The “Original Sin” of “Southernomics”

Ah, Michael Lind, that maddeningly erudite but tunnel-visioned scholar of American history and politics, has struck again! In a piece for Salon that epitomizes his strengths and weaknesses, Lind forces Rick Perry’s “Texas Miracle” economic development scam into his eternal mold of virtuous Yankees and satanic southerners, and manages a drive-by slur on those who think the Earned Income Tax Credit is a pretty important boon to the working poor.

Lind quite properly notes that a recurrent theme in southern politics and economics has been the desire to pursue “low-road” economic development strategies based on cheap labor (and generally poor public services) attractive to footloose capitalists who want little else beyond the lowest possible business costs. He calls this “southernomics,” and appears to attribute it to an inherent regional and perhaps ethnic defect–an “original sin.” Lind appears, however, to be entirely unaware there was a fairly powerful revolt against this model of economic development in the South during the 1980s and 1990s–indeed, it’s one of the things that helped make Bill Clinton famous–based on the observation that better and more stable jobs paying better and more stable wages tended to be produced by companies that valued things beyond low labor and regulatory costs–you know, things like an educated work-force and a good quality of living. The revolt died out during the last decade, in no small part because Democrats lost their competitive status in the region, yielding the field back to atavistic pols like Rick Perry and Nikki Haley, to cite the most egregious examples. But the recent rapid adoption of the low road to development by Yankee pols like Scott Walker is another indicator that it is not some inherent or exclusive product of the evil Southern Character.

So attached is Michael Lind to his theory of ethno-regional determinism, however, that he extends the southern conspiracy to include those who support the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor:

The major champions of the EITC in national politics have tended to be conservative Democrats from the South, like the late Lloyd Bentsen, a reactionary born into the South Texas aristocracy, and Louisiana’s Sen. Russell Long. What makes the EITC so appealing to Southern Democrats and Southern Republicans alike is that it forces the Northern and Western states, by means of the Internal Revenue Service, to subsidize low-wage businesses in the South, even as the South is using the poverty of its workforce to lure high-wage businesses from the North and West. Every penny spent on the federal EITC is a penny that Southern state governments and Southern employers do not have to spend on Southern workers to keep them from starving. By paying taxes to the federal government to fund the EITC, Americans in high-wage states are literally subsidizing the South’s job-stealing program. The progressive policy wonks who prefer a higher EITC to a higher minimum wage are useful idiots, from the perspective of the crafty Southern political-business elite.

I’m sure Paul Krugman, among many others, would be interested to learn he is a “useful idiot” being duped by southern aristocrats (just as southern Republicans, who in my experience are virulently hostile to the EITC and the “lucky ducky” folk who thereby avoid net income tax liability, would probably be surprised to learn they are its staunchest supporters). The basic idea that socialized income supports subsidize irresponsible employers is what has led some “progressives” to deplore Medicaid as a big fat subsidy to Walmart, an argument Lind doesn’t make here.

But he does contradict himself rather stoutly via this paragraph:

Universal, portable social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare increase the bargaining power of workers, by reducing the penalty for quitting a job because of poor wages or poor treatment. If they quit, they don’t endanger their healthcare access or their retirement security. Workers with adequate social insurance are more likely — to use a time-honored Southern phrase — to be “uppity.”

Anyone who quits his or her job more than five years out from retirement age because after all if they don’t starve to death they’ll still get Social Security and Medicare is a lot braver than I’d ever be. The EITC–and for that matter, Medicaid–are vastly more important to actual working people than the portions of “the welfare state” Michael Lind happens to approve of.

But in any event, he’s absolutely right the Perry rap is worth rebutting and fighting and even demonizing, so demonically seductive it is to both conservative pols and “business-minded” people in places with little other than weaknesses to commend them to “job-creators.” If it actually worked, of course, Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the nation. And that’s ultimately the problem with Lind’s analysis: he thinks it does work, which is why he’s so afraid of any approach other than making the South just like the “enlightened” rest of the country.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.