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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(17 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 88, 17 November 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Food Stamp Plan Again

When I wrote in the New International several months ago about the Government’s ingenious orange and blue stamp plan for feeding the unemployed on Federal “surplus commodities”, I looked long and earnestly into the mouth of that particular gift horse.

There was at that time a plan to extend the sale of food stamps to families not on relief whose income was less than $19.50 a week. As I pointed out then, this move, although it meant an immediate gain in living standards for these non-relief poor families, had some dangerous long-range implications.

One of these was that it tended to extend the stamp plan as a substitute for relief, since in many communities local officials, regardless of the intentions of Washington, would so use the plan. Another, which applies to the whole food stamp plan despite the raptures with which the liberal press has greeted it, is that the substitution of food stamps for cash relief is a step backward towards the old food basket relief of Hooverian days. Finally, this extension of Government control over the consumption habits of those on relief – and, in this latest development of the non-relief poorer families – was one more step in the process of tying down the masses with bureaucratic regulations.

Too Many Guinea Pigs!

The WPA’s plan was to try out the new extension of the food stamp idea first in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma. Recently, “after considerable delay”, this initial test experiment got under weigh. A report in the N.Y. Times explains the reasons for this delay. At first, all non-relief families with an income of under $19.50 a week were declared eligible for food stamps. “A survey of the county, however, showed that such a maximum would place on the eligibility list almost half the families in the county.”

Thus the social breakdown of American capitalism has already gone so far – hail the American Standard of Living, at $19.50 per family per week! – that it is now found impossible to increase the income of the masses even in the niggardly and bureaucratic way proposed by the food stamp plans. The WPA officials temporarily avoided this difficulty by arbitrarily restricting the test experiment to four hundred families. But the other thousands of families with incomes of $19.50 a week down still exist in Pottawatomie County. And they must still be reckoned with once the new plan gets out of the test tube stage.

Footnote on Girdler

If the Supreme Court upholds the recent decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Tom Girdler’s Republic Steel Company will have to rehire 5,000 employees fired during the 1937 steel strike. It will also have to pay each of them back wages for the entire period since the strike, an act of enforced philanthropy which will probably cost Republic in the vicinity of $7,500,000.

Republic, which was put together just before the 1929 crash by the high-flying Cyrus Baton, has never been able to accumulate the fat cash reserves of the other big steel companies. Financially, Republic has always been the weak link in the chain of the steel industry. If it actually has to pay out any such sum as $7,500,000, Republic may be crippled or even put out of business.

This would be tough on Tom Girdler. But I must admit that this particular human tragedy leaves me unmoved. If ever there is a fascist drive to power in this country, Girdler will be one of the ringleaders. Even in the steel industry, Girdler stands out for his personal ruthlessness and barbarism. There is something warped and subhuman about his personality. He is a great hunter and horseman, and he makes it clear that he infinitely prefers horses to men. The only time I ever saw him, years ago, long before the Little Steel Strike and the Massilon and Memorial Day massacres, I received an unforgettable impression of inhumanity and even positive malevolence.

Like Shooting Rabbits ...

Republic had just taken over the Corrigan-McKinney steel plant in Cleveland, and was “rationalizing” it – that is, firing about half the employees. In describing this operation, Girdler dwelt with evident pleasure on the hundreds of Corrigan-McKinney workers he had been able to eliminate. He told how he and four or five other top executives made a tour of the entire plant the day Republic took over, constituting themselves a sort of firing squad to “execute” on the spot the superfluous workers. “We’d see five or six men working around a blast furnace,” he reminisced pleasantly. “We’d go up to them and point out three or four – ‘You ... you ... you ... get your pay check. You’re through!’” This seemed to amuse him. With a grin he summed up what the episode had meant to him: “It was some slaughter! Like shooting rabbits sitting!”

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