I come from a family of people who are all very interested in politics, and I’m often embarrassed by how terrible I am at remembering who is the senator of which state, or being aware of who said what dreadful thing on what occasion most recently. I think for some people politics is addictive; it’s a sort of never-ending reality TV show, one that actually has the power to effect our lives, and that we usually watch with a mix of horror and disgust as the drama continuously unfolds, day after day after day. And yet, many people like me get so caught up in daily things, even silly little egotistical ones, like, “oh no, a pimple!” “I’ve got to remember to buy dish detergent,” and “AH I completely forgot that such-and-such is due tomorrow,” that it’s easy to think of Mitt Rommeny and Nancy Pelosi and all the others as eccentric puppets who yammer on in the background, saying one thing one day and something else another, all based on a confounding political framework rather than what is true or right or even sensible, while the rest of us run around taking care of the real important stuff.
And the current state of political divisiveness is particularly discouraging—knowing that “my” federal government also belongs to millions of strangers who live in places I’ve never been and who have opinions that I think are very wrong and even unethical, and then realizing that they think that my opinions are very wrong and even unethical. Of course, I feel this is because they’ve been lied to by the media and naively believe whatever they’re told … but then again, they think I’ve been lied to by the media and naively believe whatever I’m told … so, where does dialogue begin?
People from across the political spectrum have suggested that we live in an oligarchy, that “big business” is running the country according to its own interests, because politicians are sponsored by big businesses. And of course this will be greatly exacerbated by the new “corporate person” ruling, which can make us human persons feel completely disempowered.
Several years ago I saw You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a documentary about historian and activist Howard Zinn that addresses this feeling of powerlessness very well. It is so easy these days to feel that you are in fact stuck on a moving train, that the engine is going so loud it’s drowning out your yelling, and the conductor is armed and taking his orders from elsewhere, so no matter what you think or what you say, that train is going where it’s going, and the only way for you as an individual to change direction is to see if you can manage to get off of it—i.e., leave the country.
Of course the ultra-right and ultra-left wings react to this feeling of being the hapless passengers of dirty, big-business-run politics in very different ways, which are too broad and varied for the scope of this post. Let’s say extremely generally that on the one side you hear rumblings of “the federal government is so corrupted, we should get rid of it,” and on the other, “global corporations are corrupting the government, we should cripple them.”
It will be no secret to people who know me that I personally veer towards the second extreme. And lately I’ve been mulling over all the counterintuitive negative cycles that center around large retail corporations like Walmart, that have replaced so many local grocery chains and drug stores and hardware stores and convenience stores. For big retailers are not only places where we can buy goods at a discount; they are also customers, and employers, and the repositories of our retirement assets, via mutual funds, which are typically the largest owners of the corporations themselves. Here are a few of the weird dynamics at play:
1) Big retail companies put a lot of pressure on their suppliers to lower prices, in order to provide low prices to their own customers, i.e., us. That means suppliers—from Clorox to John Doe Farmer—make less money, which means that the people who work for the suppliers will in turn make less money to put back into the economy. And when less money goes into the economy, we all make less money, whether we’re fashion designers, curators, scientists, or bricklayers. So it seems to me that while we shop at these retailers because we want to save money, in the long term they are actually costing us money.
2) Big companies are under great pressure from their mutual fund owners to produce consistent revenues, quarter after quarter. In bad times, that means “enhancing profits,” a euphemism for cost-cutting. And as we all know, cost-cutting usually translates to layoffs, paying current employees as little as possible, providing fewer health benefits, and so on. Think of all those big stores with terrible customer service, long lines, or self-check-out: it’s all in the name of “profit enhancement.” So in the end, the company’s efforts to protect its share price often result in people having less money to put into the economy—which is bad for the economy, and therefore its share price. Strange—and the only way around this is the hope that people with less money will buy on credit.
3) Along those lines, we are told that it’s very important to support the economy by shopping … but that we must also plan ahead for retirement by saving. But lo and behold: when it’s time for almost all of us to invest our 401(k)s and IRAs, what are we offered? Mutual funds! How lucky we are: we can invest the money we didn’t spend outright at the big companies into them again, via our mutual funds’ stock purchases! But this begs the question: should we save our money in mutual funds that invest in these big companies, only to have the companies make fewer profits because we saved our money instead of spending it, and watch the share prices go down anyway and unemployment go up? Or, should we spend our money at the companies to protect their profits and therefore their share-prices, but then not be able to personally benefit from the higher share price anyway, and have nothing left at retirement, which would then hurt the share price because we’d have no money to spend? It’s all very confusing!
Now you might say, but these strange inter-relationships don’t have to be a problem, because for a while the economy was doing great, and the mutual funds were doing great, and employment numbers were good too, all at the same time. True … only during those years rates of personal savings dropped precipitously, and Americans’ debt loads went way up, hence the mortgage crisis, and the credit crisis, and so on and so forth; in short, this was not a really healthy or sustainable state of affairs! In fact, this bizarre and cannibalistic tangle points to an alarmingly undiversified economy, where we Americans are relying on the same companies to give us money to spend through employment opportunities, provide us with low-cost goods to help us save money, and to post strong quarterly profits to support our retirement accounts. And the more of us who are unemployed thanks in part to their policies, the more we feel that we must spend our money with them because they offer us the lowest prices.
I don’t mean to write about “big companies” as blind and deaf slime-monsters that have arrived out of nowhere and swallow us up as they roll along; on the contrary, big businesses are, for better or worse, an extension of ourselves—we (in many cases) founded them, we work for them, and we buy their goods, whether directly or indirectly—and they are therefore a direct reflection of what “we the people” collectively value, want and need. And I also don’t want to spend too much time elaborating the harm done to American communities through corporate consolidation. Change happens, and will continue to happen, and the world will continue to become more global, not less so. I was recently reading a 19th century novel by Anthony Trollope that included a very sad description of a small town that had once been a thriving little economy, but had been completely decimated thanks to … the railroad! Yes, thanks to the railroad, people had found ways to do their large-scale shopping elsewhere, travelers in stage-coaches no longer stopped at the local inns to eat or drink or spend the night, and now the town was a depressed shadow of its former self. With this in mind, I feel as though if I were to start down this track, I might as well cry about the advent of the mechanical loom. The unfortunate truth is that citizens and communities can’t gain new conveniences and efficiencies without giving other things away; you can’t have a local grocer and spend all your money at the convenient superstore five miles away, just as you can’t enjoy a beautiful unblemished landscape and have a new housing development and big box store.
But I digress—back to those big companies that are not necessarily blind and deaf slime-monsters, and the bizarre and unhealthy tangle of relationships we have with them. We want to enjoy some of the nice products and conveniences they offer, but we don’t want them to have so much power over our lives, and we want our elected representatives to represent us, not them! So: what to do? Entrepreneurship is of vital importance, but we certainly can’t all be entrepreneurs! And so in certain moods, I throw up my hands and say, “it’s all impossible, we’re just stuck in this hopelessly sick system, and my elected representatives do not express my views, and no one cares enough about the things I care about to change their habits, and the train I’m on is run by the people who I think are wrong and who think I’m wrong, and I may as well just try to forget I’m on it and worry about my pimple and buying the dish liquid and forget the rest.”
But on better days, I realize that while at a large level, politics can be extremely demoralizing and overwhelming, especially when we contemplate the extent to which our lives are entwined with these corporations who must seek profits at any cost, and who have such political clout that if they are persons, they must be 1,000-foot giants who use their power to drown everybody else out, we can still at least go about our lives in a manner that is consistent with our views and benefits our communities, knowing that the results of these small efforts can spread and multiply. Just look at, for example, the proliferation of farmer’s markets all across the city over the past several years—that’s thanks to what New Yorkers have shown they value, want and need! So, if we want to support American manufacturing, we can take the trouble to look for American-made goods (tough to find these days). If there are small stores that appeal to us in our neighborhoods—drug stores or bookstores or toy stores or whatever—we can do some of our shopping there, even if there might be a better deal on the internet! We can call 311 about neighborhood annoyances and safety issues. And if we’re deeply concerned about a larger issue like hydrofracking, it sounds so obvious, but we can still write our governors or representatives, which is easier than ever before thanks to the internet (and if writing a letter seems daunting, also thanks to the internet there are probably a dozen boilerplate letters that you can borrow from, or petitions that you can sign).
We all get tired sometimes, or life gets overwhelming and we truly need the cheapest, quickest, nearest-by thing right now, and don’t have time to do anything “extra,”—and I think that’s just life. Probably even my patron saint Wendell Berry can’t live according to his beliefs all the time. But it still makes a difference if you do some of the time, or even better, a lot of the time.
Very often all these little actions performed by one’s sorry little self—especially in the shadow of those 1,000 foot giants—can seem hardly better than nothing—drops of water in a giant sea, grains of sand in a desert, and so on and so forth. But rationally I know that they are, in fact, a great deal better than nothing! Human people—not corporate people—are responsible for social change as varied as universal suffrage and the rise of the organic potato chip, and all of our small individual efforts combine with the small individual efforts of likeminded people, and can collectively make a difference. For the large numbers of us who are not moved to be active in more public forums, there is at least some comfort in knowing that we are nevertheless capable of expressing our values, wants, and needs, whether in words or actions or both, and while we may still feel like helpless passengers on a train, at least we’ll have some satisfaction in knowing that we have told the conductor that we don’t like where we’re going—that we’ve tried.