Op Ed

What makes us adopt our personal politics?

In an exchange of letters to the editor in recent issues of the Chinook Observer, one letter writer claimed that Nan Malin, who is a Washington  organizer for Americans for Prosperity,  said what shifted her from being a liberal hippie to a conservative Republican was “making some money,” implying that having more money made her more selfish. Malin responded, saying owning a business led her to think “differently about excessive taxes and government regulations.”

A “Fresh Air” radio interview I heard recently provides some perspective on this dialog. Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist who is the founding director of Partners in Health, an organization that provides medical services to poor people in many countries, talked about Haiti in the aftermath of the huge earthquake. His NGO (non-governmental organization) has operated in Haiti for decades; he said that country is referred to as the “Republic of NGO’s” because so many operate there, but conditions overall still don’t improve.

Farmer’s main point was that the Haitian government is weak because it’s severely under funded and NGO’s aren’t empowered to build basic infrastructure to prevent problems. For example, NGO’s aren’t empowered to build a safe water system that could have prevented cholera, only the government is, but it is under funded because most Haitians are very poor and the small Haitian elite that has tremendous wealth refuses to pay higher taxes. Of course, that financial elite also controls the government to make sure higher taxes are never imposed. Farmer’s most telling example was that, as Haiti’s roads deteriorate and become more and more pocked by deeper and deeper potholes, the wealthy just buy bigger and bigger Land Rovers.
Unfortunately, that’s where we could be headed here in the US—less and less money for public infrastructure utilized by all, while private wealth grows and private infrastructure increases, with wages and working conditions deteriorating for the great mass of people who don’t happen to own their own business.

Americans like to believe we’re a “class-less” society. That belief is bolstered by cries of elitism aimed at those who merely think carefully about our problems while those with extravagant wealth are rarely labeled elitist. It isn’t unusual for a CEO to be paid hundreds of times more than any of his or her workers. One thinker says that people strive for wealth because it brings them power, and power in turn brings respect. One friend says we’re on a path to “corporate feudalism.”

I’m reminded of a Daily Astorian editorial many years ago that reviewed statistics showing that private security forces and private recreation facilities in the US were increasing at the same time public police and parks and recreation facilities were declining. This isn’t so obvious where we live because there is still so much public land that we can access, whether county and state parks or state and federal forests. On the East coast, it’s a different story; for example, you can’t walk on a beach in New Jersey during the summer without paying someone. There are also many pressures to “privatize” what have been public lands either by literally selling them to private entities or by contracting with private businesses to manage those lands and in turn charge the public to use them.

Although I haven’t “owned” a business, I’ve been the boss at several non-profits and know how irritating bureaucracy can be. But I realize that regulations aren’t made for the vast majority of us who use consideration and common sense, but for the segment that will violate basic ethical standards to protect their bottom line. For example, Massey Energy had 515 safety violations in 2009 at the Upper Big Branch Mine and another 124 just before the disaster that killed 29 coal miners.

But, I continue to wonder about  Malin’s shift to the conservative side of the political spectrum and think of people I know. Some appeared to be “hippies” in their youth but now are conventional in every way, right down to the BMW in the driveway and the extra homes in Puerto Vallarta and Hawaii. Which came first? The money, or a shift to a more conventional lifestyle in order to fit in and get the money? Were they more “sharing” in their youthful values because they didn’t have much and so wanted a piece of the action? Or, as they matured, got jobs and began to acquire more money did an underlying fear emerge that they’d lose it? It isn’t difficult to hold a set of values if you’re being rewarded for espousing them.

This article first appeared in the Chinook Observer.

By Victoria Stoppiello

Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer whose Finnish roots probably led her to the egalitarian economic side of the spectrum before she even began drinking coffee.