Low Pay Forcing Local Actors to Exit the Stage

Once a haven for theater artists, Philadelphia has become a place where it’s hard for them to survive.

MO-stage-fright-illo-chris-hall-400x400In 2012, this magazine named Charlotte Ford the best theater talent in Philadelphia. One year later, she picked up the top prize at the theater community’s annual Barrymore Awards. And this year? Well, this year Ford revealed that she’s now studying to become a speech pathologist, explaining in a recent interview that at her peak, the most she ever earned was $23,000 in one year. That was before taxes, and she frequently worked 60-hour weeks.

And then there’s Pig Iron Theatre Company regular James Sugg, the darling of the independent theater scene whom the New York Times has called “amazing.” Sugg, 45, is an actor as well as a much-sought-after sound designer. But he’s decided to embark upon a career as a real estate agent. “I have near-zero in my bank account,” he laments. “I haven’t been able to save a penny.” He passed his exams in June.


Sugg and Ford aren’t anomalies. More and more local actors and others in the arts are reporting that it’s become harder for them to do what they love here. And some are just giving up. Not a good sign for a city that prides itself so much on a thriving arts scene, a city where so many artists came when they realized New York wasn’t going to make their dreams come true.

The reasons for the changing landscape are numerous. Some of the biggest sources of money for many of these artists have changed the way they support the arts in recent years, such as Pew, which seems to be favoring “world-class art” over small local types. Even FringeArts—once a bastion for the independent Philadelphia artist—has begun to look more outward than inward for its talent.
“Pew gave $250,000 to FringeArts to bring Romeo Castellucci to Philadelphia last year,” observes Ford. “That money could have given four or five indie artists project money, and they in turn would have hired Philadelphia actors and crews and designers. ‘World-class art’ is another way of saying ‘famous people from other places.’”

Add climbing rents and plateaued wages to the lack of foundational support, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the future isn’t so bright for our most daring creative types, the people we need most to keep things vibrant and interesting. In June, a group of theater leaders announced that they were banding together to see how this problem might be solved, how the scene can be saved. In the meantime, do them, the city and yourself a favor: Buy a ticket to a play.

Originally published as “Stage Fright” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • Broke

    It’s great that you are bringing this to light. However please do not forget the technicians and designers. Rates have barely increased in the past 14 years and they generally make a fraction of what actors make. A 60 hour week for a designer or tech is a luxury that is not often affordable.

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  • Merilyn Jackson

    Moral ARTrage: “Pew gave $250,000 to
    FringeArts to bring Romeo Castellucci to Philadelphia last year,”
    observes Ford. “That money could have given four or five indie artists
    project money, and they in turn would have hired Philadelphia actors and crews and designers. ‘World-class art’ is another way of saying ‘famous people from other places.’”

    While this was an important work for Philadelphia theater-goers to see,
    I agree with Charlotte. We are losing two of our best talents because
    PEW has turned away from supporting Philadelphia art. And now, with Bill
    Bissell also overseeing theater funding, he will eviscerate our theater
    world much the same way he has our dance world. He has no background in
    theater and it is outrageous that PEW would put so much power in one
    man who forces his tastes on our city and brings New Yorkers who no
    one’s ever heard of to live and work here. He needs to go do this to
    some other city. A city needs its indigenous performers and cannot
    thrive on imports of one man’s tastes.

    • t

      Merilyn, I do not think you know how PEW works. PEW has not turned away from Philly Artists and Bill Bissell alone does not decide where the grants end up. Charlotte and James are not leaving theatre solely because of PEW. They were tired of the lifestyle. And that is fair, it’s hard. But to put all the blame on one organization is not fare. I think it’s outrageous that you should spread this as facts. And I am not 100% sure of this but some of the money that went to fringe arts did go back into the community. It may not have gone to actors and designers but it did go to technicians and others who work on the festival. And those people work just as hard and make just as little money.

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      • Merilyn Jackson

        Dear Anonymous, your defense of PEW is just a little bit disingenuous, don’t you think? Having been in arts administration for a decade before becoming a full-time writer and dance critic, I know how PEW USED to operate up until the last decade: with transparency, integrity, fairness and a real dedication to and love for Philadelphia and its arts and culture.

        I know Charlotte and James are not leaving only because of PEW but as they go so go the other funders. And no true artist ever leaves the field because we “are tired of the lifestyle.” I’ve struggled for 40 years to become a writer and stay a writer. Lee Breuer, at 76, is still shamelessly begging for money and going into debt to put on his Mabou Mines productions. Unhuh.
        It’s in our blood, the oxygen we breathe. Our work is almost as precious andrewarding to us as seeing our children grow and thrive.

        It is not outrageous for me to say that Bill Bissell has a
        tremendous amount of influence on his hand-picked, hand-fed, panelists. And who are they anyway? Why can’t/doesn’t the press interview them about their choices, what motivated them? Furthermore, you do know that the old-school process of applying for a grant has now been changed to sending a Letter of Intent (LOI?) It is precisely at that moment that Bissell can invite or NOT invite an artist or arts organization to apply. SO, dear Anonymous, what’s fair?

        Nick Stuccio, to his credit, does support a lot of local talent and FringeArts (as it is now called) deserves a lion’s share of funding,
        so long as the art is not funder-driven. ;))) Merilyn

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  • Danny Ozark

    must have been a slow news day

    • yethica

      If you think this isn’t news, then I feel sad for your lack of character. The arts are hugely important and it’s responses like yours that make me worry for them.

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      • Charliefoxtrot

        It’s important to those in the arts community. I’d argue any venture that can’t stand on its own without subsidy pretty much shows a functioning market responding to customer interests and feedback.

        Or should crappy Broadway shows get subsidy Because Art?

        Listen – I loves me some cowboy poetry as much as the next guy but there’s a thousand other uses of taxpayer money better spent elsewhere. And I’m really not kidding about taxpayer funded cowboy poets…..

        • Merilyn Jackson

          YO! This is not taxpayer money, CharlieFoxTrot. Its private
          foundation money given by the Pew family for charitable purposes, arts and culture being just one of the beneficiaries. Others are education, homelessness, poverty, abuse of women and other needs of citizens that
          they or government can’t or won’t support. The cost of mounting a dance or theater performance far exceeds what the ticket price can bring in.

          Think of it this way: you go to a good restaurant, your bill for your foie gras starter ($16), your softshell crab entree ($32), 2 glasses of Prosecco ($20) plus dessert ($8) totals $76. Then there’s tax and tip which might put the bill at about $100. How much of that bill actually went to the cost of the food? What about the gas, electric, dishes, flatware, stemware (because if you’re paying $10 a pop for prosecco, (for which you could purchase a whole bottle) you don’t want it in a plastic cup do you?) tablecloths, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, flowers, cleaning crew, dishwashers, not to mention marketing etc? Is there anything left for profit? Not much.

          Well, it’s the same for an arts organization. And one that has gone to the trouble to apply for and become a 501-C3 NON-Profit organization (CharlieFoxTrot, that’s kinda like applying for FOR-profit Corporate status which entitles
          business entities to rob you anywhichway they like) is entitled to apply (but not always get) arts funding from both private and public funders to supplement their low-cost ticket sales. However, Most private and all local public funders are mandated to and expected to promote, sustain and support local artists, who are,btw, TAXPAYERS!!! The local dance community alone has more that 2,000TAX-PAYING Philadelphians. In all our Arts and Culture economy puts back more into our economy than the sports business.

          Here are basic facts and figures on that assertion. For more go onto: http://www.philaculture.org/si

          Total economic impact $3.3 BILLION
          Direct expenditures of $1.4 billion trigger indirect spending of $1.9 billion. This
          total economic impact of $3.3 billion generates jobs, household income
          and tax revenue.

  • yelp46

    I’d guess the rich in Philly are not giving and the art scene cannot pay for itself. It is as it always is.

  • drjimcooper

    Capitalism is incompatible with art because it has no use for our collective human need for artistic expression. Working artists in Philly and the broader community should join the Socialist vanguard to fight for a Universal Guaranteed Income.

    • Charliefoxtrot

      What’s the plan, exactly? Please make your case how self employed business people working 60+ hrs a week should allow you to remove more money from their children’s college funds/inheritance/car payments so that you can pursue your interests?

      Besides which, we already have a guaranteed minimum income anyway if you choose to have other people pay for your food/clothing/shelter.

      • drjimcooper
        • Charliefoxtrot

          Honest question-do you really think a nation formed on the basis of property rights would go along with this? Because I see zero reason to donate more of my earned dollars when billions are wasted already in govt., and millions fake disability and welfare systems already.
          Second question-why don’t you socialists band together and start your own companies based on these principals more often? Wouldn’t that be a terrific way to spread your ideas?

          • drjimcooper

            1. It’s a heavy lift. People don’t just give up entrenched privilege without a fight.

            1a. You’re not “donating” anything. Carl Icahn owns more Apple stock than anyone on earth. He makes billions from this ownership. But he doesn’t buy all the iPhones. He didn’t engineer it. He didn’t manufacture or assemble it. People do this. He also didn’t build the shared cultural, political, and educational history that allows for a functioning state (which protects property rights). Market Socialism simply recognizes that we as a collective own this stuff, so we should share the material rewards.

            2. Co-ops, and other collective enterprises do exist, but in a system that is designed for maximal profit above all else, it’s hard for these types of enterprises to grow and prosper. There are examples of these sorts of arrangements in other countries which are less hostile to Socialism.

            This is all very far off the original topic of artists who have been forced to sacrifice their art in favor of survival so I’ll end here. But there’s plenty of resources available if you’re truly interested in how Socialism would work, and what the benefits would be for everyone.

          • Charliefoxtrot

            And yet if taxation schemes are the pathway to utopia, why do leading leftists claim tax deductions? (Whilst clamoring for higher taxes on the rich, who simply don’t have enough wealth to support Denmark style cradle to grave welfare state anyway-real socialism means everyone is poorer-since your average Joe is donating an extra 20% to the State).

            Your notion is simply that the unmotivated feed off of the motivated hosts, rather than put their own necks on the line and risk their own capital. After all, does the State step in to pay back the owners of an unsuccessful bakery, in your hypothetical scenario, since they happily would socialize any profits?

            If not, how is that fair to entrepreneurs, when gains are socialized but losses aren’t?

            Business is risk. Risk is rewarded. The success of the IPhone is more related to a great biz model, rather than the benefits of modern society-if that were true, explain Motorolas failures?

          • drjimcooper

            There are no “leading leftists” in the US. If you’re talking about Democrats or liberals, you’ll have to get someone else to defend them.

            The state would only be concerned with publicly traded stocks, which would become publicly owned as well. Mom and Pop can run a bakery if they want (and they should if it makes them happy, just like actors should act without fear of deprivation!), and people who work more will still earn more. Socialism does not equal Communism. A basic income is not designed to be something one could live off in comfortable luxury, but it would allow for basic survival.

            Motorola failed because people didn’t like their products as much as Apple’s. This has nothing to do with the fact that Apple’s ability to generate extreme wealth has to do with institutional structures from property law on up. Without IP protection, contract law, the SEC allowing for a functioning and generally low-fraud stock market, there’s no one person sitting around idly collecting billions of dollars. If you really don’t think that cultural and institutional factors make extreme wealth possible, why aren’t more companies operating in failed states, the resources are so cheap! No red tape or pesky regulations!

            I’m not going to derail this thread any further. There are plenty of resources available to learn more if you were really interested. I’d suggest Matt Bruenig, Jacobin Magazine, Socialist Worker.

            FYI, the “radical” idea of a Basic Income was almost passed by Richard Nixon!

          • Charliefoxtrot

            Oh I wouldn’t worry about ruining the comments here, it’s just us two and some adbots :).

            I get what you’re saying, I’ve heard the “rule of law” argument many times over the years and of course it’s true: we need a legal system to function. But obviously our legal and regulatory environment are supported by existing tax schemes.
            Meaning that Apples success and Motorolas failures happen as a natural course-yet my point was that the socialist ideal you are promoting ignores the risks taken, and demands the losses be absorbed by the citizen/private sector , while simultaneously claiming a stake in the Apple’s of the world as if the rule of law had more than a background effect!

            My criticism if leftism is the seeming assumption that capital risk is nil, and that businesses never fail.
            Imagine you work 80 hour weeks, risk your savings, strain your marriage, creating a business out of nothing…..only to have it pointed out by those who would never dream of taking a risk claim that your success is because of (rule of law/regulation/etc). It’s infuriating.

            Also the loser Nixon was a big fan of wage and price controls and started the EPA, not sure his brand of “republicanism” applies vis a vis guaranteed income… My sincere hope is that some sort of peaceful secession in the US can occur, so that people like me and people like yourself can stop talking over and past each other and live amongst like minded folks. Nice chatting with you!

          • William Myers

            The problem with looking at art from the perspective of capitalism / business is that business requires a measurable quality that can indicate return on investment. The same problem exists with our education system today. In each case, the greatest difficulty is in finding that quantity that the business minded can measure as ‘profit.’ That’s why the focus of public schooling has turned to surveys and testing… its a measurable outcome.

            The alternative is to accept that some things in living a human life with greater depth than simply survival involves qualities that are not measurable by profit seeking business people. And spending money on making those things available to more people throughout their lives is important. Even if we cannot measure them as a percentage of return.

          • Charliefoxtrot

            I’m not looking at it from a biz perspective per se; just pointing out that publics interest is what it is.
            I get that artistic folks care deeply about the arts, but disagree with the idea that the arts give meaning to life to the average person, in the way that the arts are important to…..people in the arts.

            Besides which, one cannot make a decision to be a theater actor and then expect to get rich, as I guess these folks are finding out….it’s a bit like trying to leverage a women’s studies degree into a job-not everyone’s passions can be paid for, and to ask the public to subsidize art just because Life Is Improved With the Arts? No.
            Make compelling art. People will gladly pay. If you’re finding your work not selling, your marketing stinks, your material stinks, or you’re just not that talented, which is ok!

          • William Myers

            Unfortunately, its not that simple. The arts are proven to have an impact on growth and understanding in cultures where they are available to be experienced (in studies performed by people who are not artists). Even the business world understands that the development of creativity and innovation comes from exposure to the arts and the critical thinking skills that are developed from evaluating what makes one performance good and another poor. This is no longer just a matter of artists saying such things to protect their income… and expressing that idea shows that you are speaking from personal opinion, rather than informed opinion.

            No one is asking to be rich. However, I have a very challenging job. I work long hours with very critical deadlines. My skill set includes mathematics, complex technical skills, precision operation of equipment, the ability to evaluate psychological and emotional context from written language and compose or select music and sounds that can evoke these same things from a target demographic. During a three hour musical performance I may make as many 3000 fine adjustments to controls… from memory… with many more based upon real time decisions including audience size and seating positions, what people are wearing, and whether a given actor ate something for breakfast that they are mildly allergic to. I spent the first six years of my adult life working as an Electronics Technician and Nuclear Reactor Operator for the US Navy… and while the pressure not to irradiate an entire region is gone, I can honestly say that operating a Reactor was often simpler than being a Sound Designer. However, in the last decade I have earned between 14k and 24k per year. Would you care to compare this with the equivalent education and skill set of… say… a civilian nuclear reactor operator?

            The difficulty is accessibility. While artists know what we do is more than simply entertain, there IS an understanding that many people will only attend art if it entertains. But if you can choose between having a couple drinks and watching the game at a bar for twenty bucks, spending twenty or thirty and seeing a movie… you are going to choose one of those options over fifty or a hundred or more to see live theater. If we could, it would be far easier for theater to meet their operating costs purely from ticket sales. But we can’t.

            It’s easy to suggest that its the quality of the art that is a problem… but even businesses understand that when it comes to R&D, you have to be willing to pay for the failures as well as the successes… because you don’t get innovative new products every time. We need the companies that employ the new local actor just as much as we need the experts who have been seen nationally. How do you think those experts got that experience in the first place?

            Is the proper source of the funding we need the public/taxes? I don’t know. I’ve seen good arguments on both sides of the situation. And let’s face it, if the point is to present plays that raise public awareness of social issues, political change, or similar topics… isn’t that a service to the community? If the Transit authority builds a rail service for your city to reduce traffic problems and support environmental change in your area… you can still drive your own car and complain that they used your tax money for it… but that doesn’t change that it was an improvement made on behalf the community in which you live. But lots of theaters get little or no government money via grants… despite community outreach programs. Many theaters now shoulder the weight of providing arts education for their region’s public school systems, because the arts funding to the schools was cut. Do they deserve funding for doing a job that is supposed to be funding by your state’s board of education?

            But none of that is what is really being discussed here. What IS being discussed is that the performing arts industry is suffering financially. Businesses all over the world recognize that the future of our country is in its ability to be creative… innovative. Experiencing live performances of music, dance and theater help develop the abilities necessary to be innovative. So doesn’t it make sense for the public to support financing the arts in schools or through regional outreach programs at theaters and dance companies? Doesn’t it make sense for businesses to sponsor productions and provide the benefits of their business skills to these companies (by participating on their boards)?

          • Charliefoxtrot

            An excellent, well thought out response, thanks for taking the time.

          • Karl Schappell

            Very well said. I was a professional dancer for close to 30 years. I started my career here in Philadelphia during the 80′s when there was still funding to be found from the NEA, the state and from the city. Those days are very obviously over, and now most of the performance artists are relying on foundations to stay performing. As the foundations change how and to whom they fund it is being increasingly tough to stay working. I agree it is worrying that PEW has changed how it funds, and that artists who were heavily funded are now being tossed aside. There is a feeling in the community that Bill Bissell is alone making decisions for who exactly gets funding. Right or wrong there is a fear of many artists that if they complain they will be cut off in retaliation.
            However the idea that is so much better elsewhere is no longer necessarily the truth. As the Eurozone’s economy has gotten worse many of the funding for the arts have been seriously cut. I moved to Europe in 1993 and at that point all of my wages were paid directly from state grants. I worked all over Europe for 13 years and had a very successful career, for the last 7 years working with a well known dance company in the Netherlands. I was paid very well for my work, in fact we were paid yearly an extra month wages. The arts were celebrated and pretty much every town and village had a theater which was programmed heavily and attendance was very high. A lot of these small theaters are now closed because of funding cuts. It is a shame but the economy is no longer able to afford to keep these places open. In 2005, the Dutch government changed. The new government’s arts policy changed and cut funding completely to many artists that had been funded for, not an exaggeration, decades. The company I worked for went from close to a million dollar funding to zero. 20 employees basically thrown out on the street. (Before anyone wonders why a million dollars, we toured 30 weeks of the year.) I was close to retiring so I took that as a sign to do so and moved back to Philadelphia, a city that I adore even though not being born here.
            The arts scene is very vibrant here, but the artists have to realize that the funding has changed. If you want to create in this city you have to be able to navigate how to make money outside the arts. It is a struggle but for generations of artists have been able to do it. Does it suck to need to have work at another job in order to survive in the arts-yes. But to expect to have money handed to you because you talented is idiotic.

          • Merilyn Jackson

            YO! This is not taxpayer money, CharlieFoxTrot. Its private
            foundation money given by the Pew family for charitable purposes, arts and culture being just one of the beneficiaries. Others are education, homelessness, poverty, abuse of women and other needs of citizens that they
            or government can’t or won’t support. The cost of mounting a dance or theater performance far exceeds what the ticket price can bring in.

            Think of it this way: you go to a good restaurant, your bill for your foie gras starter ($16), your softshell crab entree ($32), 2 glasses of Prosecco ($20) plus dessert ($8) totals $76. Then there’s tax and tip which might put the bill at about $100. How much of that bill actually went to the cost of the food? What about the gas, electric, dishes, flatware, stemware (because if you’re paying $10 a pop for prosecco,
            (for which you could purchase a whole bottle) you don’t want it in a plastic cup do you?) tablecloths, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, flowers, cleaning crew, dishwashers, not to mention marketing etc? Is there anything left for profit? Not much.

            Well, it’s the same for an arts organization. And one that has gone to the trouble to apply for and become a 501-C3 NON-Profit organization (CharlieFoxTrot, that’s kinda like applying for FOR-profit Corporate status which entitles
            business entities to rob you anywhichway they like) is entitled to apply (but not always get) arts funding from both private and public funders to supplement their low-cost ticket sales. However, Most private and all local public funders are mandated to and expected to promote, sustain and support local artists, who are,btw, TAXPAYERS!!! The local dance
            community alone has more that 2,000TAX-PAYING Philadelphians. In all, our Arts and Culture economy puts back more into our economy than the
            sports business.

            Here are basic facts and figures on that assertion. For more go onto: http://www.philaculture.org/si

            Total economic impact $3.3 BILLION
            Direct expenditures of $1.4 billion trigger indirect spending of $1.9 billion. This total economic impact of $3.3 billion generates jobs, household income and tax revenue.

  • D. C.

    Glad to see “Broke”s posting below, about the technicians. Yeah, sorry for the actors…but let’s be real. The actors are the ones out on stage getting the accolades, even if the money is short. The technicians behind the scenes are making it all happen and are most of the time unknown entities. And now, Philly has become a place where production people over a certain age are having extreme difficulty making a living. NO ONE is hiring full-time, for a whole season. Everyone wants to hire “per show”..not providing benefits or a wage on a regular basis and preferring to hire younger, less experienced people for a lower wage. And then you have the theatrical Union that actually offers the best pay..yet bullies people to join…and then is full of politics and nepotism. And if you haven’t heard, there are several theatres in town that are on the skids…and may shut down. Baby—-I’m already packing my bags to get out of here before it all goes down the tubes…….the South and the MidWest is where the work is……

  • BagpipesFAO

    Clearly, we are now reaping the fruits of the “Foundation Grant >>>Nonprofit 501c3 ” arts-funding system.

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  • Merilyn Jackson

    Moral ARTrage:

    YO! This is not taxpayer money, CharlieFoxTrot. Its private foundation money given by the Pew family for charitable purposes, arts and culture being just one of the beneficiaries. Education, homelessness, poverty, abuse of women and other needs of citizens that they or government can’t or won’t support. The cost of mounting a dance or theater performance far exceeds what the ticket price can bring in.

    Think of it this way: you go to a good restaurant, your bill for your foie gras starter ($16), your softshell crab entree ($32), 2 glasses of Prosecco ($20) plus dessert ($8) totals $76. Then there’s tax and tip which might put the bill at about $100. How much of that bill actually went to the cost of the food? What about the gas, electric, dishes, flatware, stemware (because if you’re paying $10 a pop for prosecco, for which you could purchase a whole bottle of it, you don’t want it in plastic cup do you?) tablecloths, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, flowers, the cleaning crew, dishwashers, not mention marketing etc? Is there anything left for profit? Not much.

    Well, it’s the same for an arts organization. And one that has gone to the trouble to apply for and become a 501-C3 NON-Profit organization (CharlieFoxTrot, that’s kinda like applying for FOR-profit Corporate statuswhich entitles business entities to rob you anywhichway they like) is entitled to apply (but not always get) arts funding from both private and public funders to supplement their ticket sales. However, Most private and all local public funders are expected to promote, sustain and support local artists, who are,btw, TAXPAYERS!!! The local dance community alone has more that 2,000 TAX-PAYINGPhiladelphians who put back more into our economy than the sports business.

    Here are basic facts and figures on that assertion. For more go onto: http://www.philaculture.org/sites/default/files/2012_prosperity_report.pdf

    Total economic impact $3.3 BILLION
    Direct expenditures of $1.4 billion trigger indirect spending of $1.9 billion. This
    total economic impact of $3.3 billion generates jobs, household income
    and tax revenue.

    • Charliefoxtrot

      Oh I’ve known about Pew for decades. I’m just premptively making counter arguments to the inevitable lefty leap to calls for increased taxpayer $ to support the arts, which I obviously don’t agree with.

      • Merilyn Jackson

        Precisely why I’d love to move to Germany or the UK where people are cultured and recognize what the arts bring to their lives. They have very few who think like you. And the standard of living is so much more equitable between the haves and the have-nots. They needn’t feel ashamed that children are starving, because they don’t have much of that, as we do. Its so clean, quiet (German cars must have low-noise engines and people aren’t unruly, by and large) and well-ordered in most cities I’ve been to, and countryside as well. They spend their tax dollars on important quality-of-life issues because the people want it that way and don’t mind paying for it. They are far smarter than most people I meet here.

        • Charliefoxtrot

          Perhaps you should. I know I could do without leftist presumptions that people who hold different views than they do are definitionally stupid.
          It’s also terrifically easy to have a welfare state when you outsource your national defense to the US.