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The Bear Left Review of Books

Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich
Metroplitan Books/Henry Holt & Company
256 pages / $23

The Real American Philanthropists
Paul Corrigan

In his 1776 book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, the father of economics, explained the social order by writing that each individual is "led by an invisible hand...pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote...and [in] a free market, public interest is advanced." Smith attributed this invisible hand to God, and thus further justified the inequality resulting from a "free market." Moral defense of inequality always seems to come with a spoonful of God.

In "Nickel and Dimed", Barbara Ehrenreich puts Adam Smith's theory to shame. Ehrenreich walked in the shoes of the working poor of America, trying to make life work while she worked, and in doing so disproved the theories of "supply and demand" and the "invisible hand." Adam Smith forget to tell his readers that the invisible hand was invisible because it was tied behind society's back to ensure that the labor of the working poor of all nations could be exploited. While reading Ehrenreich's book, I wondered how Smith would explain the widespread corruption in our financial markets that is now front-page news. Like the American media, I have no doubt that Smith would ignore the bigger financial story, the one not being reported but found in Ehrenreich's outstanding book, that the working poor are America's real philanthropists.

In Ehrenreich's words, the working poor

neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

Ehrenreich did not tell this story in the prose of an economist. She told it from the perspective of living day to day. She writes of the real America where the wealthy and middle class live parasitically off the underpaid labor of the working poor. Alas, America feels no shame in its dependency on the exploitation of the working poor at home or abroad. This truth is invisible to America, not the hand Smith attributes to God.

The rhetoric of prosperity is the lifeblood of both Democrats and Republicans. During the prosperity of the 1990's, Bill Clinton did little for the working poor in comparison to what he did for the wealthiest of our country. Ironically, Republican blowhards spoke of virtue and morality in their quest to put a scarlet letter on Clinton to stop him from doing the little he did. If George W. Bush really wanted to stimulate the economy with his tax cut, he would have given the money to the working poor. I guarantee they would have spent it immediately on food, clothing, housing, and a few well-deserved comforts.

I am struck that politicians without a populist bone in their bodies are now trying very hard to look like they work for a living. The populist themes Bush and Mitt Romney, the candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, act out in front of television cameras are as disingenuous as they are calculated. I do find it politically interesting that they been told by their handlers that they need to appear to be friends of working men and woman. No one with an ounce of sense would buy the Republican beefcake in working men's clothes. They are the political equivalents of Anna Kournikova. They look good but they have no game. Clearly, they are hoping that like Anna, Americans will keep buying looks over substance. It worked for Bush in 2000. Romney hopes it will work for him in 2002.

I have yet to see any politicians wave Nickel and Dimed above their heads on the floor of Congress. No House Managers are investigating this moral and ethical collapse. Politicians appear too preoccupied with war, sex, and dress-up to take the time to read this story of day to day life of the working poor in America. Dennis Miller has not included this story in any of his rants. "60 Minutes" is not knocking on the door of the CEO of Wal-Mart and sticking a microphone in his face. What are you doing?

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