An Open Letter
Mr. Charles R. Kesler
Claremont Review of Books
Dear Mr. Kesler,
I’m a reasonably long-term subscriber to your conservative quarterly Claremont Review of Books. For the most part I find the reviews and articles both interesting and informative, if unabashedly slanted—at times excessively so, it seems—toward conservative views. The Review bills itself “A Journal of Political thought and Statesmanship.” Of political thought, obviously; of statesmanship, probably only for the extreme, ideologically. But, one could view the liberal The Nation magazine in similar terms.
I always start by looking at your contribution in “From The Editor’s Desk.” In the Spring 2012 issue you (as seems so fashionable nowadays) attack America’s fiscal situation, which, you say, is dire anyway you cut it. I wholeheartedly agree with you: It is inexcusable, but even so, most likely not quite “dire”, as most understand this defining term. But, I would agree, if action isn’t taken to ameliorate this situation, it might well become so.
Not unreasonably for a journalist of your persuasion, you attribute our “dire” federal fiscal situation to a modern liberal source: government that spends excessively to support the poor among us. I agree with you, it does. You point out that federal spending on the ten largest “means tested” programs for the poor jumped from about $4,300 per poor person in 1980 to $13,000 in 2011 (in constant 2011 dollars). You further point out: “Add in the $209 billion spent by federal programs too ‘small’ to make the Top Ten, [anti-poverty programs] and total poverty spending reached $835 billion last year, or $17,380 for each American living below the poverty line.” Some portion of this huge increase can no doubt be attributed to the extraordinary needs of disappointing economic/employment recessional conditions we are still working through. Nonetheless, you make an unassailable point: government is shelling out far too much of its limited resources to support poor America.
But two very basic points you don’t address in your editorial are (1) why, in a country as well-off as America, do we have poverty at this level—some 49 million people, or about 16% of us in 2011—and (2) if government doesn’t take action to alleviate the effects of poverty, who will (or can) at the dollar-levels you highlight here? Thanks for pointing out the problem, but what the hell are we to do about it to help improve our fiscal situation you so correctly highlight as (in my words) unsustainable? Well, in the end, you don’t really provide an answer, or even a suggestion. The implication of your editorial, as I read it, is that we should stop spending on the poor, for the goal of improving our national “fiscal situation.” Okay. But then, what of their personal situations? What would such a negative approach do to and for society—or for government, or for capitalism? Hello? Just looking the other way is not an acceptable solution—by any of us, and certainly not for those in need. There are potential political as well as economic and social ramifications.
I don’t have the total answer either. But I do have one for a significant portion of it: Place the responsibility for eliminating much of government’s need to support poverty-level workers where it rightly belongs by recognizing that capitalism, business which benefits from its use of labor, at all levels, needs to pay a fair and reasonable wage for the labor it employs, at all levels. What is a fair and reasonable wage? It’s one that supports workers with above poverty level incomes. Working poverty ought to be politically and socially unacceptable—and more importantly can be significantly reduced, if not totally eliminated, without killing the capitalistic goose that lays the golden eggs, so to speak.
American capitalism is (and overall has continually been) highly profitable, and that’s certainly to be desired. But to a degree this high and continuing profitability (after taxes) is the result of beggaring a non-insignificant part of the workforce: those working below, at, or just marginally above the poverty income level. There are numbers galore to support this accusation, and I go into these in some detail in Chapter XIX of my book BOOM!, A Revolting Situation. Here let me just say that to the degree government has seen fit to provide food stamps, an income tax credit or refund (Earned Income Tax Credit), programs for housing costs and such, for people employed (working!), it amounts to a direct subsidy to business; to subsidizing their cost of labor. Our government leaders (our politicians) from both major parties have seen fit to go along with (tolerate) these programs as providing “relief” from extreme poverty while at the same time condoning an under-providing minimum wage program for our workers. Is this not political favoritism for one segment of society over another? This is, or should be, totally unacceptable. How can you expect low-wage earners to make it when, for a period of ten years (for example) the minimum wage is kept constant while the cost of living rises about 2% a year? How can you expect workers to make it on a minimum wage that, since 1969, has seen its real purchasing power decline, year after year? This is not new news.
Who’s responsible for this situation? Our political leadership, our government, be it with Conservatives or Liberals at the helm. Both are responsible for this shameful, and in my view, unnecessary situation. This is clearly an example of government governing for just some of the people all of the time as opposed to more correctly governing for all of the people at least most of the time. I’m confident you recognize this outcome.
Mr. Kesler, thank you for highlighting this issue. It is, without doubt, affecting our fiscal situation. Unfortunately, it is also affecting public perceptions of our politics and capitalism itself and their positions and trust within our democratic society. Let’s stop talking about it and do something about it. In the case of working poverty, I trust I have, after due consideration, contributed a workable as well as equitable approach and some rationale to support it, be you of a conservative or liberal tilt. Poverty itself isn’t an ideological issue. What to do about it seems to be, which today means little or nothing gets done about it. In economic terms it’s an issue of the adequacy of a “trickle down” approach. To be acceptable, something more than a few drops has to reach those most in need. Government is not the proper source for supplementing this lack of flow, although today we tolerate that it does. Fiscally, as you imply, that’s unacceptable.
To borrow a line from that early nineteenth century conservative statesman, Daniel Webster, “a great equality of condition . . . is the true basis most certainly of popular government.” I might also add he suggested that if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in a few hands and to render the great masses dependent and penniless, “the popular power must break in upon the rights of property, or else the influence of property & wealth must limit and control the exercise of popular power.” This is no less true today than in the 1820’s when Webster articulated it and this struggle between the power of property & wealth vs. popular democracy continues to be the basic chasm between our two political parties, although today we don’t usually put it in such crude terms.
If Balance (with a capital “B”) in our society is to be restored—and, like our fiscal situation, today it too is in “dire” straights—government, standing as it does between capitalism and the people, must see that all parties accept their fair and equitable responsibilities in making America, in fact and not just in theory, what all of us believe it can and should be. We need a different outcome!
Thomas Richard Harry