The Big Bad "Socialist" Stimulus Package and Me
Like many Americans, I’m confused. It’s been just over two years since the mortgage meltdown brought the stock market to its knees. It’s been a little more than two years since George W. Bush and Hank Paulson told the American people that if we didn’t bail out the banks, life as we knew it would come to a crashing halt. It’s been just shy of two years since Barack Obama was elected president. We were dancing in the streets, literally: I remember swaying to music standing on top of a news kiosk on a Brooklyn street corner clad in a hot pink tank top that read “Lick Bush” (left over from the 2004 elections.) It’s been almost two years since I stood freezing on the mall in DC amidst millions of people and watched Obama get sworn in. “This is history,” I’d told my seven year old nephew. “You will always remember this.” It’s been nearly two years since we witnessed Obama and Nancy Pelosi wrangle with congressional Republicans over a stimulus package. We’d already given billions to the banks, we were spending billions on wars in foreign lands, and now it was time to give money so that average Americans could continue to put bread on the table. But the Republicans weren’t having it. “Big government,” they screamed. “See, we told you Obama was a socialist,” they said.
It’s been two years, and there are continual reports in the news that the economy is recovering. But there are still at least tens of millions of Americans out of work. Tell that to them. (Tell that to me, she says, suddenly remembering that she is actually one of them.) So what happened? Why didn’t the stimulus work or work well enough or quickly enough for many of us?
A little over a week ago, there was an op-ed by Paul Krugman in The New York Times, “Hey, Small Spender.” In it, he cautions what he’s been cautioning all along: the stimulus hasn’t worked because it was far too small. Obama hasn’t created big government, as the Republicans would have us believe. Au contraire, government spending in the face of a debilitating recession hasn’t been nearly strong enough.
Now, I know I’m not an economist like Paul Krugman (though I’d like to think I’m no dummy.) Still though I'm not an economist, I do have certain opinions and I’m happy to say to the tea-partyists loudly, “You have it way wrong: it’s not big government; it’s bad government, stupid.” Nevertheless, despite the fact that I do have certain opinions I can’t seem to hide, what I am is merely a person. And as a person, I have a story. And like most people, there’s a way in which my personal story intersects with the big picture. And it just so happens that my little personal story led me to the big bad “socialist” stimulus package. And here is what happened...
It was early 2010. I’d decided for many reasons to move from New York City to a small town in rural Western North Carolina. Or to give it a shot. I was having a crisis: let’s say it was an emotional crisis, no, let’s call it midlife crisis, well, actually it started as a family crisis, but whatever. For the purposes of this piece, let’s just say that it included a personal financial crisis. Or a looming personal financial crisis. And even if I admit that there are ways in which my personal financial crisis was of my own making, there also are ways in which the economic meltdown had impacted me directly. There were things I’d hoped for or planned on that in a failing economy just didn’t pan out. In any event, I was unemployed, a writer, and I needed work, or at least a decent gig.
When a friend of mine suggested that I build a business as a grant writer, I thought it a capital idea. He was a lawyer working on public policy and explained to me that there were still billions of dollars of federal stimulus funds lying around waiting to be spent. Apparently, even though the bill had been passed the year before, there’d been a delivery delay. There was money crying out to be connected to projects and there were projects crying out to be connected to money. Great, I thought, I could serve as a sort of fiscal matchmaker. I could parlay my writing and organizational skills into helping to revitalize the economy, get people work, create green industries, and concomitantly start my own business. I was moving back to a part of the country I’d fallen in love with months earlier, a part of the country that had seen decades of economic decay due to the twilight of the small tobacco farm. Nothing had since come into these communities to replace what had been a staple crop. And the mortgage crisis had pounded this area. People already living on the fringes had fallen over the edge. There were foreclosure notices littering the courthouse bulletin board as there had once been tobacco plants littering the now empty fields. I could roll up my sleeves, plant my fingers on the keyboard, and help.
I’d been in town a little over a week, when thawing from the cold over a cup o’ joe at a local coffee shop, I was approached by an acquaintance. He was known as medicinal herb specialist, vastly knowledgeable about the native flora and an expert in all things related to one of the most important native herbs, American ginseng. When I told him I was starting a grant writing business, he stroked his grey beard. “I’ve been looking for a writer to help me with a grant.” Apparently there was a grant, part of the stimulus package that had come down the pike through the National Forest Service and had been delegated to a local not-for-profit to distribute. It was a grant targeted to create jobs for unemployed/underemployed forest workers. Ginseng and other medicinal herbs are what they call non-timber forest products. And Appalachia is the home to an incomparable array of medicinal plants, indeed the only place in the world where American ginseng, an endangered species, grows in its natural habitat.
I didn’t understand the significance of this, but in the following week over a meal or two (being unemployed, I was grateful to be fed) it was explained to me. The ginseng expert, as it turns out, was also an astute businessman. Not only did he know about growing the plants, he understood their market and their value. What I learned is that wild and wild-simulated American ginseng (plants grown in their natural habitat as opposed to cultivated ginseng) is incredibly valuable. A staple of Chinese medicine, the herb is regularly taken by over a billion Chinese. Hong Kong dealers pay top dollar for it, particularly for what they call Carolina ginseng, the local crop. In fact, I learned to my amazement, certain special roots fetch thousands of dollars a piece.
“Problem is” the ginseng expert explained, sipping his pinot noir by the crackling fire, “it simply isn’t being grown. A lot of farmers have wooded lots that they’re permitted to timber once every three generations. Many know they could be growing ginseng there instead, earning much more money and saving the trees, but there isn’t support. Much of the ginseng that gets to China is stolen from our woods: there’s a huge black market and everyone is afraid of theft. If there were more growing and less stealing, we could create a community of growers and establish a market force. Things would change.”
He had a plan and the plan was to jump start an industry, a green industry for the mountain region of Western North Carolina and to promote a valuable “tobacco replacement crop.” The plan involved asking for less than 100,000 dollars of stimulus money to hire seven teachers representing fourteen counties, known experts in the field. These teachers and their assistants would distribute seeds and train over 200 farmers to grow ginseng. We’d create a website, establish a network of growers, share information, resources, and marketing strategies. We’d engage and educate law enforcement to protect the crops. There was a known demand for the product, all we had to do was create the supply. Eventually, once interest grew and spread, we’d bring the ginseng trade out of the dark and eventually “brand” Western North Carolina as the “Ginseng Capital of North America.”
As I listened to him, I grew excited. It was so win-win, it was preposterous. Money in the pockets of small-time farmers. Saving the trees. Healthy ginseng replacing lethal tobacco. The poetic justice of producing something that the Chinese actually want to buy from us. And plants, endangered plants. What’s not to like about plants? I signed on to do the project on spec: there’d be a job for me as project manager, a temporary part-time job, but nevertheless a job and something that would help jump start my own industry. I’d connect my own potential economic recovery to the recovery of the region, the place I’d chosen as my new home.
Over the next few weeks, I married myself to the project. I ate, slept, and dreamt American ginseng. I made phone calls, sent out emails. I signed up the most noted medicinal plant experts in the region. I wrote a kick-ass proposal. I got the support of numerous state and local elected and appointed officials, notably over a dozen agricultural extension agents (North Carolina experts in the field of farming and the needs of farmers.) They thought it was brilliant and important. I received emails and phone calls from many people who were anxious to have ginseng planted on their properties. As the deadline approached, I showed my proposal to people who not only understood the needs of the region, but who understood proposal writing. They thought it was good, very good, and they had no doubt we’d get the funds. “We’re gonna cover these here hills in ginseng,” I joked to a friend at a party.
I handed it in on time. And then I busied myself with other things. I knew that grant writing and particularly grant writing on spec isn’t a shoe-in. So when we didn’t get the grant, I wasn’t terribly dismayed. I figured that there had been other, better proposals. Ours had been good, but there had been others that were more important, more beneficial to creating jobs, to building a sustainable economic future. But when an email was sent to me with a link to an article in the local paper about who had received the money, I became irate. Not irate because my temporary part-time job had disappeared into the mountain mists, but irate as an American, a taxpayer, a citizen. The money (public money: your money) had largely been distributed to already extant, already fairly successful (private: not your money) businesses. Their plans had involved hiring one or two more employees at meager wages thereby increasing production, enriching the business owners and doing little if nothing for the greater community. These were businesses that could have, as an economic development expert pointed out, raised capital in other ways. Our plan involved putting economic power into the hands of hundreds of small farmers and potentially creating an industry. Their plans involved putting money into the pockets of the few, increasing the income divide that is plaguing our nation.
The reason I was ultimately given for the rejection of our proposal was that it had been too long range: ginseng plants take at least seven years to mature. With this I have no argument. Nor do I know for certain whether my experience with this grant was representative. But it has made me wonder if we’ve made intelligent decisions about our economic recovery. Republican-stoked fear of socialism (hey, the cold war is over, last time I checked) has indoctrinated many Americans into disdain for centralized planning. We’re afraid of public sector jobs like we’re afraid of our own shadows. The stimulus funds were dispersed to agencies, and then to other agencies, and then ultimately to the beleaguered directors of NGOs. There was no overarching plan. There were no visionary ideas. It was parceled out to petty bureaucrats who make decisions the way petty bureaucrats do: I was just following orders.
What’s up with you, America? What’s up with us? Seriously, this was a country built on risk, built on innovation. We’ve become a nation of petty squabblers and cowering bureaucrats. Of media sound bites and horrified masses. The tea partyists are angry, but they don’t know whom to direct their anger at. Too big government? How about too big corporations? Or too big banks? How about too small ideas? Ultimately, I find I agree with Paul Krugman: due to Republican opposition, the stimulus was too small. But from my point of view, it was not only too small: due to fear of the socialist bogey man, it also lacked vision.
It’s been two years; the mid-term elections are coming up and the leaves are beginning to fall in Western North Carolina. The ginseng seed beds we’d envisioned planting are not sheltering seeds in the soil beneath those leaves, but somewhere, someone is sleeping very sheltered in a very oversized bed.