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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Needs vs. Wants

In a land of plenty, what does the ordinary citizen really need?

What does the ordinary citizen really need?  On a collective level, an excellent place to begin analysis is on the expense side, that is, how the Prince is prioritizing the expenditure of the People’s money.  Common sense dictates that those items which relate to what the People “need” must first be identified as the so-called necessities of life.  These must be distinguished from the things which the People merely “want,” relating not to need but rather a whole host of discretionary items, or simply greed.

In the category of “needs,” much of the conduct of Benjamin Franklin’s early life evidences the truth that the only thing we need is the mere subsistence of bread and water.  However, when it comes to human nature, it is amazing, Franklin remarked, how many poor souls, given the simple choice of bread (needed) or beer (discretionary), in fact, would choose beer!

Over the ensuing centuries, a self-proclaimed “enlightened” People has continually and consistently expanded on what are presumed to be our needs.  Concepts incorporating more scientific theories about diet (other necessary subsistence in addition to bread and water), standards of “adequate” housing, “equal opportunities” in education, and “good,” meaning high-paying, jobs are identified.

In the more recent decades of the late 20th century, prior Princes and legislatures have presumed to add to the basic list of needs certain guaranteed “benefits” atop the salaries of public sector jobs.  Although contractually promised, and presently protected under our laws, it is doubtful these benefits were ever the subject of valid actuarial accounting practices.  Surely, secure retirement payments in the form of lifetime pensions, unconscionable annual expenditures in too many cases, as well as free, unlimited access to health care and related services, are not on the ordinary citizen’s list of needs.  But, hence, the Prince calls for more revenue anyway.

When it comes to analysis of “need,” the ordinary citizen is guided by the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd President.  In the throes of the Great Depression, F.D.R. left the ordinary citizen with the enduring legacy: a primary obligation of the government is to provide help to its Citizens, especially in their time of need.  During that time, need meant food, government bread delivered to hungry people waiting desperately on long lines.  The government subsidized clothing, housing and sponsored programs designed to put the People back to work.  The New Deal "freedom from fear/freedom from want" experiment was designed to confront an ongoing emergency, because the private sector had failed.

In the category of “wants,” all the People must do to distinguish needs from wants is watch just a bit of television in prime time.  In less than an hour, it is apparent that 99% of what talented Madison Avenue marketing professionals advertise involves a wish list, for which the ordinary citizen falls easily.  Just how badly does the ordinary citizen need another prescription, marketed by the powerful pharmaceutical industry, to alleviate the phenomenon of “restless leg syndrome?”

Ben Franklin also warned of excessive Debt, an ugly but sometimes necessary evil.  If permitted to grow unchecked to the point where it can not realistically expect to be repaid, Debt robs the ordinary citizen of the ability to act independently.  Debt thus poses perhaps the greatest danger to fundamental liberty.  Its potential adverse consequences can be chilling.

Finally, lawmakers who take an oath of “service” invariably find themselves intertwined with economic interests.  In a capitalist economy that often expresses itself in terms of excess, the alliance tends to corrupt both.  An understanding of how and why laws are made --- or not made --- is not always apparent.  As the line between needs and wants loses definition, the greater good is overwhelmed by an identifiable self-interest component.  May the People some day realize that all they truly need is the will to contain it?

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Traffic Light (Part Two)

(Editor's note:  This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series published under heading of The Traffic Light.  To view the first segment, click here.)

Does the ordinary citizen's pursuit of happiness come with any significant limitation?  Perhaps, we should just wait ...

The traffic light serves as a useful metaphor for the ordinary citizen’s interaction with change.  Some prefer the safety and comfort of a red light, indicative of all they know and all they care to know.  Sometimes, when the light turns green, all hell breaks loose.  Others detest the red light as evil and the mortal enemy of progress.  For them, the traffic light is always, or should always be, green in a perfect world.

But suppose there were a powerful force which had little interest in permitting the traffic light to change.  What happens then?

Recall the young Baptist minister, reared in Atlanta, well educated with a doctorate degree in theology.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated civil disobedience, but in a different way.  He preached nonviolent, direct action guided by the Christian ideal of love and not through racial hatred.  Jailed in Birmingham for such protests, Dr. King wrote that his people had been told to “Wait!” for constitutional (and God-given) rights for nearly 350 years.

By any reasonable measure that’s a long time to wait at a red light, while the cars with the green on the other side barely noticed.  It’s called empathy, and the lack thereof.  But reasoning correctly that wait usually meant never, Dr. King’s people were no longer willing to stand by and wait patiently for equal rights, that the “Time is now.”

The phenomenon of the 1960s sit-ins, the civil rights march on Washington, D.C. and his powerful “I have a dream” speech were embedded into American culture.  Meanwhile, the mass exodus of Southern white Democrats to the Republican Party seemed to coincide with, and may have been facilitated by, these events.  Presently, that powerful constituency comprises the party’s affluent conservative base.

Some fear change --- others embrace it --- all in the constancy of our predictable human nature.  Do we dare risk the folly of changing a classic Rembrandt painting?  Sometimes, as Theodore Roosevelt has noted, the institution fittest to survive tends in fact to survive the change whirling about relatively unscathed:

It is true, as the champions of the extremists say, that there can be no life without change, and that to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life.  It is no less true, however, that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development.

Change is messy.  Great achievement is all but impossible absent an individual willing to incur a dangerous level of risk that is unacceptable to most.  The first person through or over the wall always gets hurt.  This ordinary yet peculiar but necessary citizen gets beaten up, beaten down and absorbs the full brunt of the damaging blows of an entrenched status quo.  Taking it square in the teeth, the innovative risk taker oft becomes a regrettable front line casualty.  But the process exposes the powerful force of resistance as a dying voice.

Recently, President Obama stated that “I am not going to walk away from 40 million people who have the chance to get health insurance for the first time.”  It’s an admirable undertaking which has befuddled presidents dating back to T.R. a hundred years ago.

At a time when the richest 400 Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined, consider that these stark numbers do not lie.  At the traffic light they present a distorted reality from what one may have come to expect.  One privileged car commands the favored state road on a long, uninterrupted green for every 375,000 cars jammed in at the crossroad red.  The one car, in turn, provides consideration to a small percentage of the latter group to keep it that way.  Everyone, it seems, must wait.

Dare to engage in a social science project charged with the responsibility of adjusting the flow at that particular traffic light?  Such an intellectual exercise may prove enlightening.  The requisite, independent traffic studies are completed, and demonstrate beyond doubt that the timing and sequence must change.  But it doesn't end there.  Where human nature is concerned, perhaps the individual who happens to have things in abundance and consequently the perpetual green light has a valid point and typically the final say:  Do pretty much whatever you want in your pursuit of happiness, but just don’t try to change my status quo.

Who wants to be first over that wall?

-Michael D’Angelo