Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Austerity and the definition of depraved heart murder

(WPA workers installing a water line in Cumberland, Maryland, 1937. New Deal policymakers were interested in improving--not cutting off--water service to Americans. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

According to Cornell University Law School, depraved heart murder (called second degree murder in most jurisdictions) is "Killing someone in a way that demonstrates a callous disregard for the value of human life" (see here). It's not necessarily a premeditated or intentional killing, but a killing that results from behavior that is reckless or sociopathic. 

Now, with that in mind, consider the following policies that our political "leaders" have been imposing on lower-income Americans:

1. Withholding water from the poor - Recently, the city of Detroit started cutting off water to people who are behind on their water bills, most of whom are low-income and/or broke. Some activists have asked the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to help them. (See, "Detroit Shuts Off Water To Thousands Of Broke Residents")

2. Cutting off food assistance to those in need - In recent years, lawmakers have worked hard to reduce food assistance to low-income Americans. (See, e.g., "The Crazy Republican War on Food Stamps," "Budget Cuts Devastate Meals On Wheels: Enrollment Slashed, Services Cancelled," and "South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer Compares His State's Poor Children to 'Stray Animals'")  

3. Withholding preventative health care from the poor - Republican-managed states have disallowed the expansion of Medicaid to their low-income residents, even though the federal government would pay 100% of the cost for the first few years, and 90% thereafter. Medicaid is an important service, because it allows low-income Americans to receive quality preventative health care (as opposed to waiting until things get so bad that a trip to the emergency room is needed). According to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, it's likely that thousands will die prematurely due to Republican refusal to expand Medicaid. Of course, we don't necessarily need a study to know this. It's common sense that if you don't catch problems early--because health care services are too costly for you--you're more likely to become seriously ill and/or die. (See, e.g., "27,000 May Die Next Year Because Republican Governors, Lawmakers Refuse to Expand Medicaid")  

4. Cutting off unemployment benefits for the jobless - At a time when the "job creators" are not creating many jobs, but instead adding millions and billions to their personal fortunes (which are sometimes secreted off to foreign bank accounts to evade historically low tax rates), Republicans and Tea Partiers have focused on cutting off income assistance to the unemployed. (See, e.g., "Clueless About the Jobless: Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits makes no sense" and "Better Unemployment Benefits Reduce Suicides: Study")

5. Criminalizing homelessness & making it illegal to feed the homeless - Instead of increasing aid to those who need help after the worst recession since the Great Depression, many local governments across the United States have made it a crime to help the homeless, and have also made activities which the homeless engage in--like sitting on a sidewalk--illegal. (See, e.g., "Criminalization" and "North Carolina Charity Threatened With Arrest For Feeding Homeless People")

6. Allowing increased rates of suicide & forbidding public job programs - Despite clear evidence that financial stress and joblessness leads to increased rates of suicide (see, "Risk Factors and Warning Signs" and "Joblessness And Hopelessness: The Link Between Unemployment And Suicide") there has been little or no interest in Congress for a public jobs program for the long-term unemployed. Indeed, Senate Republicans even blocked legislation that would have created a public jobs program for unemployed veterans.

 (WPA workers building a reservoir in Elkton, Maryland, 1936. New Deal policymakers improved American drinking water services on a scale not seen before or since. Today, the story is quite different. Detroit is withholding water from its broke residents and our drinking water infrastructure is deteriorating, recently receiving a letter grade of "D"  from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Journalist and author Matt Taibbi, who has covered financial wrongdoings in America for years, argues that American society has "a profound hatred of the weak and the poor." His argument rings true, especially when you hear right-wing politicians, pundits, and Internet comment-makers casting the less fortunate as undeserving "parasites."

David Stuckler, a researcher at Oxford University, and Sanjay Basu, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, contend that austerity is a killer, writing "the price of austerity can be calculated in human lives" (see "How Austerity Kills").

Interestingly, citizens of the United Kingdom recently marched against austerity. British Parliament member Caroline Lucas said, "We are here with an important message for the government...That it wasn't the poor who caused the economic crisis. It wasn't people on job seeker's allowance who brought down the banks. It wasn't people with disabilities who are wasting billions speculating on risky financial markets. And it's not immigrants who are thieving billions in bonuses. So that's why we are here to say, 'Stop punishing the poor!'"

The same phenomenon that Lucas highlights has happened in America. The homeless, the unemployed, public sector workers, unions, etc. have been scapegoated by the political right for the economic problems caused by rampant fraud & white collar crime emanating from Corporate America -- Insider trading, mortgage & securities fraud, illegal tax evasion, money laundering for drug cartels, predatory & discriminatory lending, illegal foreclosures on active duty soldiers, interest-rate rigging, accounting fraud, wage & price fixing. All this and more Corporate America has pleaded guilty to and/or paid large fines & court settlements for (and it isn't just the government that has pursued legal action, there have been many shareholder lawsuits too).

Unfortunately, hundreds of court cases, guilty pleas, civil lawsuits, etc., don't faze the political right or the pushers-of-austerity too much. To them, it's still the "moochers" and "takers" who are causing the problems. The ignorance of the political right has reached such catastrophic heights, that there can be little doubt that it's helping to fuel the increase in suicides (another example of their ignorance would be their refusal to acknowledge the human impact on climate change, despite a 97% level of agreement among climate scientists that man is causing global warming).

So, here are the million-dollar questions: Are the lives lost through austerity and punishment of the poor intentional or unintentional? And, even if unintentional, might it reasonably be argued that austerity and the punishment of the poor--policies that have lead to death--are evidence of a callous disregard for the value of human life? Obviously, no one is going to be arrested for pushing policies that harm or kill low-income Americans; but isn't it interesting how similar austerity & punishment of the poor are to the definition of depraved heart murder? (See "Republican Rejection of Medicaid Expansion is Depraved")

(WPA poster describing public water services in New York City. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)