“Po’ Folks” was the name of a treacly country and western song from 1961 by “Whisperin” Bill Anderson. It’s about a family so poor that even a wolf would know not to bother coming to their front door without bringing his “own picnic lunch.”
As music critic Richard Peterson says in his You Wrote My Life: Lyric Themes In Country Music, Anderson’s impoverished family; “had in their shack something ‘money can’t buy,’ and when they become hungry and cold they ‘simply patched the cracks and set the table with love’.”
This romanticized view of poverty was bad enough as far as exploiting other peoples’ suffering for financial gain. (The college-educated Anderson was careful to hide his background from his peers in the music industry in Nashville.) What made it doubly exploitative (and a wonderful example of poetic justice), didn’t become clear until almost 30 years later.
In 1980, Anderson heard that the “Po’ Folks” name had been lifted by a chain of franchise restaurants. He considered filing suit to stop its unauthorized use but ended up selling his rights to the name to the chain, and became its corporate spokesman. (His role was similar to that of the late Jerry Clower, the Cajun country comic, on behalf of Sutherland Lumber. Clower was known for such masterpieces as “Marcel and The Talkin’ Chain Saw” and other timeless classics.)
Anderson and another country great, Conway Twitty (as in “Conway Twitty and the Twitty Birds”), even bought their own location in Oklahoma City for their own Po’ Folks restaurant.
Critic Peterson attributes the restaurants’ appeal to the way that their “home-cooked vittles” (washed down by mason jars of ice tea) allowed people to go on a trip down memory lane by eating the foods of the poor (cornbread, beans, and greens). “Nostalgia” is the term for a brief return to the past as long as one does not have to go through “its hardships and trials on a permanent basis.” This second round of exploiting a romanticized view of poverty deservedly fell on its face in 1987 when the entire 102 restaurant chain took bankruptcy.
It just takes different forms, depending on the sophistication of the audience and the motives of its purveyors. I’m talking specifically of the Kansas City Star’s harping on “Income Inequality,” the thinking man’s way of playing the “Po’ Folks” card.
What better personification of the term “thinking man” than Henry (“Harry”) Haskell. Harry is the grandson and son of long-time editors and owners of the Star. Harry is also the former music critic for the Star, as well as the author of Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and Its Star, a decidedly sympathetic history of the paper.
On April 2nd, Haskell used his “As I See It” column to promote his forthcoming biography of Frank Walsh, a Kansas City labor lawyer appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the US Commission on Industrial Relations. (A Progressive era entity, it was charged with looking into the labor/management strife that wracked the country a century ago.)
Specifically, Walsh was tasked with the investigation of the brutal suppression of a strike in April of 1914 at a Ludlow, Colorado coal mine owned by the Rockefeller family. There was understandable outrage at the time that the Colorado state militia ended up killing two dozen men, women, and children when they were called in to break the strike. The resulting public outcry led Walsh and the other IRC members to condemn the disparity between rich and poor, which they felt had caused the violence and posed a threat to the very existence of American democracy.
Haskell says that the reforms suggested as part of its Progressive agenda (the eight hour work day, recognition of workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargaining, a living wage and equal pay for women) reflected the growing national consensus that workers had been denied their fair share of the country’s growing wealth.
Haskell concludes by suggesting that today’s “progressives” could do worse than by taking a page from Frank Walsh and redressing income inequality, both as a matter of “fairness” and “national security.”
Immediately, below Haskell’s column (“Harry Haskell on Economic Justice History—Income Inequality Is An Old Issue”) is a picture of one William Rockhill Nelson, the Star’s founder and a Grade A Rich Shitheel (John Steinbeck’s phrase) by anyone’s estimation, not least by what’s disclosed in Haskell’s own history of the paper. (Nelson is remembered for, among other things, having his minions—including the sainted William Allen White—throw the Mayor of Kansas City down a flight of stairs when the furious mayor confronted Nelson at the Star’s offices. Nelson is also credited with saying; “The Star never loses!” No more Mr. Nice Guy!)
The idea of anyone using the Star, Nelson’s legacy, as a platform to attack wealth and privilege is as absurd as it is offensive.
It’s only because of income inequality that Nelson was able to create the newspaper in the first place. His family were newspaper owners in Indiana and they provided the capital to start the Star when Nelson moved here. It was only because the paper was so profitable that he was able to build it into the monopoly it eventually became. That and the predatory business practices that Nelson and his successors (like Haskell’s grandfather) perfected.
These tactics were practiced by the Star well into the 1950’s. For example, the only television station in Kansas City for years was WDAF, owned by the Star until it was forced to divest by the U.S. Justice Department. Nobody here but us monopolists! The brutality of the Star’s shakedown approach to selling advertising was highlighted in a 1957 trial where a Federal jury “popped” (that’s a legal term of art) the KC Star for millions of dollars in punitive damages in a criminal anti-trust proceeding.
Harry is himself a product of Pembroke-Country Day and Harvard College, and a resident of Guilford, Connecticut. (The only other Guilford resident I know is Timothy Mellon; heir to Gulf Oil, Alcoa, Mellon National Bank, and various other industrial concerns. It ain’t Raytown, in other words.) In short, he is an improbable tribune of the poor and disenfranchised.
Haskell mirrors the Star’s own schizophrenia. Like the paper, he claims to be hostile to concentrations of wealth in the abstract but loves all the specific things that private wealth has created. These include private schools, Ivy League universities, the Nelson Gallery, the Kemper Museum, the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera, the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts, St. Luke’s Hospital, Children’s Mercy Hospital, and the Linda Hall Library. In other words, if there wasn’t “income inequality” and there were no “concentrations of wealth” how could any of these private institutions that do so much to add to our quality of life in general (and to Mr. Haskell’s in particular) have been created or survived?
The other point that is painfully obvious is that, despite all its populist rhetoric about wealth redistribution, the Star’s own attitude to our own wealthy elite is embarrassingly sycophantic. When Adele Hall, local philanthropist and the wife of former Hallmark CEO Donald Hall, Sr., died last year, the Star’s headline read; “Another Star Is in Heaven Tonight!” I’m no populist myself but this kind of fawning obsequiousness is embarrassing, no matter how wonderful a person she was.
Unfazed by its glaring hypocrisy, the Star continues its daily agitprop along lines set by Democratic National Committee talking points. On Tuesday, April 8th, Keith Chrostowski, the Star’s Business editor, wrote a column based on the findings in a new study commissioned by N.A.S.A. on how “income inequality” could threaten the very survival of civilization. (What on earth does this have to do with space exploration?)
Chrostowski opined that the problem is not only getting worse, but that we do indeed face an existential threat if it’s not speedily redressed through the redistribution of wealth (“reduce economic inequality so that resources are shared more fairly!). (Emphasis Added)
Regardless of what you think the solution is, there are pretty obvious reasons behind the trend. The growth of technology, the impact of trade, immigration, the growing returns on capital versus labor; all these are worldwide trends contributing to widening economic disparity. The important thing to remember, however, is that these are global challenges and virtually every country is facing them. (Why else is the term “globalization” heard so often?)
To give one more example to show that we are not alone in dealing with these issues, Switzerland recently held two national referenda on how to limit excessive corporate CEO pay. I can’t wait to see how the Star blames this same perceived problem of income inequality—in another affluent, democratic, developed country three thousand miles away—on the Koch brothers or the Kansas state legislature.
Chrostowski notes ruefully that Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard, shelved a “10 year effort to write a book about income inequality because studies looking for deleterious effects are failing to pin down direct consequences.” He hastens to add that there is no evidence that income inequality doesn’t cause all the bad effects attributed to it.
This is a form of bizarro logic truly worthy of a promotion to the Star Editorial Board. By that reasoning, I feel I can blame Mr. Chrostowski for the recent unfortunate incident at “Free Day” at the Kansas City Zoo. Just because video reveals that it was an entirely African-American crowd at the zoo entrance that day when the random shots were fired, how do we know that the gunfire didn’t come from a middle aged white guy like Chrostowski? Is there evidence that he didn’t playfully let off a few rounds out at Swope Park to liven things up? I rest my case!
Seriously, I could have told journalist Chrostowski and academic Jencks in five minutes why all their preconceived notions on the subject are wrong:
1) Concentrations of wealth are incompatible with democracy—
Mind you, we’re not talking about wealth misused to corrupt the political process or to wield disproportion power politically, but the mere existence of concentrations of wealth. If the wealth was earned without fraud or coercion, and it is used in a responsible way to benefit the community (think R. Crosby Kemper, Jr.; Ewing Kauffman; Adele Hall; Robert Ingram, etc); how is it inherently incompatible with a democratic society?
2) Disparity of wealth destroys social mobility—
I read a year ago about a young man who graduated from one of the Blue Valley high schools and then attended Cal Tech. The son of Asian immigrants, he sold his share in a high-tech start-up for $50,000,000. How is his creation of wealth (which after all does all the horrible things we’re constantly lectured about, “adding to a widening gap between rich and poor,” “increasing income inequality,” and “concentrating wealth in the hands of a few”) harmful to anyone else’s chances for upward mobility? I would argue that his success is the fulfillment of the ideal of upward mobility, not its nemesis.
3) Concentrations of wealth at the top of the income scale necessarily means less money received by those at the bottom—
In the words of James Steele, author of The Betrayal of the American Dream; “When so much money gets concentrated in so few hands in such a short period of time, it has to come at someone else’s expense!” Why? How? Dr. Dre, the hip hop artist took home $110,000,000 last year from the sale of his headphones. Justin Bieber only earned $55,000,000. I think this calls for economic reparations from talented African-Americans to dumbshit white boys of Canadian descent. (I include myself in that category!) Seriously, how does this fortune, earned by an entrepreneur meeting consumer demand, mean less money for those at the bottom of the income scale? How does all the money made by Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig of Cerner reduce incomes, say in Wyandotte County, especially now that Cerner has put a facility there?
4) The widening disparity of incomes means the formation of “INERT MASSES OF WEALTH,” passed down intact from generation to generation.
Chrostowski said in his column on Tuesday; “More people are rich because they inherited it rather than earned it.”
Just looking around, one knows this instinctively to be false. Thirty plus years ago when the Forbes 400 lists were first being compiled, it was full of the names of heirs to the old industrial fortunes; with plenty of Pews, Duponts, and Rockefellers. Those names are almost all gone from the current list. In fact, only 10% of those listed acquired their money solely through inheritance. Another 20% started with family money of varying degrees and built on that. 70% of those now on the list are entirely self-made individuals.
When I look around Kansas City, I know it to be false, as well.
When I was a boy there was a family here who had sold their business for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million. ($100 million in today’s dollars.) In less than two generations all that money was gone. The scion of the family died in his late 40s, after a life of excess. His sister now works as a waitress and lives in a double wide. (I hasten to add these were educated, sophisticated people who had had money for some time before their huge windfall, unlike the poor souls who win the lottery and are unprepared to deal with their new found wealth.)
By contrast, on the day Chrostowski’s article appeared my wife got an e-mail from a friend of hers, a high school graduate and beautician. Italian-American, I’m willing to bet she was born in what Kansas Citians of a certain age still call “The North End,” but I know she has since moved to Platte County. The e-mail forwarded us photos of a $23 million ocean front mansion a member of her family had just purchased in Hawaii. Her relative, a very successful entrepreneur, has been generous to all his extended family, frequently inviting them on all expenses paid vacations, for example.
I don’t know anyone who lives on that scale but why should I resent it or begrudge her cousin the fruits of his success? The Star, of course, is trying to have it both ways; playing the populist demagogue by stoking resentment and hatred of the wealthy and at the same time sucking up to the local rich to get them to spend their money on the things the Star wants them to. They are like Eddie Murphy in the old SNL routine, where he plays a Jamaican Rastafarian promoting his new hit single; “”Kill The White People!’ (But let them buy my CD first!)” When Eddie did it, such hypocrisy was funny. When the Star does it, it’s not.