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The Truth, Mainly - 08/12/1996

Struck dumb by New Deal reshuffle: Who gets handouts?

Thanks to Newt Gingrich, I now understand why I'm no damned good. I used to think it was innate depravity: in Adam's fall, we sinned all. But Newt's convinced me it's because I have a history of getting something for nothing.

I was OK when I was a little kid. I believed that in this dog-eat-dog world, the unfettered free market would lead us all to an earthly paradise.

But then something unspeakable happened. When I was 8, my Uncle Ray gave me a nickle. Not because I earned it. Just for the hell of it.

And when I was 11, I found a dollar bill in the ditch. Again, it wasn't anything I'd earned. Satan just put it there in front of me and I took it.

Then when I was in college I got money from the G.I. Bill—free and unearned. And when my mother died, I shared with my sisters the proceeds from selling her house. Put it in the bank and let it draw interest—yet more money I never worked for.

I never made the connection between my own rottenness and all that unearned money until last month when I read what Newt told The Young Presidents' Organization, a group of CEOs under 40.

"It is morally wrong," he told them, "to give people who are able-bodied money for doing nothing because it teaches them and their children the worst possible habits."

He said it was "sinful. . .in an old fashioned sense" (LJS, July 7).

The Young Presidents applauded wildly.

When I read that, I slap my forehead. I am struck dumb.

"I'm struck dumb," I tell my wife when I go to her with my new insight. "The root of my rottenness is that I'm an able-bodied person and I've been given money for doing nothing. I have picked up the worst possible habits. I may have even taught them to our children."

My wife looks up from her crossword puzzle and sighs.

"Yet another cause for your rottenness?" she says. "I suppose this one's not your fault either."

I show her the story about Newt and the Young Presidents. She shakes her head.

"You've been struck even dumber than I thought," she says, "if you think he's talking about you. Or the Young Presidents. Why would he tell young CEOs they're sinful for getting money for doing nothing? How many of them inherited their position? Got Pell grants in college? Run businesses that are subsidized by tax money?"

"Hah?" I say.

"Read it again," she says, rolling her eyes. "Newt's not talking about you. He's talking about poor people. He's talking about people on welfare."

I read it again. Sure enough, he's talking about people on welfare.

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"But the principle must be the same," I say. "If it's morally wrong for poor people to get money for doing nothing, it must be morally wrong for the rest of us to get money for doing nothing."

She rolls her eyes some more.

"This is post-New Deal America," she says. "And in post-New Deal America, lawmakers mostly talk to people who can make campaign contributions—like the corporations that will pay for about a third of the costs of the Republican and Democratic conventions. From that talk, they decide that handouts corrupt people who can't contribute and strengthen the moral fiber of people who can. You and I occasionally contribute, so you don't have to worry about being rottenized by Uncle Ray's nickle."

"But," I say. "But, but."

"Look," she says, "did LB775 corrupt ConAgra executives and their children? Do we damage the morality of our arms merchants when we give them $7.6 billion a year in tax money? Do we undermine the goodness of timber CEOs when the Forest Service spends $140 million a year building logging roads so our trees can be more easily harvested?"

"Hah?" I say.

"Don't you understand?" she says. "In post-New Deal America, we give handouts the way banks make loans: If you need one, you shouldn't have it; if you don't need it, we'll give you one. It's the Gingrich Catch 22."

"That can't be so," I say. "You're just making that up."

When her eyes stop rolling, she speaks again.

"In 1995 we spent over $100 billion on corporate subsidies and tax breaks. We spent $55 billion on AFDC, food stamps, school lunch, school breakfast, WIC, child adult care, summer feeding, and elderly nutrition programs. What do you say to that?"

I don't say anything to that because I've been struck dumb. As a citizen of post-New Deal America, I feel rotten. I feel no damn good.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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