Guest Editorial


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MENCKEN'S GHOSTInto the welfare state’s heart of darkness

This is a story about a journey into darkness, but unlike Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it is a true story about a real place, a place that is not a metaphor but a microcosm, a microcosm of the United States.

If you want to know where the USA is headed, then relive the journey with me.

President Barack Obama, who learned at Harvard to celebrate diversity and to be sensitive to different cultures and socioeconomic classes, spoke of the inhabitants of the place as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

Ironically, a majority of the inhabitants of the place voted for Obama and will probably vote for him again.

What is the place?  It is rural Pennsylvania. 

Actually, it is two Penn. towns where my in-laws live, where their forebears settled in the early 20th century, and where I recently visited.  One is the town of Bradford (pop. 8,770) in the northwestern part of the state, about 60 miles south of Buffalo.  The other is Westline, a small hamlet of about 40 homes and hunting cabins nestled in a valley in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, about 15 miles south of Bradford.

Yes, the locals do indeed like guns and hunting.  That’s why doors aren’t locked in Westline and why the school bus used to stop decades ago to give armed hunters a lift back into town. 
Imagine if that happened today:  The national news would run video footage for days of SWAT helicopters and armored personnel carriers surrounding the school bus.  

Guns and hunting are not abstractions in the two towns.  Nor are the welfare state, the entitlement state, and the regulatory state, because the classes live close together and rich and poor families have known each other for generations.  Unlike the ruling elites in New York’s Upper East Side, in Santa Barbara, in Georgetown, or in the faculty echo chamber at Harvard, the towns’ residents see up close and personal the deleterious effects of decades of government intervention in the economy and in people’s lives.

Case in point:
Observing one of the residents of the small hamlet of Westline mowing nearby lawns on a riding lawn mower for over four hours, I remarked to my father-in-law that the neighbor sure had a lot of energy.  Sighing in exasperation, he explained that the neighbor picks up pocket money from mowing and other odd jobs to supplement her Social Security Disability (SSI) payments. 

In other words, although she is physically able to cut lawns, she has been deemed by our munificent government to be too disabled to work. She isn’t expected to even answer phones in a government office or do clerical work for the government from her home computer in exchange for what she receives from her taxpaying neighbors. 

She is not an abstraction to my father-in-law.  She is flesh-and-blood daily reminder to him of where his taxes are going.  His taxes help to support her, although he lives in a very modest, century-old frame house that didn’t even have central heat until a few years ago.

There are many other daily reminders, including the single mom on welfare with two children whose daddy skedaddled soon after they were born out of wedlock, the retired school teacher who gets over $30,000 per annum from the state to care for two foster children, a guy who got state money to fix up his decrepit house because he didn’t have the initiative to do it himself, and other residents who are on disability or some form of welfare. Of course, scores of residents are retired and on Social Security and Medicare. 

As my father-in-law gave example after example of residents receiving government benefits, I wondered if anyone in the town worked. Actually, some do, but they are in the minority.
Among their numbers are well-off residents who put in 20 years at one government agency to qualify for a pension and medical benefits and are now working for another government agency.  They are like leeches that suck one host dry and jump to another host.

It’s a similar story in the larger town of Bradford, which is my wife’s hometown and the current home of my brother- and sister-in-law.   

The town used to be a thriving industrial center of factories, refineries and wood product companies, due to the area being blessed with oil, timber, water, and hard-working immigrant labor.  It was settled by Swedish, Scots-Irish and Italian immigrants--poor people who left their families and mother countries, crossed an ocean with all of their possessions in a couple of valises, and somehow traveled from Ellis Island to find work in out-of-the-way Bradford, where they learned to get along without the benefit of diversity programs, community organizers, and English as a second language.

Since then, much of the industry has been driven away by rapacious unions, confiscatory taxes, oppressive regulations, and environmental zealotry.  The new industries are a federal prison, a regional hospital that survives on Medicare and Medicaid, a satellite campus of the University of Pittsburgh with fancy new buildings courtesy of Penn. taxpayers, various government-funded redevelopment agencies that keep bureaucrats employed but do little to bring back sustainable prosperity and self-reliance, a housing authority that distributes state and federal housing money, and various social agencies, including what seems like a disproportionate number of behavioral health centers.

As real work has given way to government-dependent work and subsidized loafing, industriousness, thriftiness, independence, and community-mindedness have given way to five of the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, sloth, gluttony, greed, and envy.

No doubt, the local branch of the Univ. of Pittsburgh, like most universities across the nation, indoctrinates students in the value of “community,” which is an Orwellian term for neo-Marxism.  For sure, students aren’t taught how the government has displaced real community values.  Sadly, when my father-in-law’s generation is gone, no one will be left to tell them what a real community was like.

People used to help their neighbors through churches and such fraternal and charitable organizations as the Rotary, the Knights of Columbus, the VFW, and the Legion; now they sit at home in front of their big-screen TVs, yakking on their cellphones while waiting for the government Santa Claus to come down the chimney.  Modest homes and yards used to be well maintained and tidy; now they are dilapidated, with broken-down sofas on front porches, trash in yards, and pit bulls tied to stakes.  Men and women of modest means used to care about their dress and personal grooming; now obese and slovenly people with grotesque tattoos can be seen waddling and wandering aimlessly.  Parents stayed married and sacrificed their own self-actualization for the benefit of their kids and made sure that the kids behaved in school; now children from single-parent families bring their behavioral and learning problems to school instead of bringing their lunches in paper bags, as their great-grandparents did.

Leftists would say that the social decay is the result of deindustrialization and falling wages and not the result of the bad of government driving out the good of volunteerism and neighborliness.  What they won’t say is that in today’s dollars, the average annual wage in manufacturing in 1910 was less than $20,000, at a time when women were not in the workforce and didn’t supplement family income.  They also won’t say that taxes were probably a tenth of today’s confiscatory levels.

This is not to suggest that people lived in utopia back then, for problems abounded.  But they were not heading for dystopia, as they are today.

Naturally, today’s social decay has triggered the Pavlovian response from the education industry for smaller classes, more classroom aides, free breakfasts in addition to free lunches, and drugs for the inattentive.

Local schools have state-of-the art facilities but are run by the bureaucratic mindset of the state, which throws money at problems instead of admitting that it has caused the problems in the first place.  As an exhibit of misplaced priorities, the local high school recently spent $1 million to install artificial turf in the football stadium.  Rome had the Coliseum to keep the masses distracted from what their rulers were doing to them; Bradford has a football stadium with plastic grass.

During my visit, the local newspaper, the Bradford Era, ran a front-page story that was so bizarre that I read it twice to make sure it wasn’t a parody.  It seems that the Bradford hospital is partnering with the Bradford school district to give a free book each year for five years to the parents of children born at the hospital when they return to the hospital for their annual “well-child” checkups.  (The story did not say who pays for the checkups.)

The harebrained idea is to encourage parents to read to their child as a way of developing the child’s reading and literacy skills.  Only a committee of nincompoops with a pot of other people’s money or high on pot could have come up with this foolishness.

That’s close to the truth.  The money came from the federal government’s Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program and was part of an $897,250 grant to the school district to improve literacy.   Since the median household income in Bradford is about $31,000, the grant of $897,250 is equal to the annual income of 29 families.  Or to put it another way, the entire income of 29 families would have to be confiscated to fund the grant. 

Incidentally, Bradford has a very nice public library.

Let’s end our journey into darkness with some thoughts about returning prosperity to the residents of Bradford and Westline.

The first thought is that shale drilling has brought an economic boon to within a few-hours drive from the two towns.  Given that the forebears of the residents crossed an ocean for economic opportunity, it would seem that their progeny could move a few hours away for economic opportunity.  But that would require cutting the shackles of the welfare state.

The second thought is that a couple of refineries continue to operate in the middle of Bradford, close to the home where my wife grew up and where she smelled the sweet odor of crude being refined and heard the rumble of tank cars on the nearby railroad tracks.  Once owned by Kendall Oil, the refineries are now owned by small-time operators and produce lubricants. 

Since there is a severe shortage of refineries in the United States, especially for the production of gasoline, why not expand the refineries?

The answer is that it probably would be nearly impossible to do so, given today’s environmental hyperbole and hysteria--in spite of the fact that epidemiological studies have shown that there is not an above-average incidence of disease in the town after more than a century of oil drilling and refining.      

At the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator in the novella, Marlow, hears the dying station agent Kurtz whisper, “The horror!  The horror!”  That’s what I whispered in rural Penn. as I saw where the nation is headed.

Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at