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Nihil Novi Sub Sole


A surfer from La Jolla, California named Jason Greenslate was profiled recently by FOX News in an unabashedly biased report called “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The most piquant and viral portion of the report is embedded to the left; if you want to watch the whole thing, you can do so on YouTube instead of waiting until Friday when it airs. Yeah, it leaked. They don’t mind a whole lot, I shouldn’t think.

The overt point of the report, of course, is to demonstrate that it has become “too easy” to get public assistance — in this case, SNAP, or what used to be called “food stamps.” And Mr. Greenslate is the poster boy for why that is the case. Mr. Greenslate, a flip, apparently able-bodied, overtly lazy, and thoroughly unrepentant recipient of SNAP was more than happy to go to the grocery store accompanied by FOX’s cameras and use a good portion of his approximately $200-a-month SNAP card to buy sushi and lobster — a lobster he proceeded to barbeque and eat for the cameras.

We’re guided by FOX commenters to think that the real scandal here is not simply the use of government handouts to buy luxury foods but the fact that Mr. Greenslate was so unashamed of his casual abuse of the welfare system. Others call us to consider whether Mr. Greenslate’s indolent lifestyle is true happiness. Even NPR is getting in on the act, calling Mr. Greenslate “Lobster Boy” and highlighting his “unapologetic []” attitude.

The “unapologetic” attitude about receipt of welfare benefits, and the spiteful outrage towards those with that attitude, is something I’m certainly well familiar with from my own eviction practice. Most of the people I evict (sometimes unsuccessfully) out of publicly-subsidized Section 8 housing seem to have a mindset of not even having considered that there is anything wrong with the government paying for their housing instead of them paying for it themselves and indeed have indicated to me in court an unwillingness to get jobs at all lest they endanger their entitlement to “free rent from the government” (their words, not mine).

My clients are certainly free to express outrage at the disparity between their tenants getting public money while they have to support themselves. I don’t discourage them since part of my job is to serve as a vent for their frustrations so that they can eventually accept the practical result that the courts will dispense. I usually demur to the more politically-shaded questions, indicating that I avoid politics in my professional life. But their frustration simmers over anyway, part of the emotional stresses I absorb on a daily basis. So the FOX News report was in that sense a big old “more of the same” to me.

My response to it was, “I’ve seen this on the news before, too.” The first public outrage I thought of was Nadya Suleman, the infamous “Octomom.” You may recall that shortly after she became a thing in the tabloid media, she made a statement of some sort attacking those who questioned her having literally fourteen children while holding down no apparent job and seemingly receiving public assistance as her only means of financial support. (Ms. Suleman actually now lives in my community; she lost her home in the big city to the south of us. And she’s being investigated for welfare fraud.)

But then I thought to myself, “Self, you can do better than that. Lobster on food stamps. You’ve seen this before.”

Just two years ago, in fact, in potins scandaleux du jour from Michigan. The story even included willful defiance of a suggestion that this was abuse, and was verified by urban legend debunking website snopes.com. At that point, I stopped looking, because I knew that I could dig back two years past that and two years past that and probably find minor public outrages bursting out about every two years over someone on food stamps buying lobster (or some other sort of luxury food).

Which means, of course, the issue is not whether public assistance can be used this way. Clearly, it can. Unless you live in Maine where it’s really cheap, lobster is almost certainly not the wisest purchase for someone who actually needs SNAP to survive. Unclear from the excerpt in the FOX news report about Jason “Lobster Boy” Greenslate is what other sources of financial support he gets — it would appear that he blew out a big percentage of his SNAP benefits on that single barbeque, with no worries whatsoever that he would lack for food in the future. Proof that nobody starves in the USA! Truly we live on the Isle of the Blessed.

So perhaps the editorial (I won’t call it “news”) frames the issue correctly, then: if Mr. Greenslate can so easily find other means of support for himself that he can afford to use his SNAP benefits on luxury food, then maybe the program is flawed.

Of course the program is flawed. How could it be perfect? What government program is? Social security pays out money to retirees who could easily survive without it. Medicare and the VA provides medical care to some people who have ample incomes and private health insurance. In my own experience, Section Eight housing subsidies are given to people who seem to possess the apparent means to pay full rent on their own. Lots of people get unemployment benefits while actually working, often getting paid cash under the table. This happens every day. Mr. Greenslate buying lobster is hardly a unique phenomenon, and neither is his own attitude about it.

$200 a month is most assuredly not a generous benefit to the truly needy. Mr. Greenslate may not be truly needy but we have to come up with some sort of objective definitions for eligibility, and inevitably when that happens people will — surprise! — respond to the incentives thus created and figure out ways to game the system. If we have any sort of welfare system, it’s going to get gamed.

We could have no system at all, I suppose, but that’s actually quite unacceptable. I would reject categorically the idea that in the wealthiest food-producing societies in the world, anyone should lack for food. That is, of course, why we have social welfare in the first place. If some jerkoff in La Jolla plays games with the system and buys lobster with his SNAP card, and then is foolish and/or stoned enough to giggle about it on TV, shame on him. But if hundreds of thousands of kids were to go to bed hungry every night,* then shame on all of us.

If FOX News’ reporters want to point out that Jason Greenslate and the guy in Michigan and whoever else came before them ought to be ashamed of themselves, so be it. I’m good with that. What I’m not good with is taking that outrage and using it, as the report overtly suggests, as a justification for a dramatic change in our social welfare structure.

There are a lot of people who game the welfare system. But so what? Giving money to people to subsidize their lives, primarily in the form of either direct financial assistance or some kind of public medical insurance benefit, is the majority function of the government, or at least very close to it, if you measure the government’s activity in dollars.

We’re not going to give that up, we’re not going to stop doing that. Nor should we. Some people abuse the system and others could survive without it. But the system itself is so thoroughly integrated into society, into our collective lives, that tolerating a degree of abuse is something we’re just going to have to do. Individual shaming of obvious abuses of the spirit of the system is fine. Individual abuses of the welfare system, even aggregated in a fair way, are not what’s breaking the bank in Washington.

Which is why we shouldn’t let the heaping of perhaps well-deserved shame upon individuals who abuse the social welfare system govern public policy decisions we make for the entire country.

That the basis for the outrage is recycled only underlines this point.

 

* I’ve seen the commercials and I don’t believe them. I disbelieve the claim that one in five children in the United States are at serious risk of starvation, and you should be skeptical of such claims, too. The real number is about one in a thousand, and that’s using a definition with a fair amount of cushion.
 
Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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112 thoughts on “Nihil Novi Sub Sole

  1. Its very easy to support suffering in poverty if your not experiencing it yourself. There are more than a few people that not only think that the poor will always be with us but that their lives should be as miserable as possible, devoid of any emotional or material comfort. If the poor have to eat, it should be on food that nobody would willingly eat. If they need shelter, it should be a dilapdated slum. It will be a great motivator to get out of poverty to them. It doesn’t seem to work that way in reality and it never did but who cares.

    Note: I am not accusing the libertarian or conservative members of this blog of desiring this.

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  2. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err155.aspx#.UjsW0T8a7Hg

    Foodstamps were a part of my pay, during the time I served as a part of Americorps. You were only allowed to be on foodstamps for a limited time (2 years in 5 if I recall).

    This “lack of employment” timeperiod has gone on for 5 years, hasn’t it? I wouldn’t be surprised if a good deal of the poor are not on food stamps at all, anymore.

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  3. I’m not a big fan of our present welfare system, but you are right. Hand wringing about how some deadbeat spends his $200 benefit is mostly pointless. Actually, that’s not true. The point is to get us into some all-consuming red team-blue team culture war.

    The more important question is: how are these things going to evolve in the future?

    On the one hand, poorly designed welfare interventions have labor market disincentives. On the other hand, the trends are pointing in the direction of less labor market participation anyway, and that’s welfare or no welfare. We simply don’t need as many people (especially unskilled or low-skilled people) to make the same quantity of goods and services. This is going to be our main dilemma going forward, not worrying about whether some surf bum gets too many Obama lobsters.

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    • The problem is that nobody wants to really have a very serious conversation about our post-labor world because it is going to challenge a lot of assumption in human cultures. These assumptions are pretty much as old as humanity. The main one is “those who do not work, do not eat.” Even Vladimir Lenin and other Communists honestly believed that everybody needed to do something for a living even if they saw things differently than capitalists would. Yet, less and less work is necessary.

      The least optimal solution would to revert to previous societies where the number of people exceed the amount of labor needed. These are societies filled with casual work, where a person is considered lucky to have a 150 days of work a year, and a lot of poverty and misery. Think Italy during the late 19th and early 20th century. This isn’t optimal for reasons that should be obvious. Even without getting into the morality of this solution, its probably not in the best interest of the wealthy to have widespread poverty admist apparent plenty. We could see a revival of Communism.

      A more humane solution would be to give everybody a guaranteed minimal income. This income should be enough to provide for the necessities of life and at least a little luxury. If people want more than they have to work. The problem with this solution is that this is going to be resisted by many powerful and wealthy individuals because its primarily going to be funded through income taxes as well. It also goes against the entire “those who do not work, do not eat” ethos that many human’s have because more than a few people are going to be satisfied with just getting the guaranteed minimal income.

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      • The natural outcome of providing guaranteed income absent work is to create a class of free riders. I would love to surf all day too (actually I try to cap my surfing to 3 hours a day)

        As more people free ride without producing anything, the burden goes up on those still working; they work harder and keep less. This reduces the incentives for producing. It then spins out of control as fewer work and less is produced, thus the share of production that gets redistributed increases until the system collapses. I can provide countless large and small scale examples.

        A better idea is guaranteed minimum income with work requirements (for able body and minded adults) as I have recommended in the past. All the negative dynamics are converted to positive ones. Would you be open to this possibility?

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      • Roger,
        Few flaws in your reasoning.
        1) Money is not the only measure of success. Most successful guys think in terms of Sex. And regardless of how much more you keep, the producer always looks better than the freeloader, all else equal.
        2) You assume that people are really capable of doing nothing productive. A lot of folks aren’t. I bet you ten bucks that if you gave Blase, or zic, or Troublesome Frog a guaranteed income, we’d get something better out of it.

        3) Assume it works the other way: assume we “gate” who gets to work, based on IQ or hair color or height.

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      • I’m actually open to Roger’s proposal. He points out on of the major problems with basic guaranteed income and I’m conservative enough not to like the idea of creating a class of free riders. If we can find work thats necessary and wouldn’t otherwise be done than I’m up for it.

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      • ND ,

        When did I recommend make work jobs? I am recommending jobs which people are willing to pay for.

        Kim,

        I do not make those assumptions. I am well aware that some people will still produce if not paid, it does not change the argument.

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      • ND, I disagree with the above link. I think that work, even useless work, provides a lot of psychological comfort to people and it makes them feel like that they are contributing to society. A work week should be at least 35 but no more than 40 hours a week in most circumstances.

        I also find the idea that peopel with a fifteen hour work week would use their free time to pursue their visions and dreams silly and hopelessly utopian. Most people will either be doing chores or having fun.

        Roger, I like your idea of work requirements but I have no idea what you mean by it now. What I imagine is that the guaranteed basic income comes pretty much from the government through wealth redistribution but people have to work ex amount of hours a week to get it. If they have a job they get their salary/wages and the basic minimal income. If not, the government uses them for projects and they only get the basic minimal income.

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      • Roger,

        You seem to think that there are always going to be enough jobs for the labor supply. What the supply for jobs is much less than the number of people able and willing to do jobs?

        This what LeeEsq is talking about. The overriding of a certain kind of mentality/morality going against the reality of technological advancement. We seem to be heading to a somewhat post-work economy. We no longer need massive amounts of factory workers because of automation. Automation and technological advancements is also causing significant damage to employment. Part of the law school crisis is that new technologies can do what used to be done by associates in their first few years of employment as lawyers.

        We are constantly able to do more work with less people because of technology. Furthermore many businesses no longer see employees as an investment but as an expense. They will only hire if expanding. They will not hire to relieve the workload for other employees.

        Lee and JR are bringing up the idea that fewer people might be needed for work and this is going to cause problems.

        For years, I have heard neo-liberals and libertarians praise technological advancement as freeing people from mindless labor and bad jobs. The whole point of a post-scarcity and technological economy was to create more free-time and more leisure for people to pursue scholarly and fun pursuits like studying Plato’s Republic or surfing for three hours a day or creating art.

        But instead of dealing with this potential reality, we get Calvinist/Protestant moralizing and the idea that work is good because it is work and those that don’t work, shouldn’t eat.

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      • Dealer,

        I am willing to entertain the idea that in the future labor demand could disappear as smart machines do everything better than humans. I was not talking about the distant future, I was talking about now. I assure you that at the right price there is more than enough demand for labor. At a dollar an hour I would hire a bunch of people full time today.

        “We are constantly able to do more work with less people because of technology. Furthermore many businesses no longer see employees as an investment but as an expense. They will only hire if expanding. They will not hire to relieve the workload for other employees.”

        Yeah, as opposed to the mythical good old days. Good business practices have not changed. Employees are both an investment and an expense and always have. What has changed are the regulations and mandatory benefits which come now with hiring. In my last decade as an executive I greatly converted to a model of subcontracting out for high paid specialist consultants and temps. It was much more flexible, dynamic and long term cheaper than hiring full timers. Managers did not get more snidely whiplashy. The institutional incentives changed and we responded.

        Leisure has exploded over the last 150 years. I can link you to the data by era.

        “But instead of dealing with this potential reality, we get Calvinist/Protestant moralizing and the idea that work is good because it is work and those that don’t work, shouldn’t eat.”

        Please talk to me, not some unknown Calvinist. The reason productive work is good is because it is productive. We work to solve problems for fellow humans, not to work for itself. Solutions are good. And clearly I have never said that those that do not work should not eat. In my opinion they should be required to produce if able to do so. If you believe otherwise, please feel free to subsidize surfing. It’s cool, bro’.

        Deal?

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      • As more people free ride without producing anything, the burden goes up on those still working; they work harder and keep less.

        No, Roger, that’s the point. The nature of modern society – the nature of the technological advances we have experienced and are continuing to experience – is that we can produce far more goods and services with fewer people than used to be possible. Labour is no longer the limiting factor on production. So retaining the current system of “you must work to have an income” is, essentially, saying that people should spend their time doing work that serves no purpose and provides no benefit to society, or they should starve. That’s deeply irrational.

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      • Roger,
        “At a dollar an hour I would hire a bunch of people full time today. ”

        … yes, but you’re thinking of perfect workers. Not heroin addicts (well
        unless you want them to do something painful, I suppose).
        Or schizophrenics (hire one of them to clean your house, and they
        break a window because the squirrel outside was cursing at them)…

        In a more perfect world, we do allow folks who can work to do something good
        and productive, without penalizing them (and we in fact try to incentivize it as best as possible).

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      • Katherine,

        Your reading of my position is not correct.

        We do not yet live in a post scarcity world. There are many jobs which people could do which add value. At the right price I would employ a small army of labor. I could hire someone to do my finances, someone to wash my dishes, someone to chauffeur me, someone to guard my back lawn, someone to wash goose poop off my walls, someone to trim my bushes, someone to exercise my dogs. These are all absurd examples, but less absurd ones could come to mind if you tried.

        Thus I reject completely the notion that today we live in a world where there is an absence of useful, productive things to be done. Certainly in the future this could change. Thus, my expectation would be that to get a guaranteed income, an adult should be expected to do so if able bodied and minded (Kim!)

        I am clearly not recommending make work nonsense or starvation. See the difference.?

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  4. I have a friend who eats really, really frugally. Cooks almost all meals at home, packs lunches, etc. She received SNAP, mostly because her ex was an abusive monster who hid income (became self employed, deducted living expenses, etc.) so that he paid so little child support that they qualified for SNAP.

    For her son’s birthday, he wanted lobster. That’s it, no presents, nothing else; just a lobster dinner.

    She couldn’t afford to take him to a restaurant for that dinner, so she purchased three lobsters, one for her and one for each of her children. And yes, as she waited for the bus to take her three lobsters home, she was confronted by the shopper behind her for purchasing lobster with food stamps.

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    • I eat really frugally too. less than $200 a month for two people.
      If I was on food stamps, I would be able to afford purchasing
      something grand with the remainder, I suspect.

      What the nosebodies fail to take into account is the money
      out of pocket that I would have to spend, in order to afford
      the cheaper food. (Transportation, in large part. Also,
      Costco membership.)

      The expense of transportation would come out to more
      than what I would save by being frugal.

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      • Even if they did, I still say, so what? Is the United States of America not one of the wealthiest societies on Earth? How much public money is thus “wasted,” especially compared to all the other ways the government redistributes money?

        And it makes me wonder about those who advocate voucher systems for education — because SNAP is pretty close to a voucher system for food. If we can summon up moral outrage about how someone uses their food voucher, then will we also summon up moral outrage about how someone uses their education voucher?

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      • “Even if they did, I still say, so what? Is the United States of America not one of the wealthiest societies on Earth? How much public money is thus “wasted,” especially compared to all the other ways the government redistributes money?”

        it’s certainly a red lobster-herring in this particular case.

        however, there would be practical issues if everyone tossed out let them eat cake in favor of crustacean, namely rather dramatically running out of dosh ahead of the next month’s payment and being left with more melted butter than meat, which would then also feed the cycle of obesity, diabetes, and bib-wearing.

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      • Lobster prices are at rock bottom, ‘scuse the pun. Lobstermen are having a tough time of it, what with the glut of lobster on the market just now.

        Perhaps we could have a Down East lobsterman poke his head into the right of the frame.

        “Ayeh! Eatin’ a lobstah is good f’r America! No rich man’s food is yer lobstah!”

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  5. Individual abuses of the welfare system, even aggregated in a fair way, are not what’s breaking the bank in Washington.

    This is why I don’t get up in arms over the handful of deadbeats who game the system. Payouts to corporations & tax breaks to the wealthy cost us more than knuckleheads like this.

    Also, karma usually has a way of finding such people & getting some of her own back. Usually because such people are awful human & they will inevitably irk the wrong person, who will go after them. I had a neighbor once who made my life hell for about 9 months before we got their assistance pulled & them evicted.

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  6. “If some jerkoff in La Jolla plays games with the system and buys lobster with his SNAP card, and then is foolish and/or stoned enough to giggle about it on TV, shame on him. But if hundreds of thousands of kids were to go to bed hungry every night,* then shame on all of us.”

    This is probably the best summation of my own feelings about public assistance that I have read in a while.

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  7. Yes, there will always be waste, fraud, abuse, etc. But what the WFA brigade never consider is “How much does it cost to increase auditing/oversight versus how much will it save?”

    As an example: Florida spending untold millions to drug-test welfare recipients to save less than 100,000 dollars. Not “net”. [i]Total[/i]. Which meant the government paid out millions more than was saved.

    And in this case — well, as noted — food stamps are a capped amount. You blow your wad on a single dinner, you have no more food stamps that month. Sounds about right.

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      • Of course it’s not.

        However, that’s what it was officially SOLD as because, well, “We need to punish poor people for being poor because we’ve told people poverty is awesome for decades” is a poor sale, and “We need to keep the idiotic poor who keep voting for us despite deliberately making their lives worse, so they need someone to look down on so they can say ‘We may be poor, but we’re not poor like that'” make poor sales pitches.

        Or if you wanna get RIGHT down to the brass tacks and the unconscious processes being tapped: “We’re gonna punish those drug using BLACK poor people so the WHITE poor people feel superior and keep voting for us”.

        If it’s not welfare queens in caddies and young bucks eating T-bone steaks, it’s them inner city thugs smoking dope on their welfare benefits.All while the poor, hard-working, no-charity-taking, rural white people are having their hard-earned benefits stolen by those no-good thugs.

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      • Roger,
        Yeah, that’s just you.
        I’d settle for not providing financial assistance to blackmailers
        and thieves.
        But doing so would require prosecuting da rich, and we know
        the likelihood of that, don’t we? (here’s a hint: it increases
        as the stability of government decreases)

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      • I would prefer to provide assistance to people who are not addicts or free riding deadbeats. That’s just me though.

        Is your preference worth 100 million a year, to prevent benefits of less than 100,000 dollars flowing to such people?

        That’s a serious, real-world question, roger. Can you answer it? Are you willing to spend a hundred million a year — of everyone else’s taxpayer money — to prevent it? Is your preference that strong? And how much higher are you willing to raise your own taxes to pay for your preference?

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      • I would prefer to provide assistance to people who are not addicts or free riding deadbeats. That’s just me though.

        Would you prefer doing so because free-riders are taking money from those who legitimately need it and so would only support a policy that has a net-gain in distribution? Or because free-riders are committing a fundamental injustice, and injustices cannot be allowed to stand even if it means losing money or shutting the program down entirely?

        I doubt you’ll get disagreement from anyone here that the program should be maximally efficient. But what the FOX piece is implying by focusing on isolated incidents of abuse (rather than, say, a rigorous cost/benefit analysis) is that any amount of abuse should invalidate the program on a moral level, costs be damned. I’ll stipulate that the latter is not an entirely unreasonable view; indeed, many of the front-pagers here made the same exact moral argument with respect to the NSA snooping programs.

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      • And what happens when the addict is hungry and has no food?

        Let’s spend $x more cutting off benefits of drug-using welfare recipients and $y dealing with the additional theft that will occur with these new hungry drug-addicts. Sure we’re spending extra money, but the finger wagging… it feels sooooo goooood.

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      • Morat,

        No I would not spend a gazillion dollars to ensure people are not addicts, thieves or blackmailers. Is that your zinger of the day?

        I simply said I prefer to not provide assistance to addicts, free riders, ( and would add thieves, blackmailers, those that do not need it, and corporations). I then asked if others felt the same way, knowing that some would choose differently.

        I believe in constructive competition, choice and voluntary acts. In this case, constructive competition would be among relief agencies. I would funnel my money to those that gave most efficiently to the neediest people, in ways which best avoided encouraging bad behavior (like continued substance abuse or surfing instead of working). You can feel free to send your relief aid to those you believe in. Deal?

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      • Mouse,

        “And what happens when the addict is hungry and has no food?”

        A successful agency (which I would feel comfortable funding) would require reform for aid. What would the ones you feel comfortable funding do as you sit on your throne of moral superiority?

        Can you grant me the freedom to choose or will you force your values on me?

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      • Trizzlor,

        Good questions.

        I am not sure what a fundamental injustice is, which probably answers that part of the question. I would aim my aid toward the place where I believed it did the most good. This includes such factors as biggest bang for the buck, most efficient, toward those most in need, and in ways which did not foster dependency and propagate pathological altruism. How about you?

        My experience is that TV news thrives on this type of sensationalism. I see it everywhere and my response is to avoid most news and instead focus on larger trends. I actually believe news on balance makes people less intelligent and more biased in their thinking.

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      • Roger:

        Still didn’t answer the question: How strong is your preference? Would you spend 10 dollars for every dollar saved by avoiding benefits to a drug user? 100 dollars? 1 to 1?

        Where do you fall?

        I simply said I prefer to not provide assistance to addicts, free riders, ( and would add thieves, blackmailers, those that do not need it, and corporations)” isn’t an answer. It’s a wish — a particularly pointless one. Might as well wish you had a magic unicorn that only gave out SNAP benefits to the ‘morally pure’ for all the good that’s gonna do you.

        You go on to say “I would funnel my money to those that gave most efficiently to the neediest people, in ways which best avoided encouraging bad behavior (like continued substance abuse or surfing instead of working)” — good for you! So what groups did you mean? And how do they test for ‘good behavior’ and ‘bad behavior’ and how cost effective is it?

        Back to “10 to 1” and “1 to 1”.

        Saying you’d prefer to give to good people and not bad people is…pointless. You think your favorite charity is somehow perfect, that the money never goes to one of those bad seeds?

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      • Morat,

        I really am not being evasive. In general I would not spend any inordinate amount to screen out junkies. I would choose an aid organization which did so as cheaply as possible, and if it was imprudent to do so at all, I would prefer they not do so at all. Wouldn’t you?

        “Might as well wish you had a magic unicorn that only gave out SNAP benefits to the ‘morally pure’ for all the good that’s gonna do you.”

        You could indeed say that I was laying out an ideal, and I did so intentionally. My point is that aid agencies should compete for my money. They should convince me that they spend my money wisely, that the recipients are in need, and that they are not perpetuating dependency. In no case do I expect perfect aid or information. Just that the agencies compete with each other to do as well as they can and that they are able to convince me that my money is spent better with them than countless alternatives. It is really pretty simple if you thought about it with an open mind.

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      • : “ I would aim my aid toward the place where I believed it did the most good. This includes such factors as biggest bang for the buck, most efficient, toward those most in need, and in ways which did not foster dependency and propagate pathological altruism. How about you?

        I think this depends on how much you believe “dependency and pathological altruism” are a potentially serious problem. The way I’m interpreting the FOX conclusion is that this guy is doing something immoral – taking your money when he doesn’t deserve it – and that’s either so wrong in and of itself or will be such a growing pandemic that the whole program needs to be shutdown. This is what I mean by “fundamental injustice” – that his actions are so poisonous they need to be stopped at any cost (and so the cost/benefit analysis isn’t really even necessary here). Not to draw a full equivalence, but this is precisely the kind of argument that people make on the NSA issue – our right to privacy is so sacred that any program which allows the government to invade it needs to be scrapped (doesn’t matter if such invasions have happened or if the program has other positive benefits). Perhaps if you view income redistribution / property rights the same way as you view civil rights then the FOX conclusion isn’t all that crazy.

        Anyway, my view is that the risk of fostering dependency is extremely low. Nearly all of the interactions I’ve had with people in tough situations have revealed them to be as ambitious and hard-working as anyone else, and usually extremely embarrassed about any government programs they end up making use of. This has formed my default assumption about low-income programs and so I care much more about measurable outcomes than about the more abstract “culture of dependency” stuff. If you showed me a program that was effective at pulling people out of poverty but had some subgroup of participants that were chronic layabouts I would pretty much only care about the former.

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      • I would prefer to provide assistance to people who are not addicts

        You know what helps get your life on track when you’re self-medicating to deal with stress and trauma? Not knowing where your next meal will come from.

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      • “In no case do I expect perfect aid or information. Just that the agencies compete with each other to do as well as they can and that they are able to convince me that my money is spent better with them than countless alternatives. ”

        So after all the back and forth, you end up endorsing essentially the system we have now.

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      • Trizzlor,

        I look at the horrific explosion in single parent households, the immobility of young males raised without dads and the recent trends in so called disability and see something that is completely different. I see millions of lives which are being ruined due to improperly designed safety nets. I care enough to want to focus my aid in more productive directions. I would hope to persuade you of the same, but it is your choice.

        Granted in terms of dollars and long term impacts, my guess is corporate welfare is even more costly. We should eliminate all privileged regulations and welfare to non individuals. Can we at least agree here?

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  8. “There are a lot of people who game the welfare system.”

    I would also point out that the above sentence has equal merit if you replace “welfare system” with taxes, insurance, elections, any and all corporate policies, land-use laws, zoning restrictions, standardized testing, and basically anything else we use to make a society with 300 million people function without imploding.

    That Fox and its viewers choose to look at only the poor in this manner says more about Fox and its viewers than it does about the poor.

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  9. “There are a lot of people who game the welfare system.” Yep. But that doesn’t mean that we should condone the practice or not punish those who abuse it when they are discovered. How many hundreds of millons of Medicare dollars are spent due to waste and fraud? Given some of the reports I’ve seen, it’s a lot. That money can be better spent on people who actually need it.

    So, no I don’t think we should “tolerate” the abuse. Recognize that it does happen and work to minimize it, yes.

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    • Yeah, let’s go work on Medicare!
      Leave the food stamps alone! ;-)
      I’m all for auditors, but audit the problem cases.
      Most of government isn’t all THAT prone to abuse.
      (and some stuff is
      not really fixable with “auditing” but with
      whistleblowing…)

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    • Is what Mr. Greenslate did an abuse? I’ve been mulling that over in my mind since I made the post this morning. In my mind’s eye I see a committee room of Congressional staffers hashing out revisions to the SNAP eligibility rules after watching the report.

      What if we made a rule that said “SNAP is good for all sorts of food but not lobsters.”?

      Then we’d have to add, “Except in Maine in the summertime because they’re cheap and abundant there.”

      “Oh, and SNAP shouldn’t be good for caviar, either, or pâté de foie gras. Or coconut water. Because we don’t want those lazy, poor people enjoying luxuries. We’re paying them to survive, not to enjoy their food.”

      “Or horse meat, because a majority of people in the United States find the slaughter and consumption of horse to be taboo to the point of moral obnoxiousnes.”

      “You know what, we ought to have a list of things that people can buy on SNAP rather than a list of things we exclude.”

      “We can do better than that. Bring back the Community Gruel Pot! It worked great in the Panic of 1873!”

      “Then people are going to complain that the gruel is too thin and isn’t tasty enough. They’re going to want butter and honey with their gruel.”

      “Welfare queens! Moochers! Let them eat Nutraloaf!”

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    • Burt,
      I don’t think what this guy did was “abuse”. He certainly “gamed” the system, but probably is within the technical aspects of the rules. Nor do I think it’s a productive use of our tax dollars to have a committee try to get too far into the weeds trying to pevent these ocurances. I think that would actually make the problem worse, and I’m in complete agreement with Kim (wow) that whistleblowing is going to bring this to light better than auditors. A combination of the two will be most effective: audits to ensue the money is being disbursed to the right people and incentives to whistleblow folks who are gaming the system.

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  10. Two things come to mind here:

    1. A particular Jewish parable on charity that seems to highlight the differences in outlook between Judaism and Christianity.

    2. The section of The Road to Wigan Pier where Orwell describes why the poor always want something tasty to eat.

    The Jewish story is this: There was a beggar (the Jewish story uses the term schnorrer*) who was going door to door and asking for some money. Eventually he stumbles into the rich part of town and knocks on the door of a Rothchild. The Rothchilds give him some money and a while later they see him eating Bagels and Lox (which I guess were expensive in the old country) at a local deli. Rothchild is angry and begins yelling at the irresponsibility of buying such luxuries. The beggar replies “Nu? Earlier this morning, I did not have the money to buy any food including Bagels and Lox. Now I have the money you gave me and should not?”

    Traditionally, Judaism is on the side of the schnorrer. In Judaism, the rule is that once you give money or anything away, it is no longer yours and you are not allowed to dictate the terms of use or moralize/be scandalized by something less than responsible. The point of charity and giving money is to show compassion, not to be morally superior. So what if someone buys a little luxury? The moralizing tendency is bewildering to me.

    Here is the famous passage from The Road to Wigan Pier: “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. […] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pen north of chips Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.”

    So while it might not be the best or sustainable. I really have no patience with moralizing how people on food stamps use their money.

    *Schnorrer is one of the great back-handed compliments in Yiddish. It translates to beggar but does imply a certain ability to live off your wits. There are lots of stories about schnorrer’s tricking the rich for a ruble here, a ruble there.

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  11. Burt,

    I didn’t read the links or watch the video. But often times, when this nonsense happens, there is a subtle but important shift to attacking people for being unapologetic about their abuse and attacking people for being unapologetic for their legitimate use.

    I see this with families that are on FA/TA in schools. Some full pay families (or even wealthy families themselves who receive some FA/TA but, ya know, aren’t those people) think that people should, quite literally, be apologetic about taking the funds. These people should be constantly grateful, groveling even, that they are attending the school through the assistance of others. And they sure as hell shouldn’t complain about the food in the dining room or the pot holes in the parking lot because, goddamnit, to do so would mean they were unapologetic about the help they receive.

    I find that deeply, deeply troubling.

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  12. On a side note, what’s going on with lobster is pretty interesting in itself. My father is a lobsterman and there is currently a glut of lobster due to some changes in the temperatures of the water currents. This means he can buy lobster in Maine for very cheap and has to sell it cheap. I could be wrong, but I believe he said it’s cheaper to eat lobster than hamburger in Portland. However, nearly everywhere else, it’s still sold at… well, lobster prices because it’s still got the cache as a luxury food. Unfortunately, this does not translate into folks like my dad being paid lobster prices when they sell it at market.

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    • There have been some articles about this over the summer. Some environmental (it is climate change causing these problems) and some exploring the economics behind the high prices (people don’t see to trust cheap lobster unless they are in Maine).

      Fun fact: Lobster only became a luxury item fairly recently. In 19th century New England, domestic workers went on strike so they would only be served lobster three days a week.

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    • Actually, the ‘every place else’ price has come down quite a bit; lobster’s gone from scarce to there, but expensive, most everywhere.

      And that’s in good part due to the cost of handling lobster; once the crustacean is dead, it’s got a shelf-life of about 20 min., even refrigerated. So they need to be shipped live or processed before shipping, with an eye toward the short shelf-life and the food-safety rules of shell fish, and still shipped refrigerated or frozen. That’s the mark-up.

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      • Well, I notice in the video that Mr. Greenleaf bought a lobster that had been wrapped in plastic and wasn’t moving around at all. Nor did it move around on the upper grill of the barbeque that was used to cook it. I presumed it was dead and frozen. It was also on sale. Is it in keeping with the spirit of SNAP to buy bargain, frozen lobster? What if the store only wanted like three bucks for it? Come to think of it, supermarket sushi isn’t exactly the highest quality, either.

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  13. A thought on this observation:

    …and indeed have indicated to me in court an unwillingness to get jobs at all lest they endanger their entitlement to “free rent from the government” (their words, not mine).

    Could this arise from the fact the benefits are to hard to acquire, not too easy?

    That is – Let’s say the memory is fresh in my mind of jumping through months of exhausting bureaucratic hoops, facing tired, bored and condescending administrators whose job success is based more on how many of the “undeserving” they reject, than on how many of the needy they help, to finally get the social welfare system to pay my rent, all the while scrambling to maintain any sort of housing, negotiating couch surfing arrangements for myself and my children, smoothing over the tension of my overcrowded hosts, trying to keep the next prospect lined up should things boil over…

    Now I have a job offer – at last, I can support my family by my own enterprise! But what happens if the job doesn’t work out? If I’m fired or laid off or injured or the whole ‘permanent position’ business was a shady misrepresentation because they get better candidates that way than when they come out and admit it’s just for a month? Then I’ll have managed to pay my own rent, only to face certain eviction because no sensible landlord would wait long enough for me to get back on the dole. Should I risk it?

    I am very much speculating in this – I have gotten the second-hand impression from some friends of mine who are social workers that there is an element of this in Canada; I know even less about the US.

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    • There is probably something to this, . My experience in eviction court is that those Section Eight benefits are pretty highly prized and the tenants tend to take care to safeguard their ability to continue receiving them, which is often the coin exchanged for possession of the disputed premises in pre-trial settlements. If a substantial amount of effort is needed to obtain eligibility for that benefit, that would be part of the benefit’s value to its holder.

      Another thing to consider is that those benefits can be fairly substantial in terms of objective dollars — $1,200 to $1,800 a month for a larger family, who otherwise might be homeless. That seems like it has pretty tangible value to me.

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  14. Burt:

    “But the system itself is so thoroughly integrated into society, into our collective lives, that tolerating a degree of abuse is something we’re just going to have to do.”

    Sorry, that is a sad excuse for doing nothing. What I find so sad about some liberals attitude towards subjects such as this is that they are so against making any changes even good ones lest they admit that Repubs have a point that some things need to changed. Maybe if the dead beats were taken off the welfare roles there might be more money for the deserving, doesn’t that set liberal hearts a flutter?

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    • Although my intention was to argue against the risible proposition of abolishing the welfare system entirely, it’s a fair cop to say that simply shrugging off abuse of the welfare system is perhaps not the right attitude. Welfare cheats do, in fact, steal from the rest of us.

      How, then, shall we separate the deadbeats from the good-faith users? The cheats from the compliers? We must have a rule of some sort. And then we must have enforcement of those rules, by people, in some sort of judicial or at least quasi-judicial forum, because we’re not going to do away with the Due Process clause, either. At least, I hope we’re not.

      Maybe it’s possible to have better rules than we do now. Maybe it’s possible to have more efficient quasi-judicial processes than we do now. Hell, substitute the word “Likely” for the word “Maybe” in the previous two sentences and you wouldn’t hear any protest from me. But it’d still be a system of rules that creates incentives and people entering that system would still search out and exploit whatever weaknesses are there in it. So you might have fewer welfare cheats, fewer deadbeats, fewer lobster boys. But there would still be some. And would we have realized a net savings of public money by switching to the newer system compared to the system we’re in now?

      And, more to the point, a marginally improved welfare system is not really what the FOX News piece is arguing in favor of. They’re suggesting something a bit more dramatic than that.

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      • Actually, those those social-services are really, really humiliating to apply for; there’s a cussload of documents to fill out, and a lot of revealing questions that you have to answer to a person you don’t know (vs. the fear that your doctor will be forced to ask you about your sex life under Obamacare, remember).

        The whole process is designed like our tax forms; to make people taking advantage of the benefits that government is awful, horrible, etc.

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    • Food stamp abuse, according to the GAO, is somewhere around 2-3%. Let’s say we assume that all the various Health & Human Service departments around the country are horrible at rooting out fraud and it’s actually double that. That’s six percent. I will bet you any amount of money far more than 6% of tax filings by major corporations and the top 1% are slightly shady. But, we aren’t worried about that, are we?

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      • Why do you point to only corporations and the top 1%? Do lower and middle class folks never fudge on their taxes? Are you at all familiar with the service industry? (I prefer to give tips in cash when I can so I can aid and abet cabbies and wait staff in creating shady tax returns. Heck, I worked for a few months as a cabbie and as far as the IRS knew, I never made a dime.

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      • It’s where the money is, James. If people were truly worried about people scamming the government and getting some of that money back, you’d go after two areas with about 90% of your investigations – defense contracting and high-level tax evasion.

        I’m well aware the middle class and working class does the same thing. They’re just far less efficient and able to get much out of it. :)

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      • How’s that Willie Sutton quote go again?

        “’cause that’s where the money is”

        Defunding NPR is pennies against one f-ed up program overrun in defense spending but which one has had bills presented on it in this congress? Why? Same reason. It’s not ’cause it saves the govt or you and I money it’s cause it makes the Congresscritters money come electioneering time.

        And the fact that you cheerfully admit to committing large scale tax fraud is just icing.

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      • And the fact that you cheerfully admit to committing large scale tax fraud is just icing.

        I’m an honest crook!

        And if you’re actually commenting negatively on the fact that I like to tip in cash, I pity your waiters and waitresses and caution you to check for spit in your food wherever you’re a regular. ;)

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      • No, I’ve been a bartender and server in several incarnations. I tip in cash (and well) at my regular. They treat me good and comp me more than they probably should, but that’s OK ’cause the owner and I are well disposed to one another generally and he’s not too much of a hard ass. If I’m in a place that pools I tip minimum on card and tip the server in cash too, because tip pooling sucks.

        The difference between you and I? I pay my taxes. Every damn penny. More than I need to (because I don’t disclose or deduct my charitable giving). Another difference, I suspect? I’m damn happy to do it, even if I’m occasionally heard to bitch about how complicated the forms get when you have strange situations and even though the tax code is actively calibrated to weigh heavier on me than many of my peers. Because that’s what being a grown up is in a civil society.

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      • NoPublic,

        Gee, I was a cab driver for less than half a year almost a quarter century ago. Now my salary is direct deposited, no cash.

        But please don’t let that detract from how awfully socially and maturationally superior you are to me. I sense you need that ego boost more than I do, and, dude, I’m a giver.

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      • Provided that no law is broken, no one has any obligation to arrange her or his financial affairs so as to incur liability for taxes; indeed, the law is arranged such that careful structuring of financial affairs in compliance with the law will minimize tax liability and thus incentivize behavior which the law wishes to encourage.

        It seems to me that I read that in some court’s opinion reporting a decision, not so very long ago. But I’m not sufficiently interested in the subject to look up the citation right now, because I don’t think the statement above is particularly controversial.

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      • Why do you point to only corporations and the top 1%?

        For the same reason smart burglar’s break into nice houses, and not sneak into a homeless man’s cardboard shelter at night.

        Low-hanging fruit. Biggest bank for your buck.

        That’s just plain common sense. Your average middle-class tax cheat might owe a thousand bucks, but your top 0.01% would owe hundreds of thousands. A business? Millions. For the same basic level of ‘fraud’.

        Given a limited number of auditors, why wouldn’t you go after the big fish?

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      • Provided that no law is broken

        Not claiming tips or under the table cash employment is against the law, last I knew.

        Gee, I was a cab driver for less than half a year almost a quarter century ago. Now my salary is direct deposited, no cash.

        But please don’t let that detract from how awfully socially and maturationally superior you are to me. I sense you need that ego boost more than I do, and, dude, I’m a giver.

        You’re a cheat and a criminal. You have harmed me at least as much (if not more so) than the fellow buying lobster with his EBT card. I don’t call this out because of an ego boo, I call this out because it’s relevant to the discussion at hand.

        I’m a criminal too (most of us are in one way or another), but taxes are a sore subject with me because so many tax cheats I know also exhibit high dudgeon about welfare cheats and voter ID fraud and ignore the other massive frauds in our government.

        I discuss my pleasure at paying taxes and the manner in which I do so to stress that I am at least as greatly (if not more) harmed as any and yet I can’t bring myself to care because he’s not the one fleecing me for Benjamins, you and he are pulling pennies out of my couch cushions.

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      • Not claiming tips or under the table cash employment is against the law, last I knew.

        I’m not a tax lawyer, but I do practice employment law so I have perhaps a greater than peripheral understanding of the issues at play here, at least from a minimum wage compliance point of view that I know has at least some bleedover into the world of tax. Service workers who customarily earn a substantial portion of income in tips are (or are at least supposed to be) imputed income by their employers based on the amount of work they do. This can be fudged, obviously, and employers frequently collude with employees to under-report the income (so now you can be upset at the employers for stealing from you, too).

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      • Why not the top 5% then? The top 10%? The top 20%? Surely there’s more money there than in just the top 1%?

        And the top 99% even more so. But at some point your audit effort / payoff ratio starts to get pretty weak.

        Looks like examining the top 1% gives you a crack at about 20% of national income. Going to 10% gives you 10x the auditing work with about 2.5x the total income. Tax irregularities probably drop off pretty substantially in the low 90 percentile as people start earning most of it as straight W-2 income rather than owning businesses or trading from complex investment accounts.

        Given the shape of the distribution, it might even be wiser to go with the top 0.25% or so. Very few tax returns with a huge chunk of that 20% of national income.

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      • NoPublic,

        You’re a cheat and a criminal.

        Yeah, you really don’t want to play cards with me.

        You have harmed me at least as much (if not more so) than the fellow buying lobster with his EBT card…but taxes are a sore subject with me because so many tax cheats I know also exhibit high dudgeon about welfare cheats and voter ID fraud and ignore the other massive frauds in our government.

        Uh, huh. So can you point to where I exhibited high dudgeon about welfare cheats? Like, anywhere on this page where I complained about the surfer dude’s SNAP lobster? (Great song, by the way.) And maybe if you google hard enough you might even find my actual position on the voter fraud issue.

        You’re a cheat and a criminal.

        Repeated for shits and giggles.

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      • T-Frog, Morat;

        Am I the only one who noticed the echo of OWS in Elias’s “1%” and wondered if that ridiculous ideological trope was more the issue than the actual amount of money to be recovered?

        Maybe?

        Am I totally off my rocker here?

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      • Am I the only one who noticed the echo of OWS in Elias’s “1%” and wondered if that ridiculous ideological trope was more the issue than the actual amount of money to be recovered?

        Off your rocker? No. Hypersensitive? Probably. If Elias had written that six years ago, you probably would have nodded your head at its basic correctness and moved on. But now we have “trope police” coming in to protect us from–well I’m not sure exactly what. But protected we are.

        When somebody makes a point that’s relevant and basically accurate, I try not to let my gut reaction that says, “This is something said by bad people I disagree with! It must be smashed!” overwhelm the more correct reaction that says, “This point was relevant to the discussion, factually accurate, and supports the author’s stance.”

        When somebody says, “If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns,” I grimace at the stupid marketing trope, but I also acknowledge that even though I think the NRA is largely dumb and often advocates for stupid policies, that line makes a good point that I can’t really disagree with. Likewise, income distribution and tax policy in the US are just facts, like it or not.

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      • I am the Commander-in-Chief of the trope police.

        Seriously, I’ve got a badge, a gun, and everything. Elias is just lucky he’s not within my jurisdiction or I’d have had a SWAT team serving a warrant at his house (or his neighbor’s house, the drug cops taught me that it doesn’t really matter) at about 3 o’clock this morning.

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      • Am I the only one who noticed the echo of OWS in Elias’s “1%” and wondered if that ridiculous ideological trope was more the issue than the actual amount of money to be recovered?

        The thing is, the top 1% is, pretty much by definition, safely out of reach of most people. Most of us, are, hope to be, have been, or have friends and/or family who are in the top 5% or 10% of income earners. So you have to be careful what you say about them.

        But the top 1%?

        *Looks around for anyone wearing a monocle or top hat*

        Screw them. They’re a bunch of assholes.

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    • “Maybe if the dead beats were taken off the welfare roles there might be more money for the deserving, doesn’t that set liberal hearts a flutter?”

      We tried that!
      But KBR, Goldman Sachs, Blackwater, and Halliburton successfully lobbied against it.

      Whaddaya gonna do?

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  15. I’m confused. I’ve been informed by reliable sources that anti-welfare rhetoric is just thinly-veiled pandering to racists. Why are they showing a white welfare recipient?

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  16. $200 a month is most assuredly not a generous benefit to the truly needy.

    But the truly needy are eligible for other benefits, aren’t they? Medicaid, housing assistance, disability if applicable, EITC if employed, unemployment if not, and TANF. Unless, like this guy, you’re a single adult who just doesn’t feel like working, this isn’t going to be your only source of income.

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