Whatever Became of the General Welfare?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday April 13, 2011 - 12:12:00 PM

Editorials are supposed to provide answers, but this week all we have for you is questions. What in the name of heaven has happened to (1) this country and (2) this generation?

In the not too distant past, it was assumed by almost everyone that providing respectable free public education was a central responsibility of government. Not only that, it was taken for granted that citizens would pool their resources using the tax system to provide parks both national and local, art museums, swimming pools, zoos—you name it. When I was growing up in St. Louis and California we had all those amenities and more.

Now the concept introduced in the preamble to the Constitution of “promoting the general Welfare” seems to have evaporated, or at least shrunk to unrecognizable dimensions. This is not a Liberal vs. Conservative or Democrat vs. Republican question: It’s much broader than that, and much more serious. 

Book after book has been published in the last few years exploring the question of what’s wrong with America these days. Two notable ones are Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Joe Bageant’s Deerhunting with Jesus, both essentially efforts to explain how working class stiffs vote to the Liberal Elite. But the LE is part of the problem. 

What are the majority of Democrats in the U.S. Congress if not card-carrying members of the liberal elite? And yet, didn’t most of them accede, fairly easily, to the “solution” to the budget deadlock of sacrificing the interests of the working poor on behalf of compromise? Independent Senator Bernie Sanders lays it out: “At a time when the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse. It takes from struggling working families and gives to multi-millionaires. This is obscene.” 

Why was the military budget left untouched? Today there are hints that President Obama might take a cursory look at that area, but don’t count on it. 

And let’s look at what’s happened to what used to be called conservatives. Time was when conservatives (think Everett Dirksen or even Barry Goldwater) pinched pennies across the board, not just in programs which benefited poor people. Republicans used to be people who believed in personal rather than government-funded good works, but they did believe in some notion of contributing to the common good. 

In my neighborhood in Berkeley, like all Berkeley neighborhoods, there are mighty few registered Republicans. But the ones there were used to be model citizens. A couple around the corner lavished weeks of personal backbreaking work on the elementary school playground, and we used to say about them that if everyone did things like that government would be indeed made obsolete. Didn’t happen. 

In the old days even Republicans paid taxes willingly. My father was a registered Republican until the day he died, though he hadn’t voted for a Republican candidate for a couple of decades—he kept hoping that the party of Senator Kuchel would come back, but it never did. He paid his taxes scrupulously, voted for school levies, the whole ball of wax. Now even registered Democrats in Berkeley have been heard to say that they won’t vote to spend money for schools because they don’t have children in school. Whatever happened to the general welfare? 

The disgraceful spectacle in Wisconsin, where rank and file public service workers have been portrayed as villains, is another manifestation of total disregard for the proper functioning of government. There’s a little room for criticism of the disparity in salaries among government executives (think U.C. chancellors) and government workers (think U.C. housekeepers), but none of them even remotely approaches the compensation of the plutocrats who run large tax-avoiding corporations and financial conglomerates. 

Elsewhere in this issue you’ll learn that the Chevron corporation has coughed up about $100,000 to contribute to the education of three students over four years in the trendy “STEM” (science, engineering, technology, mathematics) disciplines. It’s pitched as such a big deal that Secretary of Energy and U.C. prof Steven Chu posed for a photo op with a Chevron executive to accompany the release. 

That’s just dandy, but how does it stack up against Chevron’s record of exploiting and promoting tax loopholes? On March 27 Senator Sanders revealed that “Chevron received a $19 million refund from the IRS last year after it made $10 billion in profits in 2009.” In that league, $100k is chump change, and we’re the chumps if we believe it makes a difference. 

It’s been widely reported that “the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income.” A corollary assumption is that the richer some people get, the less likely they are to contribute to public amenities. 

Why vote for swimming pool bonds when you can pay for access to the swimming pool at the Claremont Hotel, or even at the YMCA, which is out of reach of many in Berkeley? Significantly, the city of Richmond, which is not the posh bedroom community which Berkeley has become, has just finished restoring the wonderful public pool known as the Richmond Plunge with the benefit of a fundraising campaign which reached many small local donors. 

On the other hand, the city of Piedmont, a wealthy enclave carved out of the Oakland Hills, has never felt it needed to support a public library. Recently, it’s even decided not to contribute to the Oakland Public Library, which Piedmont citizens have used in the past, presumably because between online information access and Amazon well-to-do Piedmonters don’t need libraries at all any more. 

In the Gilded Age around the turn of the last century, some few members of the ruling plutocracy did take responsibility to a certain extent for the common good. Teddy Roosevelt promoted conservation in general and national parks in particular. Now there are few Teddy Roosevelts around, though a few rich guys like Bill Gates in retirement are making something of an effort, prodded, one hears, by his old-school Republican father. But there’s a notable absence of what used to be a widespread belief, that through the tax system the better-fixed citizens funded public benefits for the good of all. 

Back to the question: why should this be so? Is the problem that the “me generation”—whatever that is or was—is now in power and is completely self-centered? Is it because the media has nourished the sense of victimhood associated with paying taxes, even though taxes on the very rich have never been lower? If you have any ideas, let us know.