Friday, December 11, 2009

An economy of Clay

In which we see Ms. Bradstreeet wear a Whig

The Maria Chronicles, #28

"OK, kids, today I want to talk about shoes."

"Shoes?" Olivia asks. "Why shoes?"

"Flats, p
umps, or high heels"? Tess asks playfully.

"None of the above," Maria answers. "We're talking about basic nineteenth century shoes. Farmer shoes. Shoes for hired hands. Slaves, maybe."

"Oh, that's boring," Tess says, waving her hand. She's not entirely serious.

"We'll see," Maria says, who is. Her eyes scan the room. She locks in on Peter. "Here we have Peter," she says, walking over to him, hand extended as if he's an exhibit. "Peter is a shoemaker." He nods with mock gravity. "Peter, how long have you been making shoes here in Connecticut?"

"Oh, I
guess about twenty years," he answers, picking up the rhythm here nicely.

"You see, kids, Peter is a real veteran. For a long time he made shoes all by himself. By hand. Nowadays, though, he has people working for him. Journeymen shoemakers, some hired hands. He can make more shoes than ever before. And he can sell them further than ever before, too. As far south as New Jersey. Even Delaware. Peter's mighty proud to consider himself a manufacturer. With a real factory."

smiles and nods, as if he's savoring applause.

"But life isn't entirely a bowl of cherries for Peter."

"Bowl of cherries?" Mia asks. "What do you mean, bowl of cherries?"

"You've never heard that expression?" Maria asks in response, incredulous. "Let's just say he has complications. We'll call those complications Italian. The Italians -- particularly Milan -- also make shoes. Good shoes. Very good shoes that they sell all over the world, including the United States, New York in particular, where they come in through Brooklyn. That's bad enough for Peter. But what's even worse is that because the Italians have been at it for a while, they can make their shoes not only better than Peter's shoes, but cheaper. Pete's shoes sell for $2 a pair, which is, in let's say 1830 terms, a lot of money. But the Italians sell theirs for $1 a pair."

o what can Peter do?" Vanessa asks.

"Not much," Maria replies. "But I can help. My name is Henry Clay. I'm a U.S. senator from the great state of Kentucky, and I'm a member of the Whig Party. And I have a plan."

"That's funny," Tess says. "You don't look like Henry Clay."

"Appearances can be deceiving, Tess. Anyway, here's my plan to help Peter. We slap a $2 tax on Italian shoes. That means they'll now cost $3, while Peter's cost $2. So Peter's shoes will be cheaper. Not necessarily better -- yet -- but cheaper. I figure that if we give Pete time he'll catch up with the Italians and soon his shoes may well be better. Then he'll be able to sell them all over the country, even down South. Who knows, maybe someday he'll be able to export his shoes to the Italians! Whaddya say, kids: is this a good idea?"

"Well, it's a good idea for Peter," Vanessa says.

"Right. But that's not really the reason why I'm suggesting this plan, part of what I call 'The American Plan.' No offense Peter." (He dips his head and holds up his hand to indicate none taken.) "You see, kids, we all know that the United States is still, economically speaking, a small, we
ak country. We import a lot of what we need in terms of capital to launch big projects like railroads, and in terms of finished goods like shoes and textiles. We sell lots of stuff like cotton and wheat, but that's not as profitable as shirts and shoes. But if we made more of that stuff ourselves -- if those of us up North bought more Southern cotton and sold more Northern shoes down South -- we'd all benefit. The country would become stronger and more self-sufficient. Plus we could use some of that revenue from the sales of Italian shoes -- let's face it, there are always going to be people who like Italian shoes -- to build roads and canals and other projects that would make it easier to move and sell all kinds of goods. The cotton and the shirts. Both directions. That's also part of my American Plan. Actually, that's my American Dream: One I hope to take to the White House someday."

Maria pauses. "So I'll ask you again: what do you think of my plan, my American Plan?"

There's a pause. Good.

"Dylan, what do you think?" Maria thinks she can ask him unsolicited, because he seems attentive.

"I dunno," he says. "I mean, sure. Why not?"

"You won't mind paying extra for those shoes?"

"No. There are good reasons. It's ok with me."

"I agree," says Kenny. "It's, like, a good investment for the country."

No one follows up. "So we're agreed, then? We're going to vote to place that $2 tariff on the Italian shoes? And maybe, while we're at it, tariffs on shirts, and guns and farm equipment?"

No response. Derek is looking out the window. Again.

"And maybe while we're at it we should add some agricultural products, too. Like wine. Sugar. Coffee."

"Well, wait a second," Kenny says. "I mean I can see stuff like the shoes. But will it help to put taxes on stuff that isnt, what's the word . . . . "


"Right. Manufactured. I mean, what's the benefit of taxing sugar? We don't make sugar, do we?"

"No, not at this point. But if we tax it we can use the money for the roads and bridges and stuff like that."

"Yeah, but what about the other countries?" Ali interjects. "Won't they get mad about us taxing that stuff?"

"What stuff? Like the shoes? Who cares? Once, thanks to Peter here, we're able to produce our own, we won't need them anymore. We can tell the Italians to go to hell." Some smiles at this.

"No, I mean the sugar and coffee and that stuff," Ali responds. "Won't they do the same to us?"

Maria pauses. "Well, maybe you're right. Let's drop the tariffs on sugar, coffee and wine. I like Italian reds. But we can keep the tariff on the shoes and the manufactured goods, right?"

Vanessa jumps back in. "I've been thinking about that. Here's the thing: I kinda just want to buy shoes at a low price. I'm not sure I want to pay to help Peter become self-sufficient."

"What," Maria says scornfully, "are you from South Carolina or something?"


"South Carolina. You sound like my colleague in the Senate, John Calhoun. We used to be pals, but we've drifted."

"Oh, right," Kenny says. "You're Henry Clay."

"Calhoun hates tariffs," Maria continues. "As far as he's concerned, all tariffs are bad tarriffs. He wants low prices. He doesn't want tariffs to be placed on things he buys, and he doesn't want tariffs on things he sells. The most important thing is keeping prices down."

"Sounds like John Calhoun shops at Wal-Mart," Tess says.

Maria turns and smiles at her. "Exactly. Low prices. To get low prices, you need low tariffs."

"Then I'm for that," Vanessa says.

"And low wages."


"Very low wages. The less you have to pay your workers, the less you can charge for your products and still make a profit. That's why Calhoun likes slavery."

"Ouch," says Tess.

"Ms. Bradstreet, can I ask you a question?" It's Willie. Surprisingly, she's been silent all day. She's wearing an impish smile, though, and it makes Maria smile too.

"Those shoes you're wearing. Where did they come from?"

Maria chuckles silently. She knows where this is going. "These are Merrells. I got them online."

"OK, but do you know where they were manufactured?"

Maria looks down at her brown glides, and then back at Willie. "No, I don't."

"Really. So we don't know what kinds of tarriff or wages went into them. Ms. Bradstreet, it seems to me that you didn't do your homework."

"Nice, Willie!" says Vanessa, and the rest of the class laughs.

"You're right, Willie," Maria concedes when the laughter subsides. "Let me get back to you on that tomorrow."

But Maria forgets.