Evaluating the Goals of Compassion

We hear in reference to a wide range of policy discussions how we should support this policy or that out of a sense of compassion- we hear this about the recent Syrian refugee crisis, about programs like the Affordable Care Act and Medicare, and about any other of a host of domestic measures.

Now, since contrary to the attitude which Congress, Presidents, and most voters have acted over the course of, at a minimum, my own lifetime, there is not infinite money, and we cannot solve all problems with the application of government funds.

Surely, we can admit that having in the 1930s destroyed the previous systems which helped those in need and replaced them with governmental action, until such a time as we can rebuild the non-governmental solutions it might be considered somewhat cruel to go immediately from the massive amount of aid we currently give (misspent and based on fictional currency as it is) to nothing overnight. So we will acknowledge that even as we work to reduce the power, scope, and dependency on the Federal Government, until such a time that the totality of Federal poverty alleviation programs are neither necessary nor desirable to the vast majority of the population (having been replaced by programs built on volunteerism and administered in good faith rather than through coercive governmental force and violence) we must retain some amount of these programs and must not drastically reduce spending.

But, a commitment to not pulling the rug out from under people, so to speak, is not the same as a commitment to continuing programs which are not working as intended, to continuing to ratchet spending to bail out these programs (which will still not work as intended), or a commitment to solve all of the problems of the nation with governmental dollars (as if such a thing were possible).

So, being that the fountain of money is not infinite, we should work to ensure that our tax dollars are having the maximum possible of their intended effect. Isn’t working to allow waste, abuse, and misaligned programs which do not have their intended effect its own form of callous disregard?

What is so compassionate about allowing people to suffer because the money we are spending to help them is not accomplishing its purpose?

So by what standards should we judge the policies we put in place to help people?

I posit, that all of our programs that are based on compassion in any regards must be designed to broadly meet some combination of the following three goals:

  1. To help the most people.
  2. To help people who need help the most
  3. To give the help most needed to the people we help

While these seem like obvious goals, they are often overlooked and many of our systems and programs fail on all three counts.

1. To Help the Most People

This is the goal that our programs come the closest to meeting- although this is mostly due to the need, politically, to sell programs through the middle class. We have programs that in their best versions should be anti-poverty measures (medicare, social security) which instead vastly “benefit” the middle class.

This of course is because the middle class represents entrenched votes for politicians, whereas the underclasses tend not to vote and are also, thankfully, a smaller class than the middle and upper middle classes.

Of course, where these programs often fall short is in that while they affect, or encompass many people, they often do not actually help all those people enrolled.

The obvious example is again, social security. Social security takes 12% of an average person’s income- 6% from their check directly and 6% from their employer. According to Politifact the average person pays in $722,000 over their career and receives in benefits $966,000 after turning 65.

On it’s head this looks like a lot of people are benefiting from Social Security, however- even at that 722/966 split it represents a small rate of return, particularly when annualized over many years. When you consider that the worker’s employer would have paid in an additional $722,000 so without any other adjustments you fall to a return of $966,000 on an input of $1,444,000, a fairly substantial loss in value.

To put it into perspective- the average Social Security enrollee would be better off taking their money, the money their employer would pay in on their behalf, tossing about one third of it into a well and stuffing the remaining portion into their mattress than allowing the government to take and administer these taxes on their behalf.

We can clearly see that even those programs which we spend our hard earned American treasure on which appear to help many people often merely encompass many people, not necessarily help them.

2. To Help the People Who Need Help the Most

This should again be a self evident goal- when we are confiscating wealth for the purpose of compassion, our compassion should be aimed at the people most in need of it.

But as already noted, most of our compassionate programs tend to aim towards the middle classes, rather than the truly poor.

Or consider Obamacare- when the ACA was passed it was sold as a measure to help the uninsured, and especially those with preexisting conditions. But instead of a narrowly focused, less costly measure which might have simply expanded medicaid to these people (and the majority of those insured under ACA who were not insured previously are either due to expanded Medicard or 26 & unders staying on parental insurance longer), they chose to pass a massive bill which tied the fate of these uninsured and uninsurable people into the the Insurance market as a whole- attempting to help MORE people with a broader scope brush, and failing in the end to help even the few that a narrow measure easily might have.

A program which is truly aimed at helping those most in need of help would be narrowly focused on such a goal.

3. To Give the Help Most Needed to the People We Help

The counter intuitiveness of many of our programs can be illustrated by their failing this simple dictate.

Take, for instance, the Medicare program- it has proven, over time, to be incredibly expensive and incredibly popular, but to have absolutely no net effect on the reduction of poverty (the basis on which it is sold).

Like so many of our incredibly expensive anti-poverty programs, Medicare might be replaced with more robust bankruptcy protections and have the same overall effect.

This is the ultimate crux of the problem with so many of our programs- money is being spent which is not helping the people it is touching in ways that are allowing them to remove themselves from the situations that required them to need help.

Many of our programs are very good at ensuring that the poor stay poor rather than sliding into being extraordinarily poor. They are good at very little else.

Until we can have an honest conversation, rating programs based not on gut level popularity, but on their intended effects and an honest, empirical grading of if they are meeting those effects we will never be able to truly conquer the societal problems which we face.