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On the Third Hand: Inequality

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Bloomberg is reporting that factors like high gas prices and the 2 percentage point increase in the federal payroll tax may have hurt sales at Walmart and other discount stores.

Department store sales and housing sales may be doing better, but it seems as if life and health insurers should be paying close attention to what’s happening at the discount stores.

Workers who have a hard time scraping up the cash to buy tuna and peanut butter at Walmart may not be in the mood to hear that they can pay for a little voluntary disability insurance or fund a health savings account by cutting back on the money they’re spending at Starbucks.

Workers who can’t buy tuna at Walmart may already have stopped drinking coffee at Starbucks. They might also have stopped paying the rent and the electric bill.

Before John Edwards imploded so spectacularly, he talked about the “Two Americas” — the divide between the rich and the poor.

That sounds like (and, in Edwards’ mind, maybe intentionally was) some kind of socialist attack, but the idea that the middle class is disappearing, and that we’re becoming a country with a few rich people and a lot of poor people, is not necessarily a “liberal” issue.

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Adam Smith’s argument in The Wealth of Nations was not that the government should shaft poor people, or that poor people were bad. His argument was that, whenever the government intervened in the economy, it was likely to use “helping the poor” or doing some other popular thing as an excuse to warp the economy in a way that would help the rich, at the expense of ordinary workers and, in some cases, of the poor themselves.

The whole point of setting up Adam Smith-style free-market capitalism is to help the little guy cling to the money he needs to get into the middle class and stay there.

In our country, is Joe Sixpack actually suffering, and, if so, is he suffering because of high taxes, poorly targeted government spending, government spending in general, bad government policies, lack of suitable government program, or other factors?

Whatever the answer is, it behooves insurers to try to figure that out what’s going wrong in Joe’s wallet.

If Joe can’t buy a shirt at Walmart, heaven help the poor enroller who’s trying to sell him a voluntary vision plan. 

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