Conservatives talk a lot about "dependency," but it's not clear that they know what the word means. Consider, for example, the right's bizarre reaction to a rather benign online campaign the White House pushed briefly earlier this year called “The Life of Julia,” a slide-show featuring a fictional Everywoman that was meant to highlight how Obama's policies might improve the lives of average Americans.
It follows the Julia character from age 3 through her retirement. She's self-sufficient, hard-working and entrepreneurial; the embodiment of what conservatives are supposed to applaud. Although she isn't born into a wealthy family, her perserverence is ultimately rewarded with success.
If you're not a consumer of the conservative media, you may not have even heard about Julia, but the right is obsessed with her to an extent that's kind of creepy. Rush Limbaugh described the campaign as “a perfect illustration of liberal cradle-to-grave care for every citizen with the government making every decision, making everything possible, and leaving nothing to chance.” At Hot Air, Ed Morrissy bemoaned “the cradle-to-grave, government-supported existence of 'Julia.'” A diarist at Red State called it, “cradle-to-grave socialism for America.” There are thousands of columns and blog-posts decrying Julia's supposed “dependency” on the government. Perhaps the American Power blog summed up the right's reaction best: “What we are left with is a celebration of a how a woman can live her entire life by leaning on government intervention, dependency and other people's money rather than her own initiative or hard work.”
They've come to believe that Julia is dependent on the government, but nothing could be further from the truth: as a child, Julia is dependent on her family; after she graduates college, she is dependent on nobody but herself. The point of the campaign – and something that should be obvious to anyone – is that good governance affords her opportunities to carve out a better life for herself.
Let's look at the “Life of Julia campaign,” and see how it compares with the prevailing view of the campaign on the right.
Age 3: Julia goes to preschool. It's not mandatory preschool; no goons are threatening to whisk her mom away to a FEMA camp if she isn't enrolled. It's an option.
Age 17: Julia is enrolled in a decent public high school. Tyranny? OK.
Age 18: Julia decides to go to college, and she's able to do so because of subsidized student loans available to low-income students. Nobody forces her to attend college; she has an option that she wouldn't otherwise have, and she takes it.
Age: 22: While in college, Julia requires surgery. She's happy to be eligible to stay on her parents' private insurance plan until age 26 – a popular provision in Obamacare.
Age 23: Julia gets a job as a graphic designer, and thanks to the Lily Ledbetter Act, she can sue her private employer for gender wage discrimination – wages she'll make working for a living. Is she dependent on the government? No, but she's probably happy to get the same pay for the same work as that dude sitting at the desk next to her.
Age 25: Julia makes all her student loan payments on time. She pays lower interest because of legislation passed in 2010 that cut out corporate middlemen who were ripping off American taxpayers.
Age 27: Julia is working, and has private health insurance. (Despite the overblown rhetoric on the right, if she chose not to carry health insurance, she'd have to pay a tax maxing out at $695 per year – which covers the costs of being uninsured so the rest of us don't have to.) Because of Obamacare, her plan (which, again, she pays for) covers preventive healthcare.
Age 31: Julia has a baby. Her coverage has to cover maternal checkups, prenatal care and co-pay-free screenings under the healthcare reform law.
Age 37: Her son, Zach, starts kindergarten at a public school. She could homeschool if she wished, or enroll him in a private school – nobody's forcing her to send him to a public school, but she has the option.
Age 42: Julia starts her own business with a Small Business Administration loan, and then enjoys tax cuts for new startups. The horrors! Remember when conservatives liked people starting new enterprises?
Age 65: Julia enrolls in Medicare, which she paid into over the course of her career.
Age 67: Julia retires and starts getting Social Security checks.
And that's it. That's a lifetime of “leaning on government intervention, dependency and other people's money.” And it's worth noting that “The Life of Julia” is an upbeat political campaign; Julia never goes through rough patches that would equire her to go on unemployment or receive food stamps, things conservatives commonly believe foster dependency. As such, the reaction reveals a fascinating – and troubling – blindspot that's become a prominent feature of today's right-wing: American conservatives have been so thoroughly conditioned with the simplistic narrative that the public sector enslaves us and saps our will to strive that things like student loans and pre-school programs get caught up in their “culture of dependency” narrative.
That worldview isn't healthy in an advanced economy. The reality is that without a robust public sector, there can be no functional, upwardly mobile private sector. As I've written before, some public programs provide us with an enormous amount of individual liberty and freedom of choice that we would not otherwise enjoy.
In the United States, for example, it’s not uncommon for people to stay in dead-end jobs or crappy relationships for fear of losing their health coverage. They're stuck. In Canada or France or any other industrialized country, a citizen’s healthcare is his or her own – financed largely through the taxes they pay. People in those countries have the very real freedom to quit that lousy job or dump that asshole without worrying about losing their coverage. In this example, Americans are slaves not to an overarching state, but to the way our private insurance system works.
Or consider the millions of people who want to go to college but can’t afford to pick up the tab for tuition and living expenses. Many, like he fictional Julia, still have the choice to get a higher education through federal education grants and subsidized student loans. That’s a personal choice that the private sector has no incentive to provide to citizens.
There are programs that offer people new job skills. Even if you’re dirt poor, you can still get into a program to help you kick a drug addiction. You can go to the library and read a book or search job listings on the Internet. All of these things give people real choices they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The young researcher working on an NIH-funded science project; the farmer who has the choice to maintain his or her family’s tradition because of agricultural subsidies; or the actor performing in an off-off-Broadway play that couldn’t be produced without a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—all of them are living examples of people who have the freedom to pursue options that would be closed to them without Big Government “intervention” in the economy.
The right calls the basic functions of government, taxing in order to finance public services, “theft” and argues that we “can't afford” these things. But many of the examples above – good infrastructure, the ability to take risk without facing ruin and having an educated, healthy population -- yield greater economic output, resulting in more tax revenues. They are investments, not “sunk costs.” Just ask Julia.