Thursday, November 29, 2012
Wonder Bread and Prosperity
Obviously, Jesus was talking about Wonder Bread.
One of the great trials of my childhood was that I never (almost never) had Wonder Bread. On Saturdays when I watched a circus show on TV called (I think) “The Big Top” at noon at Gramma Gibbs’s across the street, she would make me a peanut butter sandwich on Cushman’s white bread, but I still didn’t get Wonder Bread.
Sadly, my mother was into health food long before it was popular and I was forced to carry whole wheat or oatmeal bread sandwiches to school for lunch. As far as I could tell, everyone else had Wonder Bread.
According to the TV ads, “Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies twelve ways!” There were no ads for oatmeal bread, but my mother assured me that it was good for me.
I have been meditating on Wonder Bread since I learned that the Hostess Baking Company has declared bankruptcy (again) and is shutting down. No more Hostess Cup Cakes or Snowballs or Twinkies. I thought Twinkies were eternal.
The company is blaming the unions and there is some truth to that. Apparently one of the unions had a deal whereby they could not be required to carry baked goods and bread on the same truck, which meant two different trucks for the same route. On the other hand, in one of the earlier bankruptcy reorganizations the CEO negotiated pay and benefit reductions with the unions and then gave himself a 300% pay raise (which he earned by negotiating those reductions).
There is certainly enough blame to go around.
Those of us who paid attention to Reinhold Niebuhr are not surprised to find that the tendency to self-interest is found in unions as well as in management. Niebuhr was in favor of unions, not because they were pure and blameless, but because they provided a countervailing force to the power of corporations.
It is worth noting that in the in the Wonder Bread and Twinkie world of the 1950’s, unions were much stronger than they are today. In the mid-fifties approximately one-third of all workers were unionized. Management and workers bargained as equals. And on top of that, the highest marginal tax rate was 91%.
In that postwar environment of strong unions and (relatively) high taxes, we thrived. Middle class income grew dramatically and we enjoyed perhaps the greatest prosperity in the history of the world.
Ironically, there is much more nostalgia for Twinkies and Wonder Bread than for stronger unions and higher taxes, even though we know that Twinkies and Wonder Bread and Hostess Cup Cakes are not good for us. (My mother was right all along!)
There are lots of things about the post-war era that we don’t miss. The disabled were institutionalized and out of sight. Black people rode at the back of the bus. Gays were kept in the closet. And women did not stray from the kitchen.
Restoring the higher marginal tax rates of the fifties will not magically create prosperity (but investments in infrastructure—remember the interstate highway system—can make a difference). And restoring the power of the unions is impossible in the new global economy. But there are still positive lessons to learn from those “Wonder Years.” It is possible to have prosperity without asking those at the bottom to have less so that those at the top can have more.