Americans are socialists...they just don't know it yet

Polls show that US voters want a more equal society, but that they are not willing to achieve one th

"In America, the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." John Steinbeck's quote is as relevant today as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Nowhere was this comment more appropriate than during the 2008 election, when Barack Obama met a plumber called Joe.

Joe the Plumber was an imaginary millionaire. Joe worried that Barack Obama's proposed tax increases for those earning over $250,000 would make him poorer, and discourage him from expanding his business. Except Joe didn't earn over $250,000. Under Obama's proposals, Joe was in line for a tax cut. In his head, Joe was being squeezed until his pips squeaked; in reality, he was getting a fillip from the government.

It's now 2011 and, on the face of it, the imaginary millionaires are still in the ascendance.

According to a poll by Gallup, below, 49 per cent of US voters think that the government should not redistribute wealth via higher taxes on the rich, while 47 per cent think that the government should do so.

Redistributing wealth

A majority of Americans, however, think that the current distribution of wealth is unfair, by 57 per cent to 35 per cent.

Hosted by imgur.com

In other words, US voters want a more equal society, but do not want the rich to pay for it - directly. A majority of US voters are, however, more than happy for the rich to fork out extra for social welfare. As social welfare is increasingly the largest burden for the US government, US voters are implicitly calling on the government for the rich to pay more to help the less well off. That sounds to me like redistribution of wealth. Barack Obama was briefly on the ropes in 2008 when he said he wanted to "spread the wealth around". In the next election, a statement like that might not go down as badly. Perhaps Steinbeck was wrong. Americans are a bunch of socialists - they just don't know it yet.

Photo: André Spicer
Show Hide image

“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.