On Dilbert, Part Two.

Here’s a link to “On Dilbert, Part One.” I started writing what was going to be a longer post, had something else to do, decided to publish the post as was with the intent to finish it up in the next few days. Well, that clearly didn’t happen. Earlier this year, I resolved to write Part Two, but whenever I sat down to do it, I couldn’t remember what the rest of the article was supposed to be about. Happily, while going through some boxes, I found the book that had led me to write the article in the first place.

Here’s where I left off:

I think that every person has a tendency to think that something about him is unique; this uniqueness sets him apart from the rest of humanity and it creates a sense of entitlement. In this case, we have a comic strip that touches people in such a way that many people feel it truly belongs to them and them alone. (“Them alone”? I’ll have to consult a grammatician.) We’ll go from there next time.

Apparently “next time” meant “more than three years from now.” Oh well.

A week or so before I wrote Part One, I read In Our Hands. The author, Murray, is libertarian but is resigned to the belief that the welfare state will never go away. He proposes that as long as we’re stuck with a massive federal welfare system (which includes payments to poor households, Medicare, Social Security, loans and grants for college education, subsidies for corporations, and so on and so forth), we may as well make it as simple, as transparent, as democratic, and as conducive to freedom as possible.

Here’s the super-short version of his plan, which he calls “The Plan”:

1. Get rid of every type of federal welfare program–food stamps, TANF, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, scholarships, college grants, corporate subsidies, agricultural subsidies, bailouts, you name it.
2. Replace them with a (roughly) equal monthly stipend to every American citizen age 21 or older, who isn’t in jail.

He gets a little more specific in the book. For instance, Murray’s annual payment would vary based on income, from $5,000 for the highest earners up to $10,000 for those who earn less than $25,000 per year. Also, he would require each individual to spend at least $3,000 of that stipend on health insurance. He claims that five-to-ten years after initiating The Plan, the total annual expenditure would drop below what would have been spent by the welfare state as it currently exists.

And after you pay for the health care, you’re free to do as you wish with that stipend. Spend it on a car. Spend it on school. Spend it on food. Spend it on housing. Save it for retirement, so that you’ll have extra cash in addition to the stipend you’ll keep receiving when you retire. Aside from the stipend on health insurance, you’d be free to do as you wish. You’d know that everybody is getting approximately the same benefit, you could plan ahead with greater certainty and clarity about what’s coming from the federal government, you’d have a better idea of how much the government is spending and how it’s spending it, the jobs of the federal welfare bureaucracies would be simplified and streamlined, and you wouldn’t have to jump through as many hoops to get the same money from the government as everyone else. And there’d certainly be less for the politicians and voters to argue about.

And that’s why, despite the savings, the efficiency, the simplicity and the appeal to equality and democracy, nothing resembling The Plan will ever happen in this country.

Not because of disagreement over the age of eligibility. Not because of disagreement over the size of the stipend, or what income level should receive how much money. Not because of arguing over how to pay for it. Not because of the argument over whether immigrants, prisoners or convicts should be included. You can iron out those details relatively easily.

The Plan will never happen because it doesn’t play to our vanity.

Here’s the admittedly flimsy connection to Dilbert I tried to draw: “Yeah, Dilbert’s funny, but to truly appreciate it, you really have to be a ___________,” parallels “Yeah, everyone’s equal and everyone has needs, but the government should pay for my _________ because it’s more important than…”

Under The Plan, politicians wouldn’t be able to manipulate that sense of entitlement or vanity. It would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, politicians’ ability to cater to special interests. Politicians would no longer be able to scare the elderly by claiming their Social Security or Medicare payments were at risk, or parents of high school kids by claiming their Pell Grants or scholarships were at risk, or corn farmers by saying their subsidies are at risk.

But it would also greatly reduce, if not eliminate, individuals’, families’, and businesses’ ability to claim special necessity or privilege. Voters would never go for the Plan, because we as special interests–maybe you’re elderly, or you have a kid about to go to college, or you have a corn farm dependent on ethanol subsidies–are so much more special and important than everyone else.

You might say, “I’m not a special interest!” Yes, you are. That is, to everyone else, you are. Kind of like it’s worthwhile and valuable to bring federal dollars to your congressional district because you need to rebuild a stadium, because without that stadium the team goes away and without the team, the local economy hurts–but if those same dollars go to another district’s stadium, it’s “wasteful pork barrel spending.”

The Plan would make federal spending more understandable, more controllable, and more equitable. It would transform federal and state politics by radically reducing the appeal to our vanity and to special interests–which includes all of us. Making the Plan a reality would require ego-displacement of unfathomable proportion. It’ll never happen.

Okay, so the connection between Dilbert and “a radical transformation of the federal welfare system” is a bit of a stretch. It probably would have been a lot smoother if I’d just written the whole thing at once back in aught-six. That’s procrastination and forgetfulness for you.

Off to celebrate the New Year. 2009 Resolution #6, check.