Monday, December 3, 2007

The Economic Cost of Political Apathy

The other evening I was at a dinner with someone we'll call Ramona. Ramona is an old friend of mine who just had a baby, lives in Connecticut in a McMansion, husband is a partner at a midtown law firm, and she is by all accounts, not the least of which my own, a really nice person. She is fun, kind, and down to earth. I like Ramona a lot. The after-dinner conversation turned to the next Presidential election. Ramona is a lively conversationalist, so her sudden silence was noticeable. Afterwards, M was commenting that Ramona, for all of her good intentions and glowing reports of purging her closets every season for clothes that would fit the starving folks in Africa, was probably going to vote Republican. M couldn't understand it, and wished she could connect the dots for Ramona.

I come from an Upstate NY blue collar lifelong Republican family, so I understood it only too well. Connecting the dots for the self-interested voter is virtually impossible. And voting for your own self-interest is, I think, a debilitating casualty of political apathy. For the record, I like to declare myself a Social Capitalist, though M insists that such a thing doesn't exist and how could I even put those two words together. I think she's coming around, though :) So yes, once in my short-ish lifetime I voted Republican (a local election). That would be the time I didn't vote for my self-interest, but for the long term benefit of the city I live in. While it has meant that I haven't been happy regarding a lot of stuff, it also means that my city is solvent post September 11th, 2001. I divulge this info just to be clear that, despite my left wing name tag, I'm not a thoughtless partisan that mechanically votes.

This is what I think: If you live in a leafy suburb where there is no class diversity, no cultural diversity, nothing but a mirror of your very own lifestyle, class, and more often than not, color, then political apathy becomes tantamount to blindness. Throwing more money at the problem of public schools seems unnecessary (despite the amount of school tax your wealthy enclave pays), because, quite frankly, your schools work great(!) under No Child Left Behind. When you go and vote at your nearby public school, you aren't reminded of the architecture of a federal prison, nor are your children targeted to end up in one. Your neighbor is financially stable, as is your neighbor's neighbor, and subprime mortgages were never even thrust upon you when you bought your home. Nobody from your town is in Iraq or Afghanistan, but you have a yellow ribbon magnet on all three of your cars. Being patriotic is in and of itself concern for others. And since you own three cars for two drivers, the federal funding for public transportation seems just fine to you. You are a good person, so poverty is most assuredly not your fault, and therefore not your problem. America is safe and great, just look around you. And boy would it hurt if your tax cut was reversed.

The cruel starkness of wealth and poverty in New York City is hard to ignore, but people do. Connecting the dots for people is hard no matter where or how they live. I love my family, their Republicaness and all, and I grew up at a dinner table where three generations (I grew up in my grandparents home) would disagree with me. What is most striking is that my family is the opposite of Ramona. They were, until quite recently (thank god for pensions), the working poor. Everytime Reagan announced the new poverty line, my mom would quip, "Well, we missed it again!" And yet, like Ramona, they believe in The American Dream, whose power seems to hold sway to those who are living it and those who aren't. I learned very early on that I am not smart enough or articulate enough to help them see that who they vote for is hurting their very own self-interest. Because really, if I cannot pin national interest unto the lapel of self-interest, then I have lost their attention.

Speaking of attention, I've gone and probably lost yours! So I brought you this long-ass-never-ending post because I just read a great article that just might help me the next time I sit down with my family for tuna fish casserole. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist and best selling author of Making Globalization Work and Globalization and its Discontents, wrote a piece in the latest Vanity Fair- The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush. It is a little long, and one may or may not get it all, but if ever there was a time to connect the dots, this would be it.

    photo by QXZ via flickr


andy said...

Thanks for the long post, because I enjoyed it. And the Vanity Fair link, because I would have missed it.

PiggyBankBlues said...

hi, andy, and welcome to the long winded blog :)
i'm glad you enjoyed it and hope you liked the link.

RTM_in_Hou_TX said...

Piggybank, thank you. sometimes it does take many words to convey the idea you are presenting.

Maybe if we returned to the values of yesteryear, and were not overly concerned with public opinion, we would know what was going on with our neighbors, instead of just what we see out of our windows.

In addition to that, it is hard to have faith in a system that has no faith in itself. your friend is a reflection of our political leaders. They are concerned with their own needs, not the needs of the country, not the needs of the people, and not the good of the country as a whole. thank you again for your words