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Better Off Without ’Em

Posted on Jul 2, 2013

By Allen Barra

(Page 2)

Whites in the South overwhelmingly support right-to-work laws, which Thompson defines, correctly, as “the Orwellian euphemism for ‘the right for companies to disregard the welfare of their workers.’ ” According to a 2009 survey by Grand Valley State University, annual salaries for autoworkers in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina averaged about $55,400, while their counterparts in Michigan averaged $74,500. Thompson notes that Southern blue-collar workers also have “inferior health and pension plans, less job security, higher risk of being fired for trivial reasons, and diminished safety precautions. … ”

Not only are Southern workers hurt by their anti-union attitudes, the whole nation suffers. “Southern economic success,” writes Thompson, “comes at the expense of the rest of the country.” By luring foreign manufacturers to Southern states with promises of cheap labor, “The South is bad for the American economy in the same way that China and Mexico are bad for the American economy. By keeping corporate taxes low, public schools underfunded, and workers’ rights to organize negligible, it’s southern politicians who make it so. … [The South] is an in-house parasite that bleeds the country far more than it contributes to its collective health.”

That leads to what is for me the single most baffling 21st century paradox about the South. The region, home to nine of the nation’s 10 poorest states, is rabidly against government spending, yet all of its states get far more in government subsidies than they give back in taxes, as pointed out by Sara Robinson in a 2012 piece for Public Theology, “Blue States Pay Taxes, Red States Receive Benefits.”

I live in a blue state, New Jersey, where we get about 70 cents back for every dollar in taxes we send to Washington. I work several days out of my year to support Southern states as well as Western red states like New Mexico and Arizona, which can’t support themselves. Is Kentucky a Southern state? Well, it’s red, and it receives $1.57 from the feds for every buck it pays. How does its senator, Rand Paul, justify this? 

“The hard fact,” writes Thompson, “is that the South simply does not pull its own weight.”

I wish I didn’t have to come back to Thompson’s football argument, but he’s completely and obviously wrong, and unfortunately this chapter has been the most quoted from “Better Off Without ’Em.”

Thompson argues that “Between 1950 and 1997 only nine southern teams were crowned as undisputed national champions.” He seems unaware that until the Bowl Championship Series started in 1998, just about every year more than one team was chosen No. 1 by various polls. Having family ties to Notre Dame, Thompson resents that in 1973 the Alabama Crimson Tide was voted the national champions by UPI, despite the fact that the Fighting Irish beat Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl. I guess he isn’t old enough to remember 1966, when defending champion Alabama finished 11-0 and was still outvoted in the AP and UPI polls by a 9-0-1 Notre Dame.

He insists that the SEC has been regarded as the nation’s top football conference for so long because “It’s better than other conferences at media manipulation.” I wonder what Thompson thought this past January when Alabama manipulated the media into thinking it had crushed Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS title game.

Thompson is right that we are two separate countries with irreconcilable differences on health care, gun control, abortion laws, gay marriage, voter registration, subsidies for education, the role of religion in society, the definition of patriotism and the importance of unions. It could be an amicable divorce where everyone gets what they want: Southerners want the federal government to stop spending so much money and get out of their lives, and we in the Northeast would pay lower taxes because we would no longer have to support the poorest states in the country. All the crackpots and phonies who vied for the Republican nomination for president last year—Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and for good measure I’ll toss in Sarah Palin—were taken seriously only because the potential nominee would have all the Southern states on their side of the ledger. (When someone reminds Thompson that Palin is not from the South, he responds, “Hitler wasn’t from Germany, either. Palin wouldn’t exist if not for the South.”)

Let all the other states decide which country they want to be part of, and if Texas really believes it can be self-sufficient, let it declare itself an independent republic.

To Thompson’s credit, Southerners are allowed their comments. “I think,” one of them tells him, “you all would be dull as shit without us.” That guy is right. So much of American culture comes from the South: writers Edgar Allan Poe, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor, to say nothing of our music—blues, jazz, country, rock ‘n’ roll. But if we did split into two countries, we’d still get to enjoy all that culture. Being separated by a 3,000-mile ocean didn’t keep the Brits from loving rock ‘n’ roll.

One of Thompson’s interviewees tells him, “The most fundamental flaw I see in your scenario is the South has come to really embody the real patriotic America. If we secede, the USA would become Canada South. We are the real USA.” I might agree if I saw Southerners expressing their patriotism on any subject other than war. In any event, it’s of no concern to me who gets to be the real USA—maybe the competition would do us both good. And right now, to be frank, Canada South sounds pretty good.


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