business news in context, analysis with attitude

Got the following email from MNB reader Doug Peterson:

I was really disappointed to see that you published the inaccurate letter about EBT fraud. I applaud your commitment to broadcasting many different viewpoints, but I really think you ought to draw the line at reheated false right-wing concerns about “welfare queens.”

Most EBT users cannot use their EBT at fast food restaurants:

“Since 1977, the Restaurant Meals Program has been an important part of the food stamps program. It enables qualified elderly, disabled and homeless SNAP recipients to buy food at authorized restaurants. Any state or county can enroll in the Restaurant Meals Program.”

Clearly the program was designed to provide food assistance to those who cannot or may have difficulty in preparing meals or storing food, either due to their disability or lacking a home. How can anyone be against that? Maybe the writer should have provided some additional context demonstrating an actual problem. Context is important.

Also there are claims of lack of accountability are also false. Fraud rates are tracked and are a tiny percentage of overall benefits administered. Less than a percent!

Furthermore, the majority of recipients are women and their children. The program is highly effective and is, in my opinion, the absolute bare minimum any functioning society should do to support its neediest people. The idea that we need to somehow shame or be judgmental of how those folks use their benefits is not helpful and is not intended to improve the quality of life in this country. The program is to support people, not force them to make the same decisions others would make.

Most folks who make these claims about EBT are silent on the personal choices made by those who benefit from other forms of “government largesse,” especially ones they likely benefit from themselves. Should the federal government supply some strict moral and ethical standards on the money it essentially gives to people in the form of the mortgage interest deduction, as an example? That particular form of government welfare costs $60 billion, not much less than what EBT costs. And most of it goes to people who don’t need it to help keep their children alive and fed. I find such hypocrisy frustrating but unsurprising.

Again, I applaud your commitment to being a place for many views. I think blatantly false right-wing propaganda with a clear agenda has no place in any respectable publication.

Fair enough.

I'm actually less disappointed in myself for running the earlier email than I am for not commenting on it.  Though, to be honest, you did a much better job taking it apart than I would've.

It so happens that I googled "welfare queen" after reading the earlier email, and while there were in fact people who took advantage of the system, there was an unfortunate tendency to characterize all people in the system as being like the few who were abusing it.  And I did wonder to myself, how many people take advantage of programs like SNAP and EBT compared to, say, the number of bankers and stockbrokers and hedge fund who exploit every loophole and break tax laws for just a little bit more money in their pockets?

Thanks, Doug, for making an important point.

Got the following email from MNB fave Glen Terbeek:

If “work from home” seems to be working during the pandemic, then maybe “work from stores” should be the new model for retailers long term.  Each store's market place is different as defined by the shoppers in its trading zone and by the local and virtual competitors.  I always wondered why the “headquarters" are often located at the distribution centers.  Actually I know, it is a hangover from the central buying, distribution model to a standard store that developed the industry into saturation.  It is time to go back to the local value added real, shopper focused stores, managed locally.  Of course, this smaller store will be leveraged by virtual shopping for all “staple” items needed, for pickup or delivery. Remember, the shoppers only care about the shopping experiences in “their” market area, and care less about the chain.  It is "back to the future” in many ways.

Yesterday we had a story about how there is a new proposal on the table in the New York City designed to close a multi-billion dollar budget deficit at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which at least in part has grown because of the huge drop in people commuting since the dawning of the pandemic.  The notion is simple:  Impose a $3 per package surcharge on all deliveries of packages ordered online, though food and medicine would be exempted.  Such a tax could raise more than a billion dollars a year, proponents say.

I commented:

If this were to pass, I have a suspicion that it might create a domino effect - cities all over America (and maybe beyond) would adopt the idea as a way of raising revenue at a time when they all are caught short.  It wouldn't just be cities - towns and villages also might impose such surcharges, where it is legal to do so, as a way of closing budget gaps.

Three bucks a package strikes me as a little steep, but if my town wanted to charge a buck a package for all those items delivered by FedEx, UPS and Amazon trucks in a given day, and then use those funds to modernize the schools and develop plans for making it ready to meet the challenges of the mid-21st century, I'd actually be okay with that.

There will be those who will argue that these funds will be mis-used and will lead to government bloat, and I think that is a legitimate concern.  But I think that at a time when the pandemic has imposed enormous stresses on a lot of communities' budgets, and when infrastructure is crumbling at both the national and local levels, we're going to have to find the money somewhere to pay for these issues to be addressed.

Well, I got this last part right.

MNB reader Steve Foege wrote:

This is what governments do ! What’s next ?  Use your imagination.  Governments have proven their inability to balance a budget in any circumstances with any amount of money. Now would be a good time to start looking for useless/outdated programs and exempt law enforcement and K thru 12 education from the ax. Where is leadership ?  As long as we just roll over and see things as just a dollar we will all end up broke for no real gain.

And from another reader:

Hard to imagine that one more “usage” tax designed to maintain infrastructure today will magically be used correctly. I guess that places me in the camp with those mentioned below.

If you want to call me a cockeyed optimist for thinking that government can and should do better in how it allocates funds from a program like this, go ahead.

My feeling is that the schools have to be funded and modernized for the 21st century … the roads and bridges have to be repaired and/or replaced … the lights have to be kept on … the police and firefighters have to be paid … and basic services have to be provided to all citizens.  I'd rather pay lower taxes, too … but I also know that everything has a price tag.  If we can figure out ways to use the shifts that are affecting our culture and economy to pay for some of the things that these shifts make necessary … well, that certainly seems worth exploring.

Finally, Michael Sansolo wrote yesterday about how, "ff the Covid world has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes we all need to consider 'what if' scenarios where the unimaginable becomes possible. And then we need to figure out what to do should the impossible actually take place - even if the entire exercise is, to be honest, upsetting."

Prompting one MNB reader to write:

I had a “when” moment during the epidemic. I used my stimulus money to buy a cemetery plot.  I hope my family sees the value in my planning.