A SWIFTIAN SATIRE:
TWO HUNDRED and fifty years or so ago, Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, his facetious plan for caring for the poor of Ireland. First describing the lack of compassion on the part of English landlords for their Irish tenants, and the desperate situation of both rural and urban poor, Swift suggested selling Irish children and eating them. This, he said, would at least provide some income for the parents.
I have a similar but more modest proposal for helping the poor of Baltimore survive. We all know the problem: there are few good jobs in the city. A full-time minimum-wage worker with three children is far below the federal poverty level and must get handouts to meet the cost of food, shelter and medical care. The tax base for the schools is pitiful, and inner-city children correctly see no future for themselves except as prostitutes, thieves, or drug dealers.
Mayor Schmoke has a plan: $75 million in tax breaks to build a luxury hotel on the edge of the city. The developers promise to employ city residents in the hotel--but I do not see a guarantee; much less a guarantee of decent pay, job security, and benefits. Clearly this plan, if successful, would leave the city right where it is now.
I have another idea: round up the working poor and the middle class of Baltimore, and force them to finish the hotel as slaves. This offers the following advantages:
An alternative plan, in case readers do not like the one I have outlined, is for citizens of Baltimore to register to vote, and to end giant tax breaks for corporations--tax breaks which cant go through without the approval of city government, our elected representatives.
- Efficiency: The people of Baltimore work hard. Their money, including the money they pay in taxes, represents this labor. When corporations get huge tax breaks and pay far less than their share for the government services they use, citizens are effectively being forced to work for big business, with no direct benefit to themselves. Why not cut out the tax collector as middleman, and make workers donate their labor directly, by serving as chain gangs?
Compassion: The working poor go uninsured, struggle to keep up with rent and utility bills, and visit soup kitchens the week before payday. Slavery would encourage employers to take more responsibility. If a worker belonged to you, you would see that he were healthy enough to work, stayed warm in the winter and got plenty of nutritious food. You would have an interest in his improving his job skills. You couldnt just work him for a few weeks, with no attention to his needs, get rid of him, and get another worker. Or you could, but it would cost you. It doesnt now.
Honesty: What happens already in this country, and especially in this city--the middle class and the working poor slaving for the benefit of the rich--would happen openly, with the great benefit of us all knowing where we stand. So much hypocrisy goes into pretending that this is a land of freedom and democracy! A tiny minority owns most of the wealth, a greater proportion of it every year. That minority might as well admit to owning us.
Whoops. The government forgot we could vote. Lets remind them.
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This story was published on Mar. 3, 1999.