Friday, February 6, 2009


The Sharecropper Society

In the late 80s, the demise of the USSR and the defeat of Communism prompted an array of pundits, scholars and economists to conclude that the philosophy of Karl Marx had been totally and utterly discredited. These conclusions were not without justification. Communism had caused the death of millions, thwarted innovation, and most importantly, denied millions the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But recent headlines in the Baltimore Sun make it clear that Marx, the man who sat for days on the British Museum pondering man’s relationship to his work was not wrong about everything. He understood even in 1852 that due to advances in technology and what we call today the “globalization of the economy, the day would come when too many unemployed workers would have to compete for far too few low wage jobs. Long before 2005 Marx realized that John Kenneth Galbreath’s Affluent Society could easily turn into Warren Buffet’s “Sharecropper Society” if the economic forces of the social order were not handled properly.

Nonsense some say, the U.S. economy has never been better and those who can’t make it are just lazy. Well, tell that to the hard working fork lift driver who was recently laid-off from the Giant Food distribution center in Jessup, where he worked for over 18 years. When interviewed by the Sun he noted that "I couldn't say anything - I was numb. "Some of my closest friends I've seen going through some bad times, but I've never seen faces as long as I've seen…I'll miss working around guys I've been around for 18 years…They become your brothers.” Another 28-year veteran of the same Giant facility that had also been cashiered noted "The morale is extremely low," "Ever since Ahold has taken over, we have gone from the pinnacle of grocery chains to a downward spiral of mediocrity."

But an increase in layoffs from once proud companies is only one of many recent signs that the middle class is in jeopardy. As the 11 May edition of the Sun points out “ In Ocean City, a popular seaside resort that has drawn generations to its wide beaches, honky-tonk amusements and Boardwalk food stalls, the seemingly insatiable demand for upscale condos is prompting a rush of redevelopment. With vacant land in short supply, older structures and commercial buildings are being razed in favor of mid-rise condo buildings offering …decidedly un-beach-like amenities such as high-end appliances, gas fireplaces, entertainment centers, soaking tubs, granite countertops and Italian stone floors. The extensive redevelopment is putting a new face on Maryland's premier summertime destination, which has long billed itself as an affordable, family resort.

The lurch towards upscale units in the formerly unpretentious OC makes it clear that the rich are getting richer at the expense of working families. If this trend continues the “East Coast’s Number One Family Resort” will soon morph into a Delmarva’ version of the Hampton’s that will price all but the richest vacationers out of the market.

These developments are stark reminders that the United States should do all it can to continue to provide living wages, health care (even Newt Gingrich has come around on this topic) and education to all classes of people. If we fail in this endeavor we run the risk of turning into a society that resembles the current situation in Argentina, a nation that the Financial Times noted, “ can no longer afford its middle class.

Up until recent times that country enjoyed the highest standard of living in Latin America. “Today thousands of its inhabitants are desperately trying to leave. Applications to claim Italian citizenship and passports have tripled and thousands of its citizens stand in long lines outside Spanish consular office in Buenos Aires number ;over 100 children die every hour from starvation and disease.” Unlike this country, the Walmartizaion of Argentina has been going on for years. Once proud professionals now find themselves jobless, homeless and hungry. Shantytowns have appeared on the outskirts of Buenos Aires many sprouting banners at their entrances proclaiming, "Bienvenido a la clase media" - welcome to the middle class.

Argentina is proof positive that Marx was half-right. As a prophet of future economic events he was an abject failure, His prediction that “ the state would wither away” to be replaced by world where individuals live “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, has been shown to be so much nonsense. However, on the subject of what causes people to lose hope and opt for revolution rather than working to improve the status quo he was right on target.

The late Ronald Reagan once wondered why anyone cared that “ some fellow out in South Succotash had just been laid off.” He was wrong. We all need to care when hardworking people lose the ability to support themselves and their families. If we wake up one day and our nation resembles the current day Argentina we will have nobody to blame but ourselves.

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