…but what about Obama phones?

“I just think it’s crazy, people without jobs, not working, and now the government is giving them free phones,” said the man at the dinner table. I did my best to answer him.

“Well,” I said carefully, cognizant of the fact that I did not want the entire dinner to turn into a big debate, “I don’t know much about how it’s actually being implemented, but I think I can at least explain the basic idea behind it.”

I went on to explain the motivation behind “Obama phones” this way. There are people who are living life very close to the red-line. I’m not talking about people who are abusing the system: we both agree that that happens, and that it is bad, and that we need to do things to prevent it.  But setting that aside for now, there really are some people who have to choose between paying their electric bill and buying food for the month. There are people who have to decide whether to do a load of laundry or buy a gallon of milk, because they cannot afford to do both that week.

People in that situation usually, sooner or later, end up getting their phone lines cut because they have missed too many bill payments. This didn’t happen because they were lazy or out doing drugs: it happened because they are unemployed, and maybe they have children to feed. So now, in addition to having no job, they have no phone numbers.

What happens to a job application that has no phone number? In today’s society, it goes to the bottom of the pile. It’s not impossible to get a job without a phone number, but it hinders your chances a great deal. Even for very low-paying jobs, like answering phones in call center or working construction, many employers will simply choose someone who has a working phone number over someone who doesn’t.

That means that when a person gets his phone line cut off, he reaches a kind of tipping point: a transition from being unemployed to virtually unemployable.

That is the idea behind the “Obama phone”: it is something to help prevent unemployed people from becoming unemployable people.

I explained all of his to the man at the dinner table.

He said: “I understand what you are saying, but I think you’re way off base.”

In the interest of politeness and digestion, neither of us pursued the question further.



Government has never been in the business of only providing things that are considered “rights”. Fiscal conservatives like to create this fantasy that there are two absolute and clearly-defined categories in this world, those things that are “rights” and those things that are not, and that government is only responsible for things that fall on the “rights” side of this bright-line divide.

But it has never worked that way. Modern societies, and even early societies, have all tended to provide some kind of services for those in need, even if it is only low-quality shelter for the mentally ill. Societies tend to provide  public tools that can be used by everyone in the society, like roads. These societies have never claimed that shelter or roads are an “inalienable right”: they are merely a part of the social contract between the people and the state.

So when people ask me, “When did we start thinking that everyone has a right to have a phone?” I think that’s a red herring. It’s not a right: but being a “right” has never been the one-and-only standard for deciding what governments should provide.



Why not free suits?

This is always the next argument I hear. It’s the “where will it end?” type of argument.  If we give out phones because phones will help someone’s chances at getting a job, then why not free suits? After all, having a nice suit also increases someone’s chances of getting a good job.

This is where I think people get so hung up on absolutes and black-and-white that they forget that we live in a world full of fuzzy boundaries and cut-off points.

For example: People mature gradually as they get older. We know that we don’t want 4-year-olds driving cars, and we know that we do want 20-year-olds to drive a car, so we have to come up with some kind of limit in between those two numbers.  No matter what number we come up with, it is (by its very nature) arbitrary… but we do our best to come up with something that will be roughly fair to the most number of mature people but will prevent a reasonable number of stupid and dangerous things from happening to the most number of immature people.

This is just part of life.

With things like this, it is no different: we make a probabilistic judgment call.

I say “probabilistic” because the actually reasoning behind it (conscious or not) generally goes something like this:

Let’s call the probability that someone will get hired P.  As a society that wants to do good for all of its members, we want to do what we can to help the minimum P be as high as possible for each particular person, given his skill, energy, and ability and willingness to work.

So, how do you decide what society should help to give a person who is willing and able to work, in order to help that person achieve this goal?

Well, the ability to travel to a job has a dramatic impact on whether someone can work or not. This is the argument in favor of cheap public transportation.  The value of P for someone who literally has no means of getting anywhere outside of walking distance from his home is very low, but his value of P will jump considerably (…all other things being held constant…) if he can expand his job search by using a bus or a train or a subway.

Having a home address also increases P dramatically.  Most employers will look at a job application with no home address on it and throw it right in the trash heap.  So once again, if you take two people who both are motivated, have the same skills, and the same ability to work, and one of them has a home address and the other does not, the difference in their P will be large.

Now, add to that a phone: again (the argument goes), you get a dramatic increase in P when you are comparing someone who has a phone line to someone who has to write “none” on the “home phone number” space on the job application.

What is the incremental benefit of having a nice suit? It’s probably  measurable; it’s probably non-zero.  But it’s not going to be as large as the incremental benefit of having a home or a telephone number.

So the question isn’t really whether a telephone is a “luxury” in some kind of abstract, puritanical moral sense. Instead, the question is simply one of incremental benefit to the labor market: we decide that some things actually help more than X amount, while other things, while they might help, do not give enough of a benefit to be worthwhile. That is where the cut-off line is drawn.

Is it fuzzy math? Of course it is: just like everything else in this world that we live in.  The world isn’t black-and-white.

And if someone found a study that showed that having a phone number actually doesn’t really make that much of a difference in the hiring process, then I would say that that result is sufficient to bring down the whole concept of the “Obama phone”.  It would undermine the whole rationale for it.

But I think that you and I both know that no such result is out there.