Monday, September 15, 2008

The need for knee pads

One of my faults is that I have little patience - or tolerance - for people who are selfish and lack empathy. So, I guess it's possible that I have little empathy for selfish people???

Whatever the case, I found Matt Y's take this morning on the crises afflicting some of Wall Street's most storied institutions to be instructive:

And here we see a fundamental difference between the progressive worldview and the conservative worldview. Progressives believe in a robust safety net for everyone. It’s very possible, as we’re seeing, that you’ll experience financial hard times for reasons that have nothing to do with you. A lot of the people doing unskilled service work in the Lehman Brothers office may lose their jobs as a result of this unwinding even though they didn’t do anything wrong. And that sort of thing happens all the time — people get laid off because adverse things happen to the companies they work for. Or people are struck by other kinds of misfortune — they get hit by buses, hurricanes destroy their houses, all kinds of stuff. Misfortune strikes ordinary people, and not just billionaires. And in the case of ordinary people, just as in the case of billionaires, you can offer improve social welfare by helping people out when they wind up in trouble.

But conservatives don’t believe in that kind of safety net for regular people — just for the billionaires. Guaranteed health care? Forget it. Guaranteed retirement income? No way. Just let the market work, and when it stops working the executives will be okay and the rest of us will, oh, something or other.

I won't pretend to know much about the problems with some of the nation's (formerly) most prestigious financial institutions. But I do know that, in the end, many of the people responsible for those problems will end up better off in the long run than the janitors at Lehman Brothers, who as best as I can tell, had nothing to do with those problems. At times like these, I'm reminded of those poor souls at Enron who lost a lifetime's worth of savings because they made the mistake of placing their trust in the company's pension program.

What conservatives and libertarians and a handful of others often fail to remember is there's so much about life that can't be controlled: disease, divorce, death, traffic accidents, hurricanes, etc, (it's odd that Matt mentioned someone getting hit by a bus. I have a friend that that actually happened to in New York). We are all vulnerable to being laid low by any number of things that have nothing to do with our work ethic or preparation or mental fortitude. Where you are today has little to do with where you'll be tomorrow - it's a clue but it's not a guarantee.

That's why, when I hear people complain about "social welfare" programs or show contempt for federal plans that would protect those from losing their homes, I roll my eyes and count my blessings. Selfishness and a lack of empathy are often the result of short memories or an ignorance of history. Life will bring most, if not all of us, to our knees at some point.

And it'd be nice if we didn't begrudge our government handing out knee pads for those times.

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