mfioretti: welfare*

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  1. Avremmo avuto bisogno di una sinistra che facesse il suo mestiere: combattere le disuguaglianze e le solitudini, redistribuire potere e rappresentanza. Con strumenti nuovi, certo. Ma alcuni strumenti vecchi, usati poco e male, non erano da buttare: la progressività delle imposte, il welfare. Noi pensavamo ai diritti. A quelli civili. Benissimo. Meno bene è stato fermarsi non appena quei diritti si tingevano di qualche sfumatura sociale, come sullo ius soli. Il fatto, però, è che intanto erano tornati i bisogni. E noi nemmeno li riconoscevamo più».

    Primo bisogno: il lavoro.

    «E basta con la stupidaggine che se non hai il lavoro ti metti in un garage e te lo inventi. Tutti Steve Jobs. Start-up. Innovazione. Si è persa ogni sensibilità sociale. Il problema ora non è solo "tornare al popolo", come sento dire da tanti; il problema è anche cosa gli dici, al popolo. Che gli dici? Che dall'altra parte del mondo il tuo amico Elon Musk, fra vent'anni, se hai soldi, ti porta a fare un giro su Marte?».
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  2. nailing the evil ways of oligarchs hardly demolishes left-wing arguments in favor of an unconditional, universal basic income which, so far, is the only policy being mooted as a way of universally guaranteeing the most basic right of all: the right to material existence. Moreover, basic income, while not a universal panacea, is one way of strengthening vulnerable members of society in their struggle against the oligarchs.

    Then again, the respected Marxist economist Michael Roberts has a different take in his recent blog (which we’ll cite at length to cover all the points):

    But what to do, as jobs are lost to robots? Some liberal economists talk of a ‘robot tax’. But all this would do is slow down automation – hardly a progressive move in reducing toil. The idea of universal basic income (UBI) continues to gain traction among economists, both leftist and mainstream. I have discussed the merits and demerits of UBI before. UBI is advocated by many neoliberal economic strategists as a way of replacing the ‘welfare state’ of free health, education and decent pensions with a basic income. And it is being proposed to keep wages down for those in work. Any decent level of basic income would be just too costly for capitalism to afford. And even if UBI were won by workers in struggle, it would still not solve the issue of who owns the robots and the means of production in general.

    A more exciting alternative, in my view, is the idea of Universal Basic Services i.e. what are called public goods and services, free at the point of use. A super-abundant society is by definition one where our needs are met without toil and exploitation ie a socialist society. But the transition to such a society can start with devoting socially necessary labour to the production of basic social needs like education, health, housing, transport and basic foodstuffs and equipment.

    Roberts’ text provides a good starting point for getting to the nitty-gritty of some key aspects of the debate about basic income.

    1) A basic income can be financed in several different ways. The difference between left- and right-wing proposals is easily ascertained by asking who gains and who loses. A left-wing proposal would entail progressive tax reform which brings about a major redistribution from the richest citizens to the rest of society. Hence, in a financing proposal resulting from an extensive study which is detailed in the final chapter of our book Against Charity, we specify that, with our version of basic income, the richest 20% would lose and the other 80% would gain. This would mean a redistribution of income which, in Gini Index terms, would become one of the most egalitarian in the world (about 0.25).

    2) Any basic income that contemplates dismantling the welfare state is a right-wing ploy. The fact that Milton Friedman—who, in fact, rather than basic income, favored a negative income tax (NIT) which is similar to basic income in some ways but also significantly different in others—and other more recent right-wing economists are ostensibly basic income supporters has led some left-wing critics to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Friedman wanted the NIT as a sop when he was aiming to dismantle public social services in the United States but it’s pretty reductionist to conclude from this that all basic income supporters want to do away with welfare. Far from it,

    Poverty is viewed as a personal aberration. The norm is having a job and earning a respectable living, which flies in the face of today’s reality that having a job is no guarantee against poverty, as the burgeoning numbers of working poor testify.
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  3. There’s an understandable impulse in the face of growing national divisions and what for many was the shocking and unpleasant outcome of the 2016 national elections to retreat to a comforting cocoon of the like-minded. Blue cities will do all the things that a solidly Republican national government won’t do: respect LGBTQ rights, provide sanctuary for immigrants, denounce climate change, and tax themselves to pay for needed investments and public services. But withdrawing to the safety of agreeable blue localities cedes the important national battle at just the time when it needs to be contested.

    It is well and good to celebrate the successes that mayors and local leaders are having. But transforming these heartening but small successes into a sweeping call for a new localism is misplaced when the fundamental functions of the national government are being steadily undermined. None of this works in a world in which the federal government is not simply rending holes in the safety net but knocking down its foundations.

    While the rest of the world’s nation-states adopted the trappings of modern social democracies, the U.S. was late to implement things like unemployment insurance, social security and universal health care. The New Deal, the Great Society, and Obamacare were only enacted after various local and state programs to address these problems were simply overwhelmed.

    Cities are not merely ill-equipped to tackle our major challenges on their own. Localism has an undeniable history of making many problems worse. Take two big issues of our time: climate change and surging inequality. Mayors and cities can strike a pose and demonstrate effective tactics, but they lack the policy throw-weight to solve these problems.

    It’s also worth noting that a key aspect of localism that has been effectively exempt from federal control—local control of zoning and land use—has worsened the economic segregation of our nation’s metropolitan areas
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  4. Here’s one example: In 2014, Maine Gov. Paul LePage released data to the public detailing over 3,000 transactions from welfare recipients using EBT cards in the state. (EBT cards are like state-issued debit cards, and can be used to disperse benefits like food stamps.)

    LePage created a list of every time this money had been used in a strip club, liquor store, or bar, and used it to push his political agenda of limiting access to state benefits. LePage’s list represents a tiny fraction of overall EBT withdrawals, but it effectively reinforced negative stereotypes and narratives about who relies on welfare benefits and why.

    I spoke with Eubanks recently about her new book, and why she believes automated technologies are being used to rig the welfare system against the people who need it the most.

    A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
    Sean Illing

    What’s the thesis of your book?
    Virginia Eubanks

    There’s a collision of political forces and technical innovations that are devastating poor and working-class families in America.
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  5. Two years ago I wrote about my experience in a London emergency department with my son, Victor. That post has since been viewed more than 450,000 times. There are over 800 comments with no trolls (a feat unto itself) and almost all of them express love for the NHS. I was in England again this week. And yes, I was back in an emergency department, but this time with my English cousin.

    My cousin loves high heels. As a former model she makes walking in the highest of heels look easy. However, cobblestone streets have challenges not found on catwalks and so she twisted her ankle very badly. Despite ice and elevation there was significant swelling and bruising and she couldn’t put any weight on her foot. I suggested we call her doctor and explain the situation. I was worried about a fracture. I hoped to arrange an x-ray. If it was broken we would arrange the needed care and if it wasn’t broken I could bandage it just as well at home.

    “No,” she said. She’d have to ring for an appointment. It was Friday around 11 am. The chance of getting into her GP by the end of the day was apparently non-existent. She would have to wait until Monday. Even if she were lucky enough to be seen that day there was no x-ray in his office so it would be a trip to see him and then a trip to the hospital. She was shocked when I suggested she call and just ask if he could order the x-ray. Apparently, that’s not how it’s done.

    As a gynaecologist I will admit feet are not my strong suit, but no medical degree was needed to confirm that she needed an x-ray. She also has some health issues that could impact healing from a break or the timing of surgery (hopefully that wouldn’t be needed, but you never know), so a timely diagnosis was important for her.

    “We’re going to the emergency department I said,” and off we went to Sunderland Hospital.

    Getting to the actual emergency room (ER) from the parking area required a background in orienteering. There was loads of construction and we had to go down hallway, after hallway, with Hogwarts’ worthy twists and turns. I managed to find a wheelchair, an unwieldy apparatus that only works in reverse - on purpose. This is to stop wheelchair theft, which is apparently a serious problem at Sunderland Hospital.

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    Owen Smith on the NHS

    My cousin was triaged immediately. Within two minutes a nurse checked her ankle, gave her codeine, and then sent her off to an urgent care clinic. She wasn’t even registered in the ER. A porter wheeled her to the urgent care clinic in another building some distance away, which required a trip outside.

    “What if it rains?” I asked the porter.

    “We get wet. This is the North,” he said. “Of course it rains. Almost every day.”

    Apparently no one complains.

    The urgent care clinic had a few people ahead of us. It took about 10 minutes to check in and then no more than 15 minutes to be seen. A lovely nurse named Leslie triaged my cousin and agreed an x-ray was in order and made the arrangements. My cousin did not need to see a doctor or a nurse practitioner to get an x-ray. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that happen in the US.

    The x-ray and radiology report took 10 minutes. Then a nurse practitioner (also very nice) did an appropriate history and exam. The diagnosis was a torn ligament (sprain) and possibly a small fracture of the lateral malleolus (outside ankle bone). An orthopaedics consultation was needed. She could either wait and be squeezed into fracture clinic that afternoon, or she could have a cast and come back to Saturday fracture clinic. The clinic didn’t start until 2pm and we were done in urgent care by 1pm, so she opted to wait. She was seen around 2.15pm. An orthopaedic consultant did an exam and recommended a tight support bandage and gave her exercises and guidelines about how to follow-up if she wasn’t meeting milestones.

    My cousin was at the hospital for four hours, one hour of this was an unavoidable wait for the fracture clinic and about 30 minutes of transport back and forth between the ER, urgent care, and fracture clinic.
    UK news in pictures

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    To receive this care all my cousin had to do was provide her name and birthdate. No co-payments, no pre-authorisations, no concerns about the radiologist or orthopaedic surgeon being out of network. The nursing triage was wonderful and actually doing nursing (I hate seeing nurses relegated to charting). The nurse practitioner clearly knew what she was talking about and had reviewed the films with the radiologist.
    Tags: , , , , by M. Fioretti (2017-01-09)
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  6. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

    Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

    And don’t tell me that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour solves the problem. No one can doubt the moral significance of the movement. But at this rate of pay, you pass the official poverty line only after working 29 hours a week. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Working a 40-hour week, you would have to make $10 an hour to reach the official poverty line. What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?

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    But, wait, isn’t our present dilemma just a passing phase of the business cycle? What about the job market of the future? Haven’t the doomsayers, those damn Malthusians, always been proved wrong by rising productivity, new fields of enterprise, new economic opportunities? Well, yeah – until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.

    For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years.

    So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.

    What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

    In short, it lets us say: enough already. Fuck work.

    Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

    And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?

    I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?

    We already have some provisional answers because we’re all on the dole, more or less. The fastest growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from government. By the turn of the 21st century, 20 per cent of all household income came from this source – from what is otherwise known as welfare or ‘entitlements’.

    you will say – along with every economist from Dean Baker to Greg Mankiw, Left to Right – that raising taxes on corporate income is a disincentive to investment and thus job creation. Or that it will drive corporations overseas, where taxes are lower.

    But in fact raising taxes on corporate income can’t have these effects.

    Let’s work backward. Corporations have been ‘multinational’ for quite some time. In the 1970s and ’80s, before Ronald Reagan’s signature tax cuts took effect, approximately 60 per cent of manufactured imported goods were produced offshore, overseas, by US companies. That percentage has risen since then, but not by much.

    Chinese workers aren’t the problem – the homeless, aimless idiocy of corporate accounting is. That is why the Citizens United decision of 2010 applying freedom of speech regulations to campaign spending is hilarious. Money isn’t speech, any more than noise is. The Supreme Court has conjured a living being, a new person, from the remains of the common law, creating a real world more frightening than its cinematic equivalent: say, Frankenstein, Blade Runner or, more recently, Transformers.

    But the bottom line is this. Most jobs aren’t created by private, corporate investment, so raising taxes on corporate income won’t affect employment.

    When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labour market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And there’s the rub, they do go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills and present reward.

    Securing ‘full employment’ has become a bipartisan goal at the very moment it has become both impossible and unnecessary. Sort of like securing slavery in the 1850s or segregation in the 1950s.


    Because work means everything to us inhabitants of modern market societies – regardless of whether it still produces solid character and allocates incomes rationally, and quite apart from the need to make a living. It’s been the medium of most of our thinking about the good life since Plato correlated craftsmanship and the possibility of ideas as such. It’s been our way of defying death, by making and repairing the durable things, the significant things we know will last beyond our allotted time on earth because they teach us, as we make or repair them, that the world beyond us – the world before and after us – has its own reality principles.

    Think about the scope of this idea. Work has been a way of demonstrating differences between males and females, for example by merging the meanings of fatherhood and ‘breadwinner’, and then, more recently, prying them apart. Since the 17th century, masculinity and femininity have been defined – not necessarily achieved – by their places in a moral economy, as working men who got paid wages for their production of value on the job, or as working women who got paid nothing for their production and maintenance of families. Of course, these definitions are now changing, as the meaning of ‘family’ changes, along with profound and parallel changes in the labour market – the entry of women is just one of those – and in attitudes toward sexuality.

    When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work – education, healthcare, service – becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper – socially beneficial labour – becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.
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  7. Milton Friedman, the influential ‘free market’ ideologue and economist, supported a guaranteed income as a way for the state to fulfil social obligations without interfering with the market, arguing that it ‘should replace the ragbag of specific welfare programs’.1

    Business website FastCoExist suggests, ‘A basic income could replace multiple types of public assistance – from healthcare to earned tax credits – with a single payment.’2 One of the largest trials of a basic income to date is the $22.4-million experiment planned by the rightwing Finnish government – who are also cutting health, education and welfare.3

    Increased talk of a basic income comes at a time of the voucherization, marketization and decimation of public services. Sweden, Chile and New Orleans have introduced schemes where parents are given vouchers to pay for either state or private schooling.4 In England, ‘personal health budgets’ and large-scale outsourcing are being forced on the health service, while Spain has introduced ‘co-charges’ for healthcare.5

    The policy could give the Right the justification it wants to eviscerate the social state further, and would make it harder to argue for an expansion of public services. The payment could easily be eaten up by the cost of paying for previously public services, and as, depending on the implementation, the basic income does not necessarily redistribute more money to the poorest, a rightwing programme that introduced a basic income amid cuts could leave many worse off. In Britain, the cost of a degree – previously fully funded – would take several decades of basic income to repay at the level proposed in 2013 by the Citizen’s Income Trust.6

    Many services are best provided collectively. For example, in Britain, the National Health Service has provided excellent comprehensive healthcare, free at the point of use, for many decades. It provides a better service at a lower cost than many insurance-based systems, and at around half of the cost of the disastrous free-wheeling market that is US healthcare.7

    Free-marketeers see a basic income as the perfect excuse for their wet dream of an antisocial state; introduce it in place of public services, and abandon the rest to the market

    The same goes for housing. Public investment can provide good quality housing in much larger quantities than the private sector.8Subsidizing accommodation in the private rental sector is more expensive than providing state housing and encourages private landlords to inflate their rents. A ‘basic income’ risks a similar effect.9 And, crucially, in an unregulated private market there is little security for most people in that vital thing – home.
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  8. A 40 anni dal manifesto Familjen i framtiden - en socialistisk familjepolitik l'utopia svedese si è rivelata una desolante emancipazione regressiva. Si nasce soli, si vive soli, si muore soli. Come nota Gandini nel Docu-film: “Ognuno va per la propria strada ma non c'è nulla che li tenga insieme”. Quest’ultimo fenomeno è talmente aumentato negli ultimi anni che lo Stato svedese ha dovuto creare uffici appositi che si occupano di tutte le incombenze legali e burocratiche legate alla scoperta di un morto senza legami, nel disinteresse di figli e parenti.
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  9. I think many of us assumed that the Scandinavian welfare state just appeared out of the sky one day, a natural outgrowth of cold weather plus a small and homogeneous population.

    I actually attack the phrase “welfare state” in my book. Americans imagine that “welfare state” means the U.S. welfare system on steroids. Actually, the Nordics scrapped their American-style welfare system at least 60 years ago, and substituted universal services, which means everyone—rich and poor—gets free higher education, free medical services, free eldercare, etc. Universal totally beats the means-testing characteristic of their dreadful old welfare system that they discarded and that the United States still has.
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    So, properly speaking, in the U.S. context the Nordics should be regarded not as welfare states but as “universal services states.” Nobody has gotten rid of poverty through charity, philanthropy and welfare, whereas poverty can be abolished through universal services.
    Tags: , , by M. Fioretti (2016-07-24)
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  10. Prima del 2000 l’incidenza della povertà relativa riferita agli anziani era di 5 punti superiore a quella dei minori, oggi quella dei nipoti è quasi raddoppiata e ha raggiunto il 19%, mentre i nonni restano 10 punti sotto. Queste cifre spiegano bene la ragione per cui il legame tra bambini e anziani è andato rafforzandosi con l’avanzare della crisi: come una stretta di mano sempre più necessaria per non lasciare affondare il futuro rappresentato dalle giovani generazioni. Contemporaneamente denunciano però anche tutto il limite del welfare italiano.

    Basta poco a mettere in luce l’origine dei problemi. Il quadro che emerge dall’analisi del sistema di protezione sociale italiano – per l’Istat «uno dei meno efficaci in Europa», con «la spesa pensionistica che comprime il resto dei trasferimenti sociali» aumentando il rischio di povertà – è impietoso: non solo è aumentata la disuguaglianza nella distribuzione del reddito, ma è diventato più difficile riuscire a migliorare la propria condizione. Il cosiddetto "ascensore sociale" è fermo al piano terra: chi sperimenta condizioni di svantaggio da giovane ha alte probabilità di restare ai margini anche da grande. La povertà, insomma, ha preso di mira i minori, ed è ereditaria. E lo scenario in cui questo si manifesta è quello di un Paese nel quale risaltano le emergenze indicate con forza anche dall’ultima assemblea dei vescovi italiani: lavoro, famiglia, demografia.
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