The Chump Effect

The Chump Effect, by James Meigs.

Last January, a small but telling exchange took place at an Elizabeth Warren campaign event in Grimes, Iowa. … The biggest buzz surrounded her $1.25 trillion plan to pay off student-loan debt for most Americans.

A man approached Warren with a question. “My daughter is getting out of school. I’ve saved all my money [so that] she doesn’t have any student loans. Am I going to get my money back?”

“Of course not,” Warren replied.

“So you’re going to pay for people who didn’t save any money, and those of us who did the right thing get screwed?”

A video of the exchange went viral. It summed up the frustration many feel over the way progressive policies so often benefit select groups, while subtly undermining others. Saving money to send your children to college used to be considered a hallmark of middle-class responsibility. By subsidizing people who run up large debts, Warren’s policy would penalize those who took that responsibility seriously. “You’re laughing at me,” the man said, when Warren seemed to wave off his concerns. “That’s exactly what you’re doing. We did the right thing and we get screwed.”

You played the game right, but the game was rigged. Those who flouted the rules or did the wrong thing got rewarded instead:

That father was expressing an emotion growing more common these days: he felt like a chump. Feeling like a chump doesn’t just mean being upset that your taxes are rising or annoyed that you’re missing out on some windfall. It’s more visceral than that. People feel like chumps when they believe that they’ve played a game by the rules, only to discover that the game is rigged.

Not only are they losing, they realize, but their good sportsmanship is being exploited. The players flouting the rules are the ones who get the trophy. Like that Iowa dad, the chumps of modern America feel that the life choices they’re most proud of — working hard, taking care of their families, being good citizens — aren’t just undervalued, but scorned. …

We all know the feeling: when you’re inching forward in the freeway exit lane, say, and another driver flies past and swerves onto the ramp at the last second; when your child has to complete her college-entrance exams within a designated time period, but your neighbor’s child gets twice as long because of a suddenly diagnosed “learning disability”; when you pay extra to have your pet travel in the airplane’s cargo hold but the yipping poodle across the aisle, an “emotional-support animal,” gets to ride on its owner’s lap for free. You didn’t know that you could get an emotional-support card just by claiming an anxiety disorder and paying a fee to an online agency? What are you — a chump?

Rewarding the parasites:

What makes these indignities so infuriating isn’t just that a few people game the system. It’s that their selfish gambits work only because the rest of us follow the rules. …

Thousands of norms, rules, and traditions make civilized life possible. Some, like paying taxes or not littering, are enshrined in law. Others are informal. Most of us take pride in adhering to basic standards of etiquette and fairness, to say nothing of following the law. And we have a deep emotional investment in having the people around us follow these norms as well. There’s a reason that we call selfish, disruptive, or criminal behavior “antisocial.” We know that if everyone stopped paying their taxes, or started running red lights and shoplifting, our society would be on its way to collapse.

It’s bad enough when some random jerk makes you feel like a chump; it’s much worse when government policies create entire classes of chumps. Warren fizzled as a presidential candidate, but her activist positions remain very much in play, promoted by far-left Democrats and party leaders. Many of these plans would penalize people who follow traditional norms and shower benefits on those who don’t. …

Leftist policies make chumps of most of us:

Most forms of populism are based on the idea that some other group is getting an unfair leg up, while we are being taken advantage of. On the left, that sentiment leads to calls to punish “the 1 percent.” On the right, it can lead to distrust of “elites” and a backlash against immigration and free trade. Donald Trump’s aggrieved style of political speech ably mines this vein of discontent. So does Elizabeth Warren’s refrain that “the game is rigged.” …

Politicians ignore such primal forces at their peril. On the right, free-market advocates have long downplayed the social tensions caused by rising income inequality. Today, many young people, facing poor job prospects despite heavy education debts, see American society — and capitalism itself — as fundamentally unfair. That’s one reason the initial outrage over George Floyd’s death ballooned into a much broader protest movement.

But policies promoted on the left can also lead to backlashes. Under Barack Obama, many heartland Americans believed that government policies were biased toward helping undocumented immigrants and educated elites, while undermining opportunities for the middle class. That frustration led to the Tea Party movement and, later, the stunning rise of Trump. …

“Democrats believe we must embed environmental justice, economic justice, and climate justice at the heart of our policy and governing agenda,” the party platform states, using the coded jargon of the modern Left. In progressive circles, “justice” doesn’t mean fairness or evenhandedness; it describes a world in which every problem is the fault of some entrenched power group. Therefore, every solution should involve both special aid for the victims and some sort of punishment for those who created the problem.

The Democratic platform promises a root-and-branch overhaul of federal programs to ensure that they operate according to elaborate calculations of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other metrics. As the country struggles through the Covid recession, for example, the party promises that funds supporting small businesses will flow preferentially to companies owned by women and minorities and promises to “combat gentrification” and offer relief from “exorbitant” rents….

A Biden Department of Education would bring back Obama-era rules forbidding “disparate disciplinary treatment” of students based on race. In practice, that means that students will be disciplined not based on the frequency of their misbehavior but according to racial quotas.

Socialism requires force to implement because it is fundamentally unfair. “To each according to his need, from each according to his ability” is unfair and unnatural.

People who work or try harder, or are smarter in their life decisions, or do the right thing more often, or indulge less in destructive behaviors, should be rewarded more. The left, and the various parasite groups, have always had a problem with that.