Monday, June 25, 2012

Facebook Recycle: Right Wing Boogeyman of the Weekend

If I'm going to write blog-post-length Facebook comments, I might as well also post them on my blog, right?

I have a friend — not just a Facebook "friend," but an actual dear friend from days past —who can be reliably counted upon to occasionally post (or link to in comments on my posts) the latest right-wing "news" about the outrages committed by our third-world dictatorpresident. Today, it was a link to this website about the OBAMAPHONE, which my friend was upset about because...
  1. It's (presumably evil, socialist) redistribution of tax dollars! Also...
  2. Obama's falsely claiming credit for it.
Wondering how it makes sense to be mad at someone for appropriating credit for what you think is a bad idea? Yeah, me too. But this is not my friend's first rodeo: Anticipating skepticism (maybe mine in particular), she preemptively declared, "yes, I checked with Snopes - it's true!"

Well, I checked with Snopes, too, and read the site she linked to, and read the real government site about this program, and here, slighlty "revised and extended" (as they say in Congress), is my response:

First, I'm almost certain that site you link to isn't an official government site: It would have a .gov domain if it were, and it surely would be better designed and edited (i.e., the .gov sites don't usually have so many typos). Your criticisms of terminology ("Obama Phone") and specific claims are moot if, as I suspect, they're not actually the president's terms or claims.

Second, even that site doesn't say what you say it says: I doesn't attempt to give Obama credit for the program, clearly (and correctly) saying that "The Lifeline program was actually created decades ago [during the Reagan administration, in fact] to help low income families have access to land lines," and that the program has been expanded over time to include cell phones (more about that in a sec).

Third, it's not clear whether you actually object to "tax dollars" being used this way or only to the claim that the program is not paid for by taxpayers. Well, it's not: The Universal Service Fund is funded by fees paid by telecommunications companies. You might call that a tax on the companies (though Republicans are happy to distinguish fees from taxes when it suits their purposes; in fact, replacing taxes with user fees used to be a reliable Republican strategy, back in the day), but in any case it's not a tax on individuals. In practice, most of these companies pass the USF through to their customers, but that's their choice, not federal law. Ultimately, of course, everything any company spends comes from its customers, one way or another... but the key word is customers: everyone who purchases telecom services from a U.S. provider will end up paying a portion of this fee, whether they're U.S. taxpayers or not.
Taxpayers who are not phone company customers do not contribute to the fund; phone company customers who are not U.S. taxpayers (e.g., foreign nationals who do business with U.S. phone companies) do contribute.

Finally, did you actually read the Snopes article? It doesn't say this is true: It characterizes it as a "mixture of true and false information." The true part is that the program exists (and has, in its earliest form, since the Reagan years, as I said); the false part is that it's an Obama program. Even the free cell phone¹ part, SafeLink Wireless by TracFone, launched in August 2008... which is to say, months before Obama was even elected, let alone took office.

In summary, this is a perfectly reasonable social support program that's been going on, in one form or another, for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Tell me again what you're so outraged about?
The comment thread that followed this included one of my friend's friends implicitly suggesting that giving poor people a cheap-ass phone and a handful of free minutes will somehow disincent them from looking for work (as if it's even possible for someone without a phone to look for work!), and another saying that Universal Service is a "socialist program."

After the smoke clears from the misinformation, strawmanning, and manufactured outrage, the question remains: Given that a phone number is essential to any effort at self-help, and that a phone can be literally lifesaving, do these people really think subsidized phones for the poor are a bad idea? I'm afraid they probably do. Strange as it seems, many conservatives I talk to seem to think the fact that someone is poor constitutes evidence that they deserve to be poor: If they just tried harder, of course, they wouldn't be poor, and why should we smart, hardworking people pay to help those who won't even try?

I can't adequately say how sad it makes me that some folks feel this way, and are so ready to write their fellows off as undeserving. I direct their attention to the "certain unalienable Rights" with which our forebears declared all are endowed; I search in vain for any level-of-effort test on that endowment. Never mind that most of the poor are poor for reasons beyond their own control; in no case are they undeserving, merely owing to their poverty, of our care and support.

¹ Actually, not all participating providers give free phones; some just give discounts

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