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Adam Smith In Tennessee

Thirty-six hours ago, on our annual trek to our summer residence on Tybee Island, Georgia, my wife and I stopped at a Comfort Inn in Dandridge, Tennessee, a few miles west of the Great Smoky Mountains. For dinner, we ate very well and very cheaply (for both of us, under $30.00 including a 30-percent tip) at a Perkins restaurant. Around us were tables full of contented, obese patrons, many of whom left with cartons of leftovers.

A few days before, I'd seen on the CBS Evening News a vignette from another small Tennessee town, Dover, on the other side of the state, near Nashville. This featured the distribution of boxes of free food to hundreds of ordinary looking, mostly white people of all ages, the boxes handed over by volunteers who looked much like the recipients. Interviewed by a reporter, the latter said that they were both humbled and grateful, but there was also a sense that something was wrong. They were all workers, hard workers; some held two jobs. They'd been overwhelmed by the prices of food, gasoline, and newly- revised mortgage payments. These food distributions were a matter of life and death. There were two terrible worms in this charitable apple: (1) Many applicants were habitually turned away every distribution day and (2) this was the last of the distributions: Tennessee had run out of the funds which purchased the food.

I'd put away my turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hash-brown potato casserole, salad, fresh strawberry pie, and coffee--part of my mind on those decent-looking and -talking Tennessee men, women, and children hoisting the boxes of free food. I thought, "Is this the Irrawady Delta of Myanmar, the Zimbabwe of the monster Mugabe, the post-quake Chinese villages, New Orleans in the days after Katrina? No, this is fat old USA," and though, as we ate, the unemployment rate leaped ahead to 5.5 percent, the price of oil soared another 11 dollars a barrel and the stock market plunged 394 points (the stale participles constitute the tragic basso rilievo of these days), most of my colleagues and friends were doing, as usual, pretty well. Yes, I'd been paying close to four dollars a gallon for our Toyota's fuel, but days earlier I'd received from my few shares of Exxon and Conoco what amounted to half of my first year's salary as an instructor at Connecticut College for Women back in 1954-55, $3500, on which I somehow supported four people.

But something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, something seriously wrong in the good old USA.

Now here at Tybee, on the table next to my bed is a fat paperback edition of Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations with a fine introduction by my friend, Alan Krueger, the prize-winning Princeton economist. Krueger quotes Smith: "It is but equity that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well-fed, clothed and lodged." And the great champion of the free market's power supplied a sort of solution to the defunded misery of the Dover distribution: "It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense not only in proportion to their revenue but something more than in that proportion."

My 30 percent tip in Perkins did not suffice. My support of stockholder proposals, which the directors (against whom I habitually voted) suggest be voted down, did not suffice.

Is the solution above my pay grade, not part of my JD ("job description," as Maria Sharapova explained after her exit from the French Open to crowd boos when reporters asked why she was disliked)? Not really. My puzzlement and anger at the Dover hunger line lead to this blog post and to questions about solutions to its readers including my economist friends Krueger and Smith's great disciple, Gary Becker, and perhaps my neighbor and one-time colleague, Senator Obama.

What can, what should be done about this American misery?

--Richard Stern