Somewhere at the top of the list of irrational beliefs would have to be a belief in karma. Any significant amount of life experience analyzed in an objective manner should be enough to understand that “bad behavior” frequently goes unpunished and often gets rewarded and that beliefs to the contrary are mostly wishful thinking. Cheaters usually don’t get caught, liars lie because it works…virtue is its own reward in the sense that it is often its ONLY reward.
Here in the northeast we generally have a regime of higher tax rates, still low by the standards of other industrialized parts of the world, and greater or more completely realized “services”, though once again low relative to the standards of the modern world outside the United States. As a region we have paid a high economic price for our largesse. Many businesses have, searching for tax havens and workers willing to work for less money under worse conditions, relocated to other parts of the United States and to the Third World. Massachusetts has tried to change its reputation from that of Tax-achusetts, and The People’s Republic of Massachusetts to one that is more business friendly with mixed results.
Mixed in that businesses seem willing to endure the rump social state which remains in the Commonwealth if it means the opportunities which the greater Boston area provides, but not so much for the rest of the state. It makes perfect sense really. Boston is a world class city with world class universities, perhaps the most highly educated workforce, and cultural amenities both high-brow and low-brow whereas the rest of the state is not perceived as offering as much. It isn’t at all ridiculous that businesses should take these things into account when making decisions regarding relocation and expansion.
The question, then, for those of us in the hinterlands, is whether it is better, not from a moral or ethical standpoint, but from a strategic and economic standpoint, to continue to be a “high tax high service” region, in hopes that the societal benefits that accrue will give the region a competitive advantage, or do we pursue a different course in order to compete with the south and west? In previous posts and podcasts I’ve discussed the error of the city attempting to beat the suburbs at their own game with respect to the availability of parking. It could be more or less the same in this circumstance, which is to say that we have no chance in beating the south, for example, in a race to the bottom. By the time right to work laws were instituted, protections for workers were eliminated, environmental regulations were loosened, and the corporate tax burden was reduced to Dixieland levels, Dixieland will have progressed, regressed, whatever, further toward a post Soviet Russia/China state of affairs leaving the northeast racing in the same direction, but never quite catching up in going down.
On the other hand it may be, as some have argued, that the greater prosperity of the South, relative to its history, may cause the workers of the South to demand more in the way of salaries and protections, and the people of the South more in the way of services and environmental protection.
It surprises me that the quality of life in most of the northeast has remained so high given the absolute devastation which has taken place in the manufacturing sector. In nearly every quality of life survey I have ever seen of the United States New England dominates the top ten. I think the order in which the states usually fall is indicative of where exactly within the region quality of life is highest which is to say that given that Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire tend to come first, Massachusetts and Connecticut after, with Rhode Island last what you see is that rural and (yes, it pains me to say it) suburban New England sustain an incredibly high quality of life, and the cities, particularly the small to mid-size cities of the three southernmost New England states, create whatever drag exists in those quality of life measurements.
Cities like Springfield, Bridgeport, New Haven, Brockton, Holyoke and the like have Third World like levels of child poverty and income disparity. A great deal of this does have to do with the relatively small geographical size of cities in the northeast. This impacts measurements of things like child poverty and infant mortality because the cities tend not to contain expansive inner ring suburbs within the nominal “city”. Springfield MA covers an area of 32 square miles, Tacoma WA, 62. Birmingham AL has a total area of 151(!) square miles, Bridgeport CT, 15. The point of mentioning this, I suppose, is to show that cities in the northeast which appear to be noticeably less healthy than their counterparts in other regions are probably not as different as they may seem at first glance. Be that as it may, the only real difference is that in the northeast cities ARE pockets of dysfunction, while in other regions they contain pockets of dysfunction.
Caring for the poor in these pockets of dysfunction is a double edged sword. Doing so serves to ameliorate the suffering inherent in poverty, but it likely does both attract or serve to retain the impoverished (Though not so overtly as the oft repeated urban legend that there are “signs” in Puerto Rico telling people to come to Massachusetts for the generous welfare benefits offered here!), and discourage corporate expansion in the region as overall tax levels must be higher than in places where state governments are not so generous.
Northern European states, whatever the general crisis in Europe, have managed to remain both prosperous economically and retain a strong social safety net albeit in a much more homogeneous society. There may be a much stronger culture of corporate responsibility to ideals other than just profit. In the United States a combination of “corporate personhood”, laws which demand that boards of directors focus exclusively on profit, and a dominant culture which defines selfishness as the greatest altruism make corporations vampires feeding off the society which they inhabit. Where these pathologies have virtually eradicated any sense of loyalty to workers, communities, and even the nation, in the United States, in Europe, at least superficially, these qualities persist and may explain why overall prosperity and government munificence can go hand in hand.
There are those who would openly claim that helping the poor is actually evil, some elements of the Christian Right have so imbibed the Kool-Aid of the Friedmanite wing of the Republican Party that even they view government aid programs to the poor as of the Devil. Mormons have had a similar belief for quite a while, believing that Satan’s plan for mankind in the “preexistence” for their earthly existence would have obligated sinlessness, guaranteed salvation, but would have eliminated free will. Despite the fact that, in a democratic society, government generosity would exist only if the popular will demands it, such leaders as Latter Day Saint President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Ezra Taft Benson have stated forcefully and clearly that helping the poor is not only wicked, but is in fact the most evil of evils.
Leaving aside Orwell, I happen to think that helping the poor is good, helping others in indicative of strong moral fiber, etc.. It is, however, also true, that a society can only continue to make provisions for the poor as long as it has the wherewithal to do so. A rational view of life, history and the world makes clear that beliefs that the arc of history bends toward justice, or the right prevails have more to do with the winners writing history than anything else. I would love to believe that doing the right thing would usually be the best thing, but I don’t think that there’s any evidence to that effect. So even believing as I do that a strong social safety net is good for a society, I don’t believe at all that it means that in the long run that the socially healthier society will win in an economic struggle against against a society maniacally focused on domination, especially when their minions have been convinced that any suffering is a result of weakness, and that pursuing naked self interest is the core of generosity.