Throwing the poor overboard

There are dozens of versions of the joke, all of which involve five people on a life raft that can only hold four. Usually one is a lawyer. Which one to toss?
In Alabama, it’s not a joke. We face massive cuts in Medicaid in fiscal 2013. Gov. Robert Bentley may decline a Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act that would begin to take effect in 2014.
Which person are we throwing off the life raft? The poor one.
A capitalist system evaluates people according to their wealth. In the context of economic decisions this may not be fair, but it is rational. There are plenty of exceptions — rich people who got their money from their parents and talented people who, because they were born into poverty, never got a chance to hone their talents — but generally it makes sense. Those who have accumulated assets have shown they have economic value to society.
In the life-raft jokes, as in the Medicaid dilemma, the issue is not about economic value. It is about intrinsic value as a human. The people thrown out of the Medicaid life raft really may die. In choosing which of the five to throw overboard, we are not making a decision about economics but about their comparative value as humans.
In making such moral judgments, most people look to religion rather than economics. The predominant religion in Alabama is Christianity, and its teachings on the relevance of financial accomplishment to human value are clear. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he instructed them to take no bag, no change of clothes and no money. His advice to the rich man was to sell his possessions and give to the poor. “Woe to the rich” is a refrain that runs throughout the New Testament. Jesus rejected any positive correlation between riches and human value.
In throwing the poor person off the boat, though, it may be that we are not just evaluating his value as a human. We may be asserting a likelihood — again with many exceptions among both the rich and the poor — that those who have accumulated assets have earned a place on the raft. They have worked hard for their success.
I’m pretty good at Scrabble. If Americans collectively decided to honor Scrabble scores, I’d be thrilled. I would memorize all the two-letter words, learn the words with a Q and not a U, and generally work hard to excel in a system that rewarded a talent I already possess.
Within that artificial reward system, I’d be in my glory. My spot on the life raft would be secure.
As a society, Americans have chosen not the rules of Scrabble but those of capitalism to dictate rewards. We have enacted laws allowing the ownership of property, hired police to protect property rights, funded courts to enforce contracts, enabled stock exchanges and created shareholder rights. Americans have agreed to play a game that some are good at and some are not.
If just after I memorized the Q words America switched from Scrabble to chess, I’d be sunk. Suddenly my place on the life raft would be precarious. My value as a human would be no less, but my value in the changed system of rewards would plummet.
There are solid economic reasons for rewarding capitalist talent, but capitalism is an artifice. The talents that made Bill Gates and Warren Buffett rich would be of little value in societies that did not agree to protect intellectual property and stock certificates. In cultures that decided physical prowess or family lineage were the appropriate measures of human value, Gates and Buffett would be unexceptional.
In an economic game played by capitalist rules, Gates and Buffett had the qualities necessary for success. Change the game and the rules, though, and those qualities would have little value.
When we are deciding who should live and who should die — whether the issue is a spot on the life raft or access to medical care — the choice is not about economics. The mere fact that we have decided to reward excellence in capitalism or Scrabble for some purposes does not mean we are bound to use the same measure for others.
We maintain an economic system that predisposes some to success and some to failure. The moral — and yes, religious — question is whether we want that system’s financial scorecard to determine who gets thrown from the life raft.
We could just as easily choose Scrabble scores. Or just maybe, we should be looking for a way to build a larger raft.

Eric Fleischauer

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Filed under Alabama politics, Capitalism, Health care, Obamacare, Poverty, Religion

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