This or That and No Mister In-Between
People tend toward binary thinking. MSNBC asked, “Which is better at job creation–the private sector or the public sector?” You would think no one knew ours is a hybrid economy. If the government were to invest public funds in rebuilding the country's infrastructure, would it be hiring a public construction company? There is not such thing. Locally, if the new Fresh & Easy planned for Santa Monica were to pay young employees something like $10.25 an hour without a union and without benefits and if, by doing this, they were to cut into the profits of other businesses that pay their employees more, allow unions, and offer benefits, would Fresh & Easy have benefited the economy in any way? Surely, such a business would be asking taxpayers to cover those benefits, it would bring no new income into the city unless it came with new car trips from out of town to buy things cheaper in Santa Monica, and it would undercut struggling businesses that are already providing more in taxes and benefits. Unfortunately, binary thinking does not consider the complexities of real life. Seeing the world in black and white leaves us seeing things in stark contrast. It takes all the thinking out of having thoughts–which saves us all a lot of work.
This dumbing-down of the electorate may affect the outcomes of both national and local campaigns. Nationally, Romney calls himself a "job-creator," offering quicker change than “trickle-down” government. Locally, quick change is associated with developmenting housing and local-serving retail to create more revenue. This is easier to see than the slow change that comes with investing in underground parking structures to be accessed straight off the freeway so people using the Expo might fund local public transport with parking fees. If, as well, the receipt for parking would allow visitors free access to Santa Monica-centric public transport, this might help local businesses increase their revenue and provide a larger audience for cultural events. But, land use changes are paid for up-front by investors. Changes in the circulation element are paid for by the public and by bond-meansures, which could help investors but at a lower return of profit. It is easier to accept someone else's plan for change than to develop our own. The problem is that this encourages irresponsible development, which profits investors at the cost of tax-payers. The investors leave town to invest their profits elsewhere. Meanwhile, taxpayers are left having to deal with the problems that come from planning that favors developers.
Some are More Equal than Others
This is the issue at the heart of the present election, both nationally and locally. Before we can properly examine the 15 candidates running for 4 City Council seats, we need explore they myths that serve as the foundation of our political beliefs. I would like to share a true story of one of our Founding Fathers that should show the schizophrenia at the heart of our culture. It concerns Thomas Jefferson, who, besides being the author of our Declaration of Independence, was an original job-creator and an original compassionate conservative. According to research published recently in Smithsonian Magazine, Jefferson, who spoke against slavery when writing the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men are created equal,” later recanted these views as he saw what money could be made through investing in slaves and their labor.
Jefferson created both University & Trade School
Strangely, his views on slavery were not inconsistent with his views on equality. Jefferson, who asked to be remembered for founding the University of Virginia, believed that education developed thinking skills which would lead to greater productivity and wealth. While young white men were receiving educational training at that university, young black men were receiving on-the-job training in workhouses surrounding Monticello. Young boys began learning a trade by making nails in enough quantity so that their sale covered all of the costs of running Monticello and more.
The Magnificent Oz
And, those costs were high. Jefferson held large dinners, where much wine was poured. As a bottle was emptied, the host would open a small cabinet, place it inside, close the door, and soon open it again to reveal another bottle completely full. This was a dumbwaiter with a slave sitting many floors below in the wine cellar, replacing one bottle with another. People visiting Monticello today are told about how inventive Jefferson was. He had a series of tunnels leading into the house that served as pathways for his slaves, who busied themselves from early morning to late at night working more diligently than most slaves owned by other masters. But, they, at least, were learning marketable skills.
Conscience of a Conservative
Too bad, the only way to market these skills was to escape Jefferson's grasp. The few who had gotten close enough to Jefferson to have the freedom to escape were eventually caught, for Jefferson was well-connected with those who captured runaway slaves. Fortunately, however, once caught, they were often forgiven and allowed to earn his trust, again. Jefferson was, after all, a compassionate conservative. He believed that moral education improved the spirit. Imagine Jefferson's confusion when months later these slaves would escape again.
The South's Investment Advisor
Jefferson, self-deluded by principles, was no fool when it came to investments. He was the first to tell his fellow Southerners that slaves were worth more in and of themselves than for the product of their labor. And, they had the ability to reproduce, doubling or tripling their worth, with no need for further investment to make that happen. Once born, of course, they did cost money to support, so Jefferson wasted little time before employing them in his nail factory. But young boys of any color and of any time are hesitant to work as hard as adults, so some physical incentive was often needed. But, then, similar incentives were often given to free children in public schools, until civil rights freed all children from such incentives.
Labor's Not Free
It should be remembered that large plantations were were more like factories than small shops. Monticello ran more like the sweat shops of a later age. Times changed, but economic structures remained fairly constant until labor organized itself into unions, which became largely recognized in the last century. This allowed for the development of the middle class–which brings us up to the present day and the up-coming election.
Fortunately for the development of the middle class, history has been long; unfortunately, our memories have been short. Politicians can talk about supporting education and teachers by opposing teacher unions, and people do not flinch. Yet, these same people who buy union-baiting would not think of buying a house without the help of a real estate agent. Nor are they bothered that movie stars pay agents 10% of their salary for getting them work. There, paying someone to represent their interests makes sense. Similarly, they don't see the inherent contradiction in their thinking when they accept that corporations and businesses would dip into investors profits to help elect people they believe might weaken regulations and lessen capital gains taxes, yet, don't accept that unions would dip into teachers' union contributions to help elect people who favor labor. Once abstract matters are sliced and diced and put into different categories, people have difficulty seeing what connects them.
Putting Things in Historical Perspective
Binary thinking and framing are at fault. Those who believe nurses should be free to decide whether or not to join the union that fights to secure them higher wages and better benefits should consider how long the nurses at Saint John's Health Center had to struggle before before getting management to sign a union contract. Were we to see that young people folding pants and flipping burgers for minimum wage are not much better off than Jefferson's slaves, we would be able to see "equality" as Jefferson saw it. That would allow those who oppose Mitt Romney to better understand how he sees the world.
A More Perfect Union
What they wouldn't see, though, is that the collective action that built the unions is the same collective action that built this government to serve our common interest. Process and progress are hard to visualize. But, it is collective action over time that makes such changes–and it will take even more time to transform our government into one that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. To know that, we would have to have the vision of Lincoln, the vision of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the vision of Obama–all men not fully appreciated during their own time.
This Past is Prologue
With this as our shared background, I want to write next about the candidates running for City Council. And, again, as President Jefferson at Monticello seems not so far from President Snow in his rose garden in The Hunger Games, I want to use that metaphor in looking at the 15 tributes who have entered this contest to win the hearts and minds of those whose expect little more than more of the same. Perhaps, as with The Hunger Games, there might be some surprises in store for us.