During the 2012 election, Barack Obama released an online ad called “The Life of Julia.”
It was a cartoon slideshow in which we follow the character Julia from childhood to old age. She attends Head Start, benefits from a good public school thanks to Race to the Top, enjoys low interest on her student loans, gets free prenatal care when she decides to have a child, starts a business with an SBA loan, and eventually benefits from Medicare and Social Security. Not exactly radical. There’s some “free birth control” in there somewhere, except that it’s paid for by her own health insurance, so it’s not really free (just fair).
Conservatives complained about “The Life of Julia” because the ad showed a world in which women depended on the government instead of on their husbands! (“The most shocking bit of the Obama story is that Julia apparently never marries.” -The Wall St. Journal). Of course, such conservatives don’t care that some women are lesbians, not everyone gets married, some husbands are abusive, and that, while it’s lovely to be in a marriage in which you can depend on each other during various phases of life, even many heterosexual married women are a little rankled by the idea of depending on a man over one’s entire life span. An article on the conservative Mercator.net referred to “The Life of Julia” as “an ad which showed how a woman could depend on an Obama-style government to provide for her needs throughout her entire life.”
I think what Mercator.net hasn’t caught on to is that millions of young, unmarried women who voted for Obama don’t want to “depend on” government any more than we want to “depend on” a man for life. We want to contribute to government. We want to participate in democracy, with both ideas and cash. We want the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and other legal protections so we can make a shit-ton of money, much of which we will pay in taxes to a government that will indeed be there for us if we get hit by a truck, but which will also allow us to not feel like douchebags for being successful in a world in which kids don’t get a decent and fair education and millions of working people live below the poverty line and without health insurance.
(May I suggest that “lack of feeling like a douchebag when you spend summers in the Hamptons and your maid doesn’t have healthcare” is a serious moral failing?)
I’m a hardworking, highly entrepreneurial woman, and I would like more socialism, please, so I can go about creating jobs. (I’ll explain, stick with me.)
By the way, I don’t really think I’m a socialist. What I actually want is circa 1956-1969 U.S. tax rates. But since some substantial percentage of Americans think that Obama is a socialist, let’s go with it. By the Tea Party definition, I’m a socialist. But by the Tea Party definition, so is Warren Buffett. In fact, so is Bill Gates. If two of the most successful capitalists of all time are socialists (as much sense as that even makes), count me in.
The tale of a small business
My best friend Molly Crabapple is an artist and entrepreneur with whom I recently spent a scotch-filled two hours discussing our country’s lack of social services. We both make six figures, we pay our taxes, and we’re building businesses.
I knew Molly back when she was an art student, and then an art-school dropout who founded Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, a burlesque-themed drawing group that now has branches in over 100 cities around the world. Since then, every time I talk to her, she’s getting flown to Brazil or London or Berlin to speak or paint something. Her 2012 Kickstarter raised $65,000 for an art project about the financial meltdown; some backers paid thousands for paintings that Molly hadn’t even painted yet (that’s full faith and credit!) — this Fast Company article sums it up well. Molly sometimes gets hate mail from artists who complain that Molly makes and charges too much money for her art.
To run her various businesses, Molly has an assistant, Melissa Dowell, who she raves about every time we get together to drink scotch. Molly recently hired Melissa full-time. Molly is a job creator! A very gentlewomanly position to be in.
But do you know what one serious barrier is to hiring a full-time employee in the U.S.? It’s that — unlike, say, the UK — we don’t have a national health care system. So, if you want to hire someone, you have to do (what the developed world now views as) the government’s job for them.
Sure, plenty of jobs in this country don’t provide benefits. You could just pay someone $40,000 a year and, when they get sick, well … fuck ‘em. Because they should have saved up enough of their $40,000 a year salary to pay retail for health care? Our friends in Europe, Australia, and Canada often cannot understand what health care costs here. A broken leg — if it’s a simple fracture and you go home that night — might set you back $3,000-$5,000. Here is an answer to a Yahoo question from someone who possibly was googling “broken leg costs” while sitting at home with a broken leg:
Obviously it depends on how bad the break is and whether or not a hospital stay/surgery is required. When I broke my leg. I broke it in 5 places I had to have two surgeries and 2 months of Physical therapy. And I had insurance. But just to give you an Idea. My insurance company paid out over $50,000.
For all the talk about emergency rooms picking up the slack, well, yes, if you show up to an emergency room with a bloody head wound, they’ll probably fix you up and send you a bill, which you may never pay (although, increasingly, debt collectors are stationing themselves in emergency rooms, trying to get credit card numbers from people who are literally bleeding, in labor, or have broken limbs). But if you show up to an emergency room with a lump or a mild but persistent trouble catching your breath, and you fear you may have cancer‚ well, that’s hardly an “emergency.” You will probably leave with a referral to a specialist, with whom you may not be able to make an appointment at all due to your lack of insurance. People are absolutely denied chemotherapy in this country, and if they do get it, they often do not get the case management and coordinated care that they need to maximize their chances of survival. (Please see this post by Dr. Jen Gunter. Please.)
So, sure, a business owner could offer her assistant a job without benefits. If you own a fast-food franchise and have a rotating cast of teenagers working there, you could tell yourself that this is just how it’s done. But could you bring yourself do this with someone you work closely with and consider a friend? Could you really work every day with someone who knows you’re sort of the reason she is much more likely to die if she gets cancer? (Also, not to put too fine a point on things, if your incredibly competent assistant who basically runs your business for you gets sick, your business is likely to fail.)
What we need for more “job creation”
Since Molly’s company recently went through the process of hiring its first full-time employee, I asked Molly if she’d like to be quoted here; she said that actually, Melissa was the one who did all the research. So, I asked Melissa a few questions.
Bullish: So, can you first tell us a little about what you do in your job, and why this move from a more freelance or part-time style of work (?) to a “real” full-time job came about? Was this health insurance related?
Melissa: Working for Molly, I do two main jobs – firstly, I help manage Molly’s business. This can range from basic administrative work (invoicing people, ordering supplies, etc) to higher management (coordinating with our freelancers, working on our bookkeeping and budgets with the accountant for taxes, etc) to art assisting on job sites for murals and other big projects.
Secondly, I oversee Dr. Sketchy’s. This involves both running the NYC events (hiring models, coordinating with staff, working with the venues and promoting the events) as well as management of all the branches worldwide (interviewing branch applicants and helping them get started, maintaining the drsketchy.com website and sometimes coding in new uses for it, handling sponsorships, chasing down branches to see that they’re still running sessions/paying dues/talk with them if things are going wrong and dealing with PR).
This is sorted into two companies, but for making it easy on our system, I’m an employee of Molly Crabapple INC.
I started as a superbly part time assistant (10 hrs/month) to doing this nearly full time over the past 3 years. We don’t have a set 8 hour block in the office where I’m expected to work solely on Molly/Dr. Sketchy’s things; instead I work from home most of the time and venture out to Molly’s studio or the Dr. Sketchy’s venue a couple times a month. I can answer emails in the morning, paint in the afternoon, then get back to work in the late nights. I used to keep track of hours but over a year ago we moved me to a monthly rate with regular increases.
I’ve always liked this method, since it let me do my other interests — my own art, screenprint production work and whatever freelance thing piques my interest, while giving me a steady paycheck. So long as I don’t blow important deadlines, of course.
Turning this into an official employment was entirely due to health insurance.
I have been obscenely lucky and privileged over the past few years. Since college, I’ve had health insurance through my family. I was to be covered by my parents’ insurance until I was 25, but in that year, NY state passed a law that extended my ability to be covered by my parents’ insurance (because they work in NY too) until I turned 29. However, my mother retired early this year (I would have had until May 2013 otherwise) and I needed to find my own insurance finally.
Looking into my options as an individual, I made too much money as a freelancer for low income insurance plans, but could not afford a Freelancers Union plan. However, peeking at small business HMOs, they were way more possible. This is when Molly brought up making me an official employee and setting up a group plan to cover me.
If insurance wasn’t an issue, I’d continue working as a freelancer and wouldn’t change a thing.
Bullish: How hard is it to officially hire someone full-time with benefits? Molly told me that you’re the one who waded through all the paperwork to figure it out.
Melissa: We started by contacting our accountant, who put us in touch with a rep at a company to set up payroll. We started our account with them over email and had me as the first employee. I’m easy. I’m a felony-free US citizen with nothing in the way of my employment. There were a number of forms to fill out and letters sent back and forth from them and NY State and even multiple representatives in the company. That kind of bureaucracy made things a little difficult and we’re still finding letters that complain they’re missing a copy of a letter that we weren’t asked for earlier or have emails show up days later with new requests. It’s not as easy as just sending out a 1099 at the end of the year to a contractor and letting them deal with the accounting, but it’s not something overly challenging.
Having an outside company set everything up for us (while an additional expense) was also way easier than trying to sort this on our own. I looked at some sites on doing the filings and record keeping by oneself and THAT was confusing.
Bullish: So, on the one hand, it kind of looks like the need for health insurance pushed the company to make things a little more official‚ maybe that’s a step towards growth. Or, on balance, is the system of employer-funded health insurance holding the company back?
Melissa: I do know that while we’ve tried to pull more people into working with the company, many have been reluctant due to the fact that they would be freelancing instead of working towards a benefits package. On top of already having a limited pool of people who can telecommute successfully, those who are looking for stable, long-term work require their health needs taken care of. So we can throw money at them, but unless it can cover their individual insurance policy and bills and rent, they generally won’t stick around for the long run. The few part time people we’ve had either quit to join a company with benefits or were so caught up in working multiple gigs that we could not give them enough projects to build up good hours and experience because they were unreliable. In the US, health insurance is just necessary for having responsible long-term employees.
Now that I’m an employee, we’re having small fee after fee attached to all this. Once we finish off the year and finalize everything we’ll have a better idea of how much of an expense it actually was just to do all that, as well as what deductibles we receive and how much money we get back.
Additionally, as a small business of essentially 1 or 2 employees — me the employee, Molly the owner — we qualify for a number of small business plan health insurance policies thanks to HealthyNY. As we grow, if I exceed a certain salary, I will no longer qualify for this same low rate. The policies then begin to get into much higher costs for the employer. We’re starting to see how this begins to affect small business owners and their decisions to offer health insurance or continue along with hiring contractors and having them sort it out on their own without the company taking on all these additional administrative fees.
Right now I’m enjoying the benefit of being an employee — I’m going to get an insurance policy that is half paid for by the company and the company is paying taxes on me so I don’t have to pay double duty (or worry about saving for my own quarterlies) due to being freelancer. It was certainly a lot easier and cheaper for us with me as a contractor. Tallying up the cost per employee will definitely affect how we’re going to structure jobs and expand in the future. Budget management is my job, so I’ve been critical about additional expenses even when it comes to my own benefits. It feels like with this current method, small businesses in general are a balance between employee and corporate costs and who should take on the responsibility of what. The insurance issue really throws this off for both a company’s ability to hire and give good wages and a worker’s ability to take the job they want and are skilled for.
Bullish: Thanks, Melissa.
On the topic of the “s” word:
My fiance says on his Facebook profile that he is a socialist. My mom came to New York for a visit and politely asked him about this. I think she said, “I don’t know anyone who calls themself a socialist.” My fiance said some reasonable thing‚ we live in a rich enough country that we can cover people’s basic needs just as Canada, Australia, and the U.K. do, and that still leaves plenty of wiggle room for the lazy to sink and the industrious to be rewarded. I said I’d be happy to pay more in taxes if I could be assured that those taxes went to ensuring social justice.
I pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in taxes (at a substantially higher percentage than the 1% typically pays, since virtually all of my income comes from work). I would be happy to pay more if everyone else at my income level and above also paid more, and if I could live in a world where smart, poor kids in the Bronx who say they want to become pediatricians (a popular career aspiration, but rarely achieved) actually have a pretty good shot.
You know how I feel about paying the amount I do in taxes? Like a big baller. Like someone who is benefitting from the work of early feminists who were, among other abuses, actually arrested for trying to vote, and who is benefitting from the work of sixties feminists who made it legally possible for me to get credit in my own name and open a bank account without my father or husband, rights that are pretty important to running a business and making enough money to contribute tens of thousands of dollars a year in taxes.
I’m ridiculously offended by conservatives who think that, because I voted for (and donated to) Obama, I want to spend my life “depending on government.” If I become seriously disabled, I would indeed like to depend on the government. But no one wants that for herself. Does anyone really think I voted for Obama so I can live the high life when I lose my legs to diabetes?
What I would like is to contribute to the government, and to know that the government is doing a good job with my money.
The limits of private charity
Some conservatives like to say that taking care of the needs of the disadvantaged is the job of private charity.
Private charities are sometimes good at filling in the gaps, but sometimes are headed by misguided ideologues, religious people foisting their views on the needy, and well-meaning organizations simply too small to have a big picture.
Remember Mitt Romney commenting that cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy was like everybody pitching in to clean up after a football game? Why, no. Why no, it is not like that at all. Bursts of private charity cannot take the place of an EPA that comes back regularly for ten years, making sure that the oddly-colored, smelly water that rose up in certain places didn’t poison wells, or cause birth defects or lingering, mysterious illnesses. During Hurricane Katrina, many charities sent trucks full of old clothes that no one wanted; these clothes were left to mildew in wet parking lots. The FBI reports that during Katrina, four thousand fake donation websites popped up for the purpose of stealing identities and credit card details.
The efforts of private charity are also skewed towards helping the adorable (pandas and children), towards immediate needs that are visually apparent (earthquake cleanup, hot meals for disaster victims), and towards uncomplicated situations that make people feel good. Private charities do not like to pay for hospital bedpans, or the salaries of people whose job it is to check in on mentally ill people in group homes every day, or long-term studies about the effectiveness of different kinds of care, or providing long-term care for low-income women’s endometriosis (as opposed to, say, cleft palate surgery, where you can see the results, and children are made even more adorable!)
An obsession with private charity over government also sometimes comes from a religious viewpoint that believes that private charity is more noble; it helps the giver demonstrate his goodness. This type of “help” is about the giver, less about the receiver, and not at all about administering justice. (If it were about administering justice, the giver wouldn’t feel ennobled, he’d just feel normal, the way you feel when you don’t litter.) This religious viewpoint — which I think many people don’t even realize is religious — is not a compelling justification for a system of government.
Furthermore, when we’re talking about people’s rights, it makes people feel like shit to be receiving those rights from a charity to whom they’re now supposed to be beholden. It makes them feel less invested in their nation. It stunts what could have been a spirit of real citizenship when half your nation’s best and brightest grow up knowing that they got screwed compared to kids who weren’t any smarter or better, just richer. (Republicans are still arguing that poor kids should work as janitors to pay for school lunches!)
I went to good public schools (luck!) and took the government’s Pell Grants. I used the military’s health care. I attended a public school program for the gifted (sheer luck again). And of course I drove on the roads, drank the clean water, etc. It was all a good investment. I’m pretty sure I’m earning my keep. We should be doing more of that. On that score, please read I Was Raised By Welfare: A Defense of Social Safety Programs, in which author Bertha Alvarez Manninen writes:
Despite Newt Gingrich’s claim that poor children have no positive work habits because they lack a role model, I learned my work habits from my welfare-dependent mother, and these habits have stayed with me throughout my education and career.
Oh: she also did her homework using the toilet seat as a desk. Liberals have a problem with work ethic? Fuck that. Every class of people has its bad apples, but for every supposed “welfare queen,” I can show you a rich person hiding funds offshore, polluting our environment, exploiting their domestic workers, and otherwise making the world far worse than anyone on benefits could possibly manage.
Higher taxes don’t make anyone “go Galt”
Here’s the thing that explains where Ayn Rand was coming from: after the 1917 revolutions, the Bolsheviks confiscated her father’s pharmacy. The father, Zinovy Zakharovich Rosenbaum, then tried to start another business. The Bolsheviks took that, too. Rosenbaum declared himself “on strike.” He went Galt!
Moving towards a Scandinavian-style (Canadian-style, etc.) system of using higher taxes to promote equality of opportunity and keep people off the streets is totally not the same thing as the Bolsheviks taking your pharmacy.
There is no job creator who says, “My taxes went up 10%. Let’s just stop trying.” Quoth Warren Buffett in the New York Times:
In the years from 1956 to 1969, the top marginal rate fell modestly, but was still a lofty 70 percent ‚Äî and the tax rate on capital gains inched up to 27.5 percent. I was managing funds for investors then. Never did anyone mention taxes as a reason to forgo an investment opportunity that I offered.
If you told me that my tax rate was going up to 40% and that, consequently, I could live in a just society, my response would be to work harder, both so that the 60% of my money that I keep is larger, and also — assuming I believed in my government — to contribute more to a just society. I’ve responded to other financial hits — an uninsured car stolen from a parking garage shortly after I moved to New York (risk tax!), guys who screwed me over (sex tax!), and business deals gone sour (risk tax again!) — by working harder, and those hits were simple wastes of my money, without even the motivation of making a better world. (See Bullish: Every Weird Thing You Do Will Help You.)
Higher taxes do indeed cause some wealthy people to move to Singapore. We should make sure those people settle their tax bills before they go.
Big government, done right, lets more kinds of people focus on enterprise
So, yes, I’d like a bigger government. One that runs its programs well, with public buy-in. In the U.S., a lot of our public services kind of suck, because they are understood as being only for the poor. In Europe, public services are actually for the public. As in everyone. I’m pretty sure we could do a better job with our health care and libraries and free clinics if they were understood as belonging to us all, not as some cheap handout to people on the margins. And certainly, many localities and states do a very fine job with these things. I would trust Massachusetts with my life. But it should not be the case in one of the richest countries in the world that crossing state borders is the difference between life and death, or a public school education that gives your kids a chance and one that doesn’t.
I’d like a bigger government that actually attracts our nation’s best and brightest to work for it. Perhaps the best and brightest would be more willing to do so if the government had invested in them in the first place. A newly-minted doctor who’s $200,000 in debt can be forgiven for a bit of a mercenary attitude, and for going into the Botox and injectables business instead of working her way up as a pediatric surgeon. A doctor whose talent was recognized at a young age and who was educated with our tax dollars has much more of a reason to want to contribute to a system that cares for its citizens.
Not only that, I want a big government so I can stop worrying about my employees’ health insurance and actually run my business. I’d like to pay my employees for their work, and not have to act as some kind of social welfare agency myself. Note that this is an area in which we could easily best European nations; in Sweden’s much-vaunted liberal utopia, employers pay another 50% of the amount of each employee’s salary towards benefits for that employee, making it very hard to start a business. (The U.K. does better.)
One thing people on the left and on the right can, I think, agree on is that paying for health insurance puts a serious burden on small business. The right’s response seems to be that “putting a serious burden on small business” is reason enough to let people go without health insurance. The response from some on the left is a general distaste for business as something inherently exploitative.
I think the right response is to decouple health insurance from employment entirely. Decoupling benefits from employment would create unparalleled entrepreneurial opportunity by allowing entrepreneurs to just be entrepreneurs. Take care that, and I — a lot of us, actually — will make plenty of jobs.
First published on The Gloss.