Should People Pursuing Risky Careers Be Forced to Starve?

Jason GreenslateLast September, the Huffington Post published an article, Jason Greenslate, Food Stamp Surfer, Responds To The Haters. Greenslate is the young man that Fox News used for weeks to vilify the food stamp program (SNAP). It’s an interesting article because the young man is clearly intelligent—more so than most people on Fox News, much less those who watch the propaganda mill. And he made two points. First, he noted that it is wrong to make him the poster child of food stamps. In reference to the House Republicans using him as an excuse for cutting the SNAP program, he said, “I don’t think that one person should be the decision for 47 million people.” Second, he noted that it isn’t true that he doesn’t work—in fact, he works more than 40 hours per week. “I’m just not making any money. I’m setting up a career for myself.”

That’s the crux of it. Conservatives have a problem with his choice of careers. Now I don’t think this is true, but they would say it is because it has a low probability of success. But isn’t this one of the constant refrains from the Republican Party, “People need to be rewarded for taking chances”? Greenslate will probably fail. And he will pay a stiff economic cost for it later in life. What’s wrong with that? I would think nothing is wrong with it from a conservative perspective.

But the Fox News crowd seems to think that if Greenslate is going to make this choice, he should be forced into extreme poverty. He should be forced to starve. The social costs of his choice should be borne only by him. But that’s madness. First, there is an extreme social cost that we all play by how our society over-rewards professional entertainers from musicians to sports figures to the ranters on Fox News. (See Frank and Cook’s Winner-Take-All Society for more on this.) Why is there no concern about this, but excessive concern that we are making sure that a young man who is determined to following his unlikely dream is at least given enough food?

What’s more important is that the Fox News crew have a big problem with Greenslate for an unmentioned reason: they think that social value is perfectly determined by your salary. This is the old Ayn Rand game that claims that markets are not only efficient, they are perfect. As Ha-Joon Chang pointed out in Bad Samaritans, by this theory, no one would ever plan for the future. It would make no sense to get an education, because that costs money when one could be working right now and making money.

What the Fox News argument comes down to is that they don’t like how Greenslate is investing in himself. But they aren’t willing to come out and say that. So they claim that he is just wasting time and money. But the exact same thing could be said about college students taking out loans to study engineering. It is just that the career path for someone with an engineering degree is a lot safer than that of someone with a totally rad band. But the funny thing is that Greenslate’s food stamps cost us far less than paying the interest on those student loans for four years.

I’ve been planning to write about Greenslate for months. I only got around to it because he came up last night on The Daily Show. The A segment of the show was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen Jon Stewart do. I don’t recall seeing him quite so obviously angry before. Recently, he got into a bit of an argument with Eric Bolling at Fox News over their deceptive campaign against food stamps. Bolling said, “Food stamps aren’t just used for food. A lot of clowns are withdrawing cash from the EBT cards then spending in on things like booze, weed, and lap dancers.” Stewart responded, “”What we were ridiculing was the way you exaggerate the scope of public assistance abuse through random, often unprovable anecdotes, hour-long specials…” I suspect Bolling will come back with something akin to, “So’s your old man!”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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