Monday, March 9, 2015

Ashley Furniture, Selma, Alabama And Free Enterprise or Political “Assistance?”

The CEO of Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc. thought “I knew I couldn’t compete,” as described in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal (“U. S. Furniture Survivor Tries to go Global,” Friday, March 6, 2015). Products from South Korea and Taiwan were cheaper and of better quality than those made by his company. Immediately he went to his Congressman desperately seeking help.  Republican Steve Gunderson, his representative from western Wisconsin, said, “You need to prepare to compete.” Further, he told Ron Wanek, also founder in 1970 of the privately-held family firm, not to expect any government help. Ashley, then with thirty-five employees, was and still is located in Arcadia, Wisconsin, with a population of 3,000; 45 years later, it is now the largest manufacturer and retailer of furniture in the U. S. with nearly $4 billion in revenues.

“In Selma, Struggle and Hope” (page A3 of the same paper) the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the violent civil-rights clash that helped usher in the 1965 Voting Rights Act” is lauded. With a population just over 20,000, Selma is one of the poorest cities in America and 80% black. Its black state senator, Hank Sanders is quoted as saying, “Selma has been left out of the very progress that it helped create.” President Obama will go to Selma to celebrate its past (and doubtless, ignore its bleak future). The Journal article features Jerria Martin, Selma resident and civic leader, who is executive director of Selma’s 21st Century Youth Leadership. According to its website, “The mission of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement is to inspire, assist, organize, and develop young people of all ages to be skilled community focused leaders, resiliently and creatively empowering themselves and their communities.” Among other goals it is focused on training young people to create a community garden; beautiful perhaps but nothing to help the financial future of Selma’s youth. Ms. Martin earned a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and wanted to use the skills she learned there for “transformative change.” State Senator Hank Sanders, a Democrat,  received degrees from Talladega College and Harvard Law School. Wikipedia writes:  “Hank has helped found or build many [non-profit, at least partially government-funded] organizations.” His wife, Faya Rose Toure, also a lawyer and an activist, wants the anniversary to reconnect youth with the past civil rights struggle, and the “long hand of slavery and segregation that is still affecting consciousness today.”

And there you have it.  On one hand, free enterprise thrives in a tiny Wisconsin town; Ashley employs 13,000 private sector workers in the United States. On the other hand is upwards of 50 years of public sector “assistance” and White House encouragement in a poverty-stricken, majority-black, Alabama city. For his part, the President of the United States has encouraged more community activism and government dependency instead of growth in the private sector. President Obama, through his takeover of the student-lending process, has enabled college students (both graduates and dropouts) to borrow over one trillion dollars from the U. S. taxpayer (funneled by the U. S. Department of Education). If these debtors, around 50,000 Americans, go to work in non-profit organizations or government entities, their loans can be forgiven in ten years. If they go to work for for-profit companies it will take twice as long for the government to forgive the loans. Since they can restrict their payments to ten percent of their wages, it pays them to work in low-pay non-profits.

These two articles present a sad commentary of the stark contrast of the two municipalities. Are there lessons to be learned? Does government “help” encourage more Selmas and the maintenance of poverty I wonder? Then I wonder, is this kind of government for the benefit of the United States of America?  Or for the Democratic Party? Further, what if Selma had been told it couldn’t compete, and that there was no government assistance available?  Would the leaders have stepped up and started for-profit companies and thrived? The CEO of Ashley was told he’d get no assistance. He had a free choice. Perhaps give up, sell out or think of how to compete. No doubt luck had something to do with the difference. Mr. Wanek “has long been inspired by the hardy stock of rural Minnesota and Wisconsin.” But are the workers in Selma not hardy stock? Do they work less hard? Wanek was a leader, being president of the graduating class of 36 in his hick town high school, but “didn’t stand out.” Clearly there are leaders in Selma, but perhaps the Democrats in power don’t trust the private sector enough to steer these  leaders toward the profit-seeking, prosperity-building private sector.

There are vital lessons to be learned in analyzing the two entities, if anyone cares.  But, then, there must be action if such lessons learned are to be fruitful.

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