Bemeficent Society: Chpt 10


Following the presentation of the economic committee’s three-part report, Sanya opened the meeting for questions.

Q: I’m an architect so I was particularly interested in your discussion of neighborhoods which, although I found a little sketchy, I had no basic argument with.  My main complaint is that you failed to mention the contributions of city planners to the design of the city as a whole.

A: It will probably just strenghten your complaint, but the truth is the committee’s failure to mention city planners was intentional.  Let me explain.  The traditional approach has been for planners to set of zoning requirements for all the pieces of land in their juridiction.  So much real estate allocated for single-family, multi-family, light industrial, heavy industrial, and so on.  These assignments were then displayed on colorful zoning maps.

The problem is that such allocations were based on future predictions of needs.  Will railroads extend their trackage here or there?  Will young people marry at twenty, twenty-five, thirty or not at all? And a host of other such imponderables.  And it goes without saying that the predictive power of city planners was no better than those of economists and politicians—in a word, unreliable.  Unreliable enough, in fact, to engender a never-ending demand for rezoning exceptions that kept planners employed and local officials enriched by under-the-table arrrangements, but did nothing to better the city environs.

Newcapia rejected this approach to city planning in favor of devising a set of computerized parameters that specified the conditions to be met by real estate improvements without attempting to anticipate which pieces of ground the restrictions were to apply.  For example, no tavern can be built within 400 feet of a school and no heavy industrial plant within 1000 feet of a residential complex no matter where that tavern or industrial plant is built.  To prevent corruption, no wiggle room was allowed in the enforcement of these parameters; if the computer rejected a building application, its rejection was final.  Faced with a computer’s                           immutable decision-making by computers, developers could no longer plead that the benefits of their proposals exceeded the essentially arbitrary designation by human beings.  The result of these reforms was that Newcapian cities grew in a self-organized fashion—one might say, organically—the result being cityscapes that were, at the same time, innovative, interesting, and very livable.  These reforms were at the expense of some former officials and real estate speculators, but, before tears are shed, it is reliably reported that they managed to find even greener endeavors elsewhere.


Q: With all due respect—I know you’ve worked hard on this—but it seems to me you’ve  tried to solve all of Newcapia’s social problems by giving stuff away: free food, free housing, free youth stipend, free education—including college, of course—free healthcare, and free help to the unemployed.  Hey, that’s been tried.  It’s called socialism and it’s never worked.  And there’s no reason to think it would work in Newcapia.  Government would go broke in six months.

A: With all due respect, I’m afraid the distinguished member has not given our presentation his full attention.  Before answering his question directly, let me make this general observation.  We have all lived through times in which a poorly-led, bureaucracy-choked, ideologically-skewed government has squandered the public purse, introduced one counterproductive activity after another and left us deeply in debt for the privilege. Given that history, it’s no wonder that many of us are left with a knee-jerk reaction whenever we hear of government involvement in anything.  But the fact is that the more advanced our society becomes, the more dependent we are on government to maintain order and perform a number of other functions that, by their very nature, require universal administration.  In short, whereas bad government can be a curse upon our heads, good government is essential.  Moreover the committee had no hesitation in employing good government in ways we felt its involvement would be productive within a cost-vs-benefit parameters.  I’ll return to this point in regard to some of the freebies the member referred to.

Let’s get down to specifics.  Three of the programs that the worthy member fears will condemn us to socialism are obviously bogeymen that can be readily dismissed.  Government is only tangentially involved in the food and shelter coupon system.  Every month, computers would automatically distribute standardized packets of coupons to all personal bank accounts and that’s it.  Thereafter the programs run themselves.  The committee estimates that an office of twenty-five to fifty people would be all that was necessary to run both systems.

The administration of Ucorp would be somewhat more expensive in that every application would have to be accredited.  However, once a Ucorp was off and running, the law explicitly requires the government to keep its hands off it.  With this limitation in place, an office of perhaps one-hundred people should be able to run the entire system. Hardly a big enough expense to worry about.

That leaves the youth stipend and the educational and healthcare entitlements.  Any one of which, left free of budgetary controls could conceivably bankrupt the government all by itself let alone with two additional coconspirators on the loose.  But that’s much like saying we dare not build banks out of fear that they might tempt bank robbers.

The major economies that could be expected from Newcapia’s youth stipend and educational system have already been discussed.   With respect to healthcare, consider this analogy.  Imagine the entire Newcapian economy placed under the absolute control of a notoriously frugal comptroller.  Furthermore that he be compelled to squeeze the maximum profit from his fiefdom no matter what the consequences to its population.  Would not this glint-eyed, heartless, numbers guy reason along these lines?  If I spend not a cent and allowed the economy to operate entirely on its own, its productive class would generate a tidy gross profit.  However, that profit would be materially eroded by the raft of unavoildable expenses piled up by the nonproductive people.  Or, alternatively, might it not be smarter to judiciously invest a small portion of my profits to reduce expenses?  Better yet, why not invest a bit more to eliminate expenses altogether and try to generate profit from the same source from whence only expenses had arisen?  Without trying to second guess our hard-nosed comptroller, he would be derelict in his duties were he not, at least, to weigh his three options and impartially determine which one maximized his net profit.

By the way, the delay between “investment” and “dividends” need not be as long as the questioner suggests.  The longer a productive life can be extended, the greater is society’s gain.  Take two contemporaneous workers for whom the health-care investment in their upbringing is disproportionate.  If one retires at age fifty-five on account of heart problems, and the other, remaining in robust health, retires at eighty, the productivity of the latter could well be twice that of the former.  And, if this is the case, then neglecting the health care of millions would seem, on the face of it, to be a false economy.

Skeptics would no doubt pounce on the word “invest” that has come to be equated in political circles to any and all expenditures.  But I deem it a worthwhile exercise to redeem the word’s original meaning.  Common sense suggests to me it is far cheaper to ensure that a shoot grows erect and tall than to try to straighten a deformed one.  Yet our society throws thousands of dollars at detoxifying a single drunkard, thousands more on attempting to cure drug addicts, and tens of thousands more on criminals who know of no better way to earn a living than mugging pedestrians.  Surely, determined and  effective intervention is the cheaper course and the one the most skinflint manager would propose.

Another complaint against public healthcare revolves around the word “rationing.”  Newcapia’s Adminicare system covers, by and large, treatment of the chronically sick, short term illness, injuries, routine medical exams, approved surgeries, joint replacement when practical, physical therapy, and approved medications.  But all of these treatments are bounded by restrictions that keep their costs in line.  In a word, they are rationed.  Life is indeed precious but it cannot be made absolute from a financial standpoint.  Adminicare must make choices on the basis of efficacy not sentimentality.  Does it spend hundreds of thousands to ensure the survival of a premature infant or is that money better spent on administering polio vaccine to all the vulnerable people, children and adults alike, in an an entire metropolis?

By reasoning along these lines, rational Newcapians have enthusiastically embraced both the entitlements that have been discussed herein and, in every case, the rationing that makes them possible.


Q: Follow up.  Your optimistic rhetoric aside, my guess is that Newcapia would go broke from all its “investments” before it had a chance to reap any of their expected dividends.

A: It certainly would if its costs were comparable to the government programs you’re familiar with.  Keep in mind that the intent of their drafters—the incompetents to whom words such as “overhead” and “efficiency” were part of a forbidden business vocabulary—was to cater to enough special interests to win political approval.  And what they ended up with, of course, was a mishmash of conflicting and unworkable provisions.  Think for a moment what a communication nightmare has resulted from an ungodly tangle of dozens of insurance companies, millions of patients, thousands of h.r. departments, plus unknown numbers of medical workers, bureaucrats, consultancies, programmers and everyone else in the capital who has succeeded in getting their hands on the pile of presumably unlimited tax dollars.  And think of the cost involved just trying to live with it.

Not so on Newcapia.  Its laws are a model of simplicity.  At the operative level, only two elements need communicate: the purveyors of medical services and their patients.  And think of the savings involved.


Next question?


Q: Getting back to education for a moment, it’s not a major point, but, as I understand it, tutors are responsible for monitoring sixty kids in three study areas.  That’s a lot.

A: Keep in mind that the courses are designed to be self-teaching and that steady refinements over the years have ironed out a preponderance of the trouble points where children were getting stuck.  And children can, without asking permission, leave their carrels at any time for up to twenty minutes.  On their breaks they can stretch their legs, go to the bathroom, get a sandwich out of their locker, skip rope, and so on.  Burns up some extra energy that might have triggered disciplinary problems had they been kept cooped up.  As a last resort, a tutor can summon extra help but that’s rarely necessary.  What’s much more likely is that the tutors find time for a coffee break or two during the school day.


Q: I won’t be as polite as the first questioner.  In my opinion you’ve invented Rehabilitation Island for just one reason.  To deport people you regard as lower class types to isolate them from the refined sensibilities of their betters.  Why disturb the fragile feelings of the well off when the plight of the underclass can be so easily swept under the rug?  That strikes me as the epitome of an elitist, undemocratic process.  I’m surprised the committee stopped at just whisking crooks off the streets.  Why not an island for the addicted?  For the mentally ill?  For the homeless while you’re at it?

A:  If you believe exposing unfortunate people to public scrutiny is so essential, why hide them behind prison walls at all?  Why not cage them in zoos so visitors can get an unadulterated dose of their pitiable condition?  Would that serve any useful purpose beyond catering to your exaggerated populism instincts?

I’m sorry, madam, but you’ve misconstrued our intentions entirely.  Rehabitation Island was designed, not for the nefarious purpose you alluded to, but for the benefit of its residents as Howard’s story was meant to illustrate.

On the other hand, your question did inadvertently raise a useful point.  The fact of the matter is that the committee did consider the very islands you sarcastically proposed.  We dropped the idea not because it was infeasible, but for lack of time.  In fact, our hope is that Rehabiliation Island will serve as an example for further applications along the same general lines.

In general terms, the committee believes that expatriating misfits, properly handled, is in their best interest  In an island setting, trained professionals can be more readily on hand, personal counseling more frequently provided, maximum freedom of movement permitted, inmate safety made more secure,  contraband more securely prevented, and social contact with fellow patients enhanced.  If, under third party surveillance, such criteria are attained, the committee feels deportation should be encouraged.  And, if in the meantime, the general interest of society is also served, so much the better.  It just makes common sense that it can  advance more efficiently down a cleared path than an obstructed one.


Q: As a social worker, I applaud the committee’s social programs as far as they go.  But also as a social worker, I recognize that they are, in some respects idealized to the extent they require people to actively engage in helping themselves.  I can tell you from hard experience, that won’t work in every case.  A lot of people are simply incapable of doing things in their own best interest.  So I waited in vain for the committee’s recommendations to cover the really tough, bottom of the barrel cases when only a direct handout would do any good.

A: Well, you’re right about waiting in vain.  We scrupulously avoided offering such services for a number of reasons.  One is that, at a legalistic level, they would violate the equal application of the law.  Technically, giving an underprivileged person a ham sandwich outright would mean handing one out to everyone else—a difficult undertaking if for no other reason than not everyone likes ham.  Second, giveaway programs are inherently limitless.  A program conservatively designed to meet the special needs of a million people will turn out, in practice, unprepared to help the five million who show up.  Over time were any such efforts tried, they would be bound to swamp the self help programs we believe are better for the majority.  Third, government handouts would also undermine the private, non-profit operations designed to cater to just the kind of tough cases you mentioned on a one-to-one basis. Government is uniquely ill-suited for philanthropic endeavors.  One might say, constitutionally ill-suited.  It needs to stay out of them for the good of all concerned, particularly the needy.


Q: I’ll grant that Newcapia’s policies would reduce poverty obliquely, but there seems to be a lack of commitment to confront it directly.

A: I assure you the committee, in its considerations, took poverty very seriously indeed.  From the very first, we recognized that it had to be disolved, long term, if any meaningful social progress was to be made.  It was too dangerous, too expensive, too destructive, and simply too immoral.  We agree it has to go, no question about it.


Q: I’m gratified to hear you say it, but that sentiment seems contradicted by what I would call your narrowly targeted objectives.  Unless I’m mistaken, the very word “poverty” hardly shows up in your strategic statements.

A: For  good reason.  It paints too broad a brush to be useful.  It spreads resources too thin.  Objectives too loosely defined.  Embarking on a “war on poverty,” for example, may sound good politically but it only tends to institutionalize efforts that come to depend upon poverty’s continuation.  Poverty can’t be eliminated.  Talking about it endlessly only makes it more ingrained.  However, it can, by a series of focused efforts, be made so inconsequential as to virtually disappear.  (The same can be said of racism, by the way, but that’s another story.)

No further questions?  Sanya asked.  My thanks to the subcommittees who worked so hard to put this together.  Let’s give them a hand.  Silvia, madame chairman, the podium is yours.

My thanks to all of you for coming today and participating in our discussion.  The Bemeficient Society will meet again here in the same place on our usual bimonthly schedule.  The subject of our next meeting will be Newcapia’s ideas for a new form of government.  You won’t want to miss that.  I have no idea what Ken J.’s committee will come up with but, knowing Ken, I guaranty you it won’t be more of the same.  See you all, December 9th.



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