Behind Joe Manchin's attack on "entitlement society": Billionaires who hate America

Manchin wants to make basic citizenship rights sound like "welfare." Biden and progressive allies must do better

Published October 26, 2021 5:30AM (EDT)

Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty images)
Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty images)

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Sen. Joe Manchin, echoing the right-wing billionaires' think-tanks' PR and every Republican in Congress, recently said his objection to free college for students and eyeglasses for seniors was that such things created an "entitlement society," a slur that means "a nation of welfare recipients."  

In that, he displays a fundamental ignorance about what governments do and how societies work, as well as the difference between what we usually call the "social safety net" and things people should expect simply as a "right of citizenship" in a first-world country. He also misunderstands the difference between expenses and investments.

A "social safety net" is there to catch you when you fall. Unemployment insurance keeps you from becoming homeless when capitalism has one of its periodic hiccups. Food stamps tide you over in rough times. FEMA programs provide mobile homes and a stipend to keep people rendered homeless by natural disasters like hurricanes, forest fires and floods alive and well.

These are the sorts of things that we generally refer to as "welfare." They're there to "catch us" and keep us from falling through society's "floor."

They also prevent people from "breaking" when they fall, whether it's a temporary hiccup in capitalism (recession, depression), a natural disaster or a region that's failed to invest in itself so long that there are simply no jobs available. We know, for example, that inequality, along with the poverty and mental illness it causes, drives up costs to society that can be covered with these kinds of help. 

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So these shorter-term programs (or, in some cases, even longer-term for already-wounded people) keep society stable. Finland, for example, is providing free housing for all their homeless; it's cheaper than the police, hospital and mental health services that houseless people otherwise use. But these are still programs to "catch" people and regions who've fallen or been injured by life, not to grow and expand society.

A "citizenship right" is something altogether different. It's what nations provide as rights of citizenship to keep a society functioning on a normal plane, and to help that society grow and improve socially and economically.  

As citizens of America, for example, we expect good public schools, decent roads, police and fire protection and a functioning government funded by tax dollars to keep it all going. We expect as citizens that when we pay into Social Security and Medicare our entire lives, those systems will be maintained in a way that can keep us healthy, productive and out of poverty when we retire.

While the "safety net" protects us from personal, family or community disasters, the "rights of citizenship" provide the foundation for society itself. 

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The physical infrastructure of a nation makes possible normal life, and the more sophisticated and functional that infrastructure is, the more vibrant a nation's economy will be. 

This was the core rationale for Republican President Dwight Eisenhower building the interstate highway system: It not only made it easier to visit Grandpa and Grandma, it also made it easier to transport goods and thus facilitated commerce leading to the economic boom of the 1950-1980 era.

Ditto for an advanced air traffic system, quality public transportation and a national high-speed rail system like in every other advanced country. 

The same is true for the "human infrastructure" of a nation. 

The more citizens a country has who are college educated, the more competitive and prosperous that nation becomes. The better the health of a country, the more reliable and efficient its workforce. When government helps young parents care for their children, it frees them up to more fully participate in the commercial and civic life of the country.

Thus, infrastructure — be it physical or human — is not welfare. It doesn't produce an "entitlement society." Instead, it's the core foundation on which a functional society rests, the soil in which business can root itself, and the launching pad for a horizon-free future.

Another way to think of it is through the lens of economics and accounting. 

"Welfare" is an expense. It doesn't make things better: When appropriately funded, it simply keeps them from becoming worse. It pays dividends in that it keeps people alive and functional, but just barely. The "return on investment" to the government is minimal outside of its moral duty.

"Rights of citizenship" like infrastructure, on the other hand, are investments. They pay returns and dividends. Invest "x" and over years or decades you'll get multiples of "x" in return. Even police and fire services, when run right, keep neighborhoods crime-free and facilitate commerce, growing the local economy. New transportation, education and health care infrastructure build prosperity and attract investment in the larger community.

Not understanding this simple distinction is the major failure of neoliberal and "conservative" politicians, guided, in large part, by "think tanks" and pundits funded by right-wing billionaires who, frankly, don't care about either "welfare" or "rights of citizenship/infrastructure." 

After all, being morbidly rich billionaires, they don't need either. 

They can afford the best health care in the world with their pocket change; they travel on private jets outside public airports (never even having to go through security); and they send their kids to the best private schools in the world, regardless of the local tax base.

And since welfare and infrastructure are both funded by tax dollars — which the morbidly rich go to great lengths to avoid paying — pushing politicians to reject both only adds more dollars to their money bins that otherwise would have gone to taxes.

While Joe Manchin's understanding of these fundamental, high-school-civics differences in government programs is disappointing, it shouldn't be surprising. He was born into wealth and is, himself, a multimillionaire coal baron, living on the largest yacht at my old home, the Capital Yacht Club (among his other homes). 

But Joe Biden — who spent his life traveling home from Washington to Delaware every weekend on  Amtrak — understands this at a gut level. New roads, bridges, and broadband infrastructure are investments that will return dividends to both society and our economy. He knows that strengthening our infrastructure strengthens our nation.

Biden understands that replacing fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure with made-in-America renewables like solar and wind reduce our dependence on brutal foreign oligarchs like Saudi Arabia's murderous Mohammed bin Salman while producing power for generations with little more than simple maintenance.

He knows that sending young people to college at no or little cost — as is done in every other advanced democracy in the world — is a simple investment in our nation's families and intellectual infrastructure that will pay dividends for generations into our future.

Progressives working on his legislative agenda realize that providing people with a robust and low-cost health care system is an investment in our ultimate infrastructure: our people. Without healthy workers there is no reliable economy; with healthy workers an economy becomes ever more vibrant, which is why every other developed country in the world except the U.S. provides free or low-cost universal health care and takes care of all their seniors' medical needs.

Right-wing billionaire propaganda aside, these are not "welfare" or "entitlements," and they don't cause people to "become lazy" or "refuse to work." As we strengthen and "Build Back Better" our physical and human infrastructure, we simultaneously strengthen our nation while moving us into a cleaner, safer and more reliable future. 

In every other developed country in the world, these things are simple rights of citizenship. They should be here, too, if we want to compete in the 21st century and improve our (slipping) status as a First World nation. 

More on Joe Manchin and the "moderates" waging war on the Biden agenda:

By Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

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Build Back Better Commentary Independent Media Institute Joe Biden Joe Manchin Welfare