In his second inaugural speech, President Obama said:
“The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
When campaigning in New Hampshire on September 18, 2012, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan said:
“We risk hitting a tipping point in our society where we have more takers than makers in society, where we will have turned our safety net into a hammock that lulls able bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.”
“President Obama’s policies are feverishly putting more people into the column of being takers than makers, of being more dependent,” Ryan said.
There is an element of merit to what Congressman Ryan says. Any society, any organization, needs to think about maintaining a healthy balance between makers and takers. When the population distribution of a society becomes heavily weighted towards both the young and the old, with a disproportionately small number of people in the prime years of production, then adjustments need to be made. Those in the middle of the curve may have to work more hours or have their efforts supplemented with more reliance on automation. At the same time, goods and services for the young and old may have to be reduced, hopefully only on a temporary basis. This is simple math, and firm progressives such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan have embraced the concept.
However, there are two problems with what Ryan said. First is that he is the messenger. Like so many Republicans, he expresses very little empathy toward the needs of those who are least capable of fending for themselves. He has advocated little support for programs that help the young, such as Head Start or the School Lunch Program. He is quick to advocate significant reduction in Medicare benefits. These changes include raising the age of eligibility for benefits, and reducing available medical services.
The second problem with Ryan’s remarks is that he has a very narrow view of what it means to be a maker or a taker. He certainly considers himself to be a maker. But what is he making? If the policies he supports in Congress are ones that undermine peace, justice, and a fair economy, then the product that he is making is more suffering for most Americans. If he is opposing gun control, then he is a maker of increased gun violence. If he opposes higher taxes for the wealthy, then he is increasing the tax burden on the poor and middle class.
It’s not just Ryan who may make things that are not socially beneficial. What about the teacher who is abusive to students? What about the building inspector who only grants permits when she is given a bribe? What about the Wall Street banker who takes sub-prime mortgages and bundles them into nearly worthless Collateral Debt Obligations?
President Obama is defending the beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, who receive their benefits as part of a fair social contract that includes a safety net. They have either paid in premiums for the benefits, or have suffered misfortunes that require a compassionate society to tend to their needs. These people deserve fairness and justice; not the kind of insensitivity that Paul Ryan and many other conservatives express.
The issue of finding a healthy balance between makers and takers in our society is a legitimate one. But we must keep in mind that all makers do not help a society, and all takers do not hurt a society. We need to clarify our terms with a sophistication that is absent in Paul Ryan’s words. We must form all public policy so that it promotes justice. President Obama certainly seems to be taking that path, now more than ever.