Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Are we civilized? Not really.

When families or single mothers are apprehended at the US border with Mexico, the Border Patrol agents will often take the children away from their elders and send them to a separate detention facility. These children do not have papers of their own. In the border crossing detention system they become anonymous and reuniting them with their parents becomes extremely difficult.
This story really stayed with me as an example of exceptional cruelty. Imagine managing to flee economic deprivation or continual violence in your home country, traversing several Central American countries and Mexico, succeeding to avoid police, and the military, and private parties preying on refugees. Finally you arrive at the United States borders where you hope to find work and security. But instead your children are taken away and cannot be found again. What a terrible fate.
The Border Patrol claims to follow this practice in order to protect the children. But that is so implausible an explanation; it has to be a blatant lie. In rare moments of frankness, officials of the Border Patrol have admitted that they are using this blatant brutality in the hope of discouraging others from Central America to try to enter the United States.
The story reminds us once again of the pervasiveness of cruelty in the world. Notorious examples are everywhere from the Nazi genocide of Jews in Europe to the oppression of Palestinians by Israelis, to the continued destruction of Syria’s towns and villages, leading mass deaths and deprivation of refugees from Syria, from Yemen, and from Somalia and many other places. Everywhere we see armies, civilian government bureaucracies use their power to injure and kill innocents. These cruelties are as old as humankind.
It is tempting to adopt anarchist beliefs that the state is by its very nature coercive and if we want to live in a world without constant brutalization of the weaker members of society, we need to build a society that has no state, no government, no bureaucracies, no standing armies that lord it over citizens.
But this grand project has serious shortcomings. We need bureaucracies to build roads, to install sewer pipes, water pipes, gas pipes. Someone needs to build and staff schools and many other public utilities. The initiative of individual persons does not suffice to provide the infrastructure for villages towns and cities. So it must be someone's job provided those infrastructures.
In addition someone needs to make rules and enforce them. We do not only need schools and teachers in the classrooms. We need to make sure that children go to school until their 16 (or older). And rules need to be enforced. Someone needs to make sure that food sold in stores is not adulterated or contaminated. Someone else needs to make sure that the gallon of milk you buy is indeed a full gallon and that the butcher does not have his thumb on the scale where he sells you a pound of meat. Someone needs to be available to make sure that the house you buy is safe and healthy.
Rules are needed; rules not enforced are useless. It is a waste of time to try to develop reasonable rules if no one is going to make sure that they will be observed. Making sure that the rulings are observed will involve coercion.
And here we face the terrible dilemma. A livable society appears to require rules and their enforcement through coercion. The institutions that administer coercion are the same institutions that act with terrible brutality such as the Border Patrol that tears families apart.
How can we control all the agencies established to enforce laws so that they will not be brutal and, for instance, murder unarmed young black men and women? The question does not seem to have an answer. The question does not get asked very often.
Our history documents barbarity in the treatment of one group by another. We regard ourselves as more civilized than many other nations or cultures but our behavior gives to lie to that claim. We are not merely as barbaric as any of our ancestors, but we are not even willing to consider how that barbarity may be reduced. We must not remain silent about the children taken from their parents.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Renters’ Woes and Citizen’s Rights

A recent newspaper story detailed the challenge faced by low income renters. Earning just enough to get from one end of the month to the next, any extraordinary expense—an unexpected illness, a car that will not start—will leave them short and unable to pay their rent, buy food, or clothing.

Renters who fall behind on their rent payments may suddenly be summoned to court for an eviction hearing. Many tenants in that situation face a choice of missing a day of work and with it a day’s pay but getting evicted anyway, or ignoring the court summons and being sure to be evicted. The tenants find themselves in a lose-lose situation.

Studies in different cities show that in Milwaukee one in fifty (or 2%) of tenants face eviction in any given year. The number is much higher in Richmond, VA where five in 50 or 10 % of renters in any year may find themselves facing eviction. Just in case anyone is tempted to call up the tired stereotype of the poor as people too lazy to go to work, the reader is reminded of the many people who earn minimum wage or less. In Worcester, MA where I live, an increase of the minimum wage to $ 15 would increase the income of more than forty percent of the workforce. More than forty percent of the men and women working earn less than $15.00 an hour or $600 a week, $30,000.00 a year. What happens, on that income, if a drunk runs a red light and totals your car, or when a family member suddenly suffers a serious health crisis not covered by your cheap health insurance? You may well miss one or two rent payments.

Now you receive a summons to appear in court for a hearing in front of a judge whom the landlord has petitioned to allow an eviction. The judge grants the landlord’s petition. You are forced to move, perhaps, to move in with relatives, or into a homeless shelter. Your children may have to go to different schools. Without a permanent address, you may lose your food stamps. The crew sent to evict you often puts all your possessions out in the street to be picked over by bystanders. You may lose possessions. Eviction means a lot more than losing your accustomed home. 

When your finances are on an even keel again and you are ready to rent another apartment for your family, you will have to be able to pay the security deposit plus first and last months’ rent. That is a serious amount of cash. It will take a while to save up that much on your income. But when you finally have the money landlords, you find, are reluctant to rent an apartment to you because you had previously been evicted. From the perspective of the landlords, you are a very poor risk as a prospective tenant.

Someone may acknowledge the troubles tenants encounter but point out that as long as we recognize the rights to private property and the additional rights to earn money by virtue of owning property, tenants may find themselves evicted if they do not pay their rent. It is no doubt true that some landlords do not maintain their property as they should just as surely as some tenants do not treat their rented property with respect. More energetic enforcement of relevant laws is definitely called for.

But this response overlooks the complexities of this situation. Yes, our society recognizes the rights to private property. But we also limit what sorts of things can be private property. The ongoing debate about “privatization” concerns these limits. There is, for instance, the continuing disagreement whether prisons should be privately owned and managed. For the longest time it was thought that it was one of the prerogative of the government to build, maintain and run prisons.

We would not (I hope) allow private contractors to run our elections and count the ballots and make that a worthwhile business by charging each voter a fee. The result would be that poor people would not vote and that is incompatible with our idea of political equality.

For similar reasons, we still maintain an extended network of public schools because we believe that every child has not only the right but even an obligation to be educated. We can strive for fulfillment of this goal only if there are schools accessible even for the indigent. 

Our belief in the legitimacy of using private property to enrich oneself is limited by the reluctance of the majority to allow basic rights to be compromised by turning needed institutions—elections, school-- into private property and private businesses.

The court system is another interesting example of our belief that the rights we ALL have as citizens should not be compromised by making them into private businesses. Every one is entitled to the protection of the law and that includes access to law courts. Courts are publicly financed; if you go to court you need not pay the judge or the court clerk. This is an especially interesting example because it shows not only that we believe that noone should be prevented by limited income from having access to courts and judges. At the same time we are sufficiently ambivalent about all this that we require the assistance of lawyers in most courts and yet make too few lawyers available for free for those who cannot afford paid legal assistance. 

The problem here is, of course, that citizens are very stingy and are not willing to pay the taxes needed to provide affordable legal care to all citizens even though we believe that poverty should not weaken protection by the law.

That ambivalence is also exhibited in the field of health care. Many Americans believe that health care is a basic right. Every person who is entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is entitled to health care, and that means is entitled to adequate health insurance. But most citizens are unwilling to pay for health insurance for those who cannot afford to pay for it themselves.

There is an important lesson in all of this: If we want to really have equal rights for all—without exceptions-- we have to pay for those who cannot afford the price of equality with respect to access to the legal system, with respect to health care, and with respect to housing. Lately the people and the government and legislators in the US become more and more reluctant to assure all that all citizens have full use of their rights. More and more rights are for those who can afford decent housing, adequate nutrition, legal advice where needed and full health insurance. We are less willing everyday to realize the belief we often rehearse that all humans are created equal. Equality is more and more the privilege of those who can afford it.