After a Mike Doogan column 15 years ago this month, I had to do a mental u-turn.
Before he served in the state legislature, Doogan sparked lots of controversy for years with his column in this newspaper. But for me one stands out more than all the others. He remarked on the strange juxtaposition in the 1997 deaths of two prominent European women—Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. One, Doogan pointed out, lived in fabulous luxury without having work for any of it while the other toiled all her life with sharing the poverty of those she served.
Readers filled an entire page with expressions of outrage at Doogan’s contrast. One after another, readers expressed admiration—not for the saintly, sari-clad nun, but instead for the woman my niece identified as the world’s most famous welfare recipient, not exactly a welfare queen but surely a welfare princess. One after another, readers praised Diana for her compassion for the poor. The readers themselves didn’t express compassion for the poor. But they did praise Diana for doing so. My favorite letter pointed out Diana’s compassion was voluntary while Mother Teresa was only taking orders from the pope. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the reader did not express compassion for the poor but admired Diana’s compassion.
For years and years, I had thought Anchorage folks showed disdain for welfare recipients for not working for their handouts. But in 1997, I began to realize people in our town didn’t mind people living off handouts as long as the people living off handouts are rich.
One female friend explained it this way with remarkable frankness: She related more to a good-looking woman with nice clothes and a glamorous lifestyle than with an ugly old hag with such a lifestyle of poverty she wore the same outfit over and over again.
That may help explain the unabashed compassion some show for billionaires and megacorporations. In his book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” Thomas Frank offers this startling imagery: Residents of the poorest county in the United States grabbing pitchforks and torches march to their town’s gated community, pound on the gates and demand tax cuts for billionaires.
Look at the spirited defense for Mitt Romney’s decision not to pay more taxes than he has to by the same folks who criticize poor people for not paying more taxes than they have to. A commentator on the Fox Cable channel advocates taxing the poorest of the poor in this country, apparently as a way of offsetting the losses in revenue from continuing the tax cuts for the rich. Now, I hesitate to say that commentator speaks for all Americans, but that channel sure has lots of viewers. Am I the only one to notice this anomaly: The less able you are to help with our massive deficit, the more responsible folks hold you for lowering that deficit and vice versa? I’m reminded of the wag who once proclaimed that poor people should have to subsidize rich people because the rich have more expenses.
I’m fascinated by the compassion for oil companies in Alaska. Sure, I expect that kind of thing from the politicians and the business leaders. But even regular folks buy into that. If we don’t lower taxes on the oilies, the argument goes, they will pack up and leave Alaska for places like North Dakota and Alberta. Funny, I never hear the same argument for property owners: if they don’t lower our property taxes, we will all move out of state. I know if I were to make such an argument, a number of readers would offer me a ride to the airport. Now, no comparisons work perfectly; if I move, I can’t take my properties with me in my luggage. But consider that homeowners pay taxes on their own property while oil companies pay taxes on our oil. But the way the oil huggers act, you’d think BP and the others own the oil on the North Slope and it’s their oil being taxed.
Now we come to the New York Mets. They got paid big bucks for naming their stadium after Citi Bank. And where did Citi Bank get the money to pay the Mets for such luxury? You guessed it, bank bailouts. Dave Zirin, in his “People’s History of Sports in the United States, points out on page 262 that taxpayers have paid $16 billion in the past ten years for stadiums across the country. I doubt Zirin’s total includes the money Texas taxpayers forked over to build the stadium where the Texas Rangers play. In her book, “Shrub,” the late Molly Ivins points out that after the stadium was built, the state gave it to the Rangers’ owner, a fellow named George W. Bush.
I’m fascinated at how people react to corporate welfare. I give the Tea Party folks credit for at least objecting strongly to the bank bailouts. But lots of other folks are more interested in going out of their way to hold the victims bamboozled into buying those sub-prime mortgages responsible for their decisions. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Tough, Citi Bank; tough, Goldman Sachs, take responsibility for your behavior?”
I’m also fascinated by how people react to government regulations. When governments pass laws to restrict where and how you may exercise your First Amendment rights to protest government’s behaviors, people applaud such restrictions. Apparently, to such folks, sitting on a sidewalk is not speech, like, say, paying unlimited amount of funds to politicians who will do whatever you want them to do for you. I guess the political correct thing today is that communicating with your body isn’t speech any more but money is speech instead. At what point will be decide, not only that corporations are people, but that people aren’t people.
As I like to say, I can resist anything but temptation. I can’t resist my favorite example of compassion for the rich and powerful. When I advocated the radical idea of regulating megacorporations as much as regulating small businesses and as much as regulating people, I was accused of “Nazi tactics” against “victims” of genocide like oil companies, banks, and health insurers. To my knowledge, the person making such an accusation has not yet gotten around to hunting down Holocaust survivors to berate them for their “mean-spirited” indifference to the plight of Cigna, Exxon Mobil, and the Koch brothers.