Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Re-doing the math

Bill O'Reilly gets on my nerves.

Okay, I understand that the pressures of the instant media make it difficult to do a lot of research before one has to put on makeup and get in front of the camera for a thirty-second thinkpiece.  Which is one reason why these segments should be rotated between two or three people, no more than one segment per day (through the miracle of recording, it can be replayed ad nauseam), so the commentators can have plenty of time to look up the facts for their next piece.

But Bill O'Reilly illustrates well exactly what Alexander Pope meant by the poem, "A Little Learning".  Consider his December 6th rant on "entitlement spending":

Right now an estimated 66 million Americans are receiving food stamps and/or Medicaid. In addition, there are 21 million folks working for the government.  That means that 87 million people in America are being subsidized by we [sic] the taxpayers.  But there are only 109 million Americans working in the private sector.  Doing the math, it's impossible for 109 million workers to support 87 million people. It can't be done. No matter how much you tax the workers.

Hold on a moment, Mr. O'Reilly.  The 21 million people working for the government aren't being "subsidized" ... they are being compensated. The money and benefits they receive are wages in return for labor, and is their just due (and just to make it clear, that 21 million covers all government workers — federal, state and local).  Ironically, they too get taxed; who in the private sector contributes to his employer for his own wages? We can certainly talk about whether each and every job done by a civil servant needs to be done.  However, if they work for us, then we're obliged to pay them fair, honest wages.
Next issue is the 109 million in the private sector: this seriously misrepresents the number of people paying taxes out of their income.  As of November, 143.3 million civilians were employed, along with about 1.4 million men and women in the armed forces.  While these numbers include government workers, as I pointed out above, they too pay taxes.  And, by the way, so do many of the people on food stamps and Medicaid: the government giveth, and the government taketh away.

Naturally, the artificial division of the nation into "makers" and "takers" doesn't end there.  After O'Reilly plays a soundbite of former Gov. Howard Dean (D-VT), saying, "The truth is everybody needs to pay more taxes, not just the rich. That's a good start. But we're not going to get out of this deficit problem unless we raise taxes across the board," O'Reilly starts waving the red banner on high:

Now Governor Dean sympathizes with the socialist philosophy and that's where the country is heading.  Taking from those who are productive and giving to those who are struggling.  Or who are working for the massive government apparatus.  [The lazy bums.  Why don't they get real jobs.]

In fact, for all O'Reilly's high-toned invocation of the Christmas spirit, it's here he comes closest to sounding like pre-ghost Scrooge.  O'Reilly uses as his framing device the story of NYPD cop Lawrence DePrimo, who spent $100 of his own money to buy a pair of boots for a seemingly homeless man, Jeffrey Hillman:

Obviously Officer DePrimo is a patriot but here is the sad truth.  Mr. Hillman is not homeless.  He has an apartment paid for by you and me.  He is on government assistance.  He has enough resources to live his life in a dignified manner.  Yet, Mr. Hillman doesn't do that.  He prefers the street and the boots Officer DePrimo gave him have disappeared.
Now I'm not judging Hillman, most cases like his involve substance abuse or mental illness.  However, we must be honest. The government cannot provide a decent life for Hillman.  No matter how much money it spends.  We're already giving the guy tens of thousands of dollars a year.  And it is doing nothing.
Okay, fair enough.  Except that O'Reilly adds, "There are millions of Americans like Jeffrey Hillman and we all need to understand that some people simply will not, will not save themselves. This translates into an issue that affects all of us."

Not only is this "millions of Americans like Jeffrey Hillman" a vague, undocumented non-number (How many 'millions", Mr. O'Reilly?), it sounds very much as if he's casting all sixty-six million people receiving Medicaid and/or food stamps into a big basket of hopeless cases ... as if every last one of them were drug-addled drifters content to sleep in cardboard boxes in downtown alleys or under freeway overpasses.

Political commentators — especially conservatives — like to take outlier cases such as Hillman's and not just mainstream them but turn them into icons of The Problem With X: the "welfare queen" having more kids to keep the WIC payments flowing, the dentist who bills the government for extracting 36 teeth from one mouth, the "undocumented" who collects his pay in cash under the table and gets his checkups courtesy of the state.  This is precisely what O'Reilly has done here; Hillman is the first homeless man I've ever heard of who had any resources other than his wit and the clothes on his back, and is certainly an exception rather than the norm.  Yet the way O'Reilly casts his argument, you'd think you'd find nobody lined up at the SNAP office other than bag ladies and Sterno bums.  Not only is this untrue and unfair, it's unnecessary to O'Reilly's argument.

What is his argument?  Oh, that a little over 20% of the American people are on Medicaid and/or food stamps, and that that's not a good thing.  So much we can agree on.  But before we can do something about it, we have to really look at what this statistic tells us about the state of our economy, and go digging deeper for the problem.  Creating an Emmanuel Goldstein out of Jeffrey Hillman is a dangerous distraction.