Stone: Subsidy, subsidy. Who gets a subsidy?
November 23, 2013
I had a conversation with one of my favorite local elected officials last weekend. She was so upset she was almost in tears.
She'd been on a tour of one of the now-deserted mobile homes (and, as you will see, the word "homes" really shouldn't be used here) in the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park in Basalt.
There had been 20 people living in that one horribly run-down trailer.
Twenty human beings.
Ratty mattresses were crammed everywhere. There's not much room to spare with 20 people living in a trailer.
Actually, some of them had been living out in a makeshift lean-to on the side of the trailer. It was insulated with bits of worn-out carpet and heated with a light bulb used for chicken coops.
And before you start muttering about illegal aliens, let me say this again: These were human beings — living in truly wretched conditions — right here in our precious little valley.
They lived here, and they worked here.
"Who treats people like that?" my friend asked. "What kind of community can do that?"
The answer, of course, was simple: It was us. We did that.
We did it, some might say, because we had to. Because the economics of this wonderful place of ours just work out that way.
Businesses here can't thrive — can't even survive — without a steady supply of low-wage workers. And the economics of our nation, combined with our national character, seem to require that those low-paid workers are not "Americans," not even legal residents of this country.
Over the last 40 years I have watched as Aspen's "ski bum dishwasher with a Ph.D." became the "Latino dishwasher without legal papers."
And while there are some bitter, bottom-of-the-economic-ladder non-Latinos who say they want those jobs, the situation works out quite nicely for most of us, doesn't it?
We're not living 20 to a trailer. And when we go out to eat, the food is cooked and the dishes are washed — and, hey, if the prices were any higher, we couldn't afford the meal.
So those low wages — and the terrible living conditions that are part of the bargain — make some kind of sense.
As long as we can avoid coming face-to-face with that trailer full of filthy mattresses.
But I'm not really looking to lay on the white-guy guilt today. At least, not any thicker than I already have.
I want to look at a wider issue, one that keeps raising its ugly head in everything from the health care debate to school funding to the question of who should be president of these United States.
It's an issue that was neatly encapsulated by the phrasemakers on the right: "Makers versus takers."
And, as that loaded phrase insists, it's all a matter of fairness.
The makers are being forced to subsidize the takers.
The rich are subsiding the poor. And that's not fair.
Why should I pay for their health insurance? Why should I pay for their kids to go to school? Why should I pay for their food stamps?
It's not fair.
We're all so used to hearing it that we overlook one very important point:
It's not true.
The rich aren't subsidizing the poor.
The poor are subsidizing the rich.
Those 20 men sleeping on ratty mattresses in a Basalt trailer? By living that way, they were subsidizing the cheeseburger you had for lunch.
And if you want to argue that you're not rich, OK, fair enough: Those 20 men were subsidizing the clean plate under the $65 steak that some very rich people had for dinner in Aspen. Feel better now?
But let's not get waylaid in the thickets of the immigration debate — it's not just those 20 (or 20,000 or 2 million) illegal immigrants who are subsidizing the rich.
It is virtually all of America's workers.
Over the past 40 years, the average wages of working Americans have remained absolutely flat.
Working Americans have not had a real raise since the mid-1970s. (The highest-paid wage earners are doing a little better. The lowest, a lot worse.)
Until then, during the 30 years after the end of World War II, wages had been rising pretty steadily, hand in hand with productivity (the value of goods or services produced by each worker).
Wages and productivity both almost doubled.
That seems logical and even fair: The worker creates more value, and he gets more pay.
But after hitting a peak in the mid-'70s, wages actually fell for the next 25 years, dropping back to about where they had been in the 1960s and then leveling out (with a little growth in the late '90s and another decline in the Great Recession).
Meanwhile — and here's the real point — productivity has continued to grow steadily, year after year, decade after decade.
And when productivity goes up and pay remains flat, you know where the difference goes: profits.
And you know who gets those profits.
Hint: The share of total U.S. income that goes to the top 1 percent of the country has been rising sharply as the wages paid to actual workers have fallen.
That top 1 percent took in about 8 percent of total income in the mid-'70s — and now they rake in more than 20 percent. Their share has roughly tripled.
Sorry about all the numbers, but the basic point is simple.
The people who work for their wages are getting less and less while the people who own things are getting more and more.
So, really, who is subsidizing whom?
Example: The six main representatives of the Walton family — who inherited their money from the founders of Walmart — are worth a total of $150 billion.
Meanwhile, a Wal-Mart store in Ohio organized an in-store food drive to benefit its own employees. That's right — it asked employees to donate food to other Wal-Mart employees who couldn't afford a Thanksgiving dinner on the wages Wal-Mart pays them.
The working poor are subsidizing the idle rich.
And just as a matter of simple preservation, we had better hope they don't get sick of it any time soon.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.