From time to time, I like to check under the bridge to see what my trolls are up to. Wait, did I just say that out loud? I mean, I like to dig into the comments to my columns, as well as the emails they precipitate, and share my responses with those correspondents and world.
Let's start with last week's column on Ron Johnson's lawsuit against the government for trying to be nice and subsidize the health insurance purchases of Congressional staffers. Rick Esenberg, Johnson's attorney whom I name-checked on purpose in the column, dropped by in the comments there to reassure me that I am not a lawyer. And also, apparently, to set me straight on the lawsuit.
"First," he writes, "our argument is not that the ACA did not put members 'in the same boat' as all members of the public." This confuses me, in that the "same boat" language comes directly from Esenberg's client, Sen. Johnson. Johnson himself claimed, "Congress specifically voted ... so that members and staff would be in the same boat as their constituents when it came to Obamacare."
Esenberg tries to draw a finer line than Johnson does, by throwing in the word "all." But that was a major part of my point: Johnson tends to believe that, yes, all of us are "victims of government" (there's a whole page on his Senate website devoted to the idea). And specifically, Johnson believes Americans are being victimized by the Affordable Care Act. I suspect the millions of Americans who have health insurance since the passage of the ACA would disagree.
The ACA puts Congressional staffers into an insurance limbo that quite literally no other American is in, however -- no other American works for an employer prohibited by law from offering health insurance or a subsidy for insurance. The law makes victims of those staffers in a way no other Americans are victimized, all because of Republicans' paranoid delusions that the government can only hurt people rather than help.
And speaking of the government hurting rather than helping: No column of mine here at OnMilwaukee has generated quite so much vitriolic response as my list of 100--well, really, four -- things Paul Ryan could have proposed to help poor people but didn't. Rep. Ryan believes that people are poor because of some failing of character and if they just had the right life coach everything would be better. My commenters tend to believe the same thing.
"Paying someone higher wages to be just as lazy and not take responsibility for their life is MORONIC!" one commenter yelled at me. "Great googly moogly," another exclaimed.
While I offered four ideas, two earned no mention: more investment in schools and tighter regulation of low wage employers. I am just going to assume from now on that conservatives agree with me on those. What got me yelled at is my suggestion that the minimum wage be raised and my suggestion of free money to people who need it.
One reader, VW, emailed this anecdote: "I was at the movie theater to see a movie and was standing in line for a soda with one person ahead of me. In the time it took the young man to serve just one customer, the other young man served four. Now who do you think will get the promotion, who do you think in 10 years will be making more money? Exactly, the hardworking young man. I even mentioned it to the man who served me, and his reply was to shrug his shoulders. Like I said, in 10 years, he will still be in that minimum wage job, still shrugging his shoulders and wondering why his co-worker has moved up or on to do better in his life. More than likely, blaming it on everything but himself."
The most remarkable thing about this is the way VW was able to see this young man's whole life in the space of one concession purchase: How fast he jerked her soda was indicative of not simply how far (or not) he would go in life but also that he would blame the rest of the world for his plight.
We don't know that young man's story, and if, like many low-wage workers in the current economy, he was stuck in a job that he did not want and was possibly overqualified for because this economy has not been kind to young workers, even those well trained and educated. We don't know if the other young man has a dream of someday managing the local megaplex and is starting in the Marcus Theatres equivalent of the mailroom.
Now, reader VW did also share that she came up from poverty (she "grew up on welfare where homelessness and food banks were no stranger to my family"), and if she was able to move up the income ladder, good for her. But she is an outlier -- the U.S. is a strongly socially-stratified country and the odds of moving up the ladder, hard work or no, are just terrible for people in the lowest income groups.
But even beyond that, VW falls into the same trap that Ryan does, by suggesting that the condition of poverty is purely the result of moral defects of character. This greatly oversimplifies the problem of poverty in this country, and the research is unanimous that the "culture of poverty" conservatives believe in simply does not exist.
So here's the thing: When VW insists to me that "If you are willing to work hard and make sacrifices, ANYONE can be successful," she is being hopeful, and there's nothing wrong with that. But she is also making two mistakes; one, that failure to be successful is always the fault of an individual, and two, that the kind of movement from poverty to prosperity is common. Neither of those things is true.
And while, yes, my "free money" suggestion may have been somewhat flippant or glibly offered, it is a better solution to the problem of the working poor being poor than standing impatiently in a soda line angry that poor people are still poor.