a funny thing how different people can live in the same place and see
the world in entirely different ways. I wake up every morning in a
country that strikes me as astoundingly wealthy, a place where people
have more money than good sense.
But I listen to local union representatives and grocery strikers -
and especially the Democratic presidential candidates - and I'm left
thinking that America is one step above Calcutta.
I don't get it.
"Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One
America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward,"
said Sen. John Edwards, the multimillionaire trial lawyer who has made
class warfare the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
As I see it, people here aren't just well-nourished, they are
overweight, victims of having so much cheap food at their beck and call
that they can't control themselves. I'm not making fun of my fellow
citizens, given that I am incapable of driving past Carl's Jr. without
stopping for a Famous Star, but I am observing reality.
Everywhere I go, I see other people just like me - a little pudgy,
wearing nice clothing, driving late-model cars, living in nice houses,
eating at good restaurants, planning their next weekend at the beach or
mountains, shopping for discount airline tickets, filling Sam's Club
shopping carts with gadgets and delicacies that are the envy of the
This isn't life among the elite, but life among average folk. The
shopping centers always are busy, and that's not because there is any
shortage of them. I live within a few miles of seven home improvement
warehouses. You can't sneeze without driving by another upscale
My neighborhood of well-kept older tract houses isn't home to the
rich and famous, but mainly to middle-class people who work in a
variety of blue-collar and midlevel white-collar jobs. Many of my
neighbors are immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants, and
almost all of them are homeowners, not renters.
Isn't this evidence of the American dream? Is this really a land of destitution, where only a tiny elite are living comfortably?
I've lived in older, rust-belt cities where factories have closed.
My wife is from a coal- mining town in Appalachia. I am well-aware of
the poorer neighborhoods around us. But even in these less-affluent
places, I see nothing but well-fed, nicely dressed people awash in the
sort of amenities unimaginable decades ago.
Just for fun, drive to the most modest neighborhood you can find and
look at the newer cars, minivans and SUVs in the driveways or on the
street and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Now I understand that there really are people going through hard
times. I don't mean to gloss over that fact or dismiss their plight.
But that's mainly what today's class warriors claim to see. They see
only a world where the rich always are screwing the poor, an America
that is divided between the haves and have-nots. They ignore how middle
class most of us are, the opportunities that exist to start businesses,
get an education and get good jobs, and the top-notch health care
almost all of us receive.
The ongoing grocery dispute centers on whether well-compensated,
low-skill stockers and checkers (who earn as much as $50 an hour on
weekends) should have to contribute $5 to $15 a week in health care
costs. The unions depict this as a fight between Robber Barons and
Suffering Workers. I've crossed enough grocery picket lines recently to
see workers unloading strike signs out of $40,000 SUVs. It's hard to
feel more than the slightest pang of sympathy for them.
The union members love to criticize their employers, urging us, as
shoppers, to go somewhere else, as if the employee's future is improved
by harming the company that pays his bills. As ABC's John Stossel noted
at a recent Orange County Forum luncheon, Americans hate their
employers, who pay them, but love the government, which takes one-third
of their income. Figure that one out.
Union members rail against Wal-Mart, as if Wal-Mart has put a gun to
anyone's head to make one shop or work there. They compare all of
corporate America to Enron executives. But companies - unlike the
government and unions, which base their power on force rather than
choice - get ahead by offering the best-possible goods at the
lowest-possible prices. Rip-off artists like those execs at Enron
generally end up bankrupt and in jail.
Yet Democratic front-runner John Kerry thinks otherwise. His
economic program is based on punishing corporate wrongdoers, as if they
typify the economic system.
But no one has the rhetoric down like Edwards: "One America that
pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America
that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another
America that never has to do a thing because its children are already
set for life. ..."
I'm practically wiping tears from my eyes as I write. Seriously,
doesn't the good senator realize that the dreaded rich people, who
create the jobs and build businesses, pay the lion's share of the
taxes, which explains why most voters support "more programs" if they
are paid for by "the rich"? The top 1 percent of earners pays 36
percent of the nation's income taxes.
Edwards is a smart guy. He knows the truth. He also knows how to appeal to base instincts to win votes.
So does state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Speaking to 14,000
union members in Inglewood last month, he announced a state lawsuit
against Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons because of a revenue-sharing deal
the three companies have arranged during the strike.
The federal courts have allowed such deals, just as they allow
similar deals by unions. Yet Lockyer - in a move that undermines any
pretense of fairness in the state's administration of justice -
declares, "This kind of corporate misbehavior breeds acts of
That's right, let's shut down these evil corporations and then the
union workers can work for ... oops, there's the rub. Well, I hear the
government always is hiring.
By almost any standard, America is a wealthy land with abundant
opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and invest in their future.
No place will ever be utopia, so the poor will always be with us. I
don't close my eyes to them. I've written about the poor living in
Anaheim motels and about the Catholic Worker homeless shelter.
Sometimes people need help.
But the road from poverty to the middle class is well-trodden,
provided individuals work hard, go to school and eschew government
dependency and certain bad behaviors (drug addiction, teen pregnancy,
I'm no fan of federal programs. But those who gauge America's
compassion by its willingness to spend tax dollars on social programs
have got to quit acting as if this is Dickens' England. The top two
federal spending items are Health and Human Services ($571.6 billion)
and Social Security ($555 billion), and both of those (FY 2005) budgets
are increasing significantly under the "heartless" Bush administration.
Yet the facts never matter to the class warriors. There always are
those people who refuse to see the many blessings they have, preferring
to cast their eyes greedily toward their neighbors. And there are
always politicians eager to exploit such feelings.
H.L. Mencken was right. Every election is an advance auction of
stolen goods. But I think even he would be shocked at the disconnect
between the rhetoric and the reality.