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Let's turn on the lights

January 17, 2014

A friend forwarded this one to me recently. I'd seen it before, but feel it bears on the point of discussion.
At a fund-raising dinner for a Brooklyn school that caters to learning-disabled children, the father of one child was expected to give a speech extolling the dedicated staff's work. Instead, his opening remarks shocked the crowd of parents and teachers. He cried out: "My son goes to this school, which teaches that everything God does is done with perfection. But where is the perfection in my son Shaya? My child cannot understand things as other children do. So tell me, where is God's perfection?"
The audience, shocked by the man's anguished question, hushed. A few people coughed nervously as the father continued: "I believe that when God brings a child like this into the world, the perfection He seeks is in the way people react." The father then told about the afternoon he and Shaya walked past a park where some boys Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, "Do you think they will let me play?"
The father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team. Nevertheless, Shaya's father understood that if his son were to be chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging. So the father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play.
The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands. "We're losing by six runs, and the game is in the eighth inning," he told the father. "I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning." Shaya's father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. A team member told Shaya to put on a glove and go out to play short center field.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shaya's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shaya's team scored again and now, with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was up to bat.
Would the team actually take a chance on Shaya to bat home the winning run? Everyone knew it was all but impossible because Shaya didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it.
Yet as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved forward a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came in and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya's teammates came up to Shaya so together they could hold the bat and face the pitcher.
Again the pitcher took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his teammate swung at the bat and together they hit a slow ground ball. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling, "Shaya, run to first! Run to first!"
Never in his life had Shaya run to first. So now he scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out Shaya, still running. But the right fielder understood what the pitcher's intentions were, so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman's head. Everyone yelled: "Run to second! Run to second!" Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. Just as Shaya reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, "Run to third." As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming: "Shaya, run home!" Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate, and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders. They made Shaya their hero, as he had just hit a grand slam and won the game for his team.
This forwarded email was presented to me as a shining example of what the free market can do, left to its own resources. Indeed, this is a shining example – not of the free market, but of a community that recognizes its obligations to all members. True story or urban legend, it matters not. It is an inspirational story of how one boy's dream, fulfilled by the generosity of his peers, made the entire community a better place. It was a community that bettered itself by enabling the participation of one who would otherwise have been lost in the margins. What has been lost in the many commentaries following this story is that the community itself was a beneficiary of its own act of kindness every bit as much as this marginalized member, when he was welcomed inside. Indeed, the pie got bigger, and better. Every boy in that story became richer by the experience, game won or game lost. The journey, not the scoreboard, is the thing.
As evidence of what an unregulated community can do, Shaya's story is exceptional. Its very existence and prominence (I've had it forwarded to me several times over the years) is evidence of its exceptionality. For every such exceptional story, there are a thousand more, witnessed every day, in which the powerful elite restrict against participation, marginalizing entire classes of people, and further concentrating and consolidating their own wealth and power. With this expanding exclusion from participation, dispersion in wealth and income grows wider. This disparity dynamic, left to the resources of a so-called free market, have only one outcome – revolution. After that, the cycle rinses, and repeats itself. And the beat goes on…
The market is a delicate balancing act, with the encouragement of individual pursuit on one hand and the total loss of the individual on the other. The 'greater good' calls for moderation… a golden middle. Call this a mixed economy. That is what we live in today, in varying degrees by each Western country. We all live in mixed economies. To the extent that freedom of individual pursuits are balanced or offset by a social safety net, we live in a mixed economy. Across nations, the mix resides quite broadly across a continuum ranging from 1 to 100, with the individual at 1 and the collective at 100. The big debate in play today is simply about where on this continuum we choose to reside. In the end, it all boils down to what portion of us is about co-habitation and what portion about conquest.
Universality. There's a controversial topic. From a number of American relatives and friends, I hear the term 'entitlements' uttered with a spray of spit emitting from their mouths. Such a feeling is not unique to Americans. I encounter it, though not nearly so much, on this side of the border. The term has a broad pejorative undertone in recent years. Indictments of abuses, multi-generational poverty, stealing from job creators, and the like, are common. There are abuses and there is multi-generational poverty resulting from poorly administered social safety programs. No disputing that. What's not known is: How much real abuse is there? How much multi-generational poverty does it create? Is there a better way to provide the intended protections without these risks?
Stop me there if you will. Some of my friends will tell you that the best way is not to provide these protections at all. End of discussion. They'll argue that we steal money from those who have earned it, and that we steal motivation from those who have not, and then as a result, we steal motivation from those who have earned money they no longer possess. In some measure, they are correct. In some cases, they are absolutely correct. That's why I'm a fan of workfare, not welfare. Give… but give an opportunity to participate.
That opportunity is best provided through universal access to health care and to education. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how anyone would not understand that universal access to health care and education are the lifeblood of the community, of the society, and of the nation's economy. It's a good, in and of itself. It's also a win for the greater good. Educated and healthy people are net contributors. Universal access to health care and education is the 'fishing pole,' the 'hand up' to enable, to promote, and to support full participation. As I watch the health care debate raging on, I can only shake my head as accusations of 'socialism' and 'communism' fly so freely. These are the accusations of simple thinking, coming from people who have never been to a socialist or communist state. These are the accusations of myths and mythtakes. There is only one Western industrialized nation in the world without universal health care. Does this mean that the rest of us are socialists and communists? Socialized medicine has its soft points. No disputing that. Every system has soft points. On balance, however, the removal of the profit motive from decisions regarding my health care is well worth any weaknesses that come with the package. End of discussion.
In 1862, Victor Hugo published Les Misérables, a long, wandering, digressing novel that offers many valuable and insightful parallels to the inequities of our own modern society. In one memorable commentary, he writes on the subject of universal access to education: "If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness." I say, let's not worry about whom to blame. Better still, let's turn on the lights… both in education and in health care. The resulting pie can only get bigger.
Government is not the enemy in this dynamic. That's a red herring in a very superficial argument. Government, properly employed, could be one key instrument (if only one of many) in aid of preventing societal collapse.
Government is an appropriate conduit for the provision of universal health care and universal education. Government is an appropriate conduit for the provision of regulations that protect us from increasingly concentrated power and wealth.
In the absence of government, who will govern?
Some would have us believe that, if government would just get out of the charity business, private donations would cover the need. I've read that private donations cover no more than 7% of the costs of our social safety net. Of course, if you see no value in the social safety net, my argument holds no value. If you do see the need to provide a 'hand up', though, the question becomes: Would private donors step in at heights 14 times the current level? History would suggest otherwise.
The question of a need to welcome and integrate non-participants into our society and into our economy should be unworthy of debate. The task, then, is on the strategy. Government does poorly in many areas. On this, there is no debate. Many will rightly point to poor management, ineffective administration, and inefficient allocation of resources. As I see it, these are all fair descriptions. When one considers the aggregate of many thousands of private charities, however, these same labels seem to fit. Government can do a much better job in the collection and re-distribution of wealth, from an administrative viewpoint. Does government, playing such a role, rob us of our personal responsibility to step in and actively care for our neighbour? Yes… and no. As a Canadian, I'm content to pay higher taxes, knowing that government programs will enable a levelling of the playing field by way of universal health care and universal access to education. Am I a content taxpayer? No. I will always see government as ineffective and inefficient, not to mention misguided. At the same time, I don't see a better way.
You have a much better chance of being independently wealthy in the United States than in Canada, owing to our higher taxes. You also have a much better chance of being destitute and homeless in the United States than in Canada, owing to our higher taxes. This does not eliminate disparity of income and wealth in Canada, but rather it narrows the dispersion of income and wealth. Again, what's required is the striking of a balance, the golden middle. We need to protect and promote motivation to participate on both sides of the equation.
A happy by-product of universality in participation is a dramatically lower crime rate. Call this an insurance policy if you must, but it works. While not a primary reason for our social safety net, it's a benefit not to be overlooked.
Building more prison cells is not the answer. We cannot incarcerate or segregate an entire class of people because they find themselves without the chance to participate. The whole is as poor as its most marginalized members.
René Descartes, the so-called father of modern philosophy captured fame and notoriety with his declaration, "Cogito ergo sum." That works for some. Not for me. Thinking, alone, doesn't do the trick. I've got to do something – I've got to bring something to the table, to the common bowl. I've got to belong and to participate in something larger than myself… or I am nothing.
I participate, therefore I am!

Kevin Graham

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