"Ownership society" scam on the way

The good things in your life can be your own property, or they can be things which have a monetary value but aren’t property in a legal sense (such as a good job with benefits, or Social Security and other entitlements), or they can be public goods such as safe neighborhoods or good public schools.

For various reasons Americans (compared to Swedes, for example) have always preferred property they can solely control to the good things which take other forms. Americans also tend to overestimate their own success and their prospects for future success. For these two reasons, Republican attempts to deliver big benefits to their rich contributers (e.g., the elimination of the “death tax”) get an amazing amount of support from people who basically are fooling themselves. They think that they’re property owners, but they’re not. They’re labor.

Almost all Americans are still labor — dependent on their own or someone else’s wages. Various legal fictions invented in order to bust unions or to evade taxes (such as declaring certain categories of workers to be “contractors” or “supervisors”) obscure this fact. But if you can’t live off your property but have to work for a living, you’re labor. (Small businessmen are a borderline case).

Take a 45-year-old guy with a paid-up $100,000 home, a $50,000 / year job with good benefits and a pension plan (in addition to Social Security), and two kids 6 and 8 whom he plans to send to the pretty-good public schools in his neighborhood*. And suppose that he also has $30,000 on the stock market.

Because he’s a home owner with money on the stock market, he might be tempted to think of himself as part of the investor class. But he’s not. If he loses his job and can’t get another one, he and his family will be destitute in three to five years. If his neighborhood decays, he won’t be able to move. If the local schools decline, he won’t be able to send them to private schools. A net worth of $130,000 really isn’t very much.

But his property is his alone. He doesn’t share it or depend on anyone else for it. The other goods are much more valuable all put together, but they are not his property and not in his control.

The present trend in fake Republican populism is to reduce taxes while converting various forms of government entitlements (Social Security, education, Medicare, etc.) into cash benefits or vouchers. Simultaneously, workers with piddling little stock market nest-eggs are encouraged to believe that now they’ve “made it”. Both scams depend on the fact that money in the hand has a definite countable value and is controlled by the owner, whereas it’s harder to put a dollar value on good public schools, which are a shared good.

In the vast majority of cases the guy with the money in his hand will end up worse off in the “ownership society”. There is no intention to improve his life. He’s being sold a pig in a poke, and once his signature is on the dotted line (i.e., once the bill passes Congress) he’ll be dead meat.

There are people who will benefit from the “ownership society”, of course. But they are not the ones who it’s being sold to, but the ones who are selling it. That’s the way scams work.

* NOTE: In large areas of the U.S. the public schools still are pretty good. Oddly, a lot of the outcry about “our failing public schools” comes from Southerners, whose schools have never been very good. You’d think they’d put their own house in order before preaching to others, but human nature doesn’t work that way.

(“The Rise of the Worker-Investor” by Rich Lowry of the National Review is a recent example of this scam).

Originally from this discussion on Brad DeLong