The Bum Economy
I’ve never actually taken any acting lessons, but like most of us I become a fairly passable performer when I run across someone socially that I’d rather not talk to, but lack sufficient reason to snub. There’s that smile that resembles muscle tension more than joy, a half-mast wave of the hand, the eyes that go glassy as if hypnotized, and the forced small talk that comes out like clumps of sour milk.
“Hey, how’s it going? How’s that job? Still doing it?”
In this case, though, the question was already a bit of a faux pas because the fellow I’d encountered, who we can just call Skinny Walt since his name isn’t Walter and he’s not particularly skinny, hasn’t worked a job in years. We were both in the Value Village thrift store looking for used items that weren’t exceedingly infused with sadness and collided with one another in the record section. Skinny Walt has always been polite to me, but I know him through a former friend I now despise for the only legitimate reason to despise anyone: over a girl. To be fair, though, the girl was once my wife. Skinny Walt had nothing to do with that and is, in general, not the sort of soul who could comprehend hating someone for that reason because, “chicks come and go, man.” I believe I’ve heard him say that anyway.
“So, you looking for some tunes?” Skinny Walt asked, recovering moderately well from my faux pas.
“Uh, yes. I’m getting some 60s Italian pop music for a restaurant where I work,” I responded, wincing inwardly at the last word in the sentence.
“Cool, man. I’m just looking for some metal. Problem is metalheads don’t ever throw out their records.”
“I’ve never noticed that,” I said, truthfully, not adding that this is true of most geek subcultures.
“Yeah, let me know if you find any metal.”
“Will do, Skinny Walt. Say hello to… someone…”
It’s not that I dislike Skinny Walt as much as fail to truly like him. The truth is I’ve spent quite a bit of time at his shared house, where Walt was usually puttering around, fixing up the place. Or else, I’d see him at my band’s shows, disappearing for ten or fifteen minutes in the bathroom with various acquaintances who also sniff cocaine. I’ve mentioned my antipathy for weasel powder before, but what really bothers me about Skinny Walt, I know well, is that he rubs up against the vestigial remnants of my family’s principles. He’s a type one sees often in the city in which I live: a welfare farmer. The males of my family, who were traditionally asked to support the females of my family, always had issues with welfare farmers, which I seem to have retained.
We can take into account that Skinny Walt might have some affliction that doesn’t manifest itself visibly, lycanthropy for instance, and still point out that he is relatively able-bodied and seems to be of sound mind for a musician. And yet, he’s staked his claim on unemployment checks, due to some ailment or another, and settled into something like retirement in his mid 40s. I’d say maybe a quarter of the people I know are collecting and one learns not to make the faux pas of asking just what their affliction is. There’s an entire subsection of the local economy made up of people who collect checks for one thing or another, or just employment insurance, while working under the table, maintaining various habits, and living in ramshackle apartments whose landlords rent deliberately to people on assistance who can be relied upon to deliver regular checks and not push for repairs.
This is but a minor peu de chose irritation to me. My grandfather’s politics, on the other hand, were rooted in what we could call a “bum economy”. Society was essentially composed, for him, of Bums and Good People and the trick was to keep the Bums from taking too much from the Good People. This ratio defined the relative strength or weakness of any society since social institutions, laws, governments, and cultural norms either operated to give money to the Bums or to protect the Good People. In Ronald Reagan, he understandably found a Saint where many liberals saw a psychopath. The same was generally true of my father’s politics. This wasn’t a matter of “dog whistles” either because they were both well aware that the people on assistance, especially where I grew up, were predominantly white.
I relate to this ethos in a complex way. On the one hand, I recognize its prolongation in my ethical DNA- I can’t say just why it bothers me when friends and acquaintances describe the work they’ve done to scam the system, but it does. I don’t respect the welfare system, nor do I respect the workfare system. Given that I currently work 60 hours a week at a job that insults my intelligence, body, and humanity at nearly every moment, in exchange for spaghetti, while holding a PhD, it’s hard not to think that the welfare farmers are quite a bit smarter than I am. As for the bum economic argument, I’ve never quite understood why I should be more aggrieved that someone like Skinny Walt takes a sliver of the wealth I generate while my boss takes the bulk and quite often commits the sorts of labor violations that are fairly standard in the restaurant business. Hell, Skinny Walt should be a folk hero of mine, but he still irritates me.
And yet, here’s the cold truth: I accept my boss’s cut as the price of having steady employment with my weird skills and quirky personality in an economy as lousy as we’ve got in this area. Also, the truth is I don’t really care that my hard earned dollars go to support welfare cheats. I just wish more people would be honest about this. It’s not that I think everyone on welfare is a sponge or an angel. I simply accept that welfare and welfare fraud is the price society pays to maintain such pitifully limited opportunities and to keep certain people from throwing garbage cans through plate glass windows. Welfare is policing by other means. The people who should really hate welfare are the Communists.