the vehicle for a solution to a problem.

        Those of us who have taken the time to get involved, pitch in, and suffer the daily indignities of bureaucrecies close up have learned a few things:

        1) Government is too disorganized to be monolithic
        2) Most people who work for government are just doing their jobs
        3) Some problems can only be solved by people working together, and government is one way to organize people to work together
        4) We can’t all get what we want, and compormise is not a dirty word. It is what keeps us from develolving into a Middle east or Central Asian tribal warfare where winner takes all.
        5) In a democracy, especially at the local level, we ARE the government.

        Thanks for what you are doing.

  • cc

    “Those of us who have taken the time to get involved, pitch in, and suffer the daily indignities of bureaucrecies close up have learned a few things:”

    It seems to me you’ve been more involved in *building* and *growing* bureaucracies than “suffering” any indignities from them. I daresay your livelihood is dependent, at least in part, on those very bureaucracies you bemoan. your indignities seem to have come at the hands (votes) of your neighbors when they rejected the attempted expansion of bureaucracy in Damascus.

    dean the disingenuous, you are…

    (sorry, Yoda)

    As for the “things” you’ve learned from your alleged trials and tribulations at the hands of those faceless bureaucrats:

    1) “Monolithic” or not, the shared self-interest of employees of the government, from the Governor on down, tends to produce the same results as if it were. Public employee unions are also a fairly pervasive and coercive influence on government workers and the unions demands for lockstep conformity certainly have monlithic qualities.

    2) So what – there’s that Nuremberg thing which illustrates the pointlessness of that statement.

    3) So what, who said otherwise, the straw man?

    4) We can’t all get what we want, but who says we all can’t or shouldn’t strive for what we want. Compromise is a defeatist’s response to a challenge, not a virtue. How you make the leap from reluctance to compromise to “develolvement” is an hyperbolic flight of fancy with no basis in reality.

    5) Right. Thank God.

    Dependence upon government is weakening the American character. Whether the government or its minions actively encourage that dependence is moot – their careers depend upon it, the more the better. How “successful” a bureaucrat is is measured by the number of people he “helps”. Human nature being what it is, many will take the path of least resistance. It really doesn’t matter whether there’s some malicious, overarching plot behind the “system” – I doubt it – but the effect is the same and that’s what’s important.

    …and frightening.

    • dean

      Vanessa….most people I know that do charitable work are the first ones to say they lack the resources to do enough. Arguments against state intervention to alleviate poverty date back at least to 18th century Britain. I think it was Jonathon Swift who suggested that poor Irish children were quite tasty, and maybe the rich should just eat them and be done with it.

      Yes…one can end up doing more harm by trying to help. But one can adjust one’s efforts, or try something else, or give up. Your giving out money on the street is a great example. In downtown Portland there are a fair number of homeless people. Some are temporarily down on their luck and need a hand. Many are mentally ill and need long term assistance. Others are drunks or drug addicts and will drink or shoot up your donation. Some years ago Sisters of the Road Cafe started selling scrip to people who work downtown. When asked for a handout, you can hand them scrip good for a meal at Sisters. No booze, no drugs, but a nice hot meal. It works great. No harm in a hot meal is there?

      cc…if I’ve been attempting to build bureaucracies I have not been very successful at it. I was one of those locally who initially argued against formation of a city here in Damascus and lost that one.

      1) Having worked within one government agency, and having done consulting work for many, I have yet to see much “shared self interest” amongst the staff. As often as not they don’t communicate with each other, or work at cross purposes. Maybe you have had different experiences.

      2) Sure….Nuremberg and good Germans. Of course you have to weigh that against over 200 years of American experience with government, add in Canada, Austrailia, most of the rest of Europe, and so forth. And we have to consider that it was government power, full scale mobilization and a command-control economy, that defeated the Nazis in 3.5 years. Bureaucrats led the mobilization effort.

      3) No straw man necessary. I was agreeing with Joanne.

      4) The ability to negotiate, listen, and compromise is a virtue when it comes to solving problems within a democracy. Not needed in a dictatorship or tribal “big man” system. Any total “victories” you might win in a democratic system are only temporary. See election, 2008 for an example just around the bend. Rove’s 50 year conservative reign is beginning to look a lot like Hitler’s 1000 year Reich.

      5) We agree on something. Praise Jesus.

      Your version of the “American character” seems a bit 19th century for my tastes. Modern societies are complex, technological, and highly dependent on technocrats, in both the private and public sectors to function. Go flip your light switch cc. Or better, shut off the main on your breaker box. Ask yourself how dependent you are on electricity initially brought to your neighborhood courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt. Drive somewhere with all the stoplights on the fritz. Figure out how to deal with your sewage if the pump station fails to operate. And so forth. If you want to be a cowboy on the range, be my guest. But even they use cell phones nowadays.

      There are lots of things to fidget with one’s worry beads over in this world. Too much coddeling by government in these United States is not presently among them, at least for me. I could even stand a bit more coddeling at my advancing age.

      • Joanne Rigutto

        Thanks for the thanks Dean,

        Actually, some cowboys are using cell technology to track the cattle on the range and remote sensing to take their temperatures. But that’s another conversation…..

        In regard to government it can be good and it can be bad depending on who you are, and what you’re doing in your own personal and/or business life. The only way to keep an eye on government and to make sure it’s as good as possible for any given person, is for that person to get involved and stay involved. If you don’t stay involved and engaged in government over and above voting, then someone who is willing to take the effort will come in and their interests may be contrary to yours. The person/people in government only hear from that other party, because us ‘little guys’ have our backs turned, and the people in government think that what they are hearing is broadly accepted in the community.

        Implementation of the National Animal ID System (NAIS) and it’s impact on small scale livestock owners is a really good example of what happens when you don’t pay attention to and are not engaged with government. NAIS is an animal tracability system endorsed by various international intergovernmental organizations and the WTO. Systems similar to the NAIS are being impelemented in many countries around the world. NAIS as a commercial system works well in theory for large producers (think 12,000 dairy cows on a farm vs. 1 or 2 milking cows for your own personal use or to make a bit of cheese to sell at the farmers market), it’s designed for large producers and those engaged in international trade, and I can see several valid arguments supporting implementation for those producers and in those venues. However, having said that, NAIS isn’t so good for the small producer selling direct or the person keeping livestock or poultry for themselves. Why? Because it was designed by industrial livestock producers for industrial processors and dealers selling accross the country and/or internationally. Large industrial and smallholder systems are completely different systems with dissimilar needs. What works for one won’t necessarily work for the other. Why weren’t the little guys aware of what was going on? I mean, USDA has spent over $130 millinon on NAIS implementation over the last 3 years, you’d think that someone would have noticed. But we didn’t because we had our backs turned on government. Who’d have thought that little Sally with the pony in the back yard would be caught up in WTO agreements? But there you are.

        Had the smallholders been more engaged with government on the local, state and federal levels we would have heard of NAIS years ago and perhaps had been able to help shape it so that it wouldn’t be so burdensome on the smallholders or perhaps it wouldn’t even have been applied to smallholders at all. Even engagement at the county level would have given us some advance warning because many counties endorsed the system before the bulk of the smallholders even knew the thing was out there. Now we are trying to get things changed after the fact. Not a good way to go and largely inefective.

        Being invlolved in government as a citizen volunteer can also help you conduct surveillance on government activities from the inside. You’ll hear about things and just be aware of things in general. You will be informed better than if you’re on the outside, and of course you have a much better chance of influencing government from the inside than from the outside. For one thing, you can see with a different perspective and perhaps your suggestions/solutions might be more accurate and targeted.

        ‘Throw the bums out’ is a broadly generalized solution to a problem in government (and I’m talking here about any problem one cares to look at) that would probably be better dealt with using a targeted approach to a specific problem. And the only way to do that is to get in there and go to work on the inside.

        • dean

          Joanne…amen to that.

          Small, particularly less than full time commercial farmers are a disorganized lot that generally do not get involved in crafting farm policy. As you say this puts us at a disadvantage. One good note is organic rules, which exempt under $5000 a year producers from expensive and onerous inspection and reporting requirements, requiring only the signing of a waiver to be labeled organic, though not “certified” organic. It seems we need something similar for small livestock growers. Blessed be the (local) cheesemakers.

          I imagine the animal tracking thing is an outcome of mad cow? Personally I’ve never even met a mad cow, though I have encountered a few bulls to be avoided on their bad days.

      • Vanessa Holguin

        Dean, of course I’m not saying that we should give up our efforts to address these social problems. My fundamental question, why is government the default implementer of these services, remains unanswered. By quoting Swift you are suggesting that without government intervention Americans would just as easily let their neighbors starve. But why is that? Why are many voluntary charitable organizations understaffed and underfunded? Now I’m no poverty expert, but I surmise that this tendency is strongly correlated with Americans’ increasing reliance on “government” to fix everything. But are these expectations realistic? Americans will not rise to the task unless they are expected to act like adults, something which the current political atmosphere has practically discouraged. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of respect and admiration for a country which provides the most basic social services to its inhabitants. However, I am by no means a conformist, and I know that we can do better by encouraging citizens in this country to take ownership of the programs they support. Governmental sponsorship of social services and the billions of dollars donated to address emergency situations around the world all attests to the idea that not all Americans are the heartless monsters that Swift describes.

        • dean

          Vanessa…I’m no expert on this topic either, but havfe researched it a little.

          If you look around the world, the nations with the lowest poverty rates (both absolute and as a percentage of their populations) have the most generous government funded social programs. The Scandanavian nations are the best in this regard. Wealthy nations with relatively skimpy social programs have higher poverty rates, including Britain, Canada, and the US. This suggests government intervention is necesary to reduce poverty in advanced nations. In our own case in the US, we pretty much eliminated poverty among those over 65 by creating social security and medicare, which are major income transfer programs from teh young to the old. Prior to those programs a large percentage of the elderly were poor. Lack of government help did not induce people to work harder and invest for old age in the past, and there is no reason to think it would do so now.

          A large percent of the poor in America are single women of low education level and their kids. Eliminating government support is not going to make these people more able to earn a decent income. And it is not going to increase charitable giving. It will just make them more poor.

          Americans put far more into charity than do Europeans, yet most charitable giving is to religous institutions. Some of these do some work for the poor, but some do little (my own former church fits the latter category). Religous institutions mostly look out for their own interests. Other charitable giving goes to the arts, environmental causes, or political efforts (like CPI).

          I don’t agree that Americans are incresingly reliant on government to “fix everything.” Most of us go about our daily lives: driving down public roads, flusing toilets that take waste water to public sewage treatment systems, drinking tap water delivered by public utilities, enjoying electricity from public dams, and so forth without giving a thought about all this unless systems break down (bridges collapsing in Minnesota). We have been conditioned since Ronald Reagan to treat government as at best incompetent, and at worst an enemy that steals our hard earned money. We don’t think of it as a service provider and order keeper, its 2 main purposes.

          I agree with you that many if not most people rise to the occasion when there is an emergency. But between emergencies we are not going to spend a lot of our limited time, money, or effort to take care of people we don’t have day to day contact with. Government as a service provider keeping a material floor under poor people may be more efficient of our time and money than shifting this responsibility to charities, which for many people would just mean washing their hands of the problem.

      • cc

        “I was one of those locally who initially argued against formation of a city here in Damascus and lost that one.”

        Gee, if you say so, dean. You certainly embraced the whole deal after you “lost”, tee-hee.

        “As often as not they don’t communicate with each other, or work at cross purposes.”

        Cross-purposes they may be but usually crossing only within the bureaucracy and all at “cross-purposes” with the majority of the citizens. Ill-functioning government at best. In my experience.

        “Bureaucrats led the mobilization effort.”

        That’s an oxymoron, dean – and a funny one at that. Start again.

        “See election, 2008 for an example just around the bend. Rove’s 50 year conservative reign is beginning to look a lot like Hitler’s 1000 year Reich.”

        Oh, you LIKE the Nazi comparison, ja?

        “Ask yourself how dependent you are on electricity initially brought to your neighborhood courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt.”

        Ask yourself what in the hell you’re talking about, deaner. FDR came to my neighborhood just a few *decades* AFTER 110VAC. I know you think he was God, but get real.

        I’m sorry you don’t value cowboys, dean. Don’t demean what you obvously don’t understand. While your little nightmare scenarios may seem like the end of civilization to you, many of us would regard them as only inconveniences. It’s a measure of your dependence that you cite them as disasters.

        Your worldview seems to assume that none of the modern conveniences would have come about WITHOUT government intervention. It probably helps with the guilt thing. For you and your ilk – without government and its bureaucracies – your world would look a whole lot bleaker. The rest of us, the majority for now, at least, believe in capitalism and continue to act on that belief.

        When we get to the point where you’d lead us, intentionally OR OTHERWISE; Tytler, or Toynbee, or Disraeli, or some wise man once said:

        “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”

        Unless, of course, a “…dictatorship or tribal “big man” system…” is the successor to a bloated, bankrupt government. If so, you’ll be entitled to your coddling by your fellow bureaucrats and “leaders”.

        • dean

          I “embraced” reality after 65% of my neighbors voted to incorporate. Try it sometime (reality).

          OK…you tell me who led the WW2 effort. Howard Hughes? He certainly made money off of it on a plane that got 20′ off the ground.

          I didn’t say Roosevelt invented electricity. But the low rates we enjoy in the NW are from federal dams…not filthy PGE/Enron coal plants or their failed nuke.

          I have nothing against cowboys, and thought Brokeback Mountain was a great movie.

          *My world view is that modern conveniences and a technocratic government are joined at the hip*. They are mutually dependent. We can vary the proportions: 50/50 (Germany,) 60/40 (France,) even 70/30 (Sweden,) or the other way, 30/70 (the US,) but that is about the limit. Go past that and systems break down. Too much government and you lose growth and vitality, too little and you lose stability (unregulated markets are a volatile succession of boom and bust bubbles, as we are now experiencing).

          I don’t know about “permanent,” which is a very long time. But hundreds or thousands of years is certainly reachable if we don’t over reach in either direction. My side tends to over reach in favoring too much government, and yours tends the other way. But in a 2 party system we have each other…yin and yan…to keep each other in check. So far that seems to be working, as the Bush over reach was corrected by the 06 mid-term, with a further correction due in a few months. Hopefuly in the nick of time.

          We don’t know what follows. Depends on which side ends up finally over reaching one notch too far I suppose.

          • Vanessa Holguin

            Dean, I am not suggesting that eliminating government’s role in social services will simply fix everything. That would be extremely naive on my part. What I am saying is that we need to find a way to transition away from the very same mindset which you are advocating…this idea that Americans are just not willing to confront societal problems hands on. I admit that in this country we fortunately do not have people dying from starvation every day. But we certainly have a different kind of poverty. I have experience firsthand with neighborhoods were kids don’t go hungry, but at the same time they never manage to graduate from high school…more often than not they got involved with drugs and crimes, and then bear children who in turn follow the path of their miserable lives. Now I ask you what kind of life is that??? We may have eliminated 3rd world poverty in this country, but there is no doubt that the system has failed many Americans. We need to address the root causes of these problems: our broken school system, lack of economic opportunity for many, etc. The average American on the street will sincerely tell you that they place a high value on resolving these issues, but they don’t have the faintest idea about what needs to get done in order to do this. This is extremely problematic because when Americans vote for someone, they do it mostly for political reasons (which candidate is cooler, which candidate supports my causes, etc ), and not because the candidate’s strategy for fixing a problem makes the most sense. Now a few months ago, Oregonians received the Oregon Voter’s Pamphlet. Without prior in-depth knowledge about the various candidates’ campaigns, flipping through the pages and reading the candidates’ self-description did little to distinguish them from each other. Almost all the candidates spoke about their commitment to justice and equal opportunity, etc. Unless we start to examine policies and demand that politicians present us with a comprehensive, transparent plan for delivering their promises, we will continue to relinquish control over our lives. As an individual who prizes the gift of self-reliance, I am not prepared to do this without a fight!

          • dean

            Vanessa….I agree poverty in the US is more relative than absolute. And i agree with most of the rest of what you say above.

            Politicians can’t do much without the suppot of the people. They reflect the people. Americans, for better or worse have a Horatio Alger, rags to riches notion of economics. There is a deeply ingrained belief that anyone, through hard work, smart decisions, and maybe a lucky break can go from poverty to wealth in short order. There is enough truth there to sustain the mythology.

            Reducing ABSOLUTE poverty has been accomplished through a combination of government programs, private charity, and the mere fact of being a prosperous place with oportunities. Reducing RELATIVE poverty and the social problems that go with it (dropout rates, drug addiction, crime, etc) is a lot harder. Other nations have done a lot better than us, but through the vehicle of high marginal tax rates on the wealthy and substantial funding of social programs for the poor. Americans don’t like this approach, so we maintain relatively low (compared to other countries) tax rates at the upper end and do not provide a lot of social funding at the lower end.

            Net result…we have one of the highest, if not the highest relative poverty rates among wealthy nations. That’s a tradeoff we have to live with if we want to sustain our myths.

            Your own ethic of “self-reliance” is admirable. I’m the same way, and have been self-employed for most of my adult life, even though I could have stayed working for the government and done much better economically. But I know that true “self-reliance” is one of our myths. We can be relatively self-reliant, but not fully. Humans are social creatures that rely on family, tribe, village, city, state, and now international cooperation to be safe, secure, and healthy. And in the modern world, we rely on barely visible complex systems that require well trained and organized people to maintain. That is the context within which we can debate freedom and autonomy.

          • Vanessa Holguin

            Dean, poverty is such a complex problem that making broad generalizations about how we can solve it is of practically little value. Right now you are comparing oranges to apples. The Scandinavian countries not only have a different history from our country, but there are important distinctions involving the challenges we face. Unlike the Scandinavian countries, the U.S. is comprised of a huge territory. Can you point to another country of our size that has managed to completely eradicate poverty? Also, in the U.S. we have to deal with issue of immigration,which has an undeniable effect on our social spending programs. Thanks to my LSAT studying days, I am able to point out that you argument is also flawed on the grounds that it makes the error of causation. Just because two things occur together, does not mean that one causes the other. There could be a third independent factor (let’s just use economic wealth as an example) that
            is responsible for one or both of the two elements occurring. Finally, I have read many reports which disprove the asserted correlation between higher government spending and an overall improvement is the social service provided. The public school systems serves as an excellent example. In Oregon, Jefferson High School receives the highest amount of state funds (many times more than many Portland schools), yet it rates worse among them. Therefore, I am really not convinced that more government spending is the key. I agree with you that humans rely on each other to a real extent for their survival, but to me the ideal picture which you describe–that of a system managed by “well-trained and organized people”–is only that, an ideal picture.

          • dean

            Vanessa…not even the Scandanvian nations have “eradicated” relative poverty. They just have far less of it than we do.

            Sure…correlation is not necessary causation. But this is a truism in social sciences. It is all but impossible to eliminate all the possible variables to get it down to just pushing this or that button.

            Nevertheless…we have data from many countries. The Gini coefficient is the gold standard for measuring economic inequality within nations. By that measure the US has more inequality than Canada, Australia, Japan, and all the European nations. It isn’t likely geography or demograpy, it is likely policies that make the diference, and we certainly have evidence of that here in terms of Social security, before which the poverty rate among the elderly was quite high.

            Yes…more spending does not necessarily improve outcomes. Jefferson is a good example, as is Washington DC. It is liely in both cases that historical racism and ongoing poverty trump education spending in those cases, as teachers have pointed out for years.

            I was not intending to paint an “ideal” picture. I was trying to paint a picture of what actually exists. It may be far from ideal, but that is because we are all human and thus flawed. I suspect you are more prone to “idealizing” good outcomes resulting from a greater reliance on free markets and volunteerism. I don’t see any evidence anywhere that this is the case.

          • Vanessa Holguin

            You suspicions are mistaken, and naively calculated on the basis of my affiliation with Cascade Policy Institute and the Oregon Catalysts website. If you take a close look at my writings you will see that the only position I am advocating is for Americans to become more involved in the politics that shape their lives. Also, in your analysis you fail to include examples of countries, such as Russia, which were committed to government control and social spending, but failed terribly to meet the needs of its people. Have you read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Desanovich?” You also fail to consider those countries, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which have done relatively well in terms of addressing income inequality without placing much emphasis on governmental spending. Finally, you continue to use the word poverty as if it had some single definition–which it does not. Due to time constraints, I will not be able to respond to any more postings on this blog entry, but I wanted to tell you that I strongly appreciate your lively participation–that was after all the stated goal of my article. It is interesting that an article as apolitical as mine has become so politicized…food for thought.

          • dean

            Vanessa…I did not include Russia (or the USSR) because it is not relevant. Communism was a bust. No argument from me. I have read One Day in the life, and the Gulag Archipeligo as well. Totalitarian government is definitely not my cup of espresso, whether it is from the right or the left.

            I am distinguishing between absolute poverty and relative poverty, and have been all along. I use acepted international standards for both.

            Absolute poverty has been all but eliminated in advanced nations, including the US. Relative poverty varies a lot, with the US in the bottom tier among advanced nations. I don’t know where Hong kong and Singapore fit into this picture.

            Nothing is apolitical on this web site. If you said it was a nice day outside today it would trigger a global warming debate. Thanks for your positive contributions and respectful way of disagreeing.

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