Punishing prosperity is not path to progress

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 1, 2011

OXFORD — The man in the furniture store helped me bump the chest of drawers away from the wall. We were looking for a price tag, but what appeared instead was a label reading, “Product of the Republic of Vietnam.”

While driving around Mississippi I never fail to see log trucks, some loaded with hardwood, some loaded with pulpwood. In the not-so-distant past, many were headed to Northeast Mississippi, the furniture-making capital of the nation. I don’t know where the trucks are going now.

“All our wood products are made somewhere else — Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico,” the furniture man said. “Some of the fabric on upholstered furniture is made in the United States, but not much of the other.”

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It made me wonder what’s changed. What has happened to cause a state with abundant forests — a wonderful and renewable natural resource — plus a furniture-manufacturing infrastructure to loose so much of it? How can it be cheaper to make a pine headboard in Southeast Asia and ship it all the way to Mississippi where there are thousands of acres of pine forests?

It can’t be labor. Not in this state anyway. Mississippi is a “right-to-work” state, meaning no dastardly union can have a closed shop and engage in business-busting collective bargaining.

So maybe it’s the shameless accumulation of wealth by the super-rich, those who exploit the poor and refuse to pay a living wage.

Or maybe it’s meddling by federal, state and local governments, which have intrusive regulations regarding safety, pay and benefits. Not only that, governments have all those expensive record-keeping and environmental requirements, and add dozens more every year.

When folks think about America’s 10 percent jobless rate and the reality that most of our clothing, fuel, electronics and even our food originates in some other nation, fingers of blame are usually pointed at either labor costs, corporate greed or excessive regulation as the culprit.

This is a tactic.

Candidates who can convince us that unions have ruined America can be elected if that sentiment takes root. Likewise, candidates seeking the working person’s vote will bash the wealthy. Campaigning against both — anti-government — also works.

But after voting, we go back to that furniture store with the chests of drawers from Vietnam, across the street to the tire shop where the best prices and the hottest sellers are from Japan or Korea or we go to Walmart or Target where shirts and shoes, kitchen appliances, flowers (fresh or silk) and big-screen TVs are from Bangladesh, Bolivia or China.

And how about this? There are supermarket parking lots in Biloxi and Gulfport from which a rock can be thrown into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet inside those stores, shrimp and other seafood from Thailand is half the price of seafood from the Gulf.

Last week, a top story in USA Today reported a record one-fifth of the income of all Americans came from Uncle Sam via “spread the wealth” programs. Nothing wrong with Social Security, welfare, food stamps, Medicare and all the others — except that these are “transfer payments.” They do not arise from productivity.

It doesn’t make sense.

And it doesn’t make sense for us to let officials keep pushing us into one camp or the other and, as a consequence, keeping our viewpoints narrow.

Confronted with what appears to be an almost-insurmountable national debt and current-year spending of nearly twice as much money as the federal government has coming in, President Barack Obama has talked about broad-based remedies. Yet his concentration has echoed his belief that some people make too much money and don’t need it. I have pored over the U.S. Constitution and so help me I can’t find a single place where it says presidential duties include deciding how much money private citizens need.

Regardless, the discussion shouldn’t be about how badly the poor are hurting or how lavishly the rich are living. It shouldn’t even be about whether government is too intrusive, at least not in the abstract.

The discussion should be about prosperity and whether acts of any government or even by entities in the private sector advances or inhibits prosperity. The discussion should be about balance.

Prosperity is not an either-or proposition except in one context: A nation and its people cannot prosper unless it produces the goods it consumes.

And, oh, nothing against Vietnam or the furniture store — but I didn’t buy the chest of drawers.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.