All about ideas…

Why the Irish Potato famine is relevant today.

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Under Peel and the Tories Ireland had been hungry, but she had not starved. Under the Conservatives and Prime Minister Lord John Russell, the Irish poor really suffered. In July of 1846 only one forth of the normal crop was saved. In June of the same year, Lord John Russell became Prime Minister of a minority Whig government. The Whigs believed in the policies of laissez faire economics and therefore, were “committed to free trade and were opposed to interfering with normal commerce, either by importing cheap foodstuffs or, as was the done in previous crises, by preventing the export of food” (Kissane 45). Under normal circumstances, such policies would be appropriate, but during the famine they only led to disaster.

Laissez faire economics is the hallmark of Reaganomics. It is the exact economic policy that GW Bush and his adherents, including the newly minted McCain, have followed for the last eight years.

Here is how a previous American generation dealt with Laissez faire economics during the infamous Gilded Age:

The “Gilded Age” of the second half of the 19th century was the epoch of tycoons. Many Americans came to idealize these businessmen who amassed vast financial empires. Often their success lay in seeing the long-range potential for a new service or product, as John D. Rockefeller did with oil. They were fierce competitors, single-minded in their pursuit of financial success and power. Other giants in addition to Rockefeller and Ford included Jay Gould, who made his money in railroads; J. Pierpont Morgan, banking; and Andrew Carnegie, steel. Some tycoons were honest according to business standards of their day; others, however, used force, bribery, and guile to achieve their wealth and power. For better or worse, business interests acquired significant influence over government.

Morgan, perhaps the most flamboyant of the entrepreneurs, operated on a grand scale in both his private and business life. He and his companions gambled, sailed yachts, gave lavish parties, built palatial homes, and bought European art treasures. In contrast, men such as Rockefeller and Ford exhibited puritanical qualities. They retained small-town values and lifestyles. As church-goers, they felt a sense of responsibility to others. They believed that personal virtues could bring success; theirs was the gospel of work and thrift. Later their heirs would establish the largest philanthropic foundations in America.

While upper-class European intellectuals generally looked on commerce with disdain, most Americans—living in a society with a more fluid class structure—enthusiastically embraced the idea of moneymaking. They enjoyed the risk and excitement of business enterprise, as well as the higher living standards and potential rewards of power and acclaim that business success brought.

In the early years of American history, most political leaders were reluctant to involve the federal government too heavily in the private sector, except in the area of transportation. In general, they accepted the concept of laissez-faire, a doctrine opposing government interference in the economy except to maintain law and order. This attitude started to change during the latter part of the 19th century, when small business, farm, and labor movements began asking the government to intercede on their behalf.

The American labor movement began with the first significant labor union, the Knights of Labor in 1867. The group helped begin the movement to end child labor, have an eight-hour workday, and use collective bargaining to help improve workers’ lots.

A popular movement formed in the agricultural sector at the same time. The Grange movement, also founded in 1867, was a group of farmers who banded together to fight railroad monopolies that hurt grain shipping and to protect other farming interests.

By the turn of the century, a middle class had developed that was leery of both the business elite and the somewhat radical political movements of farmers and laborers in the Midwest and West. Known as Progressives, these people favored government regulation of business practices to, in their minds, ensure competition and free enterprise.

Congress enacted a law regulating railroads in 1887 (the Interstate Commerce Act), and one preventing large firms from controlling a single industry in 1890 (the Sherman Antitrust Act). These laws were not rigorously enforced, however, until the years between 1900 and 1920, when Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), and others sympathetic to the views of the Progressives came to power. Many of today’s U.S. regulatory agencies were created during these years, including the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.

The reason why the Irish Potato famine and the American Gilded Age are important today is because this nation is now caught between the two economically and philosophically.

The Reagan laissez faire Republicans have led this Country into another Gilded Age which, as we can see, led to disasters such as disastrous Irish potato famine. When business is permitted to self-regulate itself, the greedy will always seek self-gratification. When government turns its back from regulations which proposes a level playing ground, the rich and powerful will seek self-advantage through their power and their money.

Laissez faire economics means letting the rich and powerful impose their self-interest over the interests of the rest of society.

I am a Democrat not because I am a tax-and-spend liberal, but because I believe in the values of Teddy Roosevelt. I believe that business owners left to their own self-interested devices will ruin the U.S. economy. As a student of History, I understand that laissez faire economics, to which the Republicans and John McCain adhere, is disastrous to the middle class.

Since the end of WWII…or the 1950s under Dwight D. Eisenhower…the middle class has been the economic engine of this country. During Eisenhower (R) and later John Kennedy (D), this country experienced the greatest expansion of the middle class in our nation’s history. Both understood that innovation and growth came out the middle class – not out of the wealthy.

Therefore, the idea of giving the wealthy (the upper 10%) greater tax benefits in order to create more jobs flies in the face of history. The upper 10% tax bracket provides little in the way of jobs creation or manufacturing innovation. On the contrary, middle class innovation is the economic engine which consistently provides the new manufacturing jobs of the future.

While everyone understands this precept, the U.S. tax code as it currently exists gives a priority to those who are extremely wealthy while preventing middle class innovators from enjoying the same benefits. For example, if you’re wealthy, you can purchase and qualify for a large number of tax exemptions. On the other hand, if you’re a small firm, you cannot afford those tax exemptions even though your firm may be on the cutting edge of a new, desired technology that could change the world.

Even Republicans understand this concept; yet, they consistently vote against changing the laissez faire economic tax code that favors the ultra-rich. It’s as if they’re schizophrenic.

That’s what I see in the McCain tax and programs plan. A schizophrenia. He understands that small to mid-sized business are the business innovators who will lead this country forward technologically (which is what I see in Obama’s proposed policies); yet, he doesn’t want to disturb his wealthy Republican constituents by proposing anything against their self-interests.

I don’t think America can have it both ways. Either the tax code can reduce taxes on the innovative middle class or it can continue to support the extremely wealthy.

The Irish potato famine continues to be a perfect example of why the extremely wealthy should no longer be favored in tax codes.


Written by Valerie Curl

October 17, 2008 at 7:54 PM

One Response

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  1. Obama’s tax plan will destroy the Social Security system.

    Obama says his income tax plan will lower taxes for 95% of Americans. There is just one problem with this, 40% of Americans already pay no income tax. Obama’s response to this is that these people pay Social Security tax. Well, that’s not income tax, but a contribution to their retirement plan. So if he wins and implements his tax plan, for the first time in the history of Social Security, 40% of the people who will get retirement benefits will have paid nothing for them. Social Security will then loose all pretext of being a retirement plan, and will become a national welfare program.

    This will cause Social Security to lose public support in a massive way. Leave Social Security contributions out of income tax plans. If you take some peoples income taxes to pay others Social Security taxes, Social Security will be destroyed forever.



    October 23, 2008 at 5:45 PM

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