‘I’ll take the floor covering,’ writes Jack (who asks that his last name not be used). ‘You write: ‘But relatively few folks are delivering mail, trimming hedges, or clerking at Home Depot one decade, piloting their own jet the next. And relatively few doctors’ daughters become hotel maids – at least not for more than a summer on the Cape.’ Well, if people haven’t moved up the income ladder, it’s their fault. There IS an even playing field in this country. People choose for themselves how far they go. I grew up in a lower income neighborhood in Brooklyn (my father worked in a movie theater, my mother was a store clerk). I finished high school at night, and college at night, working during the day as a stock boy at Macy’s (today’s equivalent of the Home Depot job you mention). I paid for college out of my paltry earnings. The people I worked with during the day back in the mid-sixties complained about not getting ahead, but they didn’t take advantage of the even playing field that lay before them (i.e., they never bothered to acquire skills that would enable them to get somewhere beyond where they were). Today, 35 years after graduating from college, I own a business that employs 45 mostly low skill-level people, who, like the people I left behind 35 years ago, complain, as you do, that the government is not doing enough for them, but too much for the rich. Every night as I drive home to my house in an upscale suburb in my luxury imported car, I hear people like you on the radio talk about the lack of a fair playing field. Too much being done for the rich? Not enough for the underprivileged? The song of the lazy and unenterprising, aided and abetted by social engineers. By the way, don’t print my name. I write this not to boast of my success – for there are thousands, no, tens of thousands, of my generation who started with nothing and ended up just fine, without the government doing ANYTHING for them. Let the church and other social engineers complain about poverty. In this country, people don’t-get-ahead by choice.’

☞ Sounds good, if a little tough-minded. But a couple of points, Jack. Is it possible you did get some government help? For example, did you pay for your K-12 schooling, or did the government? And did you pay the full cost of college, or was your tuition subsidized? (At many state schools, ‘full tuition’ does not cover the full cost.) But leave that aside, and anything else I may have left out (was there a minimum wage that kept your Macy’s pay a little less paltry than it otherwise might have been?).

Answer me this (as they say): Do we want people to trim hedges and change sheets in hotels and hospitals and so forth? I think we do. And if so, do we want them and their kids living decently? Or is it OK if they live as the really, really poor in some Third World countries do? If you answer ‘decently,’ then the laws of supply and demand may not be enough. The minimum wage and the earned income credit and unemployment insurance and Medicare may be the kinds of things needed to help the folks who do those jobs for us. Even then, working 60 hours a week at the minimum wage brings you just $15,000 a year, which isn’t much to raise a family. And if one of the parents has abandoned the family, the wage earner must also provide domestic services. Maybe it’s the parents’ fault – but is it the kids’ fault? Should poor people pay as much in tax as rich people? If not, where do you draw the line? What balance do you strike? I’ve been arguing that the balance we had during Clinton/Gore worked awfully well, even for the rich and powerful; and that we’ve made a huge mistake by shifting it even further in their favor.

Jim Batterson: ‘I agree completely that the recent shifts and proposed shifts in tax law are foolish in the advantages that they afford the super-rich, and I strongly support a hefty estate tax and a progressive tax structure. The AMT corporate refunds are obscene.

‘But it is also fair to observe why it is that there is no revolution taking place in America over this issue. I am not quite as old as you, but I have traveled and lived in third-world countries, and do have recollections of the 1950s. Something is true in the United States that has never been true before, not here, not anywhere else in the world. Skilled tradesmen – auto mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, roofers, painters, electricians, factory workers, guys who do heating and air conditioning and construction and a thousand other jobs that require training but not a college education – jobs that 50 years ago we hoped our children would ‘do better than’ – these people all own, or can own, nice cars, pickup trucks or SUVs, bass boats, comfortable houses, entertainment centers with big-screen TV’s, VCRs, TIVO, good sound systems, cell phones, computers, internet access, summer cabins, you name it.

‘Explain to someone in China or even Japan that in the United States, carpenters and plumbers live in 1800-square-foot houses and drive SUVs, and there will be nothing but disbelief. When you look at the country as a whole, you should not see an upper class and a lower class. The dominant theme of our times is an enormous middle class with a very high standard of living.’

☞ Well said. About the only guy who can easily afford to call a plumber these days is an electrician.

OYSTERS – PART 3

Mark Harris: ‘Like you, I love Oysters, and they can be found on many of our nearby shores. In this area (and many others) bivalves become infected with Paralytic Shellfish Poisen (PSP) when the dreaded “ride tide” arrives (often June, July, or Aug). However, it’s important to know that PSP is NOT destroyed by cooking – raw or cooked, if they got it – you’ll get it. Here’s what you do: Eat a tiny (dime sized) chunk of oyster. Wait about 30 minutes. If your lips feel like you’ve gotten a shot of novacaine (i.e. they tingle), throw away the rest of the oysters. Otherwise, eat more – but remember PSP is only ONE of the several different deadly fallouts from eating oysters (actually on most of our Washington/Canadian seashores near population centers the fish and game guys have erected bivalve harvesting prohibited signs due to sewage contamination.’

☞ Bon appetite.

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