Symposium: Frozen Texas and the Welfare Question

On Feb. 13, a massive winter storm brewed in the Pacific Northwest. Two days later, it had crashed down across the Midwest and Southeast and left millions of Texans without power, freezing in their poorly insulated homes. The very next day, amid Republicans’ attempt to blame green energy rather than their own deregulation of the Texas energy market, one particular mayor went a bit farther than expected.

Former Colorado City, Texas Mayor Tim Boyd posted the rant above to Facebook on Feb. 16. The backlash was so intense that he deleted it soon after, apologized and announced his resignation.

The idea that the government doesn’t owe its citizens anything in a time of crisis is absurd. Helping society through crisis, whether that be war, famine or natural disaster, has been a part of governments’ responsibilities ever since humans formed settled societies and is arguably a fundamental reason why governments exist in the first place. Society cannot be kept in order if the citizens are left to fend for themselves when things get tough. For those reasons, most conservatives don’t agree with Boyd. They generally do support disaster relief for the Texan deep freeze and the damage it has caused. It would be difficult not to, with hospitals overwhelmed and Texans facing water insecurity. However, it is unlikely, going by their past actions, that Republicans will support the long-term and sweeping relief that Texans will actually need.

We’ve seen this pattern before. Two years after Hurricane Harvey devastated many of the same areas in Texas that weathered the February cold snap, six Texas Republicans opposed further relief. More recently, conservative outlets have argued against sending further $2,000 checks in Covid relief, even though the pandemic has gotten exponentially worse since the initial relief bill, which had bipartisan support. While Republicans are perfectly willing to address an imminent crisis, they seem unwilling to commit resources long-term.

So, where do the arguments against long-term aid come from? Representative Chip Roy, one of the Republicans who opposed the Harvey relief bill said, “he was ‘troubled’ that Congress would spend so much on disaster relief ‘when we are racking up approximately $100 million an hour in national debt. At some point — before it is too late — Congress must get serious about restraining out-of-control spending.’”

This raises the central issue of conservative small-government politics. They will pontificate on the horrors of disasters like the Texas freeze or Hurricane Harvey, but when questioned on why they oppose long-term aid, or when confronted with less visceral problems like economic inequality or homelessness, most conservatives default to reasonable-sounding rhetoric that was established during the Reagan years, although instead of “trickle-down economics” they tend to use phrases like “personal responsibility” or “out-of-control spending.” Such arguments, presented with slick graphics on websites like PragerU or the Heritage Foundation, push essentially the same point as Boyd does, but in a much subtler, and thus more dangerous way.

PragerU is an excellent example of these dangerous arguments. The channel, which bills itself as a university and was originally funded by fracking billionaires, presents short videos on a variety of topics from a very conservative angle. The video “Fix Yourself,” featuring self-help author Jordan B. Peterson, preaches a doctrine of personal responsibility as an alternative to progressive politics, because “you can’t change other people, but you can change yourself.” It’s an obviously false statement — if you think about your own experience, you can probably come away with at least one instance where your opinions or life circumstances were changed by someone else’s influence. In fact, if Peterson really did believe in the rhetoric he espouses, he wouldn’t be espousing it, because he’d be trying to better himself. But the tone and presentation of the argument is what really matters. Peterson speaks calmly and authoritatively, and a cursory examination of his argument doesn’t necessarily reveal any glaring flaws. This is the kind of argument that can convince a lot of people, despite its illogical nature.

Although the modern right gave it a fresh coat of paint, personal responsibility is far from a new idea. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a welfare reform bill that instituted work requirements for recipients and introduced a lifetime cap on the number of years one could receive aid. The stated goal was to prevent people from “leeching off the system,” a concern raised again during the Trump presidency that had been built for years off the back of tropes like the “welfare queen.” The Act did achieve its goal: Welfare cases dropped by 56 percent in the following decade, but the poverty rate barely moved at all. This is the end result of the proliferation of the personal responsibility argument.

Applying this idea to the Texas relief question illuminates both Representative Roy’s anti-Harvey aid argument and the “get off your ass and take care of your own family” argument put forth by Boyd. The natural end result of “fix yourself” is that “the government doesn’t owe you anything,” and if people should be working to better themselves no matter the circumstances, obviously the government shouldn’t run a deficit to take care of anyone. These positions are natural extensions of the old, and fallacious, conservative arguments. It’s just that, uttered in the wrong language and too close to the precipitating moment of disaster, they go too far for most people. That’s why the first Covid relief bill had bipartisan support, but later ones were so difficult to pass. The further we got from the beginning of the pandemic, the easier it was to justify the argument that people should have been able to adapt to the situation and take care of themselves, so we should stop offering unemployment, get rid of the moratorium on evictions, and reopen the country.

The other reasonable-sounding arguments against welfare or disaster relief are even harder to deal with, since they rely on the misinterpretation and false presentation of real data. Take the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, for example. In their article “How to Fight the War on Poverty,” they confidently claim, “the main problem is that our welfare system discourages work and it penalizes marriage.” They claim to be not against a social safety net but rather for reforming our current one, quoting statistics with no sourcing or proper context to show just how bad things have gotten.

The absence of sources does make “How to Fight the War on Poverty” easy to attack, however other Heritage Foundation articles do cite their sources. One of the pieces suggested as further reading from “How to Fight the War on Poverty” is “Homelessness in America: An Overview,” categorized as a “report.” This article argues against the progressive policy of giving homes to the homeless and providing government support for the problems associated with homelessness with the same authority as “How to Fight the War on Poverty,” but that authority is bolstered by over 20 citations, and digging into citations takes time.

To walk through just one of them, the author claims, “Although no one has overdosed within [Vancouver’s safe injection sites], the surrounding neighborhood has seen more overdose deaths than ever,” and cites as evidence an article from City Journal, a conservative magazine. I could just stop there and say “cite peer-reviewed studies,” but I cite newspapers all the time in this column, so I went and dug through that article. The City Journal article does cite a few peer-reviewed studies, actual Vancouver health data, and another newspaper article, but looking through these sources reveals the truth that both the City Journal article and the Heritage Foundation “report” attempt to hide. Overdoses and overdose deaths have indeed increased, but that increase is strongly correlated with the arrival of Fentanyl, an opiate 100 times as strong as Heroin, in Vancouver, and a later spike correlates with the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the data points to overdose deaths holding steady before the introduction of Fentanyl, and then nearly down to pre-Fentanyl levels before Covid-19. The City Journal extrapolation hides all of this nuance in the data, reducing it to the argument that overdose deaths in British Columbia, especially Vancouver, are higher today than they were when safe injection sites were introduced, so therefore safe injection sites must not be helping, and we should get rid of them. Then the Heritage Foundation takes that point and further obfuscates it, pretending all of the data points to “progressive Vancouver” having an increase in overdose deaths rather than all of British Columbia, extending the timeframe back to a date with absolutely no data attached and adding the unsourced claim that the injection sites have increased criminality in the surrounding areas, because that supports the narrative that “harm reduction” doesn’t work.

All of this misinformation took me 45 minutes to confirm. All that time and all those words, just to debunk one footnote. And at the end of it all, the claim still stands: short, quippy and wrong. And the article seems structured to make it as cumbersome as possible to check their claims. You have to mouse over the footnotes, whose links to sources are not hyperlinked, and the actual body of the article needs to be manually expanded to read, with the expansion control half-hidden underneath the “key takeaways.” Most people who happen upon the article probably won’t read past those takeaways, and only those actively trying to refute it would bother to look up the sources and determine what misrepresentation may be taking place.

The answer from this is clear. The Heritage Foundation knows that it doesn’t have the facts on its side. It’s merely trying to appear, as well as it can, that it does. And it achieves this by hiding its misrepresentation beneath obscure footnote trails and its arguments beneath three big and bold “key takeaways:” progressive policies surrounding homelessness are a failure, that homelessness is a human problem, and that we need stronger enforcement to get people off the streets.*

Just like the moral arguments of personal responsibility, these empirical arguments, made primarily through the misrepresentation of data, generalize easily to the arguments against relief for Texas. The national debt is enormous already and the plans we fund with it don’t even work. Government handouts only make people dependent on them and worsen outcomes. These are “fact-based” arguments that go along with the moral arguments made by Representative Roy and Former Mayor Boyd. We’ve heard them before, and we’ll hear them again. They’ll continue to be unfounded, and they’ll continue to convince people, unless we do the work of providing arguments and ideas of our own, of providing easy to understand and easy to check arguments in favor of progressive positions. The only defense against a well-presented bad idea is an even better presented good idea.

However, the eagle-eyed reader, the reader who follows through to the articles and reports I have listed, will notice that I have left out one crucial piece of the puzzle. It turns out that these arguments also have racial motivations.

Stay tuned for next week, when we dive into the racial animus underlying the small-government message.

*The Heritage Foundation report also touts the line that we need comprehensive addiction treatment programs that include housing and work therapy, and while that is a well-substantiated claim, it’s also a progressive claim. In reality, the conservative action is to slash funding for those kinds of things. Such a program also contradicts the argument that we shouldn’t just give housing to the homeless.