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Who's Gaming the System Better: The Rich or the Poor?

Let’s talk about liberals and conservatives, in spite of the fact that Indian issues do not split that way. Environmental and economic issues do split that way, and Indians have not yet figured out how to segregate air and water and wildlife. To the extent reservation economies are segregated from the globalized economy, that’s a bad thing, because it turns reservations into political money pits and our status into perpetual dependency.

The bad rap on liberals is they want to tax and spend and rely on government for everything. News flash: all humans rely on their governments for things they cannot provide for themselves. If some liberals seem ignorant of the truth that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then it’s up to voters to educate them.

American Indians have great insight to contribute about the perils of dependence. We have been made dependent on purpose to suit the goals of the colonists that we assimilate or die, and breaking free of that purposefully imposed dependence is our central political problem, made more complex by U.S. and Canadian politicians who paint us as shiftless welfare skates.

Sometimes we buy into our designated role as welfare skates, and that’s as tragic as politics gets. Let us consider who is on welfare and who skates in terms of policy issues on the front burner in the U.S. right now.

In West Virginia, a state perpetually at war with the Environmental Protection Agency, 300,000 people had their drinking water poisoned, and the politicians were on the air defending the coal companies before the damage was even finished happening.

Environmental regulations, they say correctly, would put coal at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other energy sources. This is also true of safety regulations in the mines. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and if the public is to have the lunch of safe working conditions and clean water and clean air, then the coal companies will have to pay for it or….or what?

Well, the “Or what?” is what we have right now.

Water is trucked into West Virginia by the National Guard, which is funded by the taxpayers. If dad dies in a mining accident, his widow is fed and his orphans are educated to the minimal standard the taxpayers of West Virginia will fund.

We have a similar situation in West Texas, where some cities are so short of potable water that they are drinking their own recycled urine at taxpayer expense for the recycling while oil companies are allowed to pump aquifers dry in one location and create injection wells for used fracking fluid in other locations. Any requirement to recycle fracking fluid will put oil and gas at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other energy sources.

Putting a price on carbon in the tax code would put fossil fuels generally at a competitive disadvantage in relation to solar and wind and hydro and geothermal. Of course, the costs of mitigating climate disasters---rising sea levels, superstorms, wild fires, famines from disrupted growing seasons and new pest vectors---all those costs fall on the taxpayers except in jurisdictions served by the Climate Fairy, where a snowstorm proves the planet is not warming in spite of those lying thermometers.

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Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, praised the rise of a new conservative reform movement, including Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) idea of “replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.” This addresses the same problem that liberals want to address by substantially raising the minimum wage.

Raising the minimum wage would drive up the prices at China’s biggest trading partner, Wal-Mart, and might raise the price of a Big Mac as much as two cents. The canard that the minimum wage kills jobs, besides being debunked by rafts of research, rests on the idea that Mickey D is currently employing more people than he really needs because, I presume, Mickey is so pro-social, but he will have to let those excess employees go if their wages rise. If we raise the minimum wage, the profitable corporations that employ most minimum wage workers will have to pay a living wage or…or what?

Well, the “Or what?” is what we have right now. Persons who work full time qualify for food stamps at taxpayer expense. Their children qualify for free school lunches at taxpayer expense, but only in those jurisdictions where there is no such thing as a free lunch. In other jurisdictions, the Lunch Fairy absorbs this cost. Minimum wage workers also qualify for taxpayer funded health insurance subsidies under Obamacare.

Well, that goes to prove Obamacare is bad, right?

Not exactly, because if they don’t get health insurance under Obamacare they can’t afford preventive care. When they get sick enough to visit the emergency room, they get enough treatment to stabilize their condition at taxpayer expense and then are chucked back out until they get sick again. Except in those jurisdictions served by the Health Care Fairy.

Who is the welfare skate, Mr. Peabody or the members of the United Mine Workers? Who is the welfare skate, the corporation we call Wally World that has a GDP greater than Belgium or Wally’s greeters? Who is the welfare skate, Mickey D or the guy who stands over a hot grill for 8 hours a day?

Nobody loves a welfare skate, and that lack of love is of great political advantage to Indian fighters, who claim we are all welfare skates.

How that lack of love plays out in politics makes you a liberal or a conservative. Nobody loves the person bleeding the public till, so the important question is whether the tax and spend system is being gamed more effectively by those who already have wealth and power or those who have neither?

That’s the question everywhere, of course, but Fairyland.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.