Thursday, January 22, 2009

Costs and benefits

I intended to finish The Audacity of Hope over winter break, but never got around to it. What the hell, finishing it on MLK Day, and the day before the Obama inauguration works as symbolically as any other day, I suppose.

A few years ago, I read Dreams from My Father and still think it's one of the best memoirs of the evolving journey that is multiracial identity. This second book is obviously more politics-oriented: each chapter is a different large issue, explored through Obama's Senate experience and personal anecdotes.

The last four chapters are the ones most worth reading, I think: "Faith", "Race", "The World Beyond Our Borders", and "Family".

The general theme for each issue is that Democrats approach policies in this area one way, Republicans another, and that people are bitterly divided. It's the speech he gave at the 2004 DNC in Boston, revised and amplified and repeated again and again. The call for cooperation and mutual is hammered home pretty hard: Obama even goes out of his way on each issue to point out where he sees understands where conservatives are coming from, and where he thinks liberals need to back off. And then he lays out broad solutions that are undoubtedly Democractic and incredibly articulated. Bernie Horn mentioned in his book that Obama gets framing -- and that's absolutely clear here.

There's nothing very specific, though, in terms of actual policies. But I know that crafting intricate legislative strategies wasn't the point of the book. And though I do have a few minor quibbles with a few of the positions and statements mentioned in the book, overall it's a great general introduction to the biggest issues in contemporary American public policy.

The one chapter I had a hard time getting through was "Opportunity", which was basically my Econ class (which I also have a hard time staying awake for). So to make up for zonking out on the econ-heavy chapter, I watched Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price.

The slightly creepy thing was that Greenwald had no narrator -- I counted once where a disjointed voice tossed out statistics. The bulk of the documentary were the voices of former employees, current employees, union organizers, community activists, and snippets from CEO speeches and Wal-Mart commercials.

I'd heard the allegations of gender and racial discrimination, environmental irresponsibility, and union-busting; those have been highlighted pretty well in the mainstream media. But Greenwald brought up two new charges that struck me as particularly awful, if true: that Wal-Mart underpays and underbenefits its employees so much that they encourage them to seek public assistance, potentially straining local resources; and that Wal-Mart does little to keep its parking lots safe, encouraging crime. I have no idea if other large retail conglomerates have similar practices or problems (I do know that parking lots in general, not just Wal-Mart's, are where many crimes occur), so maybe Greenwald is blowing both out of proportion. But at least he raises the issues of corporate responsibility, and that Wal-Mart as the wealthiest company in the world has the duty to set the example in its community relations and employment practices.

A key missing piece was community complicity in the success of Wal-Mart and the reasons for it. After starting with a barrage of interviews of small business owners in small towns driven out of business by the arrival of Wal-Mart. But there was no explanation for why people flock (or are forced to flock out of economic necessity) to the newer, larger chain store, other than the low prices themselves. The film ends with the inspiring tale of community coalitions organizing and successfully stopping Wal-Mart from building in their communities.

Another issue I found fascinating that Greenwald touched on only tangentially was in the area of municapal zoning: that downtown business areas in small towns are dying as giant retail lots are built on the outskirts of towns and in suburbs, thus redirecting traffic routes and contributing to urban sprawl.

At any rate, the documentary definitely hammered home its points. I think it intended largely to preach to the choir.

Aaaaaand, now I have to go read for Econ*.

*Technically it's a Public Policy class on current affairs, but the course is entitled Economic Growth with Equity, and the guest lecturers and discussion leaders are all economists, including one Nobel winner. I forced myself not to drop the class partly because it's highly relevant right now, and partly to save face for not knowing the exact focus of the course before blabbing to both my department director and the dean of policy affairs (who are co-teaching) about how excited I was to take it. In my defense, the registrar's office had only a vague description, and last semester the course focused on Policy Advice to the Next President. Ahem. We live, we learn..

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