The Individual, Common and General Welfare

August 29, 2021

by Stephen Stofka

In the short version of Monopoly, the property deeds are shuffled and dealt out to the players. Some think that God does the same with our talents and circumstances and that it our duty to play with what we are given. They argue that the proper role of government is to provide for the common welfare, like defense, police, schools and infrastructure. Some take a more secular view, arguing that the hands dealt are largely the result of past policies and practices, the good, bad and quite ugly. Given this history, government has a duty to correct these inequities. They argue that government should take an active role in improving individual welfare to raise the general welfare. Moderates argue that a mixture of individual and common welfare programs will best improve the general welfare but they disagree on priorities.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, federal assistance for education, welfare and housing has increased 3 times since 1960 as a percent of GDP. During that period, health care spending at the federal level has increased 9 times; at the state and local level it has increased 3 times. To help offset these increases, federal spending on defense has declined by 67%. What distinguishes all these increases in spending is that they are targeted toward individual welfare in the hopes that an improvement in individual welfare will raise the level of general welfare.

State spending on the common welfare like education and transportation have both declined 25%. After several decades of this shift in strategy, our schools, roads, water and sewer systems are in bad repair because state revenues as a percent of GDP have changed little in the past fifty years while spending on individual welfare has increased. The $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill being debated in Washington targets that neglected common infrastructure.

The spending mix of families has changed as well. In 1964, 33 cents of every family’s expenses was spent on food. Today, it is only 13 cents, a drop of 67%. Despite that decrease in food spending, 1 out of 12 families relies on food stamps, the SNAP program, to help feed their families. Why is that? In the past four decades housing costs as a percent of GDP have gone up 30% (CRS, 2021). Since housing is the largest monthly expense for most families, this sizeable increase has significantly lowered individual welfare. Government programs help alleviate that stress.

During the Depression, a shared suffering prompted a shift in the role of government from public projects, the common welfare, to individual welfare. Many New Deal programs incorporated both elements in their design. Electric generating projects like the Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were built by men who sent part of their government paychecks to their families to help with food and housing expenses. A contribution to the common welfare helped relieve individual suffering. During that era, the Roosevelt administration and Democratic Congress initiated the Social Security program, requiring working Americans to contribute to a common fund which would be used to pay benefits to contributors when they retired. Those payroll tax contributions were the price of admission to the benefits of the program.

At that time, only states, local communities and private charities administered welfare programs. These were benefits paid to families based on their need, not an admission fee of contributions to the program. In the 1960s, the Johnson administration and Democratic Congress ushered in the Great Society programs that firmly established a precedent that raising individual welfare increased the general welfare. In the late 1970s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter fought this expansive role of government but his sentiments were countered by the liberal wing of his party, particularly the powerful House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a strong believer in the government’s power to correct social problems (Cuomo, 2021).

Conservatives argue that federal programs designed to increase individual welfare exceed the boundaries set out in Article 1, Section 8. Such programs may weaken the supports provided by family, church and local community (O’Neil, 2021, 106). They do not incentivize people to change their behavior. The programs encourage people to cast their vote for those politicians who promise more benefits, making the voting process a transaction, not a civic endorsement of a voter’s values. At a fundraiser in the closing weeks of the 2012 Presidential Election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney commented that the 47% of Americans who paid no income tax were the base constituency of the Democratic Party (Moorhead, 2012). His implication that half of Americans were moochers was a blow to his campaign.

Liberals argue that the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution implies a government duty to improve individual welfare. They counter that many people in poor communities do not have informal support networks to lean on. Many people did not choose their circumstances and their decisions, whether prudent or ill-advised, are not based on gaining access to a government program. Farmers, business owners and executives also vote for government programs like subsidies, lower taxes, and less regulation. All voters are motivated in part by their self-interest.

How do individual, common and general welfares interact? What is meant by the general welfare? What does it consist of? Shortly after the Constitution was presented to the states for ratification, anti-Federalists argued that “providing for the … general welfare” imposed few constraints on the federal government’s ability to tax the people to fund that general welfare (Debates). Americans continue to argue the merits of these programs and the role of government in their lives.



Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

Congressional Research Service (CRS). (2021, May 3). Introduction to U.S. Economy: Housing market. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from

Cuomo, M. M. (2001, March 11). The Last Liberal. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from

Debates. “Centinel,” the pen name of Samuel Bryan, and “Brutus” were among several anti-Federalists who protested the insertion of the “general welfare” clause in the Constitution.  See Centinel I and Brutus V editorials.

Moorhead, M. (2012, September 18). PolitiFact – Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from

The Defiant and Compliant

August 22, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Most of the people showing up at the nation’s emergency rooms desperate for air are unvaccinated. For various and diverse reasons they decided not to get vaccinated. Some think that the vaccines were developed too fast. Others are waiting for all the facts. Some think the vaccines were not tested enough on people of color. Some don’t trust scientists or government. Others suspect a conspiracy. We have become a nation of two groups: the defiant and the compliant.

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged the nation adopts totalitarian socialist policies similar to the Communist regime of the Soviet Union. Ayn Rand was only 20 when she emigrated to the U.S. in 1925, a year after the death of Vladimir Lenin (Anthem, n.d.). Throughout her career, she adopted a libertarian stance in opposition to the totalitarian planned economy of the new Soviet Union. In Atlas Shrugged, several captains of key industries demonstrate their defiance of the new regime by refusing to comply with the state’s demands for individual sacrifice on the altar of the common good. They shrug.

At hospitals around the country, but particularly in southern states, nurses are leaving. In some hospital systems, a third of nursing positions are vacant (Jacobs, 2021). Many nurses are frustrated by the recent surge in unvaccinated patients, those defiant ones who took their chances, then arrive at emergency rooms and expect that hospitals and their staff will devote themselves to round the clock care. The defiant ones rely on the compliance of others.

In Rand’s romantic account, the pursuit of self-interest has no negative externalities. The heroes who defect have extraordinary talent. In the real world of the pandemic, it is ordinary people who no longer want or can handle the stress of caring for people who didn’t care for themselves or those around them. They are tired of coming to work and having dirt and objects thrown at them by the defiant ones. The nurses are shrugging and leaving.

The defiant ones championed individual freedom over collective responsibility but they championed their freedom, a selfish freedom of the few. The self-styled freedom fighters hoped that hospital workers would value compassion and compliance more than their personal freedom. As more hospital workers quit, the defiant ones reach out and say, “You need to stay and be compassionate. My needs are more important than your freedom or your mental health.”

A civil society depends on voluntary compliance by a large majority of the people. We may complain about the rules but we regard the government as a legitimate maker of rules. The defiant ones may respect the force of the state but do not acknowledge the legitimacy of state institutions. In their eyes, the sovereignty of the individual is paramount and the individual has no moral obligation to abide by any rule they do not approve. As the number of defiant ones grows during a pandemic, the norms and resources of a civil society break down. As southern states test those civil boundaries, there might be less dangerous places to visit.


Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Anthem – Ayn Rand Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2021, from

Jacobs, A. (2021, August 21). ‘Nursing is in Crisis’: Staff Shortages Put Patients at Risk. Retrieved August 21, 2021, from

Chains of Corruption

August 15, 2021

by Steve Stofka

This week the Taliban accelerated their months-long takeover of Afghanistan, a country where the American people have spent almost $1 trillion in the past two decades (BBC News, 2021). As the insurgents command large cities there are daily reports of atrocities committed to enforce the Taliban’s extremist interpretation of the Koran, particularly women’s dress codes and smartphones (Gibbons-Neff, Shah, & Huylebroek, 2021). People are asking why is there so little resistance to the Taliban? American taxpayers have helped bolster the Afghan military to 300,000. Couldn’t they fight a Taliban insurgency of less than 100,000? American taxpayers have spent a lot of money to build an Afghan air force, much of which is now in the hands of the Taliban. What happened?

A short answer is corruption. A slightly longer answer is that no amount of money can build strong institutions of trust and fairness among a people in less than two decades. One indication of corruption is the ease of doing business in a country. In 2018, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan 173rd out of 189 countries (FRED, 2021). As a comparison, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, two countries famous for the corruption in government at all levels, rank 140th and 131st  in ease of doing business. The U.S. is ranked 6th, a rule of trust, law and order that most Americans take for granted.

The Afghan people are bound together by the chains of bribery. People must pay bribes in addition to the normal fees to get electricity turned on, to get an ID card, or to open up a small shop (Keefe, 2015). Corruption becomes the dominant institution, creating a culture of predator and prey. There is no incentive to improve public service because the waiting list for those services supports the livelihood of public officials dependent on the bribe system. Those able and willing to pay a generous bribe to a utility worker can get their electric service turned on in a week. Less generous customers might wait six months. Those with any public authority prey on everyone else and there is competition for those positions of authority. To keep a position, a public official kicks back part of their monthly take in bribes to their supervisor and the money flows to the top of the government “food” chain (Filkins, 2009). In 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest a similar system in Tunisia in North Africa.

Reporters stationed in Afghanistan report that there may be only 60,000 soldiers actually serving in uniform. The rest are on the payroll because they know someone who knows someone. Those in uniform have little food or ammo, the money for those goods disappearing into someone’s pocket.

American taxpayers have paid for a lot of improvement as well as death in Afghanistan. GDP is five times higher in 2019 than it was in 2000. In 1980, literacy was 18%. In 2010, it was 30%. In fifty years, the fertility rate has declined by almost half and the infant mortality rate plunged to a sixth of what it was in 1962, when 1 out of 4 Afghan infants died. Life expectancy at birth has increased from 32 years in 1960 to 65 years in 2018 (FRED, 2021). Much of the progress has occurred after the U.S. invasion, a testament to the American commitment to the well-being and security of the Afghan people.

There is no magic formula for building strong institutions of trust and law among a people. The British built an extensive bureaucracy to administer India, but the interpersonal culture of India turned that formal institutional structure into the infamous “license raj” system that exists today. Despite decades of effort and political promises, that corruption hinders growth in India, which is ranked 63rd in ease of doing business. Imagine what it is like in Afghanistan with its rank of 173rd.  Instead of focusing on the money Americans have spent in Afghanistan, lets be grateful that we enjoy an environment of trust, law and order that is not perfect but better than most countries.


Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

BBC News. (2021, July 06). Afghanistan war: What has the conflict cost the US? Retrieved August 14, 2021, from

FRED – Federal Reserve. (2021). Various series on Afghanistan. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from Note: search for Afghanistan

Filkins, D. (2009, January 02). Afghan corruption: Everything for sale. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from

Gibbons-Neff, T., Shah, T., & Huylebroek, J. (2021, February 15). The Taliban close in on Afghan Cities, pushing the country to the brink. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from

Keefe, P. R. (2015, January 19). Corruption and Revolt. New Yorker. doi:

Obligate Growth

This week Goldman Sachs announced that they were raising the starting salaries for entry level analysts to $110,000 from $85,000. When I heard that on the radio, I remembered the bailout of Goldman Sachs a dozen years ago. I thought of the many hospital workers who have risked their lives during the Covid crisis. Most were not making that kind of money. Under capitalism, market transactions direct resources but do they signal a society’s values?

In Sustainable Capitalism, John Ikerd (2005, 4) calls for a balance of our self-interest with our common-interests, citing the classical economists like Adam Smith who recognized that a market system must work within the ethical bounds of society (2005, 4). There is no point to capitalism if the wealth that the system can generate does not improve the general well-being of a society. Capitalism directs resources but only for goods where two parties can agree on a value. It’s hard to find common agreement on the value of many public or common goods. The infrastructure bill being negotiated in Congress this year bears witness to that reality. What is the value of a well-lit street, improved cable systems, safer electrical generation and the many public goods that we take for granted?

Capitalism evolved to assemble and deploy investment for shipping ventures, and to diffuse the extreme risk of shipping goods across oceans. In the 18th century as many as half of all ships returning to England laden with goods from India were lost at sea. Most ventures were launched without insurance. In the 17th century, insurers often went insolvent and could not cover a great loss (Johns 1958, 126). Many did not know how to price risk. In 1720, Lloyds of London and the Royal Exchange were formed to spread the risk. During the American Revolution the British government contracted out the shipping of armaments and British troops to the colonies. In 1780, a series of sea battles between the British, Spanish and French fleets severely damaged the West Indian fleet and caused great losses to underwriters (Johns 1958, 126). Loss is a good teacher of better risk management.

The underlying principle of capitalism is constant growth. In these early centuries the destruction of capital provided a natural constraint. In the 19th century, inflation from government money printing was another natural constraint (Formaini, n.d.). The capital grew but it bought less. The growth of most populations hits the bounds of their environment. Rabbits run out of food and the population periodically crashes. In the last century following World War 2, economists thought that countries who adopted democracy and capitalism would develop into thriving markets for capital. After key losses, capital managers became reluctant to deploy investment into poor countries without infrastructure, institutions and respect for private property.

Decades later, economists and political scientists now question that growth hypothesis. According to that theory, India and some former African colonies should be thriving. They are not. Given the global constraints of growth, the competition between capitals produces a concentration of capital in fewer multi-national corporations. Countries become segregated into two groups: those whose people are still very much engaged in agriculture and those whose people are engaged in services and to a lesser degree industrialization.

Agriculture is an economic trap because it is seasonal. Farmers harvest a particular crop at the same time and their competition drives the prices down. That is good for everyone except the farmers. Weather events can affect an entire region whose economy is dependent on crop production. As more farmers give up or lose their farms, large corporations take over the land. Their size and dispersal across several regions diffuses risk just as the insurance pools brokered through Lloyds of London in the 18th century.

As capital flows become more concentrated, the pool of those who benefit becomes smaller and smaller. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” no longer spreads a general sense of well-being to the greater community. A few industries, like finance, prosper while many struggle and scrabble for the remains.

Those on Wall Street make a lot of money, but it is highly competitive and stressful. When Goldman Sachs did an internal survey of entry-level analysts at their firm, those analysts reported working an average of 95 hours a week to meet the upswell of client demand as the Covid vaccine led to a lifting of restrictions (McCaffrey 2021). Many reported physical side-effects from the long hours and stress. That $110,000 a year works out to $23 an hour. The median pay for a plumber is $28 an hour. Those entry level analysts suddenly don’t look like titans of industry. Many have student debt. They live in New York City with its high cost of living. Many probably thought that, if they could hang on for a year or two, their load would lighten and all their study and hard work would pay off. They are on capitalism’s hamster wheel. How long can the wheel keep turning?


Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters. Available from (visited July 17, 2021).

Formaini, R. L. (n.d.). David Ricardo Theory of Free International Trade (2nd ed., Vol. 9) (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas). Dallas, TX: Federal Reserve.

Ikerd, J. (2005). Sustainable Capitalism [Scholarly project]. In University of Missouri. Retrieved August 06, 2021, from

John, A. H. (1958). The London Assurance company and the marine insurance market of the eighteenth century. Economica, 25(98), 126. doi:10.2307/2551021

McCaffrey, O. (2021, August 02). Goldman Sachs Is Giving Entry-Level Bankers a Nearly 30% Raise. Retrieved August 07, 2021, from


August 1, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Following the Civil War, the Democratic Party welcomed a new breed of thug organized under the name of the Ku Klux Klan. Clad in white hoods and bed sheets, they looked like characters in a Punch and Judy show. Using fear, torture and fire they attacked black people in the South. They used intimidation and poll taxes to discourage blacks from participating in their own government. The Democratic Party hugged the thugs.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education case (Oyez, 2021) and held that segregated schools were not equal. In 1956, a Clinton, TN school was the first high school to attempt integration. The sons and grandsons of the KKK thugs can be seen throwing rocks at black girls trying to go to school (LOC, 2004).

Ten years later, former Texas Senator and now President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act to help give black people an equal opportunity to participate in politics, and the liberty to compete in the economy without prejudice. He tried to kick the thugs out of the Democratic Party and that bugged the thugs.

Dubbed the “Southern Strategy” Presidential candidate Richard Nixon welcomed them to the Republican Party. Instead of throwing rocks, Nixon proposed vouchers and other taxpayer funds that would help white parents in working class neighborhoods send their children to white only schools (Brown, 2004, 191-2). It was to be called “school choice.” In 1971, Nixon even proposed a Constitutional Amendment to reverse a Supreme Court decision to integrate schools.

“The Democrats don’t care about working people anymore,” became the refrain of voters who switched their allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party. In the 1980s President Reagan led a conservative movement that nurtured an intellectual thuggery. The actor Michael Douglas’ rallying cry of “Greed is good!” in the 1987 movie Wall Street portrayed this new-style thug. A 40-something Donald Trump, coddled from birth and protected by bodyguards and lawyers, liked the brashness. He portrayed brash.

Thirty years later Mr. Trump was brash enough to take on a phalanx of Republican Presidential candidates. He was a thug with a mug and spoke to the thugs in the party, saying any damn thing he wanted to because he was a smug thug. Thugs throw rocks at little girls. They grab women’s privates with impunity because they are not bound by the rules of decency. Mr. Trump promised his supporters a wall to keep out the Others. His supporters’ kids wouldn’t have to go to school with those Other kids. When he became President, he appointed an Education Secretary who championed school choice, and for four years he kept trying to build his Big Beautiful wall.

After he lost the election, the thug did not shrug. Rather, he remembered a line from actor Jimmy Cagney, “You dirty rat,” and complained, “Those thugs bugged the polls.” He called his supporters to the White House on January 6th  to take out the dirty rats who had stolen the election from him, including his own Vice-President, Mike Pence. The Presidency was his territory, see, and those Other guys was muscling in on his territory. Mr. Trump called on his supporters to take back the territory and they broke open the doors to Congress.  

Convinced that democracy produces populist thugs like Mr. Trump, the Founding Fathers set up a republic to insulate the institutions of law and government from public passions. After much argument and compromise, they would not let people even vote directly for their own President. Today we elect members of an Electoral College who elect the President. Two years after the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, the French people stormed the Bastille in Paris and ten years of Revolutionary fervor and terror followed. Answering critics, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison pointed to the anarchy that erupted in France as a demonstration that people could not be trusted with the power of a fully democratic state. January 6th was yet another reminder of that truth.


Photo by Martin Zaenkert on Unsplash

Brown, F. (2004). Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and forces against Brown. The Journal of Negro Education, 73(3), 191. doi:10.2307/4129605

Library of Congress (LOC). (2004, November 13). Brown v. board at Fifty: “with an Even hand” the aftermath. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from

Oyez. (2021). Brown v. Board of Education. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from