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Spread the news far and wide / August 10, 2017
If a restaurant had to swap out its Special of the Day as fast as the news cycle spins nowadays, ownership would go insane and the place would declare bankruptcy sometime between the serving of the appetizer and main course.

Yet here we are.

Let’s check this week’s menu ….


It didn’t take long for people to reach out Monday to ask, “Did you see the Bloomberg article about South Boston?”’s Aug. 7 deep-think piece was titled “This American Town Was Left to Die, and Suddenly Economists Care.” The first thing I’ll say about the article is, yes, I saw it, probably within an hour or so after it was first posted online, because that’s the kind of world today that we live in. Second, Bloomberg’s sojourn to South Boston builds on a long and (in)glorious record of our community drawing an inordinate amount of national media attention over the years. We’ve shown up in The Washington Post, The New York Times, MSNBC and now Bloomberg. Yet still no love from Mad magazine. Drats.

As for the article itself, where to start? The general premise is that South Boston is typical of communities around the country that were hollowed out by free trade and the decline of the manufacturing sector, all deliberate outcomes of a prevailing economic policy known as “neoliberalism.” (You could substitute the word “globalism” and have pretty much the same thing.) Without so much as checking the Wikipedia page, I can give you a snap definition of neoliberalism: It’s the political consensus that developed in the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union that posited that capitalism was ascendant and history was dead (the title of a famous essay), and everything from now on should be organized around capital-friendly tenets of open borders and free flow of goods. Under this political consensus, the United States would develop its economy around comparative advantages of a highly-educated workforce, strong financial sector, technological prowess and what else have you. The private sector would function largely in concert with the public sector, with the reach of the latter greatly diminished. The results as we experience them today are personified by (1) WalMart, (2) iPhones, (3) European ballers in the NBA and (4) empty textile plants. Which brings us back to South Boston.

The Bloomberg piece is both a hoot and a yawn. It’s got Paul Krugman! And Joseph Stiglitz! And Thomas Piketty! (All of whom, by the way, are awesome. Yes, I read lefty economic blogs. Everyone is entitled to a weird hobby.) Piketty is a French economist who has done pioneering work on income inequality, which unfortunately receives fairly cursory treatment in Bloomberg’s article. Another missing component in the piece are real people, i.e., flesh-and-blood examples of how a free trade, capital-driven economy has produced genuine human suffering and angst. The basic story that Bloomberg tells has been told many times before, and often better elsewhere.

The amusing part of the Bloomberg article? I loved how an All-Star team of liberal economists is paired up with for public sector celebrities in little ol’ Halifax County. There’s Tom Raab joining rhetorical arms with Paul Krugman! Jim Halasz tag-teaming with Joe Stiglitz! (Both South Boston’s town manager and the Halifax County administrator are quoted prominently by Bloomberg reporter Craig Torres.) Offering a definition of neoliberalism, Bloomberg notes (accurately) that its strongest proponents have included “Washington think-tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, which predicted “prosperity that benefits every citizen” with the adoption of this modernized economic approach. The word “neoliberalism” is confusing insofar as it suggests liberals might be the chief proponents. Yet all of neoliberalism’s critics in Bloomberg’s piece (Krugman, Stiglitz and others) are famously left-wing. The Heritage Foundation, on the other hand, is famously right-wing. Under any reasonable definition of neoliberalism, one could group figures as disparate as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Bernie Sanders is definitely not a neoliberal. Hillary Clinton is. Donald Trump isn’t a neoliberal, either, but whereas most dissenters from the orthodoxy want to reverse the obscenely lopsided distribution of wealth upward to neoliberalism’s winners, Trump just wants to give his beleaguered superrich friends a big fat tax cut.

The big question as far as South Boston is concerned is: Why us? How did we come to be featured in this mass-media, enterprise-level piece of journalism? (To my way of thinking at least, the article paradoxically also has the feel of being patched together by a reporting team that parachuted into town.) Bloomberg’s choice of South Boston seems to be tied to two other local figures quoted in the article: Ted Bennett and Tommy Nelson, former executive director and current foundation board president, respectively, of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. The SVHEC is a genuine triumph. It’s an example of how civic-minded people in Halifax County work very hard to ensure that our community has a future. I’m not really sure if Halifax County and South Boston can claim a self-supporting ethos that surpasses that of other communities, but the SVHEC offers a compelling story of how small communities haven’t given up on their futures. If I were an out-of-town journalist looking to profile a community that refuses to be crushed under the neoliberal thumb, I’d be intrigued, too.

Then again, if I were said out-of-town journalist, I do hope I would have the discretion — and good sense — not to write these words: “The repair job under way in Halifax County owes little to political ideology, or to economists. It’s a patchwork of self-help.” Um, OK. Don’t get me wrong: Lots of people in Halifax County have much to be proud of in their efforts to make the community a better place. Can’t stress that point strongly enough. Yet it’s also true that we evince an unfortunate tendency to be our own worst enemies. Which, contrary to Bloomberg’s assertion, is entirely a matter of political ideology. Their article serves up a weird juxtaposition of lefty economists who warned from the start that globalization would create winners and losers and that more should be done to protect those on the short end of the bargain – and plucky, self-reliant locals who have no use for lefty economists. One party is noble, the other is knowledgeable, and the twain shall never meet.

Let’s never forget that Halifax County and Southside Virginia could gain hundreds of good-paying jobs practically overnight with one simple step: expanding Medicaid to cover the poor, including the working poor. Aside from improving the woeful health status of the area, Medicaid expansion would be a sure-fire way to spur employment in the health care sector. And boy, could we ever sure use both positive outcomes: The United Way recently produced a study on the state of Virginia that suggests that fully half of Halifax County citizens struggle to afford basic necessities, of which health care is a biggie. (Halifax’s 51 percent score on the United Way survey is nothing special, by the way: Mecklenburg’s figure is 52 percent, Danville city is 49 percent, Brunswick County is 55 percent and Charlotte County is 58 percent. There really isn’t very much in Charlotte County to support anything.) Medicaid expansion is one of the finest aspects of Obamacare, a.k.a. that law that ain’t going anywhere (thanks, Congress!), and you might think after recent Republican failures on this score state GOP lawmakers such as James Edmunds and Frank Ruff would drop their foolish and cruel opposition to helping their own constituents access health care. Instead, Virginia Medicaid expansion continues to be held up in the General Assembly by Republican legislators, many hailing from areas that would benefit most (such as Southside). There are many more examples I could give of reactionary politics and ideology getting in the way of our best efforts toward self-salvation, but I’ll stop there. (Although not before first giving whatever the opposite of a shout-out is to Bloomberg for crediting “tobacco settlement funds” that were “scraped together” for the community’s revival. Does that parachute come with a ripcord?)

It’s boneheaded, self-defeating stuff like this — along with continued voter support for do-nothing types like James Edmunds in an important sphere where perhaps some help for Halifax County could be had — that makes me want to throw my smartphone into a bathtub whenever I read about the resolve of rural communities to “transform” themselves. How about we simply not shoot ourselves in the foot? “This American Town Was Left to Die, and Suddenly Economists Care” is not a headline meant to reflect well on economists. Fair enough — the opprobrium is deserved. But what headline should we write about ourselves? By avoiding that task, maybe the folks at Bloomberg were only trying to be polite.


Regarding the other big news in the headlines: I don’t really think the prospect of nuclear war with North Korea is much to be worried about, but I do suddenly find myself spending a lot of time online reading up on a subject that I normally pay little attention to. So maybe the panic center of my brain is trying to tell the logic center something.

The run-up to World War I might be useful to consider here: It’s generally accepted by historians that the nations of Europe that fought that war never thought it would happen, didn’t believe it would accomplish much good, nor did they plan to spill their own blood and treasure. Yet somehow the antagonists blundered into war anyway, even without the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un calling the shots.

Maybe after Trump’s “fire and fury” threat this week, someone can cancel the HBO feed so the President of the United States will refrain from dragon-riding “Game of Thrones” fantasies?

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