So much of the time, I despair about politics and economics. These are not areas where people are honest. I might have strong opinions about which are the best translations of Don Quixote. But they aren’t based upon the fact that I have a room full of them that I’m trying to unload. I know, politics has always been a messy business. But democracy was supposed to help in this regard, but I’m afraid that the power elite have become so good at manipulating people that the very idea of democracy in the kind of capitalism that we have may be impossible.
My mind constantly goes back to 2012 and the California Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of GMO foods. Now on this issue, I tend to side with the conservatives. From a consumer standpoint, there is no evidence that there’s anything wrong with GMO foods. That’s not to say that I don’t have problems with them — especially in how they turn farmers into neo-serfs beholden to chemical companies. And I wonder about the environmental impact of GMOs. I don’t especially see labeling doing that much. But I also don’t see why the people have to be stopped from knowing. So I’m fine with labeling.
And in early 2012, the people of California were fine with GMO labeling. Early polling showed the law passing by a landslide. And then after months and millions of dollars of commercials featuring an old couple whose family farm was just going to be destroyed by the new law, Prop 37 went down to defeat by almost 3 percentage points. I was here during that time. This was not a case of the people being educated about the law. It was a case of an emotional campaign based upon gauzy romantic visions of the family farm and hysterical claims about the destruction of the California economy.
The situation is even more annoying when it comes to economics, which is supposed to be an academic discipline. But it isn’t. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of people doing very good work. But in the public sphere, economics is used to make whatever point someone in power wants to make. This is why a careful think tank like the Tax Policy Center can always been offset with a conservative talking points mill to claim that whatever giveaway to the rich that the Republicans want to do will be fiscally responsible because it bring on 4% or 6% or 149% growth. It doesn’t really matter, because these groups just pull their numbers out of the air.
I was thinking about this the other day when I read an excellent article by Dylan Matthews, Economists Tested 7 Welfare Programs to See if They Made People Lazy. They Didn’t. This doesn’t come as a surprise. There has never been much indication that welfare programs made people lazy. Humans tend to be dissatisfied. If you give them food and a place to sleep, they will look for better food and a nicer place to sleep. And in our society, where making money is considered the only important function of men, it is a question of self-respect.
So why did four economists have to do detailed studies of 7 welfare programs to show that they didn’t make people lazy? In fact, the evidence indicates that helping out struggling people makes them less lazy. But you already know that. It is just that the whole “welfare makes people lazy” claim is a bit of “common sense” manufactured by the laziest people on earth: the rich. Take a man who has no money. He will almost certainly weed your whole back yard for forty bucks. Ask Donald Trump to do it. It isn’t just that he’s busy. He lives in a society that has lied to him — telling him that his time and effort is worth more money.
Anyone will get off the couch and work if you pay them enough money. But we’ve been sold a bill of goods. The poor are lazy, even though they will work for almost nothing. The rich are productive because they must be paid a huge amount of money to get off the bar stool at the Encore Wynn in Las Vegas.