Post commentator Harold Meyerson has a provocative piece today that links the sesquicentennial of the Civil War to today’s battles over government spending and the diminished clout of the average U.S. worker.
In a nutshell, Meyerson argues that while the North won the war, 150 years later, the South prevails anyway. A Southern mindset that keeps wages low and gives workers few rights is being adopted throughout the country. Evidence is the rise of such companies as Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, whose successful business model is to hire throngs of low-paid workers to sell cheap goods to other low-paid workers.
Meyerson’s idea is not at all new. W.J. Cash’s makes the same point in his 1940 book, “The Mind of the South.” After Reconstruction, Southern textile barons lured factories from the North by offering cheap and docile labor. Part of the package was a cynical deal: Poor and ignorant black workers were deliberately kept lower on the economic and social scale so that poor and ignorant white workers would have someone to look down upon.
Having worked for companies based in Virginia and North Carolina, as well as one headquartered in New York, I know that some of what Meyerson says is true. In the South, a plantation mentality still prevails where workers, regardless of color, are treated like children who are too irresponsible to have points worth listening to and who are lucky to have their jobs. When I moved from the New York-based firm to a Richmond-based one in 2000, I was stunned to hear closed-door human resource department presentations on how to keep workers in their place.
Meyerson’s argument starts to fall apart when he tries to tag the Southern mentality to the current frenzy over local, state and federal government spending. “Today, under Republican budget constraints, the traditional Southern underinvestment in infrastructure and education threatens to become the national norm,” he writes.
Not exactly. Some of the states with the worst budget crises, such as California and Michigan, got that way without any help from the South. As far as the tradition of Southern underinvestment in roads goes, some of the states with the worst road problems are California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan, where 60 percent of interstate mileage is in poor condition. And while Virginia is billions in the transportation budget hole today, a massive road buildup in the 1970s led by Gov. Mills E. Godwin, a Democrat-turned-Republican, proved a tremendous benefit.
Ditto education. Godwin poured state money into building up Virginia’s community college system. Investment also elevated elite Virginia universities such as William & Mary and the University of Virginia, now the No. 2 ranked public college in the United States.
Meyerson is astute in suggesting that a skinflint Southern mindset is hurting the rest of the country. But he goes too far with his analysis. After all, the idea of improving corporate profit margins by squeezing U.S. workers and shipping their jobs overseas really comes from the stock markets in New York, aided and abetted by paid-for legislators in Washington. The South isn’t exactly rising again.