A Convoy of Cadillacs


In The Activist, the brilliant Chris Maisano suggests that the American people expand government insurance by deliberately exploding the Medicaid rolls.  His argument is based on Frances Fox Piven's and Richard Cloward's idea of creating a useful political crisis by loading underused public assistance programs beyond their capacity. The most obvious obstacle in pursuing this strategy is the enduring American notion that receiving government assistance implies some sort of personal failure. Last year, the New York Times ran a story on food stamps which noted that a third of eligible recipients were not participating in nutrition assistance programs. While the article suggested that the stigma of food stamps was fading, it also profiled right-wing food stamp users who still seemed convinced that other recipients were freeloading, even as they themselves  relied on government help:

Like many new beneficiaries here, Mr. Dawson [an electrician] argues that people often abuse the program and is quick to say he is different. While some people “choose not to get married, just so they can apply for benefits,” he is a married, churchgoing man who works and owns his home. While “some people put piles of steaks in their carts,” he will not use the government’s money for luxuries like coffee or soda. “To me, that’s just morally wrong,” he said. He has noticed crowds of midnight shoppers once a month when benefits get renewed. While policy analysts, spotting similar crowds nationwide, have called them a sign of increased hunger, he sees idleness. “Generally, if you’re up at that hour and not working, what are you into?” he said.

You see, Mr. Dawkins is different, unlike those people, buying coffee and soda, at night, like common criminals. Racism may be the elephant in the room here. The white right has always racially characterized recipients of government support as non-white. Open race-baiting may be disfavored in 2010, but that dirty work was done in the 1980s when the term "welfare" itself was permanently racialized through Ronald Reagan's fact-free fantasies of "welfare queens" in pink Cadillacs (code for black women). Indeed, according to Gallup, most white people believed that health care reform would benefit people other than themselves.

The prevalence of this nonsense has been a great propaganda coup for the American elites because they can reserve more of the government pie for themselves. Rugged individualism is plenty good for working people, but it will not do for American corporations, who have never refused a tax credit, subsidy, grant, or give-away. Bankruptcy is considered a shameful embarrassment for private persons, but a commendable strategy for corporations with big debts.

How interesting that our leaders deplore the "culture of dependency" of the poor, but seem untroubled by the culture of dependency in the boardrooms of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, KBR or ADM, companies that would cease to exist in any recognizable form if they were weaned from Uncle Sam's teats.

Since the crisis of 2008, the financial sector has been the luckiest recipient of government gravy, and why not? Bankers had every reason to expect their catastrophic losses would be socialized, because they knew a disorderly implosion of a few big banks would grind the economy to a halt.  Many banks were, and continue to be, too big to fail and they know it.

But aren't millions of economically traumatized Americans, collectively, bigger than the biggest banks? The left should suggest that "We The People" are too big to fail, and ought to begin acting like it. The shrill cry of the right-wing tea-baggers, "where's my bailout?," is more or less on point. What we need is a People's Bailout, in the form of immediate federal aid to the states, massive public works programs and a permanently enlarged public sector (after all, when so many private companies are dependent on government support, why are they private in the first place?).

Here is a Reaganesque reverie of my own: an army of angry welfare queens descend upon Washington in an endless convoy of Cadillacs; they park on the Mall and saunter into the halls of power with the  swagger of Wall Street banksters looking for handouts.  To paraphrase Bill Haywood, nothing is too good for the working class, not Cadillacs, not even a government rescue package.

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