I like to ask my conservative friends the following question. “If there were a social program that got people off of the welfare rolls, lowered crime, emptied prisons, strengthened the workforce, grew the economy, and elevated the general level of education, would you be willing to talk about it?”
When I put it that way, most of them say, “Sure.”
Which is interesting. Because that’s exactly what most liberals want from social programs.
It’s what an effective social program should do.
So while the two political parties are arguing about whether we should offer social programs or shut them down, the middle ground of politics – or perhaps more accurately, the no-man’s land – holds the only important consideration: Is a social program is effective?
It’s a perfect example of the polarization of politics. As power and big money grow from pitting us against one another and undermining our country, the important considerations lie neglected.
For some years, I have been thinking about social programs from just this perspective. The ideal social program would expire; we would fix the problem, and then move on to other things.
To expire, however, we would need to define an endpoint, we would lay out some set of objectives we expect to see.
Such a social program should be a contract between the state and the person(s) being helped. We give you resources w, and you must meet criteria x, y and z, each on a deadline.
And most importantly, such a program would be profitable. The ROI for the state would be a positive value, in savings from criminal justice and welfare expenses, and in profits from a more robust economy. In fact, such a welfare program would yield an infinitely positive value, because our limited investment would produce a profit, forever.
Is such a thing possible? Could such a welfare program exist, one that got people off of welfare, one that made their lives, and everyone’s lives, better?
It already exists. Or at least it did exist, because it did everything above, including expire. And is still paying our country and our economy handsome dividends. Continued below…
It was the Marshall Plan.
Right now I am reading Greg Behrman’s The Most Noble Adventure, a narrative of the European Recovery Program, as the Marshall Plan was formally known. After WWII, the United States spent $13B to rebuild Europe – including our enemies, Germany and Italy1)Japan did not suffer the infrastructure destruction that Europe had, and was not particularly vulnerable as was Europe. (design your enemy). And the Marshall Plan – unlike current welfare – was just that, it was a carefully designed plan. It had a limited 4 year scope, and it laid out specific objectives for the participating countries.
And it was wildly profitable. So profitable that some Europeans still accuse us of implementing it only because of the eventual profits.
Which misses the real story. America had just spent a lot of money – and 300,000 lives – getting Europe out of a World War for the second time in less than two decades. Our economy wasn’t in the best shape. We had already given European countries some billions of dollars in aid, and it had not achieved the promised objectives (again, a parallel with modern social programs). And to top it off, there was a Democrat President, Harry Truman, and it was an election year. The Republicans were digging their heels in, refusing to cooperate.
So the Plan was a very hard sell. And any successful sale, particularly in such a difficult time and contentious environment, would have to provide a list of good reasons for buy-in. Yes, many realized that a rebuilt Europe would be a place to sell American goods, and that was one selling point to Congress and the American people. But it wasn’t the biggest nor most convincing argument. As a bleeding heart, I would like to imagine that the Plan was humanitarian. Which it was at its inception, because in 1947 Europe was very near mass starvation.
But the biggest selling point was more pragmatic, and more worrisome: Uncle Joe Stalin. If the US didn’t save Europe, Stalin would conquer it.2)That is an important consideration today, as we look at the instability in the Middle East, ISIL, al Qaeda, and others. Fortunately, Stalin was so sure of the superiority and inevitability of communism, that even though he was an accomplished political card sharp, over and over he and the European communists played right into the hands of the proponents of the Marshall Plan. Repeatedly, just as America or Western Europe faced an impossible political hurdle, Stalin would pull some bone-headed stunt and open a door for the Plan to proceed.
We can judge the results for ourselves. There is no historical precedent for our current level of wealth and comfort, in both the US and in Europe. And the Pax Americana, the 70 years of general worldwide peace and stability since WWII, has no parallel in history.3)People frequently point to Viet Nam, or Ukraine, or again, ISIL. As shocking as these are, when compared to the horrors of full-out war they are still a vast improvement.
Obviously, 1940s Europe wasn’t a perfect comparison to modern US poverty. Europe still retained much of its intellectual and technical capabilities, and it still had a strong work culture. A four year Marshall Plan would never succeed in say, Somalia, not even if we invested many times the funds of that earlier plan. When you start with almost no educational tradition, cultural cohesion, nor economic competence, full autonomy and stability may take three or four generations. Which is an important insight for our social programs today: we need to realize that permanent change will take a while. That does not mean, however, that we should not be able to define and meet regular benchmarks along the way, and taper off economic support as we do.
The important point is, it can work. It is possible for a social program to exist that makes our citizens, our country, and our economy better, and which will not be a permanent drain on our coffers. But just as with the aid packages to Europe before the highly detailed, highly specific Marshall Plan, simply writing checks to people in need won’t do it. A social program only works if we begin with the right questions, and the right objectives.
And most of all, it will only succeed if we are fully committed to the outcome.
If you like this, please share it with your elected officials.
Marshall Plan Ship courtesy of The Marshall Foundation.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Japan did not suffer the infrastructure destruction that Europe had, and was not particularly vulnerable as was Europe.|
|2.||↑||That is an important consideration today, as we look at the instability in the Middle East, ISIL, al Qaeda, and others.|
|3.||↑||People frequently point to Viet Nam, or Ukraine, or again, ISIL. As shocking as these are, when compared to the horrors of full-out war they are still a vast improvement.|