Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Means Test

Poor Government Policies

One of the recent ideas, the brainchild of social conservatives, is to conduct a means test for all government social programs. This is done, ostensibly to provide “facts” in the way of documents to give the civil servants the means to decide whether an individual deserves government monies—in other words, government decision-makers act as gatekeepers (or guardians) of the public purse.

On the face of it, it seems like a sensible and compassionate idea, as is the case with initial views of many socially conservative, or right-wing policies. That is how they are put forth to the electorate. But upon closer scrutiny, the reasons are less noble, less compassionate, and ultimately more harsh. The means test is really about not disbursing funds to the needy and poor and less-fortunate; it’s actually about ensuring that less and less money is distributed to the lower-classes—supported by the “facts” that such individuals don't meet the requirements.

Often, it’s about missing documents or not turning them in in accordance with a determined due date; and it matters little if the government bureaucrats and their requirements are onerous and unnecessarily demanding to provide proof. Often people give up.

Individuals need government support, not because they are lazy, which is often the prevailing idea among the wealthy and upper classes (an idea drawn from that great misanthrope of history, Paul of Tarsus, the creator of Christianity, who wrote in an letter, or as it officially called,an epistle to the Thessalonians:
Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep. Friends, don’t slack off in doing your duty. —2 Thessalonians 10-13
That would have some effect if individuals could find a job, and the government can’t offer any real assistance, since they created the original condition—with the blessing and encouragement of their corporate overlords—for high unemployment through their economic policies. But so individual can't find a job, and yet the guilt remains, due in large part to the Pauline epistles. The less-fortunate are essentially being punished, by the wealthy, for the problems they themselves created.

Does it matter that the government itself has legislated laws that don’t act in the best interest of economic stability and social cohesion? That their policies in many western nations for the last few decades have gone against the best interests of creating and encouraging companies to create jobs? That they, the supposed representatives of the people, have created a New Economy and a Disposable Economy that favours multinationals and large transnational corporations that are often economically larger than many nations?

Again, social and economic conservatives still hold the old view that if people don’t have jobs, it’s essentially because they are lazy. Consider what one prominent conservative think-tank writes about means tests, In a an article (“Means Testing and Its Limits”) in National Affairs (Fall 2011),  Andrew G. Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute writes:
But means-testing also has some serious drawbacks, especially when it comes to how the policy might shape Americans' financial decisions. Means-testing entitlement benefits could punish the very people who work the hardest and save the most, depressing economic activity and discouraging good behavior. The cure for our fiscal problems could thus end up being worse than the disease.
Yes, “good behaviour,” which takes us back to Paul of Tarsus and his epistles; the connection is clear. But let’s examine what this writer is getting at, let’s get to the nub of the issue. Having read the full article, which I highly recommend, you will see it a lesson in sophistry; allow me to parse what Mr. Biggs is really saying. The means-tests are not sufficient in themselves to save the government money, which need be allocated for different purposes. And what are these unsaid purposes? It’s necessary to further increase the restrictions, thus allowing the lower and middle-classes to support the policies and life-styles of the wealthy.

What a privilege, my lord. One can only conclude two possibilities: 1) government bureaucrats are working on old, outdated policies that have nothing to do with the present economic reality; or 2) government bureaucrats know full well what they are doing, and couldn’t care less.

The first is plain ignorance; the second is plain meanness. Either way, this makes the means test a test of meanness in an Age Of Meanness. The central question rarely asked is why is it necessary for the government to be run as a business. Social and economic conservatives come together and applaud, secure in their sanctimonious ignorance and smugness, while the rest of us weep.