Monday, January 28, 2008

The Smooth Stones

“Then Saul gave David his own armor—a bronze helmet and a coat of mail. David put it on, strapped the sword over it, and took a step or two to see what it was like, for he had never worn such things before. “I can’t go in these,” he protested to Saul. “I’m not used to them.” So David took them off again. He picked up five smooth stones from a stream and put them into his shepherd’s bag. Then, armed only with his shepherd’s staff and sling, he started across the valley to fight the Philistine.”
- I Samuel 17:38-40 (New Living Translation)

This morning I had to take a trip to Wichita. The “check engine” light of our Volvo had come on last night. Neither I nor my wife, Nancy, knew what it meant, other than it couldn’t be good. Somewhere in the belly of the beast there’s a fault code stored in a computer that will tell the technician everything he needs to know. By the time I digest the technical jargon I’ll see that it all means big bucks.

Before I left I noticed our neighbor, Jennifer, getting her two kids off to school. Alex, her oldest, and Sydney, his younger sister, are equally precocious. Alex, who’s in second grade, seems almost like an adult to me. He has the face and vocabulary of a college professor attached to the body of a professional wrestler. I told Jennifer a couple of days ago that he looks a lot like an extremely intelligent fire hydrant. Sydney, his sister, is a bundle of charm, one of those incurable learners constantly scanning the world for new and wonderful things. About every hot summer since we’ve lived here we can count on her setting up a lemonade stand in front of her house, selling for all she’s worth to the dry and dusty folks passing by. Her marketing strategy is simple – “It’s really hot today” followed by the batting of her eyes. If the heat doesn’t sell the product, the doe-eyes just melt the hearts of prospective customers. Lemonade’s a big seller on Neosho Street in the summer.

Jennifer’s husband, Rick, works the third shift at Tyson here in Emporia. This past Friday Tyson announced that it was laying off 1,500 of the 2,400 people employed there. For those reading this post from a big city 1,500 people losing their jobs may not seem like much, but to a town this size it’s close to being cataclysmic. By the time it all shakes out one in four families here will feel the direct effects of the shutdown. In a town with an eighteen percent poverty rate, low median incomes, slum rentals, and the proliferation of payday loan shops, the elimination of jobs, low paying as they may have been, will add more salt to an already brackish social well. This city is in for hard times.

I interrupted my departure long enough to ask Jennifer whether or not the layoffs were going to hit Rick. “We’re not sure yet. They’re not telling us,” she replied as she shooed the kids into the car.
“What if he does lose his job?”
“He’s got a relative in Wichita who he can go to work for.”
“He’d commute every day?”
“Nah, he’d drive the ninety miles down on Mondays and come home for the weekends.”

I fumbled with my car keys and my thoughts, trying to put some positive spin on things. “He’ll have a job at least.” Jennifer didn’t respond. She’d probably heard enough from the city’s politicians and political leaders already. “Everything’s gonna’ be okay” doesn’t pay the bills, nor does it keep the kids fed.

About thirty miles down the road I tuned in N.P.R’s morning financial report. It seems that economists are now debating whether or not we’re in a recession or heading into one, whether it’s going to be deep or shallow. There wasn’t much of a consensus. The reporter, Lachmee or Tess or some other exotic N.P.R name, followed with the early morning averages. The Dow was up a tad; the S&P was up a fraction. The national news wasn’t any better. John McCain and Mitt Romney are waging war. Mike Huckabee, my candidate, is being counted out by the experts.

While those in the know may be agonizing over whether or not recession is in our out, deep or shallow, there is little doubt here in Emporia, Kansas. While the bulls and bears on Wall Street continue to fight it out, a lot of folks around here won’t be cuttin’ cows in a couple of weeks. There won’t be any vested retirement plans to lean back on. The 401K’s won’t be there either. For many currently living from paycheck to paycheck with a little help from the payday loan shops at obscene interest rates there will be the indignity of living on the dole. There won’t be the luxury of buying bargain stocks, not even penny stocks like Dolly Madison.

Later tonight the President is going to give us the good news. I suppose I’ll watch it, although I don’t know why. Everyone involved in the circus has their scripts memorized. The President will tell us that the checks are in the mail. The Republicans will hoot and holler. The Democrats will sit on their hands and hiss. That’s politics in our time.

I doubt that Rick and Jennifer will be listening to the State of the Union address tonight. They’re probably going to be spending some time going over their budget, trying to save a penny here or a nickel there, making the necessary adjustments to Emporia’s economic reality.

For a month or so now I’ve heard the experts, the Kudlows, Limbaughs, and Krauthammers, lambaste Mike Huckabee as a know-nothing populist preacher from a backwater state. They say he has no economic plan. Who am I to argue with them when their counsel is so “wise?” In a duel of Laffer curves I’d be no match. I know that. But I really want to know where Rick and Jennifer and their kids fit into this scheme. What could they possibly say to make things better for Alex and Sydney? “Everything’s gonna’ be just fine?” I want to know what they have to say to others here in Emporia who will soon be out of work. I’d like to know what their responses would be to the young woman who wrote this little message in a prairie bottle sometime yesterday:

“I'm 22 yrs old my whole life is here my family. It’s all I know. Relocate? Yea right. Being a single soon to be mother where my only support right now is close family. Yea, come March 25 when my paychecks end. Relocate? I don’t think so. A lot of people love this town and their only income was Tyson and considering that the only good paying jobs other than Tyson are Dolly and Menu which are both not doing any better than Tyson. All of the Tyson team members have poured their heart and soul blood and tears into that plant. I only worked there two years and I can’t even put on my make up in the morning without my hands going numb or losing the feeling in my hands. I feel sorry for the people that have worked there longer and have a bad back, messed up wrists, or whatever the case may be and have to go look for a new job some where else.”

One of the areas of political agreement tonight will be those checks in the mail. Economic stimulus, they call it. Just about everyone in the country is going to get six hundred or a thousand bucks. We’re already being told by everyone from the President to Nanxy Pelosi to the White House baker to spend it quickly so we can turn this consumption economy around and get back to what we do best, which is…consume. Amazing! While this scenario is being played out Mike Huckabee and his supporters are being scorned because we believe that more consumption propped up by borrowed money isn’t going to do the trick. That’s more amazing yet. Wasn’t it debt that got us into this mess to begin with? The country is mortgaged to the hilt. In fact, it’s second mortgaged and sub-primed up over the gunwales. Somehow I don’t think that Rick and Jennifer and those being dislocated by this are feeling real warm and fuzzy about a check in the mail.

The illuminati are telling us their plan makes sense. Just spend, spend, spend! Mitt Romney is saying it’s a great time to buy some bargain stocks. Maybe he could take the lead and buy a passel of Dolly Madison. It’s selling for pennies a share. The folks who work at our local Dolly Madison bakery could use the help. All eight hundred of them are hanging on to their jobs by their collective fingernails right now. If they go under, this town’s unemployment rate will be at Great Depression levels.

A few nights ago in the South Carolina debate Mike Huckabee proposed that we make an investment in infrastructure, roads and bridges instead of sending checks out and then expecting Americans to buy imported goods to prop up the consumption economy. His plan sounded too much like the New Deal for the experts touting the “Buy China” approach to our current malaise. Well, I’m as much a capitalist as they are and I say it’s time for an approach that takes Rick and Jennifer into account, and Mike Huckabee’s seems pretty damned good from my vantage point here in the Heartland. I say it’s time to re-tool, re-invest, and re-educate. I say that Rick and Jennifer, their kids, and the thousands dislocated here mean something in all of this. I say that the young single mother, numb hands and all, to be needs to be accounted for in these schemes. I contend that supply siders like F.A. Hayek would agree with me. In fact, I think if Hayek were alive today he’d say that government’s role in this mess should be more than mailing out checks.

If the Republican Party can’t, or won’t, see the human cost in this, they will richly deserve the electoral beating they’re gonna’ get come November. If they don’t take the blinders off and see things as they really are the folks at the bottom of this trickle down equation are gonna’ rise up and bring on an Old Testament style flood that will sweep them from power. There will eventually be a history written about this campaign. If things continue as they are one of the prominent features of that record will be the demise of the Republican Party. When the pages are all turned those who missed a historic opportunity will see plainly the “why” of it. It will come down to this. The five smooth stones they needed to arm themselves with weren’t tax rebate checks or statistical data. The five smooth stones Mike Huckabee alluded to in Iowa were folks like Rick and Jennifer or the young woman with the bruised body, multiplied by the thousands, who were jettisoned by the deadly effects of trickle down economics and “let ‘em eat cake” politics.


Jay said...

I heard the news about the layoffs. This will be terrible for a lot of families as well as Emporia...which is a heck of a nice place, btw.

Douglas said...

In the past couple of days, it seems to have emerged that 1) Huckabee has recognized that it's over for him, and 2) Huckabee is seeking to be McCain's running mate by attacking Romney. How do you feel about a McCain-Huckabee ticket? I'll tell you how I feel; It means we'll have four, maybe eight years of a Democratic president.