We live in a small town; and although the saying that everybody knows everybody is an exaggeration, there probably are no more than two or three degrees of separation between almost everyone in our community.
Earlier this summer we needed overgrown brush cut from our property. We mention this to one of the workers on another project at hour home. The response came quickly: “Tommy has the equipment. He told me the other day he needs work.”
My wife called Tommy, and he was at our house in a few hours. Although he was using machinery, physical labor, such as getting his equipment on and off his truck, was involved in the job. I mention this because, although Tommy was more than up to this task, it was a challenge: Tommy had been born with cerebral palsy which limited the use of his right hand, arm, and leg, as well as his speech.
When Tommy finished his job, we chatted for a while. He had worked for a power company for over ten years but could no longer keep up with the demands of that job. I asked Tommy about the kinds of equipment he owned. It was clear that Tommy had invested much money in his business. He was not content to sit home. His daily work was not easy for him; but it was clear that, like all of us, he took satisfaction in doing meaningful work and a job well done.
We have had quite a few projects at our house this summer; and although no other workers or craftsman had Tommy’s challenge, they did share many characteristics. They were all decent, honest people trying to do a good job the best they knew how.
Many of them work more than one job or volunteer in their community. Just the other day, the technician from the gas company was able to answer a question about safety rules for propane tanks that perplexed me for years. When I told him that he was the first one to give me a straight answer, he explained that he’d gained his knowledge working as an emergency responder in his town.
This summer we interacted with salaried workers, craftspeople, and contractors. In a slow economy their reputation is their most valuable asset. The marketplace rewards them when they do a fine job at a fair price so that their customers recommend them to others. This is how the world works in the sector of the economy that really works for a living.
Not so in Washington, DC. A recent New York Times story tells us that “Washington may have the healthiest economy of any major metropolitan area in the country” and that “in McLean, Va., and Potomac, Md., mansions continue to rise from the ground.”
The author, Dave Leonhardt, allows that:
Some of the local prosperity, of course, is not worth celebrating. It stems from what economists call rent-seeking — tapping into the economic value created by someone else, rather than creating new value.
In Washington’s case, the rent-seeking takes the form of capturing even a small portion of the financial gusher flowing to and from the federal government. The lobbyists, consultants and defense contractors building some of those mansions in McLean and Potomac are doing so, in effect, with government dollars from military or Medicare or other budgets.
But then Leonhardt tell us that some of this spending is good:
A Keynesian response to an economic crisis really can make a difference. The Washington area’s households and businesses have cut back in recent years, too, but their frugality has been offset by steady government spending. If anything, government has helped fill the void, with the District of Columbia’s having received more stimulus dollars per capita than any state, according to an analysis by ProPublica.
Leonhardt seems to forget that government cannot spend any money that is not taken from the earnings of someone else. The stimulus spending that Leonhardt glorifies is coming from the taxes paid by the honest workers we had at our home this summer. And, I can tell you this: If you asked any of them whether or not they would trade their life for the life of a rich government contractor with a mansion in the DC suburbs, they would look at you like you lost your mind.
Most people in my neck of the woods are not very religious. They would never quote, and maybe they have never read the Bible’s admonition: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” But they know the truth of that perennial wisdom on a visceral level—and that is why they are honest men.