One balmy spring weekend, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held in Nashville a convention to which (television told me) 70,000 people came. My son and I were visiting our nation’s capital and went to get a gelato at a capital gelato place.The person who served us was a tall, slender, quite-good-looking young man whose posture, gestures, and accoutrements played with the possibility that she might equally be a tall, slender, quite-good-looking young woman. His fingernails were polished black and his long, blond hair was neatly parted in the middle, with some strands held in a ponytail. His open shirt made a slender shadow along the central line between his breasts, more broad than fleshy. A black cord held between them a Navajo-style turquoise and silver medallion.
The conjunction of the gun convention and the ice-cream server helped crystallize in my mind not only the connection between the NRA and the LGBTQ movements, but also a key aspect of American politics, and economics, of the past half century if not longer. Although that particular weekend did the crystallizing, parts of the idea had found places in my consciousness previously. In particular there had been another moment, a year or two earlier, when New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo approved gay marriage in the state and, at least temporarily, became a hero to millions of gays and lesbians, to their friends and family, and to liberals in general. As I watched the celebratory parade down Fifth Avenue, I realized there was a trade-off. We New Yorkers were not getting gay marriage for free. Specifically, I had the sense that the goodwill Cuomo was earning for supporting gay rights was going to be used to allow him to do favors for the real-estate industry. (For example, in the year I am drafting this piece, Cuomo has been proposing that nothing be done to strengthen rent-protection laws. His public justification for this: turmoil in the state legislature as a result of federal probes into its corruption. It is worth noting that, of the New York state legislature, typically the corrupters are developers, landlords and their agents, and that the corruption accusations have touched the Cuomo administration as well as various legislators and their allies.)
Schematically, the trade-off might be viewed as follows. (And, I repeat, this is a schematic presentation, not an attempt to report specific facts.) In return for gay marriage, New York State’s rent-stabilization laws could be a little weaker than they otherwise would be. Suppose this cost New York City renters an average of $100/month extra in rent, and suppose there are 2 million rental apartments in the city. The cost of gay marriage would then be $200 million per month, month after month, till death do us part.[*]
Similarly, I assume that the gelato-server was enjoying a right that previous generations of ice-cream parlor workers did not enjoy: the right not to be discriminated against because of one’s sexual orientation(s) and thus the right to dress for work in a non-heteronormative way. But he was, and likely without realizing it, paying a price for this privilege.
Let’s suppose the difference was that the minimum wage was $1/hour lower than it otherwise would be and that this fact depressed wages for unskilled service-workers by an average of $1/hour across the board. That is, I am proposing, some number of politicians were able to get a certain number of votes thanks to their support for equal rights for people of all genders and sexual orientations and thanks to their opposition to discrimination based on gender or sexual-orientation. These votes—or, rather, the willingness of a certain bloc of voting-age citizens to go to the polls and vote consistently—allowed the politicians to make compromises with the business interests who were funding their campaigns, besieging them with public-policy papers and media noise, doggedly lobbying them, and ensuring them plush lecture fees and high-paying private-industry jobs. Vastly simplifying, we are supposing that the compromise that was made was a $1/hour wage difference. And thus, if the cross-dressing gelato server was working twenty hours a week, his right to cross dress could be said to be costing him $20 a week, or about $1,000/year. And supposing the shop as a whole used 100 hours/day of unskilled service work, the acceptance of cross-dressing saved the employer $100/day, or more than $35,000/year.
In fact, the savings—or costs to renters, workers, et al.—are much larger than this. I remember, for example, when George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees were being approved by the US Senate. Hillary Clinton and other Democrats focused the debate on where these people stood on the issue of abortion. Of course this is a major issue; many people value extremely highly the right of women to get an abortion. But it was clear to me that this focus on abortion was coming at the cost of a focus on where these nominees stood on business issues: occupational safety and labor-organizing laws, campaign finance, etc. It would take a sophisticated economist to come up with an estimate of how much money changed hands—moved from the working class to the business class—as a result of these Supreme Court appointments. And it may have been politically impossible for Democratic Senators to reject these nominees on the grounds that they were too pro-business. To be pro-business seems too good to too many people with too much money. But what is certain is that the public was led, to include by Democratic Senators, to focus on the issue of abortion, and to not see clearly how much money—how much of their money—was at stake. And, I would propose, it has yet to be calculated how much the right to abortion has cost the working people of this country in lost wages, benefits and legal protections. Again, this is not to argue against abortion, and particularly when, in rightwing attacks on abortion rights, one can feel a desire to cripple women and to do this by taking advantage of the fact that women happen to have the vaginas and the wombs—for all of us!
Nonetheless, the point of the present piece is to urge knowing the prices of the social policies and rights that we buy or are sold. The fact that the NRA is befriended, and egged on, by rightwing rather than leftwing politicians makes less difference than people realize. Many NRA members work in low-paid jobs, too, and the fact that they are willing to go to the polls and vote consistently for politicians who support their right to bear arms—this allows a certain group of politicians to make compromises with the business interests who are funding their campaigns, besieging them with public-policy papers and media noise, doggedly lobbying them, and ensuring them of wondrous lecture fees and high-paying private-industry jobs.
Underlying these dynamics are the dynamics of a modern, mass “democracy.” (That is, we are assuming “democracy” is still an appropriate term for such a political system.) Most people are disinclined to vote because they do not see much of a connection between the votes they cast and the nature of their lives. “I” do not feel I can go to the polls and make my life more as I wish it were. (And thus the act of voting is, in part, a humiliation.) The exception is or may be if I am part of a large bloc of voters that can be counted on to cast its votes for candidates who support some simple position: the right to bear arms, gay marriage, increasing or preserving social-security benefits. Such voting blocs have disproportionate influence because they stand in contrast to people who do not or may not go to the polls at all or whose voting choices are more diffuse. (There are, for example, those of us—worthless to the political process—who might oppose a pro-gay-marriage politician because she has also been a real-estate-industry supporter.)
Complicating the matter are the business interests that fund the campaigns and the candidates. This fact—the power of money—means that the single issues that might give rise to a voting bloc are not likely to be working-class economic issues. The United States economy as a whole was at least as healthy fifty years ago when income disparities were much less than they are now. But we cannot successfully form a voting bloc whose single issue is, say, more progressive taxation politics—to share the wealth. We cannot form such a bloc because it will not have nearly as much money to pay candidates as the business interests have. The way current income inequality is likely to be readjusted is via another Great Depression, in the midst of which business interests will see that their customers need to have more money to buy their products and services.
The goal of this piece has been to call people’s attention to two basic points. One is the hidden costs of social issues. We all are paying daily, and in ways we do not see, for the right to bear arms, to marry whomever we want, to get abortions, and many other things. Retirees can be counted on to go to the polls and vote for candidates who promise to preserve or extend benefits for retirees. This does not simply cost non-retirees money because they end up paying for these benefits; they also end up paying for the hidden compromise, for how their candidates, once having preserved or increased benefits for retirees, are now also able to advance the quite different interests of the people and businesses who are giving them the most money.
Secondly, this piece has sought to call attention to how this dynamic is the same for putatively rightwing and leftwing causes. Our “democracy” provides ways for a well-organized, cohesive group to get what it wants on a social issue, but this getting comes with hidden economic costs. Of course this fact is hardly lost on the business interests who find ways to encourage the organization of social-issue-focused groups and who encourage candidates to cater to these interests.
Images first found on a Web post: These guns can’t kill you – they are ice cream, by one Marko, 23 August 2010. From the text:
At first glance it looks like they’re putting real guns in their mouths, but in real life they are eating edible ice guns. . . . They are an addition to the first 50 tinted ice guns that [artists] Florian Jenett and Valentin Beinroth made and placed in downtown Frankfurt a few years ago.
See also Florian Jennet’s website for this second show Freize! revisted (2009, Frankfurt). Valentin Beinroth’s site has a link to a German text about the show.
It may be noted that, given the extent to which we now look at pixellated reproductions of art works, art that pixellates well is likely to gain in stature. To my eye, these scenes of Jennet and Beinroth’s work being consumed are prime examples. The work, or event, reproduces very well.
[*] This is an essay, an advancing of a way of viewing an aspect of human experience. It is not a work of journalism, public policy or empirical research. The figures on offer above are thus back-of-the-envelope at best, and I have deliberately avoided trying to make them fit into some empirical realm to which this piece does not belong. That said, I would note two things. First, the New York City real-estate industry has managed to maneuver things so that the state government, which is more conservative, more distant and more easily bought off than the City Council, has control over New York City rent laws. Secondly, I assume that my “average” of $100/month would be paid very unequally. For example, a person whose apartment rent was no longer legally protected might see his rent go up a thousand dollars a month, while someone else, still protected, might simply pay a small, inflation-related increase.
Now available from Amazon: Art, Sex, Politics
In a new, provocative collection of essays, William Eaton, the author of Surviving the Twenty-First Century, shares the pleasures of questions, tastes, reading and more visual arts. “That we are animals, that is as sure as ever. How savagely we behave! And how affectionately rub up against one another. How, desperately, make love?”
Includes a revised version of this essay on American politics.
Kind words about Surviving: “Entertaining, yet packs a quiet intellectual wallop. . . . so thought-provoking and poetic I didn’t want it to end . . . beautiful and wise and moving . . . engaged, non-doctrinaire, well-read, independent-minded. . . . William Eaton finds arresting themes in unusual places. . . . The writing is masterful and wonderfully absorbing.”
Click for pdf
Categories: The Real World