Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Random, and Not So Random, Acts of Kindness

They are beautiful, heartwarming gestures I do not mean to belittle. But the anonymous charity of Secret Santas randomly giving out $100 bills to those they think are in need, or paying off a stranger’s layaway charges at Kmart, is not the answer to the paralyzing and pervasive poverty enveloping our nation. They are not the solution to a capitalist system that has divided our country, indeed, large parts of the rest of the world as well, into spheres of plenty and spheres of void.

However generous they are, random acts of kindness should not lull us into believing they can relieve our fellow citizens of the trauma of unemployment, of the despair of having a loved one in need of medical care without adequate health insurance, of squelching the pangs of hunger that ache each night in the bellies of too many of our young.

My conservative friends and relatives tell me government is not the answer. They would have the hungry and the needy rely on the generosity of their fellow human to ease their pain and tribulations, all the while exhorting them to bootstrap themselves into success. Newt Gingrich would dismiss child labor laws and have children of poverty clean schools so they can learn a work ethic, as if taking away the functions of school janitors is any way to reduce unemployment or increase the take-home pay of the working class.

I seem to recall George H.W. Bush more than 20 years ago waxing euphoric over a “thousand points of light” to help transform the country. Perhaps people are more charitable these days. But the number of families living at or below the poverty level keeps growing. The gap in income between the average worker and the average chief executive keeps growing. “Shared sacrifice” is a phrase that needs to be parsed in a new way—corporate executives get more shares, while the rest sacrifice.

Temporary generosity has but a temporary impact. Even if all of those who can afford it tithed, we would still require government intervention to bolster the economy and provide a safety net. How else to explain corporate America’s reluctance to invest in the United States, to hire more workers, even as companies sit on a treasure trove of cash. Neither government regulation nor a high tax rate is strangling our economy. Rather, it is the way we compensate our executives. They manage for short term gain, their bonuses tied to an annual bottom line. Say what you will about Amazon.com’s products and services, you can’t deny founder/CEO Jeff Bezos has stuck to his guns in defending a long-term strategy that has bedeviled Wall Streeters seeking more immediate returns.

Mitt Romney wants everyone to know not all businesses succeed, so don’t blame him if some of the companies his Bain Capital acquired filed for bankruptcy or had to lay off workers. Fair enough. So then let’s not allow him to scald President Obama for investing U.S. funds in Solyndra, a solar energy company that went belly up. New technologies need government assistance, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect. An example of the latter is the sales tax exemption many online retailers have enjoyed versus brick and mortar stores.

Compassionate conservatism is another hollow term. Even when conservative dogma is based on religious belief, as with the Right to Life movement, compassion for the unborn is not extended to the newborn. Conservatives want cuts in aid to dependent children, in early education programs, in school lunch programs.

Let’s not abandon the less fortunate. Let’s continue to donate food, clothing, dollars to worthy charities and individuals. But let’s not forget that without government assistance far too many of the citizens of the richest country on earth would not have a roof over their heads, meals to be eaten, schools to attend, pre- and post-school programs to enrich their growth years, doctors to visit, jobs to go to each day. These are not random acts of kindness. They’re the very foundation of what a government is supposed to do—protect and care for its citizens.