That’s what my friend Rosemary ate late one night, she said, working harder than she ever had in her life, getting out the vote for Kerry in New Mexico in November 2004. The state went for Bush, by a greater margin than it went for Gore in 2000.
For those of us whose idealism has become attached, perhaps too closely, to the fortunes of the Democratic Party, another even-numbered year brings back an anxious blend of hope, exhortation, and honest despair.
The Republicans our country has elected take full advantage of the winner-take-all potential in American politics. They seem prepared to ignore the narrowness of their victories and interpret a slim majority as a mandate to disregard, when they can, the interests of the 48% who voted against them.
After the election, the Democrats seemed floundering, hapless passengers on a battered ferryboat, slipping and sliding from left to right, tossed by the wake of a Republican oil tanker. Beset by hurricanes, scandals, indictments, and weakened nerves, the Republicans may be in some trouble of their own now too, but neither party seems to have gained its ideological bearings from the travails of the other.
Democrats have gone to linguists like Berkeley professor George Lakoff for advice on framing–telling their story better–hoping for more than spinning. Many doubtless harbor the wish for a swing of the pendulum, for obvious incidents of Republican overreaching, for internal strife between the party’s right and center, for fatal mistakes. Another natural disaster or military reversal on Bush’s watch might finally expose what Democrats believe to be a series of bad decisions leaving America less, not more, secure. The cadre in exile have set up a myriad of policy groups, as they should, and set down pages and pages of vision and value statements that no sensible person could disagree with and which, therefore, provide no real direction.
By that I mean a reasoned analysis of how our country works, what’s wrong with it, how it can be made better, addressing the individual’s relationship to society, who has power, who doesn’t and who should, based on some awareness of history and the social and intellectual ground that has been plowed before by Plato and Madison, Locke and Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and Martin Luther King, and so many others.
I’ll get right to the point. I believe that the purpose of creating structures in society should be to promote “the greatest good for the greatest number,” as Jeremy Bentham, Mill, and Abraham Lincoln stated it 150 years ago. To which I would add, and someone no doubt has said it better, “with dignity for all.” Otherwise we could justify torturing POWs for information, killing dissidents and psychotics, even slavery, if the majority would receive a greater benefit.
To achieve the greatest good for the greatest number with dignity for all, humankind has successfully developed, with many hands over many centuries, three types of organized systems: the Family, Business, and Public Service. The third obviously includes governments, but also churches, universities, hospitals, and other institutions chartered not for profit but for some public purpose. Each of the systems has an internal logic that allows for growth, generation of value to society, the ability to surmount crises, and perpetual existence.
We need this trinity: the Family for love, Business for prosperity, and Public Service for…that’s a big question, isn’t it? The logics and benefits of each social system are far from perfect, and Public Service probably draws the most controversy. I believe that humanity’s best interests are served by a decent balance among the three forms of organization, and that’s where our current difficulty lies.
Business is now the dominant social institution on the planet. I shouldn’t even have to prove this. Many people know this and are proud of it. Others know this and fear it. Yet this fact is rarely emphasized in public discourse, not only because the evidence of it is everywhere, but also because to say it might provoke the Robin Hood in many of us, make us want to pick up the bow and arrow.
There is much to rejoice about in the triumph of Business. I am glad that free enterprise has brought cell phones to Africa and two Starbucks coffee shops to my town. Nevertheless, the sad and dangerous truth is that Business has become so powerful in the world that it is invading the realm of the Family and the realm of Public Service, upsetting their inner logics, siphoning off their resources and good will, throwing society out of balance.
A similar dislocation happened before. In the late nineteenth century, with the rise of industrial capitalism and monopolies came the severe oppression of workers, farmers, and their families, and the corruption of government. In Europe, the response was the pursuit of various forms of socialism, to force the capitalist class into submission, ranging from the utopian social revolts portrayed in Les Miserables to the dictatorship of the proletariat sought by Lenin and the communists.
In America, the main response was the Progressive movement at the dawn of the twentieth century, which sought not to end capitalism but to mend it by restoring competition to Business and installing countermeasures to protect the Family and drive corruption out of Public Service. It worked for the most part, and we still benefit from the anti-trust laws, regulation of food and drugs, child labor laws, national parks, women’s right to vote, progressive income tax, and direct election of Senators accomplished by the Progressives.
So it is that we need a Progressive movement today, to find a new balance among the Family, Business, and Public Service, before, frankly, we are ruined by the reckless consumption of our natural resources, the separation of upper and lower classes, the spread of terrorism and fear throughout a divided world, or the destruction of our global climate.
What we need is a formulation of Progressive theory beyond partisan politics that speaks to what’s best for America, that tries to speak to the party of Theodore Roosevelt and the party of Franklin Roosevelt, and to independents, too, giving each citizen who wishes to consider it a distinctive interpretation of modern political life with which he or she may agree or disagree.
What is needed is an articulation of Progressive political philosophy for the twenty-first century that is fresh and new, beyond left and right, liberal and conservative. Something solid and dependable, a logical system of thought and belief that applies our finest ideals to our worst problems. In the absence of hearing it expressed by anyone else so far, here is what I offer.
You wake up to the news on the clock radio, or turn the TV on at breakfast as you have your cereal from Kellogg or Post with nonfat, 1%, or whole milk that may or may not contain bovine growth hormone, that may or may not matter to your health.
You dress, in clothes mainly from China that came to you via Wal-Mart or Macy’s or Ross at the mall. Maybe you check your email to see if any message you need or want to see came through the spam. You rush around, the kid’s lunch, the school form that needs to be signed, feed the pets, trip over the unwalked dog, try to focus on putting what you need for the day in your handbag/briefcase/backpack. Your daughter won’t stand still to have her hair fixed. It’s getting late.
You drive less than a mile to the school. You could have walked but there isn’t time, and your child can’t walk without you because the faces on the milk cartons remind you that the world is not safe. There is the usual line up of SUVs and minivans at the dropoff and you have to be really careful not to back over a small child trailing his mother.
You begin your commute to work. Check messages on your cell phone, damn, forgot to recharge it last night. But the electric shaver works. You drive down the pot-holed or newly-paved city streets, pass all the stores and signs: Shell, 7-11, Grand Auto, Burger King, Home Depot, Safeway. Hundreds of corporate trademarks, billboards, even the Hummer ad in the elevator in your building, bid for your attention on your journey. You tune them out, don’t you?
You arrive at your job. Like 3/4 of employed Americans, you work for a large, medium, or small company or have your own business or profession. Or, like 1/4 of us, you work for a government agency or a nonprofit organization of some kind. If you are fortunate, you have a secure job, an understanding boss, interesting things to do, and make a living that seems adequate enough, for now.
If you are not so lucky, your productive life is to some extent oppressive, boring, underpaid, or in jeopardy. The work at your office, store, job site, plant, hospital, lab, hotel, school, or home is paced faster than it has ever been. Technology demands quicker turn-around, more tasks to do and more undone, more lists, more prioritization, more interruptions, shorter tempers, less time to actually make a thoughtful contribution.
In order to function in this economy and society, you have to ask things of other people. You call almost any person or organization on the phone these days, what do you get? Automated answering systems, voice mail, and being put on hold. All because providing you with a human being to talk to is too expensive or inconvenient–unless perhaps they are “Jack” or “Annie” in a phone bank in India. This is what you go through if, on your lunch half-hour, you need directory assistance, a doctor’s appointment, to reach your college kid on his cell phone, to resolve a medical bill with your HMO, to get your water heater fixed. If you are on hold at home, you cannot help your crying child find his other shoe because you might lose the connection, your telephone battery is running down, you can’t take an incoming call.
What’s the first thing you do when you get home? Very revealing. Kiss your mate? Swoop your eager toddler up in your arms? Coors Light? Pee, because you’ve been on the road so long? Check your phone messages? Encounter the frustration of a hungry family expecting you to fix dinner? Look at the mail?
Ah, the mail. That stream of printed material that the world dumps on you every day because somebody has your address and the postal service subsidizes their access to you. Unless you want a house full of clutter or an elaborate filing system, better stand next to the waste can when you go through it.
Dinner. You sit down calmly, everyone gathers, you bow your head and say grace, your kids say please pass the asparagus, you discuss the latest Supreme Court nomination. Right.
One’s not hungry, already ate on the way home, another is at the sixth level of a video game and will take his meal at the computer, another is on a diet or vegan, the rest choose their frozen dinners and take turns nuking them in the microwave. With luck, some will still be at the table finishing before others start, eyes wandering toward Friends on the TV in the corner, where the vote on Judge Alito’s nomination is crawling across the bottom of the screen. Judge who?
Then, it’s the fractured remains of the day. Some of us go off and do our own thing. Chores are started and not completed. The computer. The telephone. Open another bottle, a Big Bag of chips. More TV. The news, reported by a guy with a microphone on the street in Baghdad or Chicago. Chocolate. After nine o’clock, wherever you’re sitting, you don’t want to move. Your self-discipline is at a low ebb. Eventually, an adult makes bedtime happen, takes the garbage out, starts the laundry, checks the doors and windows. Just like at work, the evidence of an unfinished day lies everywhere.
Tylenol PM or something stronger. Did you turn off the stove? Another argument or effort at intimacy, but no time for both. Sleep, six hours on a good night.
Daily life in America, if you are making the effort to take care of yourself and your family, is an unrelenting hassle, dawn to dusk, for almost all of us. And far too many of us suffer real deprivation.
Why is this so? After 60 years of time-saving and labor-saving inventions, the kind of leisure time and freedom from want that we imagined in the 1950’s has not materialized. We have less time to ourselves, to relax, to direct our own lives, to play (rather than watch) a sport, to talk to or eat with our children, to lie on the grass and look at the clouds. And we are in debt. We must produce or consume in the greater economy because that is what Business–setting the pace for everything–demands that we do.
As you look back on it, how much of your time is truly personal, not subject to the influence of the social systems that surround you? Your workplace is totally devoted to serving the demands of others (but at least most people act like adults). Maybe you daydream while driving or read a paperback on the bus; is that as good as it gets? Relax watching TV or a DVD, you get a big corporate entertainment product delivered directly to your brain. Maybe you go for a walk in the public park, shoot some baskets in the driveway. Good for you.
You have very little personal life because these three social systems–Business, Public Service, and Family–want your attention and get it almost every minute of the day.
Business gets the most. In our 24/7 economy, the Business sector penetrates your life every chance it gets. If you don’t work in the Business world, as most of us do, you are still heavily impacted as a consumer almost every hour, every day.
Almost every object we touch is a product of Business: the cereal, the milk, the TV, the computer, your clothes, your house, your car, the coffee, the cell phone, the grocery store, the gas station, the building you work in, most of what’s in the mail, the frozen dinner, the beer, the video, the Tylenol PM.
To its credit, Business may try to make these products work better, look better, be easier or cheaper to buy, or be available in more varieties. However, you must keep buying, so they are not always built to last very long. Instead of finding what you need easily at a fair price, you are presented with an avalanche of discount cards, coupons, sales, similar items, ingredients, expiration dates, disclaimers, add-ons, extended warranties, and misleading advertising. You cannot possibly process all that information in a reasonable time, with everything else you have to do in a day. You usually miss out on getting the best product at the best price, because the system is designed to make the truth too difficult to learn. Advantage: Business. Disadvantage: you.
In essence, one of the worst defects in the Business mode of operation is that Business habitually works to narrow its responsibility for the products and services you receive, and it does that by throwing any problems onto you. And into the atmosphere. And onto the next generation.
That’s also why your phone calls wander around in voice mail hell or are kept on hold forever. To reduce the cost to Business of dealing with you, and to cause you to expend your own precious time waiting for an answer or better yet, give up.
The world of Public Service pervades your day as well. If you work for government, or perhaps a nonprofit clinic or college, you are part of a system with expectations that differ from Business. Even if you work in Business, you are affected by the quality of our Public Service constantly, as you commute on city streets and state highways or take public transit, drink the water, watch the news, breathe the air, send and receive U.S. mail, walk in the park, pass through an airport, buy products that may or may not be safe, spend your paycheck after income tax is deducted, pay sales tax on what you buy. Among all the agencies of government, the one that probably impacts you the most if you have children is the public school system.
If you attend church, visit a museum, listen to NPR, put your child in a YMCA after-school program, coach Little League, go to the emergency room with a kidney stone, you are participating in the nonprofit part of Public Service that operates outside of government.
Family gets what’s left. Depending on your position in the Family, most of the work of running the household may fall on you. For most parents working outside of the home, Family life is what you can fit in. In many ways, Family life can seem like the least rational of the three systems. You are bombarded by the endless demands of children and buffeted by the irritable side that adult Family members generally avoid showing in public.
Reflecting on a day, you may realize that the only Family moment between you and your daughter, not influenced by TV or school or Mattel, was the fight you had over how to fix her hair this morning. Because you were checking your email after dinner, she wasn’t sitting in your lap tracing the lines on your face with her finger or asking you “where does God live?”
Like a drop of pond water under a microscope, a day in your life contains abundant evidence of our larger social structures, and you can begin to see how the configuration of Family, Business, and Public Service affects your experience as a person in the world.
Family requires (1) two or more people, (2) income sufficient to support them, and (3) intimate contact. For its benefit to society to be sustained beyond one generation, a Family also needs (4) some age differential among its members, usually accomplished by having children. Even those without children often create relationships through which they can pass something valuable on to the next generation.
I wouldn’t define a mother, father, and children in a single-family house as the only kind of Family. My aunt who never married but lived with my grandmother had formed a Family. To me, it is the capacity to express intimate love and to actually serve the emotional needs of another, committed until death us do part, that generates the unique social value of a Family. That could be a man and a woman, a parent and a child, two men, two women, brothers, sisters, aunt and niece, and please, they should not be required to be heterosexual.
I do not speak of the Family as an ideal. Yours may be a loving, noisy, quiet, abusive, secretive, chaotic, oppressive, narrow, affectionate, over-protective, or distracted Family. It is what it is. It sticks together because it is really hard to walk out that door. We experience most intensely what it means to be human within a Family.
Because you can really get to know people in a Family, you can learn to judge them, in Martin Luther King’s words, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” You look past secondary features of their appearance, and see that honesty and reliability and patience are more important than size, shape, race, or gender. I would venture to say that the greatest steps being taken today toward lessening racial prejudice are not in the mass media but in the interracial friendships, dating, and marriages of the generations born after 1960. Go in most American homes, look at the photos on the refrigerator, and you will see faces of other colors.
The motive force of the Family is the marvelous desire for personal love. We are fortunate to be driven by such a strong force of nature. Love causes us to care so much for another human being that we can place their needs above our own. It is the foundation for selflessness, without which we could not take the first step toward the common good.
Business requires (1) private property to start with, (2) a legal way to own the business and profit from it, (3) labor, (4) creation of commodities to offer to (5) customers, (6) a system of money and credit, and (7) flow of information.
It would be hard to praise Business too much for the prosperity it has brought to America, Europe, and the emerging nations of Asia and Latin America. Business is the source of most of our jobs. Business, however, was not created by natural human impulses, as the Family was. Sure, the desire for wealth and status is a powerful psychological drive, but the Business system in America today is an artificial construct of laws adopted by government over the span of a century under the heavy influence of the Business class.
In society, Business can provide the best kind of reality testing. You are rewarded if you can control the costs of production and provide something that customers will pay a good price for. If you waste money or time in the production process and customers don’t find your product to be that valuable, your enterprise should fail and get out of the way so that more worthwhile ventures can enter the marketplace.
Modern Business likes social mobility. You can’t hire and fire people in a Family that easily, and it is often hard to do in Public Service. It is a tremendous strength of Business to be able to put together the best team for the task at hand. And it is a good thing for you to be able to leave a job and seek a better one.
Under the heading of Business, I include the mass media and labor unions. The press is not a separate institution in society, if it ever was. Business owns almost all news outlets, and those that do not help the parent company make a profit will eventually be shut down or overhauled so they do. Because of their collective bargaining function, unions act mainly as labor force contractors in the marketplace, negotiating price and terms with the Business employer much the same as any other supplier of services.
Profit may be a great incentive and an objective way to judge which economic activities should succeed and which fail, but it is ruthless. The young, the aged, and the poor may have greater medical needs, but since they have a lesser ability to pay, the health care Business will be biased against them. The profit motive also can emphasize the pursuit of monetary reward to the exclusion of other valuable aspects of life. What does that do to the human spirit?
Public Service comes in two forms: the voluntary kind, nonprofit organizations, and the compulsory kind, governments. Both require (1) constituents, (2) leadership, (3) rights and benefits, and (4) income. In addition, government requires (5) laws, (6) means of compulsion, and (7) democracy, that is, consent of the governed.
I realize that calling government and nonprofits, together, Public Service is an idealistic approach and I choose that label deliberately. It is not enough to say that government wants simply to govern, that is, to rule over people, or that nonprofits want something other than profit. To dedicate yourself, as a soldier, teacher, nurse, or park ranger, to the benefit of the general public, to people you don’t even know, is an honorable pursuit. Public Service is the only one of the three social systems that is fundamentally unselfish, and for Public Service to fulfill its unique role in society, it critical that it remain so.
What sustains Public Service organizations over time is their ability to keep their social contracts with their constituents alive, to maintain their good will and faith. So it is between a church and its congregation, a nation and its citizens, the Sierra Club or the NRA and its members, a school and its teachers, students, and parents.
For Public Service institutions, advancing the common good is a matter of direct, deliberate intention. It is not a byproduct of some other human desire, such as devotion to Family or pursuit of profit in Business.
Would you like to dispense with the Centers for Disease Control, or the fire department, Social Security, our highways and bridges, the Army and Navy? Our political leaders have kept the country from splitting up in a civil war, freed the slaves, protected us from foreign invasion, provided free public education, and pulled us out of depression.
There is still a vibrant spirit of Public Service in this country, inside and outside of government. Read the obituaries of the 150 federal employees who died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, what they were doing when they died, what their government careers had meant. You will never think of them as faceless bureaucrats again. They were not just keeping their chairs warm. They were engaged, every day, in reaching out and helping the ordinary man and woman in America.
I suggest that the most resonant commitment to others that is reflected in our traditions of Public Service extends to all of humanity without exception. This commitment has a spiritual basis, common to most religions and moral belief systems. There is something special about the human individual that is different from all other forms of life, whether you call it consciousness, soul, a spark of divinity. Somehow, humans were created, whether by the intricate mystery of evolution or by divine intervention, in the image of a great, universal, spirit. No person is outside the grace of that God, no one is beyond redemption, no one does not deserve respect, even on death row.
The Public Service structures in America, voluntary and involuntary, embody this principle of sacrifice for others. Not reciprocal altruism, giving to others in order to foster a sense of return obligation. But truly selfless sacrifice, with nothing desired in exchange. The sacrifices we are asked to make as citizens and taxpayers, to sit on a jury, to be drafted to fight to defend the country, to pay taxes that educate other people’s children, are unselfish acts that we may never benefit from directly, and yet we do them, on faith.
Because government is an involuntary form of Public Service, it must be limited so that the individuals subject to it are not oppressed by it. This seems to me axiomatic.
An individual may disagree with the paths chosen by government, yet is required by law to support those choices. Government owes a duty to its citizens to be principled and wise about how it uses the money, time, and life it has the power to take from them. Not just whatever it can get away with.
We’ve heard the phrasing of Thomas Jefferson, “The government is best that governs least.” Lincoln may have had a more expansive view, “The purpose of government is to do for people what they cannot do at all or do so well for themselves.”
I do not agree with mindless reductions, like shrinking government with across-the-board percentage cuts or throwing out the whole Internal Revenue Code because it has too many pages. There ought to be intelligent principles that require government spending and government regulation to be justified before they occur. This would also prevent the legitimate functions of government from being downsized or discarded arbitrarily. And, if we believed that government had to follow some rational limitations on its power, we would feel more willing to give it our support and respect.
At the very least, we should start a new conversation about what the principles ought to be. I propose this simple statement: the limited purposes of government are to protect, correct, and connect.
Protect: life, liberty, and property, both private and public property. We should expect government to guard us from criminals and from foreign invaders, from fire, floods, and epidemics. It should protect the civil liberties that make us a free people. Government should also protect and preserve our public lands and waters and the minerals underneath them for our children and their children.
Correct: for the failures, distortions, and excesses of Business, to whom we have entrusted our economic well-being. Anti-trust and consumer protection laws, fully enforced to keep Business competitive and honest. Land use planning so our sense of open space, the public square, parks where anyone can play, is not lost to shopping centers and gated enclaves of luxury housing. Public education, still our best hope for equal opportunity. And universal health care where the Business market has failed.
Connect: all of us, through physical infrastructure and through appropriate celebrations of our common humanity and aspirations. Highways, roads, bridges, dams, wires and pipelines of all kinds, airports, seaports, public transit and the post office. But also Mount Rushmore and the Smithsonian, public television, sports stadiums, and the space program.
Anything else, like the many subsidies and tax breaks Business has been able to extract from government over the years, should be put on the table.
To promote the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals, with dignity for all, each of the three social systems must be healthy and in balance with the others.
When Family was the dominant paradigm on earth, we had tribalism and feudalism and kingdoms, the stuff of fairy tales but so divisive and violent that humanity could not progress for centuries. The Communist experiments of the twentieth century elevated Public Service over Family and Business and gave us totalitarian societies in which freedom all but disappeared.
Like it or not, Business has become the dominant institution on earth in this century. The Family and Public Service are sliding into neglect and despair. We are out of balance.
In pursuit of profits, markets, and power, Business has created an ever-expanding array of products, services, and jobs for people. But it has been getting away with degrading Family and Public Service in the process.
Business is causing neglect of Family by drawing individuals out of Family and into intense production and consumption activities that divert their attention from intimate contact with each other.
Business is causing despair in Public Service by steadily acquiring power, using the Republican Party as its favorite vehicle, over almost all levels and branches of government, so that it resembles an oligarchy of wealth more than a democracy of people.
We have always known that large Business interests are in a position to command more attention from our elected Public Service officials than the rest of us. It is true for the influence of Business lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and for the chamber of commerce and real estate developers in your home town. They are the “economic royalists” decried by Franklin Roosevelt, the “military-industrial complex” criticized by Eisenhower, and the steel executives who tried to double-cross John F. Kennedy on price controls. Our democratic government is open to all competing self-interests, it is just that Business groups can use their wealth to gain more access and power than you or I can.
At any given time, our government reflects a mixture of two power bases outside of government: the concentrated, constant influence of the Business class, and the more diffused, variable, unpredictable influence of public opinion voiced by nonprofit advocates, in the press, and by ordinary people, mainly reacting to events. This results in a shared system of political power between an oligarchy of wealth and popular democracy that shifts back and forth over time. Right now, Business influence is supremely dominant and will probably continue to be until that day, if it ever comes, that the advantage of accumulated wealth is completely driven out of our campaigns and elections.
The struggle between Business, Family and the public interest has gone on in America for over a century. One of the most gripping stories to illustrate this dynamic is a passage in The Long Winter, the fourth book by Laura Ingalls Wilder after Little House on the Prairie.
Laura and the Ingalls family are living in a town in Minnesota, trapped with a diminishing food supply by a series of howling blizzards so strong they cannot see the next house or walk across the street. They are out of wood, so they twist hay for the stove. The train won’t come through until spring. The Ingalls are down to their last potatoes and kernels of wheat, ground in a little coffee grinder.
Many other families in the town are also near starvation. There is a rumor of a settler miles away who may have stored up some wheat from the last harvest. Two 19-year-old boys, Cap and Almanzo, decide to take two horses and wagons and make a dash for the homestead to buy some of the wheat with money provided by the town’s storekeeper, Mr. Loftus. On a clear morning, they head off in the general direction of where the cabin is supposed to be, across the frozen wastes, no map, no compass. They are lucky to find it, but the settler wants to keep his seed wheat, won’t sell. Finally, hearing how bad things are in town, he relents and sells it to the boys for $1.25 a bushel.
The boys head back as night approaches and the stars disappear as another blizzard fills the sky. Repeatedly, the horses break through the thin crusts of ice and snow, and fall, screaming. The wagons spill and the boys have to reload the sixty 125 pound bushel bags, freezing their hands and feet. At last, they catch a glimpse of light from town as a door briefly opens and closes. They deliver the wheat to Loftus, who is not happy with the price they had to pay.
Next day, the men in town gather at Loftus’ store. They are outraged. Loftus wants to charge $3.00 a bushel, money they don’t have. They ask the boys how much they charged to get the wheat and rescue the town; Cap and Almanzo refuse to take “a red cent.” Pa Ingalls tries to reason with Loftus. The storekeeper bangs his fist on the counter, saying, “That wheat’s mine and I’ve got a right to charge any price I want for it.”
Ingalls agrees. “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property.” Ingalls reminds Loftus that next summer, his business will depend on their good will.
Loftus is unmoved. “I buy as low as I can and sell as high as I can; that’s good business,” he says. He looks around. They all despise him. He opens his mouth and shuts it. He looks beaten. He offers to sell the wheat for what it cost him, $1.25 a bushel.
The men are stunned by the concession. Ingalls says, “We don’t object to your making a fair profit, Loftus.” Then he suggests, “What do you say we all get together and kind of ration it out, on a basis of how much our families need to last till spring?” They do, and survive the winter. Laura lives to marry Almanzo Wilder and tell the tale.
When the logic of the Business system collides with the life necessities of the Family, Business must give way. The Minnesota townspeople not only backed the storekeeper down, they took control of the food supply and distributed it according to need. The spirit of sacrifice for the common good was contagious. It even touched Mr. Loftus.
The solution to our present imbalance is not to combat and defeat Business, but to make corrections for its failures, distortions, and excesses, to harness its enormous energy for the betterment of society, and to lift Family and Public Service up to their rightful places.
Loftus was determined to charge what he could get away with in a marketplace held captive by the storm. The ethic of “do what you can get away with,” pursue your own self-interest and that of your Family and your Business alone, threatens to become dominant in our country.
Business exploitation of the Family today is undeniable. In most places, the minimum wage has fallen behind inflation for decades. More working Americans without health insurance than ever before. Pick up and move your Family to the new facility in Texas or San Jose or be laid off. High credit card interest rates. And in our daily lives, almost nothing is shielded from the onslaught of mass commercial culture, the pressure to buy.
Commodification. Is this a word yet? In order for Business to sell something to you, it has to be offered in a form suitable for purchase and you have to believe you want or need it. That’s easy with an ear of corn or an orange. You know you need to eat to survive, this product is already packaged, and so it just has to be picked and shipped to you. To get Doritos in a cellophane bag or Diet Pepsi in a can requires a bit more manufacturing, packaging, and marketing.
Some commodities we need, no question. Food. Building materials for shelter. Medicine and physicians. Clothing. Some means of transportation.
Then there is that massive variety of things Business offers to us these days that we might get along just fine without, and the fact we want them might be more due to some modern, habituated taste than to a basic human drive. Gourmet coffee and tea. Credit cards. Clumping cat litter. High-speed Internet access. Mutual funds. Bottled water. Dating services. The 24 Hour Fitness center. Fourteen kinds of Excedrin. Environmental impact reports. Satellite TV. Legal advice. Insurance. Lottery tickets.
The conventional wisdom is that Business is just giving people what they want and are willing to pay for, and so it is the epitome of democracy in action, people voting with their pocketbooks, the customer is king.
But that doesn’t mean that it all adds up to a rational system. Why do you have four half-empty bottles of ketchup in your refrigerator? Who has time to go through the cupboards and make a shopping list? Bet you have more than one item in your closet that you’ve never worn.
It is rational. Who knows? You might really have been out of ketchup. If you don’t buy lottery tickets, you have zero chance to win. Without teeth whitening or a nose job or the gym or Binaca or eHarmony.com, you might not meet the love of your life.
It may seem crazy to have all the junk we do, but if you look at each choice, you can see how it was rationally made. Besides the things we know we need or want, there are so many more things that we might need or might want. So we are buying for a future possible use. Or it might not be available at this price, or it might be sold out (watch the count go down on the TV shopping channel). The main principle is that you don’t want to be sorry later that you didn’t buy it.
Maybe we are all poor judges of the probability that we truly will want or need something. Or perhaps there is an explanation in our evolutionary biology: we are wired to hoard and collect because during the thousands of years we evolved, there was never enough daily, dependable food in our natural surroundings, so we developed nervous systems that always want more, in case we need it later. So we buy soda by the case, jewelry on QVC, go to more doctors and try out more drugs, cruise the yard sales, get more TV channels. Bigger houses, public storage. Frequent flyer miles. Piles of things to read. Catalogs. We obsess about the news, or our personal appearance, technology, or toys, or about constantly cleaning it all up. It is an addictive response, and Business knows it.
Business wants to keep us busy, drawing everything humans do or worry about into the realm of economic commodities, leaving less time for anything else. It’s better for the Family to cluster around the TV or computer than to sit, or walk, and have a conversation. As compared to the last century, people today would rather donate their money than volunteer their time to Public Service. And there’s little time left to vote or attend that boring city council meeting–which wouldn’t be so boring if you went in and raised a little hell about the traffic or the zoning.
Class stratification is often identified as the most serious deficiency of Business. It is a problem that Business has never been able to solve, and its effect on the Family is devastating.
As economist Paul Krugman and many others have pointed out, the separation of incomes and lifestyles in American society has become much worse in recent decades. Some argue that it’s not so bad, that low income is mainly a feature of youth and old age, and that most of us have a reasonable chance at making $60,000 or more in our most productive adult years and are basically satisfied with that. Others say that the extravagant lives of the lightly-taxed rich and famous are not really a threat to the rest of us, who feel better off than we used to be. After all, we get the trickle-down benefits of working for them as maids and security guards and massage therapists and lawyers, plus with a leather jacket, an occasional nice restaurant meal, and tabloid details about their lives, we can fantasize that we are them.
Truth be told, I think that many of us kid ourselves about our economic situation. We have easy and cheap access to fast food, music, TV, cell phones, used cars, clothes, and credit cards, but prescription drugs, a good education, savings for retirement, adequate insurance, medical care, and getting out of debt are costly and difficult problems for us.
Stratification by class in America is real, and getting worse, and it has serious implications for our political life. Those who have money have power and those who do not, do not. Louis Brandeis once said: “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.” To paraphrase Tom Friedman’s observation in a lecture at Johns Hopkins University about the roots of terrorism, those who have power don’t think very often about their position of relative privilege in society, but the powerless think about it all the time and it deeply offends their pride.
Business ought to participate in a dramatic correction of the unequal distribution of wealth, the class stratification that has resulted from the success of Business but may well be its undoing.
We ought to thoroughly reform Public Service, from a culture of competing interests where the most well-financed win and the most public-spirited are demoralized, to a culture of greater selflessness.
Because Public Service is fundamentally based upon unselfish efforts for the benefit of all of us, that quality must be embodied in the public leader. Especially so for political leaders because we have no choice but to be ruled by them until they leave office.
We have seen people become leaders because they are master manipulators, or sheer opportunists, or charismatic salesmen, or anointed by the oligarchy of wealth and influence that works behind the scenes. We try, as best we can, to project our desires for statesmanship and compassion and wisdom onto the presidents and governors we elect, but we are too often severely disappointed by their behavior.
The paramount criterion for candidates to the highest offices in Public Service should be: is this person able, by their own example, to inspire sacrifices for the common good?
We are seeing a revival of interest in Abraham Lincoln these days. Without the benefit of modern marketing, without polling and focus groups, he inspired a troubled nation with the dignity and dedication of his thoughts and the eloquence of the words he wrote himself. He set an example of honesty and humility and nonpartisan grace that inspired over three hundred thousand men to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the Union.
There must be men and women alive today who can be this kind of leader for America. The opportunists and pretenders should stand aside and let them rise.
Greg Colvin is a San Francisco attorney who advises political organizations and charities ranging from MoveOn.org to Toastmasters International.