Missouri’s Unethical Food Stamps Bill

Sometimes you just need a good lobster. I'm from Boston. Trust me on this.

Sometimes you just need a good lobster. I’m from Boston. Trust me on this.

Years ago, my wise and wonderful first year Contracts professor at Georgetown Law Center, the late Richard Alan Gordon, made a permanent impact on my conscience with a spontaneous rant. He was discussing a case involving a welfare recipient who had been sued by a Washington department store for failing to keep up with installment payments on a Hi-Fi system. The court voided the contract, saying that it was unconscionable for the store to intentionally create incentives for poor people to spend public assistance money on “non-essentials” like music systems. (I wish I remembered the name of the case, but then I only got a C+ in the course.)

As the students nodded their heads in agreement with the opinion, Professor Gordon cut them short and thundered (I am copying from faded old notes: Dick’s rants were always eloquent and memorable, and I began reconstructing them after class for posterity):

“Outrageous! Who are you, or a court, or a government, or any authority to tell another human being that feeding his body is more important than feeding his soul? Music is “non-essential”? I suppose that means that literature, culture, inspiration, wisdom, knowledge…or a moment of joy, the thrill of discovery, experiencing a concert, admiring a great work of art, or sharing an intimate and timeless moment with the love of your life is “non-essential” too! Neither the law nor any court nor a government authority has a right to dictate what is essential to any human being, whether he is receiving public assistance or not. Being poor imposes its own cruel restrictions on liberty and autonomy. Imposing more still is both an abuse of power and a violation of basic human rights. This is an assault on human dignity.”

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Ethics Heroes: Senate Republicans

crack

Just say “No.”

Sneaking expensive entitlements into long-term national policy is craven, dishonest, and continues the dangerous trend of sloppy, election-driven legislating that has become virtually standard operating practice in recent years. Senate Republicans generated some hope for transparency and the future of honest debate on governing philosophy by using the threat of a filibuster to block yet another extension of the supposedly “short-term” extensions of unemployment benefits.

I’ve written about this recently, so I won’t belabor it, but there was nothing in Democratic rhetoric surrounding the extension to disprove my suspicion, which was  full-blown three years ago, that this is nothing but a strategy for embedding  a permanent government subsidy of unemployment without a national debate regarding the consequences of such a policy. A ‘temporary” benefit is permanent if elected representatives lack the integrity and courage to end it; for an example one need only look to the supposedly short-term “Bush tax cuts,” which a Democratic President and legislature, despite exorbitant rhetoric about how irresponsible they were (and irresponsible they were), extended, and they are in place still. There is not a single Democratic argument in favor of the supposedly temporary extension that would not apply to a policy of paying the unemployed forever. Here are some quotes from “The Hill” yesterday:

  • “We’re one Republican vote away from restoring benefits to 1.7 million Americans.  There is one Republican vote standing in the way of a lifeline to these 1.7 million people.”-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

1.7 million, 1 million, 657,000…when would such benefits not qualify, in Reid’s words, as a “lifeline”? If the answer is never, and it is, why would anyone believe these are intended to be temporary benefits? Isn’t the money just as crucial to an unemployed worker whether he or she has 1.7 million companions in misery, or fewer? Continue reading

When “Heartless” Is Responsible

The Neverending Emergency....

The Neverending Emergency….

Nancy Pelosi just designated the extension of unemployment benefits yet again—they were first extended in 2008 and have been continuously extended ever since—as Congress’s top priority for 2014, which is instructive. She called the Republican determination to end the extensions as “immoral;” others in her party and the media have called it heartless. “Starting tomorrow, too many American families will face the New Year with uncertainty, insecurity, and instability as a result of congressional Republicans’ refusal to extend critical unemployment insurance,” she said. “The first item on Congress’ agenda in the New Year must be an extension of unemployment insurance. That must be our priority on day one.” The budget deal cut between House Democrats and Republicans ends the extensions, unless something is done.

Pelosi’s argument is intellectually dishonest. I would like someone to define the exact point at which the number of families dependent on as yet unsuccessful job-seekers would no longer be regarded as “too many.” Isn’t any number too many? If the nation decides that it should provide a living stipend to the unemployed as long as they are jobless as policy, then so be it: I think that would be a mistake, as the Welfare experiment demonstrated and as the federal disability assistance programs continue to demonstrate, but that’s a debate that needs to be had. As seems to be habitual with the Democrats, they apparently want to make this the policy deceptively and without admitting so, by the device of never-ending “emergency extensions,” with spokespeople like Pelosi ready to hammer any opposition as a “heartless.” Continue reading

Hand-Out Ethics: Buying Junk Food With Food Stamps, Or A Leap Down The Slippery Slope?

Maybe I got something out of law school after all.

11-nanny stateWhen I read opinion columnist Charles Lane’s lament that food stamp regulations didn’t limit the kinds of nourishment that could be bought by them to things Mrs. Obama would approve of, my mind flew back many decades to a memorable Contracts class in my first year of law school. The late Professor Richard Alan Gordon was thundering in his most stentorian tones—and boy, did he have stentorian tones!— about the class reaction to a case we had just discussed involving a Washington, D.C. family on welfare that had gotten itself in legal trouble by purchasing a stereo system on credit. One poor student was the target of the verbal barrage, having just opined that the family should have spent its government assistance on necessities like food, and not entertainment.

“And who are you, Mr. Anderson, to make the determination of what is a “necessity” for a fellow citizen? Shall the family in question not be permitted to feed its soul, as well as its gut? Is it the attitude role of the government to assume that accepting its assistance in dire circumstances involves one’s surrender of the basic human rights of choice, preference, taste and self-determination?”

I miss Dick Gordon, who became a cherished friend (and a terrific Learned Judge in “Trial by Jury”), and I miss the scathing letter he would have written to Charles Lane. In his column, Lane writes:

“The point is to increase the amount of real nutrition per taxpayer dollar. The counterargument is that it’s not fair to restrict poor people’s grocery choices. You hear this a lot from the food and beverage industry, for which SNAP has grown into a significant subsidy. Sorry, I don’t get it — morally or pragmatically. Of course the federal government should be able to leverage its purchasing power for socially beneficial purposes. If you take Uncle Sam’s help, you play by his rules. I repeat: This is a nutrition program, or so the taxpayers who fund it are told. It should nourish.”

“If you take Uncle Sam’s help, you play by his rules.” This is the crux of Lane’s argument, Mr. Anderson’s, and all the Nanny State advocates who cheer on Mayor Bloomberg’s assault on personal freedom. Ethically, there are strong arguments in all directions: Continue reading

Adrian Fenty and the Leader’s Duty of Likability

Arch Lustberg is an old friend, and also a wise man. He is a communications trainer and expert par excellence, and the number of failed politicians who would have been elected had they hired him is legion, and growing with every election. One of Arch’s mantras is that likability is essential to trust. A public figure can be brilliant, creative, eloquent and effective, but if he or she is not liked, all of those assets may be not be enough to win the support of the public. Arch was proven right once again when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, praised by the D.C. media for a series of reforms in the city, notably of the infamously bloated and ineffective school system, lost his bid for re-election. Fenty, as reported by the Washington Post, really believed that doing his job would be enough, that the symbolic gestures and image-building activities used by savvy leaders to cement their electoral base were unnecessary, a waste of time. Now he is out, defeated by an opponent who embraced the endorsement of Marion Barry, whose corruption of the D.C. political culture still endures, three decades after he was mayor.

If you think I am going to argue that Adrian Fenty is a principled public servant laid low by public ignorance and warped priorities, you are wrong. Continue reading

California’s Confused Welfare Ethics

The Los Angeles Times has been running a series of stories detailing how many California welfare recipients have been using their state-issued welfare debit cards (which take money directly out of state coffers) at casino ATM’s. The millions of dollars in taxpayer money dispensed to eager, if poor, gamblers produced predictable outrage, and the state responded by blocking use of the cards at over 200 ATM’s and revising the pledge signed by welfare recipients to require them to only use the assistance to “meet the basic subsistence needs” of their families.

The outrage is misplaced, and the remedial measures are symbolic at best. Continue reading