To make a long story short, the author proposes that part of the power elite is manipulating those who benefit from government handouts into hating those who pay for them. The resulting class warfare will bankrupt the government and end our republic, unless we elect those who will restore sanity. The author advocates, and I quote, the following actions:
• Obama: Gone!
• Borders: Closed!
• Language: English only
• Culture: Constitution, and the Bill of Rights!
• Drug Free: Mandatory Drug Screening before Welfare!
• NO freebies to: Non-Citizens!
Both the letter’s vagueness and anonymity disturb me. Vagueness in that the phrase “free stuff” is not expounded upon; we don’t know what programs draw the author’s wrath. Anonymity in that the author assumes a mantle of expertise in world history in asserting, “All great democracies have committed financial suicide somewhere between 200 and 250 years after being founded….The United States officially became a Republic in 1776, 236 years ago.”, without offering either supporting evidence a reason why we should take his or her word on faith.
My response to the chain letter’s sender emphasized my concern over vagueness. I asserted that at least some “free stuff,” such as Pell Grants or subsidized student loans, had a positive return on investment. I treated the letter as a rant and respond with one of my own. But that was only one option. I could have also:
• Ignored the letter
• Passed it on with my full endorsement
• Admitted that the author must have addressed some heartfelt concern for the chain letter to remain in circulation
Admitting that the author struck a nerve transforms the chain letter from a means of division to a tool for discussion, which potentially yields compromise and solutions. We can turn the letter’s vagueness into opportunity, by defining “free stuff” ourselves, then using common-sense evaluations to decide each piece of “free stuff’s” fate.
The chain letter author neither defines nor gives examples of “free stuff,” so here are examples of what he or she might mean:
• Pell Grants
• Subsidies for the agriculture and oil industries
• Tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and education tax credits
• Social Security and Medicare
This list isn’t comprehensive; it doesn’t include, for example, subsidized loans for college students or food stamps. Nevertheless, it shows that eligibility for government largesse is not bound by social or economic class, which implies that the clear-cut division between recipients and payers that the author suggests divides the country is an oversimplification.
There are families who annually wipe out their federal income tax obligations with Earned Income Tax Credits and use Pell Grants to send their children to college. However, there are also upper-middle-class families that take tuition tax credits while simultaneously paying taxes that help finance Pell Grants.
The first group of families could fit the recipient stereotype of which the chain letter author speaks. The second group’s place is not as clear.
However, arguing over who receives and who pays doesn’t change that each item on the “free stuff” list costs taxpayers money. In these days of budget deficits, debt ceiling debates, and a sluggish economy it’s important to evaluate expenditures continually to prevent spending money where it is no longer necessary and to identify areas where spending a penny now can save a dollar later.
In that spirit, for each item of “free stuff” identified we must answer the following questions:
1. Why does it exist?
2. How can we measure performance?
3. Is it working?
4. If it isn’t working, can we fix it?
5. Do we still need it?
6. What would happen if we dropped it?
7. Can we afford it in its present form?
8. If we can’t afford it in its present form, is there an affordable alternative that retains its benefits?
9. How can it be more cost-effective?
10. What might be unintended consequences of our actions?
Practicality, not ideology, must prevail. We must not be reluctant to axe what has outlived its usefulness or increase funding where needed. We also must not jump to conclusions about how to afford the unaffordable.
Tax increases are not the only answer; changes that reduce expenditures while retaining a program’s mission are another. For example, one way to extend Social Security’s solvency would be to reduce the length of time that recipients collect by raising the retirement age.
However, that solution assumes that the affected workers remain employed for that additional time otherwise the savings to the Social Security system could be offset by the strains on the social safety net.
Keeping people in the work force longer means that we’d better have an economy capable of keeping these workers employed while absorbing new entrants to the labor force. That forms the basis for a whole new discussion.
The Free Stuff chain letter author may doubt the ability of his or her work to spark this dialogue. He or she may well have expected the letter to inspire sympathizers and disgust opponents, in short to gain votes in the short run while promoting long-term gridlock. But our efforts to clarify the vagueness and ambiguity that opponents criticize can be what results in understanding and action.
So, rather than send the Free Stuff chain letter on with either an unqualified endorsement or vitriolic condemnation, acknowledge that it must have stuck a nerve with a few folks to be flying around cyberspace for so long, and ask yourself why. Both sides of the aisle agree that we need to decide what our government’s fiscal priorities should be as it struggles through the first part of this century. If only we could work out the details.