Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Farmer and the Congressman

The Farmer and the Congressman

There’s a Greengrocer on Saturdays a few blocks from my apartment.  Schoolyard, flea market, pickles, bread, Italian specialties, and three farm stands.  One is new: a ruddy-faced man from New Jersey who specializes in roots and peaches.  One is clearly the big dog-it used to be run by a lantern-jawed Amish, who apparently sold it to an enterprising gentleman named Omar.  Omar dominates-he takes up half the yard.  Omar sells everything, and while some of it surely originates in Pennsylvania, a fair amount might just have been picked up at the Hunts Point Terminal.  The third is run by a husband and wife team from the Catskills.  Everything they sell looks like theirs; interesting varieties of apples, peppers, strawberries, eggplant, misshaped heirloom tomatoes, most in very small quantities.

I don’t know much about the farmer and his wife-not even their names.  They aren’t old, but they have the earth in their faces.  He’s tall and skinny, long hair parted down the middle.  She’s smaller, with an open expression, hair pulled back, no make up.  They know their produce intimately, texture, flavor, what to cook or eat immediately, what to wait a couple of days for. Omar undersells them, a miniature version of Wal-Mart against the local mom and pop, and I hear from friends who know them better that life can be hard for them.

This last weekend was the first since Hurricane Irene came howling through.  It largely spared us in Manhattan, but those it hit, it hit hard.  Billions in damages, millions of people without power.  More than thirty deaths.  Lives turned upside down and towns wiped off the map. The farmer and his wife were right in the middle of it.   There’s not a lot of wealth in that area of the Catskills; in per capita income, the counties of Delaware, Otsego and Chenango are 42, 49 and 54, respectively out of 62 in the state, and less than half of Manhattan and its suburbs. 

Approximately three hundred miles south lies Washington, and the offices of Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader.  The Congressman represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which is a tad more affluent than the Catskills.

Mr. Cantor is a Tea Party stalwart and an exemplar of fiscal probity.  He’s not eager to see even Irene take us from the path of fiscal responsibility.  “Just like a family” he says-we are going to have to cut spending elsewhere.   Let’s examine that for a moment, and for argument’s sake, agree with Cantor.  The states that get Federal disaster aid should have to pay for it.  They should even the tax dollars out so as not take more from the rest of the “family” than they put in.  It’s unfair for the taxpayers of some states to subsidize the taxpayers of others.  That’s a pretty easy thing to grasp.  Let’s not be re-distributionist.  Loss of life and home is unfortunate, but so passé when we put it up against fiscal rectitude.  Pay as you go is an honorable principle. It’s the application that gets a little difficult.  Starting with Mr. Cantor’s home state of Virginia.  As it turns out, Virginia already gets $1.51 in Federal dollars for every dollar it pays.  North Carolina?  No, they get $1.08.  South Carolina-not so good either, because they get $1.35.  Maryland is a $1.30 net winner.  Cantor’s formula would have all of them returning Federal money instead of getting it. Well, it must be those big spending Northern states who are really on the take.  New Jersey?  Unfortunately, that really doesn’t work out either, because New Jersey residents get only 61 cents for every dollar they pay in.  New York-can’t get much Bluer than those leeches.  No, they get only 79 cents for every dollar they pay.  Connecticut?  No, 69 cents, for every dollar paid.  Massachusetts?  John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy?  The very center of Socialism? Just 82 cents.  So, is Mr. Cantor actually advocating taking money from his own constituents to send up North?  Of course he isn’t.  He just can’t stand the idea of spending money on people, no matter what the circumstances.  

As the special committee of 12 wrestles with the aftermath of the budget deal, we are going to talk about Social Security, Medicare and taxes. This is an intellectual debate we should be having;  the burdens and benefits of Social Contract; what are the obligations the society has to the individual, what obligations does the individual have to society?  These are big, multigenerational issues that have to be resolved, and we shouldn’t distill them to soundbites.

But, the tragedy of Mr. Cantor’s special math is that we even need to discuss it. Is there anything more self-evident that a government that fulfills its most basic function, to protect its citizens, is a government that should help pull a car out a ravine after a mudslide?

I asked the Farmer how he made out in the hurricane.  He was fortunate, he explained, his house was up on a hill.  But, as the creeks and rivers rose, his neighbors got forced out, and many made their way to his house.  They were tired, soaking wet, and disoriented.  He and his wife stuck their clothes in the dryer, gave them something to eat and drink and a place to rest.  He was surprised at how shell-shocked many were-they didn’t even realize they were cold until after they were inside. He told me that he and his wife would pick up food on their way home that night. All the stores within fifty miles of his home were barren except for “beer and chips”.

Of course, the Farmer did the right thing.   Humanity is the core value that binds civilization. Without it, there’s chaos. When people lose faith in their neighbors, in the very system itself, they see no reason to hold up their end of the bargain.  But a government that won’t keep a promise-what does that say about the integrity of its people?  And a government that sends a bean counter instead of a helping hand to a disaster-what does that say about its soul?

To quote Franklin at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”