Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spreading The Wealth

In the early 1970s, when I was a young immigrant in Jerusalem, I found myself the head of my building's co-op committee. The job's main responsibility was collecting co-op fees (for heating oil, stair and entrance cleaning, etc.) from twenty-four immigrant families. Our mortgages had been heavily subsidized by the government; we came from all over the world. (One Iraqi family actually brought a lamb into the elevator at Passover, which never came down.) 

On the whole, it was a pleasant job. The problems started with my "Russian" neighbors, from the not-yet-former Soviet Union. I would knock on their door and invariably get a hug and a sweet and a coffee. What I wouldn't get was the 50 pounds they owed to the building. "We refuse," they would tell me, "we hate socialism."

Eventually, only one tenant from Kiev held out, and we all decided to let it go. He had lost his job; back "home," he had been imprisoned by the KGB. When you are young, and up against world-historical injury, you accommodate the odd obsession. Besides, the stupidity of his reason for refusal made a great story. It was also world-historical, in a way. What better way to show the perverted political culture you had in the Soviet Union? Show what happens, as it were, naturally, when the basic principles of democracy (social contract, commonwealth, etc.) are not taught and aggressively defended? 

I AM TELLING the story because I heard a debate Sunday on New Hampshire Public Radio between congressional candidates; and the Republican, Jeb Bradley said, among other things, that he was against new taxes of any kind because he was against "tax-payers bailing-out the government." The moderator did not contradict him, nor did his opponent. Nobody seemed to think this remark was just stupid. 

The problem, you see, is not simply that Joe the Plumber does not want to pay more taxes, and McCain says he's right. The problem is that Joe the Plumber doesn't want to reconcile two contradictory goods in his mind at the same time (the good of having a few hundred more dollars, the good of having roads, more paying customers, etc.) and the media on his lawn says he's a "demographic." Jeb Bradley and his party take for granted that government, "Washington," is something other than the things we do together. This has been a kind of infection on our democracy since Ronald Reagan started playing George Babbitt. The question is, what has become of our immune system?