Book Review: Burt Walker's 'Status Schmo'

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Years ago a writer whom I edited explained to me that in putting out content, he was explicitly aiming to convert members of the left.  I congratulated him on his ambition, but told him he was probably wasting his time.  If satellite photos of North Korea next to South Korea weren’t profoundly changing voting patterns, did he really think his words could?

The friendly debate that followed my question was never resolved.  Writer and editor agreed to disagree.  And while I remain of the view that I’m correct, the writer’s desire to change the terms of the policy debate were laudable. 

My own take has long been that opinion writing is about bolstering the arguments of the converted, all the while winning the minds of some of the fence-sitters.  The question has always been how.  I say charts, percentages and equations don’t work; that those seeking to influence opinion must use the easy-to-understand real world to make their cases.  Author Burt Walker plainly agrees.

In Status Schmo, Walker’s second novel, he uses everyman couple Joe and Janis Winston to make a very strong case for limited government.  And while Walker’s book is fiction, “[E]ach incident of government action in this book is based on actual cases that happened to real people in the United States.” Readers will be amazed.  Even those who bring an already limited-government point-of-view to their reading will be amazed.

Walker’s novel begins with the Winstons sitting in the principal’s office of Spirit Middle School.  Their twelve-year-old son Eric faces suspension (and maybe expulsion) on account of him bringing a knife to school.  Spirit has a “zero tolerance” policy about weapons, and it’s very apparent that Principal Osbourne wants to make an example out of their son.  The problem is that Eric didn’t explicitly bring a weapon to school.

In truth, he wore a bookbag that Janis had recently purchased for him at Goodwill.  Janis had quite reasonably not looked through every pocket of the backpack upon purchase.  Eric did once at school, noticed the small knife, and brought it to the principal’s office.  Osbourne’s assistant took it from him as though he’d intended harm, when he was really just dropping it by the office.  Readers can imagine how furious Joe and Janis are, and thus begins a story of the myriad ways in which government can needlessly bring us misery. 

In particular, Joe Winston becomes the face of all that’s wrong with government as he suffers misfortune after misfortune thanks to it. Winston works as a software engineer for a Kentucky-based electrical and plumbing supply business that he’d saved millions for through his design of its inventory system. 

The problem, early in the novel, is that his great achievement is in the rear-view mirror.  Worse is that the business needs to add workers in its underperforming Louisville store.  In a normal world, the addition of value-added workers would sound good, but as Walker makes plain throughout Status Schmo, government has a two-left-footed way of making the good quite awful.

You see, the additional Louisville staff would push the company over 50 employees in total, and in doing so would put the company in the position of having to offer health insurance to every single employee, right on down to cashiers.  This is federal law. Put simply, perverse government rules have a tendency to tax growth, and in the case of Joe’s employer, the new hires would lead to increased healthcare costs amounting to “more than $300,000 per year.”

Readers can likely imagine where this is going.  Just as Joe and Janis are in the midst of a squabble with Eric’s school, Joe gets word from his boss that he’ll have to be let go so that the company can avoid hitting 50 employees, and the profit-destroying penalty that awaited its expansion.  Things go downhill from there. 

Janis’s father dies, and while the farmland in between Murfreesboro and Nashville (900 acres) left to Janis by her ascetic, “millionaire-next-door” father is theoretically worth $20 million as prime space for residential development, its location next to an odiferous hog farm makes the land’s actual market value unknown.  The problem is that government takes its cut of estates not based on what inherited property will actually fetch in a sale, but based on the property’s assessed value. In short, Joe and Janis potentially owe $10 million+ in various estate-tax assessments regardless of what they can get for the land.  As Janis’s father’s estate attorney tells them, the tax authorities are “only interested in the appraised value of the property, not the proceeds of the sale.”

Though government at all levels bills itself as an entity that exists to protect us, Joe and Janis continue to see the truth.  While it would be naïve to presume that evil people automatically migrate toward government, Walker’s story is a reminder of just how deformed people and the government they create become absent the market discipline that governs the actions of all us who do not work for taxpayers.  While the profit motive routinely unearths endlessly compassionate acts from even the disagreeable within the private sector, profit-unmotivated governments regularly unearth the worst acts from many good people in their employ.  Joe Winston is once again the face of all that goes wrong when people act sans the guidance of the marketplace. 

As the Coverdale Report (a journal of government overreach that comes to Winston’s defense in the novel) puts it, Winston is “just an innocent victim without an agenda, someone trying to get along in life like everyone else, but failing miserably despite his optimistic outlook.” Indeed, no matter what Winston does, government is always in the way.  After cutting down trees on his property, he’s visited by a Department of Fish and Wildlife official.  Apparently there are fines associated with cutting down trees on one’s own property at certain times of year.  Permission is needed in order to protect “Indiana bats.” And when Winston starts up a successful craft-beer pub named after a favorite family pet, he’s visited by officialdom almost from the start.  It seems he didn’t attain proper permitting for the pub’s “Stumpy Joe’s” sign. 

Status Schmo reveals in disdainful fashion the endless ways that government at all levels harasses innocent people.  Walker doesn’t pull punches, and doesn’t hide his ideology.  He’s a libertarian.  Amen to that.  He’s also very descriptive.  Having never written fiction myself, the businessman in Walker is interesting to read simply because I found myself wondering how he found the time to create so many characters and so many scenes necessary to vivify his story of overreaching government.  Institute for Justice (a real and very important organization based in northern Virginia) plays a heroic role in the novel, and even with IJ Walker made a point of drawing interesting characters.  IJ attorney Stevie Turner’s “eyes drooped and her head sagged, fighting gravity as if being pulled down with a stretched out bungee cord.” Sometimes the descriptions were too much, at least for this reader.  No prude, detailed accounts of the genitalia of family pets seemed a little-too-TMI, but Walker was plainly having fun.

And that’s what’s most crucial about Status Schmo.  Libertarians have long had the tendency to overstate what’s ahead.  Indeed, without defending 99.9% of governmental activity for even a second, many libertarian scholars have long given the impression of impending doom thanks to the doings, waste and profligacy of always-uncoordinated officialdom.  Walker thankfully chooses to be optimistic.  Club-footed as government at all levels invariably is, Walker shows through smartphones, social media and other technologies that the private sector will invariably outrun the public.  So fast is technology today, and so naturally slow is that which isn’t governed by market forces, that what’s slow and unwittingly obnoxious is increasingly being exposed.  Walker reveals this in spades in Status Schmo.  When government errs, smartphones and social media are chronicling the errors.  Unlike the somewhat primitive past, the Kentucky DMV’s unwillingness to register a car purchased in a “foreign country” (actually in New Mexico…) will eventually be revealed by an increasingly tech-savvy citizenry. 

The story told by Walker is all about frustrated, social-media skillful taxpayers exposing the doings of government for all to see, and discrediting it in the process.  Good for the private citizens who aid Joe Winston in Status Schmo, good for the private sector for it creating the technology that will force those who presume to harass us to act differently, and good for Walker.  Our side needs novels like his.  Limited government is good for Joe Winston, and so it is it good for all of us.  Thank you to Burt Walker for entertaining readers on the way to a better understanding of why we’re better off when government does the least.

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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