The Mercy Rule

“It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.” ~ George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

“You say you care about the poor? Tell me their names.” ~ Craig Greenfield

Any midterm election year is bound to be nasty – the president stays in place but the House and Senate are up for grabs, and that’s where politicians play to relatively homogeneous subsets of the electorate. They don’t have to win over the general public. They just have to get enough of their own state and local true-believers to the polls, and that’s easy enough. Turnout is always extremely low for the midterms, and in states now controlled by the Republicans, those Republicans have passed new laws that make it next to impossible for minorities and the elderly – the folks who like government programs, and depend to them – to ever vote again. Most of those laws also make it hard for college kids to vote – the kids who somehow always vote for Democrats. That changes things, making these elections even narrower, as if they weren’t narrow enough already. So there will be hundreds of closed-loop elections all across the country in November, proving nothing about America, other than that it’s lumpy. That’s another word for polarized, but there’s no need to be fancy here. This year America will be lumpier than ever, like bad gravy.

This also means that politicians will be free to be total jerks – they’ll pay no price for saying outrageous things. Sooner or later one of them is going to say that gays should be shot dead, or that all school children should be required to carry loaded semiautomatic assault rifles, to keep them safe, or the poor should just die and stop bothering the rest of us, or anyone who is unemployed is suffering the consequences of being morally deficient, as is anyone who isn’t rich, or who hasn’t accepted Jesus as his or her personal savior, except for the right sort of Jewish folks, who want to bomb Iran back to the Stone Age, to keep Jesus Land safe. Much of America will find all that appalling, but their own state and local true-believers will probably find all that impressive – a show of real uncompromising principle and moral courage – and all politics is local. This year it will be even more local. For the rest of us, this will be our Year of the Jerks.

The national polls are already showing that. In 2013, the Republicans shut down the government for sixteen days, costing the economy twenty-four billion dollars, causing immense pain for millions of government workers, who had to go without a paycheck for quite a bit, and decimating the tens of thousands of contractors who supply the federal government with everything from paper clips to janitorial services. That was an effort by the Republicans to force Obama to repeal the Affordable Care Act entirely, or to force congressional Democrats to agree to defund it, or to force Obama to delay the whole thing for a year, or two or three years – the demands got hazier the more it became apparent that Obama and the Democrats would have none of that. In the end the Republicans got nothing for their efforts, other than scorn – they agreed to let the government reopen, and agreed to suspend the debt ceiling limits, so America wouldn’t default on all its debt and the world’s economy wouldn’t collapse, and the Affordable Care Act stood. The Republicans wasted everyone’s time, at great cost, even to them, with that shutdown, and their poll numbers fell off the cliff – lower than ever recorded. Everyone agreed. They were jerks, and they had no alternative to the Affordable Care Act, no way to make our absurdly inefficient healthcare system, if it even was a system, work any better. The economy is still a mess, except for the guys on Wall Street and the investor class – as long-term unemployment remains higher than it has ever been, year after year after year. Their answer to that was full austerity – because shutting down as much of the economy as possible, the government part, will lead to amazing growth. The idea was that something had to be done about the exploding deficit, which has been dropping rapidly for three years now, and our obvious runaway inflation, which has been flat for years now too, and the spike in interest rates from all our borrowing in the first years of the Obama administration, a spike that never happened. Their own state and local true-believers understood all of this, instinctively, as that was the only way any of it could be understood. Everyone else just saw a bunch of jerks making no sense at all.

Then there’s that new Pope, the fellow that Rush Limbaugh called a Marxist, and prompted this:

If anyone wonders whether Pope Francis has irritated wealthy conservatives with his courage and idealism, the latest outburst from Kenneth Langone left little doubt. Sounding both aggressive and whiny, the billionaire investor warned that he and his over-privileged friends might withhold their millions from church and charity unless the pontiff stops preaching against the excesses and cruelty of unleashed capitalism.

According to Langone, such criticism from the Holy See could ultimately hurt the sensitive feelings of the rich so badly that they become “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.” He also said rich donors are already losing their enthusiasm for the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan – a very specific threat that he mentioned directly to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

The new Pope has been saying nice things about the Takers, and not much nice about the Makers – if you want to put it that way. They’re offended. How can they continue to feel compassion for the poor if the new Pope doesn’t show them some love too?

That’s an interesting argument, but there’s scant evidence they ever felt compassion for the poor in the first place, unless you look at things their way. Two or three years ago, Bill O’Reilly reminded all Americans that it says right there in the Bible that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” – so Jesus really thought stuff like unemployment insurance and welfare and food stamps and all the rest were immoral, because charity creates a “moral hazard” for those who receive it. The same goes for the government arranging things so more people can get health insurance, even insurance from private parties who will make big bucks providing that insurance. It’s obvious. When Jesus said “the poor are always with us” He was simply exasperated with such losers, who can’t ever seem to get their act together and take care of themselves, except that quote from the Bible that O’Reilly thought he found caused quite a stir – because there are no such words in the Bible. In subsequent interviews, O’Reilly sputtered that that’s what was clearly implied in the Bible, if you thought about it, and Kenneth Langone seems to think like that too. Both seen to think that compassion for the poor has something to do with forcing them to take care of themselves, in an economy where there are no jobs, even for those with qualifications and experience, and where many who do have jobs are paid so little they’d go under without food stamps and all the rest. Kenneth Langone is a jerk too, although local opinion may vary.

The last year ended with long-term unemployment benefits expiring for 1.3 million Americans – and that number will increase to four or five million by the end of this year – with Rand Paul and others saying let them sink, because extending long-term unemployment benefits would do them a disservice. How so? No one wants to hire the long-term unemployed. There should be less of them, so eliminate the category. Yes, they’ve convinced themselves that these benefits are coddling people and keeping them from taking jobs, which is preposterous and has been since the recession started and jobs disappeared left and right, forever. They can’t, however, convince themselves that there are no jobs out there. They just can’t imagine that. It’s an odd situation. It creates jerks like Rand Paul.

Perhaps the structure of American politics, with our odd midterm elections, generates jerks, or maybe some people are naturally jerks. Only a philosopher would know, and Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at University of California at Riverside, comes to the rescue with The Moral Epistemology of the Jerk:

A jerk, in my semi-technical definition, is someone who fails to appropriately respect the individual perspectives of the people around him, treating them as tools or objects to be manipulated, or idiots to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers with a variety of potentially valuable perspectives.

The jerk fails as a moralist – fails, that is, in the epistemic task of discovering moral truths – for at least three reasons.

Schwitzgebel makes it simple:

Mercy is, I think, near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything everyone does falls short of perfection. Her turn of phrase is less than perfect, she arrives a bit late, her clothes are tacky, her gesture irritable, her choice somewhat selfish, her coffee less than frugal, her melody trite – one can create quite a list! Practical mercy involves letting these quibbles pass forgiven or even better entirely unnoticed, even if a complaint, were it made, would be just. The jerk appreciates neither the other’s difficulties in attaining all the perfections he himself (imagines he) has nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralizing principle comes naturally to the jerk, while it is alien to the jerk’s opposite, the sweetheart. …

The jerk, in failing to respect the perspectives of others, fails to appreciate the delight others feel in things he does not himself… He is thus blind to the diversity of human goods and human ways of life, which sets his principles badly askew.

The jerk, in failing to respect the perspectives of others, fails to be open to frank feedback from those who disagree with him. Unless you respect another person, it is difficult to be open to accepting the possible truth in hard moral criticisms from that person, and it is difficult to triangulate epistemically with that person as a peer, appreciating what might be right in that person’s view and wrong in your own. This general epistemic handicap shows especially in moral judgment, where bias is rampant and peer feedback essential.

Is that too abstruse? Watch Fox News. You’ll get the idea, although in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher looks at both sides here in America:

A useful thing for all of us to think about, no matter where we are in the culture war: What would victory look like? How would we treat the defeated? Would we impose a Versailles-style peace, thus setting the stage for a terrible backlash and resumption of the war? And, what would victory – the achievement of cultural hegemony and commanding power over the defeated – do to us? Would we become that which we hate?

As I write this, I’m thinking about a secular liberal I used to know. We weren’t friends, but we moved in the same circles. He was a smart guy and a paragon of crusading righteousness. You couldn’t joke with him about anything; he was always looking for signs of deviation. He was the sort of person who, if ever he gained power, would be ruthless with his enemies. This sort of person recurs through history, in all guises…

He really was, and is, someone to be feared. People like that always are. They tend to be effective culture warriors, because they are tireless and uncompromising. Their moral ardor is not compromised by a sense of tragedy, of their own fallibility, of basic humanity, or even something as trivial as a sense of humor. I’ve been around people on the conservative side of the culture war who are like that; in those instances, I would rather be having a drink at a gay bar. I’m serious about that.

As he says, “you don’t have to be any sort of religious believer to be a self-righteous prick” – they’re everywhere. There are just more of them around in a midterm election year, almost all of them in the party out of power at the moment. Localized crusading righteousness is the order of the day, every day. It will also be the year of the self-righteous pricks.

That’s inevitable, but then if in midterm years all politics is local, favoring self-righteous pricks, as heroes to the locals, every four years all politics is national, and party leaders worry about those years too, which explains this:

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remains open to an extension of emergency unemployment benefits even in the face of growing conservative opposition to such a move.

The Ohio Republican maintains the position he expressed last month that Republicans would “clearly consider” an extension of federal help for the long-term unemployed “as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Friday.

At the same time, a number of Republicans – including leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee – continue to question the need to extend the unemployment insurance (UI) benefits at all.

There’s a party split. There are immediate benefits in being jerks about this – winning the midterm elections – and long-term costs – coming off as self-righteous pricks when the general election comes along. Boehner is trying to thread the needle here, offering the Rand Paul crowd the idea that the cost of extending these benefits must be paid for by deep cuts to stuff that Democrats like – helping American citizens in real trouble in spite of the moral hazard involved in offering any help to anyone, at any time. The idea is to offset the moral hazard by shifting the cost to other stuff that helps American citizens. Boehner would make that a wash.

It’s going to get hot:

The debate will intensify next week, with Senate Democrats planning a vote on a three-month renewal. Sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the proposal would not offset the estimated $6.4 billion in costs, setting the stage for a potential showdown with Boehner and the Republicans if the bill is sent to the House. Rhode Island and Nevada have the highest unemployment rates in the country, at 9 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It remains unclear if Boehner and the Republicans will consider the issue. A memo released by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) Friday outlining the GOP’s legislative agenda for January does not mention unemployment insurance.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Senate passage of a bill could put Boehner under more pressure to bring up the measure, but he cast doubt on its chances. Van Hollen noted that GOP leaders last month rejected his proposal, sponsored with Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), to extend UI benefits by three months and offset the costs by reducing farm subsidies.

That was rejected because giant agribusiness wants its subsidies, and the Republicans aren’t going to hurt those who finance their campaigns. It gets tricky. Moving away from being a self-righteous prick is tricky, and the facts and figures are tricky too:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported last month that, while the emergency UI program would cost $25.7 billion for another year, it would create 200,000 jobs and add 0.2 percent to gross domestic product.

Advocates for a renewal – including the White House and most congressional Democrats – are quick to argue that 37 percent of all the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months and that economic circumstances warrant a continuation of the program.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said Friday that an extended level of benefits provided under normal economic conditions would create some measurable disincentive. But any negative effects of the extensions since the program started in 2008 “are very small relative to the positive effects on the labor market.”

In fact, Reich said, the “lack of benefits is making things worse,” and the failure to extend them “radiates out to the rest of the economy.”

That’s the situation, and Harvard economist Lawrence Katz figures that the original decision, to end the benefits of the first 1.3 million people, could cost the economy up to a billion dollars a week:

The calculation was based on the “multiplier effect” of cancelling the benefits program, which had been forecast by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Applying the CBO’s estimated multiplier effect to the $400m per week being lost in benefits, Katz said, translated into a cost to the economy of between $600m and $1bn.

That’s per week, but that’s just money, and what he calls the short-run cost. Katz points out something else – “The long-run cost to the taxpayers will be much higher from disconnecting people from the labor market.”

That’s the bigger problem. There are very few jobs out there. To get their meager benefits, the long-term unemployed must prove, every week, that they’ve hit the bricks, looking hard for work – work that’s not there. Take away their benefits and they’ll have nothing left. We’ll then have a permanent class of lost souls, with no work, and no money, and no hope. Obviously that’s bad for the country – such things lead to discontent and then despair and then anger and then instability of all sorts, and maybe the worst sort. Disconnecting millions of people from the labor market, and systematically adding millions more to that number every few months, is not only the gleeful act of a bunch of self-righteous pricks, for political gain, it’s damned dangerous. Obama is scheduled to address this issue from the White House on Tuesday, joined by workers who really do want work, and keep looking for work, but who just lost their long-term unemployment benefits. This seems to be an attempt to shame the current crop of Republican jerks – but that might only make them sneer even more. They’re facing reelection this year. Sneering sells in the local market.

Kathleen Geier chimes in:

I will never understand this madness, and what the Republican Party thinks it is accomplishing by doing these things. Do they not understand what it’s like to be unemployed in this economy? Do they not have any friends or loved ones experiencing the hell of long-term unemployment in America in 2014?

Hey, that’s what Eric Schwitzgebel, the philosophy professor, was saying. Imagine “the other.” Cut folks some slack. Mercy is near the heart of practical, lived morality – or something like that. It’s just that it’s not near the heart of politics, where understanding and mercy are liabilities. Any midterm election year is bound to be nasty. This one will be even worse.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Mercy Rule

  1. Rick says:

    “[Boehner] maintains the position he expressed last month that Republicans would ‘clearly consider’ an extension of federal help for the long-term unemployed ‘as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again,’ Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Friday.”

    I’m thinking the essential problem for conservatives here seems to be “compassion” itself — that is, showing any compassion as the response to any problem is inherently flawed, since it’s a nice action in a world that seems to reward only toughness. And if they need any proof of that world view, all they need know is that liberals always choose the nice approach every time, as everyone knows that liberals aren’t capable of making the “hard choices”.

    So this leads me to think that maybe we can “pay for” a “compassionate” three-month extension of Unemployment Insurance with a “counter-compassionate” act — maybe, for example, by publicly drowning twenty-five thousand kittens on national television.

    And as for “efforts that will help get our economy moving once again,” we could hire some long-term unemployed people to do the deed, and maybe raise revenues by putting the whole thing on pay-per-view. We could even contract the job out to Halliburton or somebody.

    As for negotiating a longer extension, such as a year? Maybe Republicans would agree to throw in a few thousand more kittens, maybe even a few puppies — although you have to be careful, because once you start talking about taking it out on dogs, you risk offending the Republican vote, since those people tend to like dogs.


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