The writer Paul Theroux is like no other. He’s prolific, and a restless world traveler, and he has no interest in the places where people have money. His travels have taken him to the poorest parts of the world. His most recent travel book is Deep South, a chronicle of slow trips through the forgotten places left behind by the interstate highways, with factories abandoned after business moved to Bangladesh. There is no money, no work.
And yet every single day, the world’s money flows in great flooding cascades of cash, billions upon billions, in and out of laundering facilities on small islands and banking nations like Switzerland. Theroux quotes the 19th century Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett, who observed the poverty in his own country and posed the question, “I ask the political economists…if they have ever calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, overwork…and utter penury in order to produce one rich man.” Garrett understood money well.
Our government could begin improving our economy by addressing the blatant violations of law by some of our richest citizens and corporations. Hiding money offshore is illegal, and should be punished with prison sentences, which would—ahem—“encourage” moral behavior, since nothing else does. Corporations that move headquarters overseas should be treated like foreign corporations, complete with import duties on their products and fees for usage of US infrastructure. Most important, since foreign corporations are already forbidden from influencing the American legal process, the lobbying they now do should result in significant penalties, including prison, if continued.
It is part of our great unfinished business to do something about our national poverty. The poorest Americans, in cities like Detroit as well as the obscure decaying towns of the rural south, lack the essentials for a decent life, and it’s not because of laziness or moral failure. It is because there is no work or money to be had. Millions live in severe unrelieved poverty, and it’s not their fault.
Where is the wealth? We all know. Half of all our national income goes to a few very rich people who have no need for more money, but keep it hidden anyway. The US is the richest nation in the history of the world, and yet we have failed completely to provide work and essential income for those millions of people in the poorest parts of the rural south and elsewhere. They don’t want or need to be rich; they would never be wealthy in the common use of the term, but were once wealthy enough. Now they are not even that.
The federal government does spend money to help poor people, but what people need is a way to build their own future. We need new laws and rules that prevent abusive capture of money by the very rich, regulations that encourage domestic industry, plus modern work week hours and living wage laws.
National health care insurance is probably the most important single thing we could do to improve the lives of the poor. A healthier population sharply reduces the significant money lost to illness and death. Not only would it save billions of dollars and millions of lives, it would remove a major disadvantage for companies that compete in markets where national health care is the norm.
When we look at the deep poverty found in the rural south, we see that every part of life is affected by this poverty. That includes the schools. The young do not receive a modern education because desolate state and local economies cannot adequately fund schools. If all Americans are to be educated well, funding must be equal for every student in the country. This cannot happen if a significant part of funding comes from the coffers of very poor states like Mississippi. With equal funding we would have a much better work force, ready for business rejuvenated by improved laws, as well as an intelligent and informed citizenry able to bring more wisdom to the world. This would in time diminish the scourge of ignorance from bad education, of belief in superstition and magic, and of failure to understand science we see even in certain members of Congress.
Austerity, whether a result of unaddressed economic evils or of backward bank practices that prevail in Europe, results in a downward spiral for the people. Investment in the economy, such as with President Obama’s 2009 fiscal stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, has the effect of putting money in the hands of lower income citizens, who cannot afford to hoard it. The money circulates, and improves the local economy.
Dragging the moribund economy of the old south into the 21st century is more important than we commonly believe. Those who suffer include the crabby rednecks who hate Obama, but who deserve a better roll of the dice along with the rest of us, and it will only happen with bold national practices like those I mention here. For nearly a half century, money has been taken out of the hands of these everyday Americans and put in the hideaways of the very rich. This has created unrelieved cruel poverty, and it must end.