Don’t argue politics and public policy with your parents. Just don’t do it. I don’t care what Chris Keener thinks, his gut-busting film on surviving political chatter and bridging the child/parent, liberal/”conservative” divide notwithstanding. (Click the link, it’s a must-see for those who fear the home-front for purely ideological reasons.) I mean, I appreciate the spirit of the film: who, in a vacuum, doesn’t believe that he can have a reasonable discussion with his family, say, on the proper role of government? Watch as Chris, with calm, unassailable argument, swats away the Fox-y assertions of his entire family (also played by Chris!) while simultaneously preserving amity – comity? – around his Thanksgiving table. It’s a page right out of the Change We Can Believe In handbook, 2008 edition.
But when I tried the Keener approach over Christmas, I ended up in a shouting match with my stepfather as we barbequed on his porch in rural North Carolina. In a refreshing change, rather than arguing over a specific issue – this or that tax proposal, the dangers of our national debt – we instead dished on the relative trustworthiness of government and corporations. I love this kind of abstract shit!
For me, the question was a no-brainer. You simply have to go with government, right? Government’s accountable to the “people,” after all, while mega-corps and their ilk answer only to their shareholders. Right? But my stepfather, as he shook his greasy spatula in my direction, with meat splatter dotting my now-retired “Enjoy Baltimore!” t-shirt, took the opposite position. “Corporations are accountable to me,” he said. “If I don’t like what they’re doing, I can take my dollars elsewhere!” Then, I think, he called me a communist and, soon after, we enjoyed a silent meal of steak and potatoes. Merry Christmas.
But even if I discount my stepfather’s argument on Glenn Beckian grounds, I have to admit that, after consuming decades of pervasive anti-government rhetoric (and even more, now, on the campaign trail), most Americans probably agree with him. Just look at the favorable coverage Apple and McDonald’s are receiving (in the New York Times!) for their new stances on factory inspections and crate gestation, respectively. (Let’s pause here to allow New Gingrich to spit on the Times’ masthead.) Basically, both companies, after years of stonewalling, have essentially agreed that they bear some responsibility for poor conditions at their suppliers’ factories and farms and have proposed new programs to turn things around.
This news, after a slapdash campaign by consumers, activists, and entertainment types (my favorite is this excerpt from Mike Daisey’s anti-Foxconn screed, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) calling for reform, seems to prove the wisdom of my stepfather’s position. But couldn’t government, through better treaties or regulation, have achieved much the same result, and faster? One has to assume that these outcomes are “good,” of course, but if they’re good, does it matter how they came about? This strikes me as a philosophical and not practical question, since to me the practical benefit of improving supply chains on ethical and safety grounds is beyond ideological reproach. And yet it’s the philosophical divide that left me screaming at my stepfather on Christmas Day. For each of us, there is a right an wrong way to achieve the same result.
But this isn’t meant to be a post about philosophy. It’s about the idea of trusting people’s actions at the cash register more than at the ballot box. In a way, this makes sense. A “high-turnout” presidential election (held once every four years), after all, means only a sixty-something participation rate. The modern economy, on the other hand, demands – and musters – near-100% participation every single day. So, in my stepfather’s view, these million small, daily decisions should account for more, in terms of policy and understanding the public’s desires, than the single (large?) decision we drag ourselves to make on election day.
To me, this stance transforms government into just another economic actor, beholden only to the principles of free enterprise and consumer demand, with limited concern for the matters of fairness that give our system structural legitimacy. Plus it ignores the fundamental difference between consumers and voters: consumers can expect to receive a specific benefit for the price paid for a product or service (i.e., a toaster that works), but voters can have no such expectation. How, really, can you determine the precise value – on a per capita basis – of a new public park, a new hospital, or safer streets for so many taxes paid? Since you can’t, the easiest way to question their value is to question the entire function of government on a purely abstract, theoretical basis, and undermine political leadership in favor of the private sector.
That’s why, in encouraging people to think of government as a business (and, as much as possible, operating it as such), conservatives have succeeded in creating an electorate primed for disappointment. Because when you run government like a business, how can you not cozy up to lobbyists and interest groups – your business partners and consumers, really – and make decisions that address their needs first? Sometimes their needs and the public’s needs are the same, or similar enough to be called the same (I’m thinking of Medicare Part D here), but ultimately those groups serve their industries and donors, not guys like my stepfather and me.
Even worse, our leaders run the country like CEOs bent on hitting next quarter’s earnings target (expressed as a poll number). Far from trying to change government/interest group relations, they abet the status quo, making short-sighted, “pro-business” decisions in hope that industry and the non-government sector will save us from ourselves. The focus isn’t on practical ends, but rather the procedural means. I think that’s why, in the past few election cycles, we’ve been so keen to throw the bums out of office (in non-safe districts, anyway). Maybe the new batch will deliver more bang for the buck than those “kept” incumbents.
In the meantime, we’re left to laud Apple and McDonald’s for doing the right thing. Proof, perhaps, that we don’t need government oversight, incentive programs, or other action to promote the general welfare. At least Apple and McDonald’s are doing something, we figure, which is more than we can say for Uncle Sam. In the abstract, might the rest of the big business community deliver more of the same?
But there lies the hidden wisdom in Chris Keener’s film. In justifying Occupy Wall Street, he’s not talking in the abstract – he knows that big picture ideology can get in the way of addressing real concerns. He doesn’t answer his relatives’ generalizations with mere talking points (sound bites, if you will) of his own. Instead, he speaks of the specific facts that give the movement credibility and asks, simply, what might be done via policy to ameliorate those conditions, with emphasis on results. A much smarter tack, methinks, than the philosophical bombast that left me with steak on my shirt. Shouting won’t solve anything, but better leadership might.