When my father could still speak, he would sometimes ask, “Do we really want to be a nation of bankers and shopkeepers?” By which he meant, “Do we really want to become a nation that doesn’t make things?” And, when talking about the nation of “bankers and shopkeepers,” he would inevitably mention England, a once-great manufacturing power that had allowed its amazing industrial advantages to wither away, leaving only “the capitalists,” who controlled and circulated most of the wealth, and “the shopkeepers”—everyone else—who retailed things. Continue reading
The South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest. The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.
The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing. All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined. On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.
It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying. So many places—and people—are just scraping by. Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place. Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing. They are exiles from the land of opportunity. Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing. With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.
Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?
Stuck in a cab heading north last time President Obama was in town, I had an opportunity to listen to NPR, a station preferred by many cabdrivers. It was five p.m. and traffic was at a standstill, so I was able to catch most of ‘Marketplace.’ One of the features was about food-stamp assistance and the many thousands of American workers who don’t have enough to feed their families.
One of the persons interviewed was a Walmart employee, who recalled a painful period recently, when she and her family had had to rely on food stamps, even though she was working full-time. Her voice kept breaking as she talked. Embarrassed by her hardship, she was fighting back tears. To me, her experience was extremely shocking, illustrating how Walmart, one of America’s largest, most profitable corporations, is essentially gaming our federal-assistance programs. Its lowest-wage workers manage to keep going only by using food-stamps to feed their families. What’s more, when underpaid workers and others receive food-stamps, they often spend them at Walmart and other discount retailers.
An April 15 article appearing in Forbes magazine reports that “Walmart Workers Cost Taxpayers $6.2 Billion in Federal Assistance.” The article is based on findings of a new study by Americans for Tax Fairness, which estimates that a single Walmart supercenter costs US taxpayers as much as $900,000 and $1.75 million annually, because Walmart pays its employees so poorly that, to meet their needs, many end up relying on food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing.
Similar reports released last fall showed that American taxpayers also foot nearly $7 billion of the annual labor costs at McDonald’s and other leading fast-food companies.
Meanwhile, Walmart is thought to be the single biggest corporate beneficiary of food-stamp spending. The Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal reported last year that the retailer received as much as 18 percent of all the food-stamp dollars spent. That amounts to $14 billion annually. Walmart’s total profits were $17 billion in 2013.
Millions of Americans experience “food insecurity”—meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from. An astonishing 1 in 7 Americans (47 million people) rely on food-stamps these days. Even that figure doesn’t represent the number of Americans who are hungry. Many elderly people who qualify for food stamps refuse to sign up for them because of their pride, according to Eli Saslow, whose reporting on American hunger for the Washington Post has just won the Pulitzer Prize.
I urge you to read or listen to Krissy Clark’s eye-opening 3-part series, “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp,”
Only a combination of social pressure, individual choice, and political action can ensure more Americans a taste of the American feast.
Click on the red links for more information about this important issue.
One of the strange features of the period we are living in is that discussions of fiscal and monetary policy have pretty much preempted a more direct examination of structural problems in the American economy. These topics have become our obsession, precluding direct debate about what sort of economy we want to be.
Perhaps because Americans are phobic about the idea of having a larger economic vision, we do not talk about how we would like the various parts of our economy to function together for our greatest well-being. Instead, we talk about monetary policy (the Fed and the money supply) and fiscal policy (the role of government as a taxing and spending agent), as though getting these two parts of the equation right will, in themselves, produce a national economy that is prosperous and serves the various needs of the citizenry.
Perhaps it’s inevitable, because these are the two parts of our vast economic system over which officialdom can hope to exert control. Almost occluded is the whole world of work—the whole world of enterprise—, the aggregate shape of which should always be our main point of reference. Anti-statists though we are, we focus on government action more than on what American workers and companies are actually doing, or on the cultural and practical developments that could help them continue more happily, successfully, and harmoniously.
Instead, all roads lead back to the government, the federal government, which, as the economy has grown, so too has it, grown to be a huge economic agent, one so huge and complex that citizens can scarcely apprehend its many functions. The government’s role as an employer—as a regulator—as a consumer—is massive.
Readers of this website have noted already that, while public discussion of government spending often focuses on social benefits distributed to the ill, the poor, and elderly, the government gives mightily to other economic actors, whether in the form of tax breaks, farm subsidies, employment, military spending, or other government contracts, forming a great gift-cycle that is myriad and so circular! Because, of course, we pay our part for all of these things. It’s all so different from the days, long long ago, when there were no income taxes, and the government’s main functions were running the P.O. and sending farmers experimental seeds!
Notwithstanding the benefits that might follow from keeping our sights trained on creating opportunities for American labor and improving the character of our own economic activities, we are entering a period when fiscal policy will remain at the center of public consciousness, where more and more attention will be trained on issues of taxation, and on tax reform itself, of all things.
Image: from this source
The Map of Federal Benefits
Help Understanding the Federal Budget
Eduardo Porter, “A Nation With Too Many Tax Breaks,” New York Times, 14 March 2012.
GRAPHIC: “Who Gets the Breaks and Benefits,” New York Times, 14 March 2012.
Tracy Gordon, “What States Can, And Can’t, Teach the Federal Government About Budgets,” Brookings, March 2012.
GRAPHIC: “Government Spending by Level, as a Percentage of GDP,” Brookings.