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Pyle: The smart way to be selfish

Published September 21, 2012 6:19 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There is a rumor going around that people who support such things as Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, Social Security, food stamps, student loans, even public schools, do so because we are "bleeding heart" liberals who have an immense soft spot for the poor and downtrodden.

Bunk.

The truth is that most of us so-called liberals are just as selfish as any roomful of Mitt Romney SuperPAC donors. Just like them, we want what's good for us, now, by whatever means available. But, because we aren't rich, our means of achieving this nirvana of self-centeredness are limited.

So, just like rich conservatives, we prevail upon the government to do it for us. But, unlike rich conservatives, we don't have buckets of money to throw at "independent" ad campaigns. So we act through our votes and our Forms 1040.

The real motivating factor behind all this liberal behavior was probably best put by one of the leading conservative politicians of the 1990s, Dick Armey. He was a member of Congress from Texas, one of Newt Gingrich's top lieutenants in the Contract With America years when the GOP won the House of Representatives for the first time in forever.

"The American dream is not owning your own home," Armey told a confab of editorial writers in those days. "The American dream is getting your children out of the home you own."

That's what Social Security and Medicare are for. Before they existed, the face of poverty in America was old. Seniors depended on their children and grandchildren for housing, food, medical care, their very existence.

Many of them still do, of course. And many families wouldn't think of living any other way, no matter what other arrangements they might be able to afford.

But the mass income transfer of Social Security, Medicare, disability, etc., is the primary reason why adult children over the past century have increasingly been able to leave the nest, travel wherever the market takes them and make their own way.

It works because, free of extended family responsibilities, each generation gets an education, builds a business and/or a career and pays a scad of taxes.

The ongoing support for every other income transfer — public schools, welfare, Medicaid — is equally selfish.

Most of us just don't want to be surrounded by stupid, sick and homeless people. It not only takes a heart of stone to walk by, and step over, the number of destitute people we would encounter every day without a social safety net, it smells bad.

What holds us back is not a nation full — or 47 percent full — of lazy freeloaders who expect the government to pay for their existence. It's the teetering-on-the-brink life lived by so many people who try to work their way up, only to be laid low by an illness — theirs or a family member's — a broken-down car, a lay-off that was caused by stupid behavior in the executive suite, not on the shop floor.

That creates mounds of pay-day loan debt, missed days — or years — of school or work, evaporated job interviews. My old friends at The Buffalo News documented it in a series of reports titled "The high cost of being poor."

Yet working parents almost never jettison their kids for the betterment of their own economic future. They cling to them and hope, like Americans always have, that the next generation will get a better shake.

As Ezra Klein, data-driven Wonk Lord of The Washington Post, put it the other day, "The working poor haven't abdicated responsibility for their lives. They're drowning in it."

If we are smart, we'll throw them a line. For our own sake.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is selfish enough to think that you will email him at gpyle@sltrib.com or follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/stateofthedebate.