An Ordinary Person

An Open Letter to Ralph Nader

February 24, 2008
7 Comments

Nader Mixes up 2008 Race with New White House Run

Consumer champion Ralph Nader announced Sunday a fresh tilt at the White House, eight years after earning the acid hatred of Democrats for dividing the anti-Republican camp in a razor-thin vote. Denying that he was running as a “spoiler” who could hand the presidency to Republican John McCain, Nader accused both the main parties of shutting out the US public and handing the nation over to corporate interests.“Dissent is the mother of assent, and in that context I have decided to run for president,” Nader, who turns 74 on Wednesday, said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

Full story here

Dear Mr. Nader

Speaking as someone who respects your work a great deal and who voted for you in 2004, running as a third-party candidate in this year’s presidential elections will only serve to do more harm than good to your reputation as a champion for ordinary people in the U.S.

1. The political system is set up as a winner-take-all contest between the two major parties. Until a better system is in place for people to vote for third parties that negates the spoiler effect, it would be better for you to stay out of the race and concentrate your efforts on fixing that system. Long-term, grassroots efforts for structural electoral reform such as Instant Runoff Voting do exist and have been gaining momentum nationwide. They can use a prominent, high-visibility champion. Lending your name and high profile to that cause for the long-term will only serve as a step in the right direction to reform our political system.

2. If you make an impact in the elections by threatening to siphon votes away from the eventual Democratic nominee and they eventually lose the election, you will earn the undying enmity of Democrats and many Progressive activists. Which is a shame because for all intents and purposes, these are potential political allies and followers who share much of the same goals and beliefs that you hold.

3. If, however, you do not make an impact in the elections at all, you will only serve to diminish your reputation as a consumer activist and champion of political outsiders. Not because your work as an activist has diminished in value but because many people will see and treat you as a political non-entity who does not have the type of mass following that can be of significance in a high-profile election.

        There is a lot that is wrong in our two-party system and I would be one of the first to say that it is antiquated and needs serious reform so political insurgents and outsider parties can have a fair shot at participating.

        However, a longshot candidacy for President where you do not have a realistic chance of winning against the candidates of either major party will accomplish very little to help the cause of reform. Sure, it might, for the short term, allow your lone voice of dissent to resonate in public forums such as debates and the editorial pages. But what happens after the elections?

        What would you have accomplished in running except to become vilified among Democratic circles? A person so vilified would not be able to accomplish much politically. No matter the validity of your ideas and the power of your critique against either major party, people are not going to listen to you.

        So Mr. Nader, as someone who respects you a great deal and who is pained by the prospect of seeing an activist like you vilified (or worse yet, ignored) on a mass scale this year, I am urging you to refocus your aim. Instead of running as an insurgent candidate for President, I urge you to lend your name, reputation and efforts to the cause of structural political reform. Running for President for anyone outside the two major parties with the system structured as it currently stands is a waste of time, energy and resources.

        I do not see such efforts as accomplishing anything more than garnering publicity for a few months and then afterwards everything will go back to being business as usual. Serious, structural political reform for the long term is a much more worthy goal.

        Respectfully,

        The Liberal Arts Dude

        UPDATE: A blog post about Ralph Nader and Instant Runoff Voting

        More on Instant Runoff Voting


        The Internship Racket

        February 22, 2008
        2 Comments

        Check out this very provocative piece from Inside Higher Ed by Anthony Paletta:

        Increasingly, internships are perceived as essential steps to post-college employment, as definitive legs up for job applicants. “Internships are no longer optional, they’re required,” The New York Times quoted Peter Vogt, author of Career Wisdom for College Students and an adviser to MonsterTrak.com, as saying last month. A 2006 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicated that 62.5 percent of new college hires performed undergraduate internships. Employers responding to association’s 2007 Recruiting Benchmarks Survey reported that they offered full-time jobs to almost two-thirds of their interns. Over 30 percent of new hires came from such internal internship programs. Internships undoubtedly enhance employment prospects, but the question is – for whom? The answer, almost invariably, is for students already well-off.

        Paletta makes the argument that since internships often pay very little or none at all, they are usually only available to the affluent. Those who could really use the advancement and connections that can come with an internship — poor or working class students who cannot afford to work unpaid or for low pay — often are unable to take advantage of them. He lauds Dartmouth University’s recent attempt to address the issue in proposing to offer a scholarship to allow financial aid recipients to take advantage of research or internship opportunities in their junior year. In the comments section, some good discussions follow, including a comment by Peter Vogt whom he mentions in the quote above:

        Where’s the skepticism toward the EMPLOYERS of college students and new grads, who often come off as wanting something for (next to) nothing in this process? That said … in DEFENSE of employers, how can they realistically evaluate students’/grads’ WORK-related capabilities and traits without seeing them in action — firsthand? Show me any entry-level employer and I will show you someone who has been burned at least once by a bad new-grad hire — perhaps even a perfect 4.0 student from a top school whose grades and “book knowledge” were (or must have been) exceptional but whose on-the-job attitudes and actions were sorely lacking … something the employer discovered much too late because the student had no real-world experience through internships and the like. From the employer’s perspective, there is simply too much at stake — in the form of money especially (connected to recruitment, training, productivity, etc.) — to take students/grads (and their schools) on their academic word alone. I fear that any school taking the “bold step” you suggest — arguing that “our education alone is good enough” — will be laughed at (or worse) by employers.

        All in all a great article that lays out the problems with the culture of internships and the difficulties faced in any attempt to reform the internship culture. As Paletta mentions, in today’s world, entry to the world of work is no longer feasible with just a college degree alone. In a world where internships plus the degree has become the norm, any attempt to level the playing field on behalf of working class students is a good move. It is high time a serious, wide-ranging discussion on how to make that happen was started.


        More on the American Dream

        February 20, 2008
        4 Comments

        american-flag.jpgGetting back a bit to the topic of the American Dream I just ran across this information that should be very relevant to the discussion stemming from my reaction to Scratch Beginnings. It is the web site to the Economic Mobility Project.

        The Economic Mobility Project is a unique nonpartisan collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and respected thinkers from four leading policy institutes – The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute. While as individuals they may not necessarily agree on the solutions or policy prescriptions for action, each believes that economic mobility plays a central role in defining the American experience and that more attention must be paid to understanding the status and health of the American Dream.

        Here are some links to particularly interesting resources in the Web site:

        Researchers across a variety of disciplines including economics, sociology and psychology have been studying economic mobility for some time. Led by a team of researchers from The Urban Institute, the project has summarized the best-available existing research on various factors that might influence individual and family economic mobility, both within and across generations.


        Back to Regular Programming

        February 19, 2008
        1 Comment

        Whew!

        Who would have thought a simple blogged reaction to a newly-published book would get so much attention? I posted “An Experiment On the American Dream” on Friday and by Monday I had around 600 individual page views as well as comments ranging from in agreement to ones in strong disagreement. Not bad for an obscure blog that usually deals with such arcane topics as political reform, radical politics, social class and culture.

        My final thoughts on this topic:

        Success and overcoming adversity is possible with grit, determination, smart choices and self-discipline. I don’t disagree with that point and I don’t think anyone in their right mind would disagree with that point.

        I believe that Nickel and Dimed is vastly more realistic and empathic than Scratch Beginnings in portraying the lives and challenges that working poor people face. I can say that speaking as someone who several years ago lived a “Nickel and Dimed” type of existence (but is now married, a white-collar professional in Washington DC, and has a Masters degree twelve years later).

        I see Ehrenreich and the politics and activism she represents as something worth defending. Class consciousness is fast disappearing from the national conversation. Ehrenreich and books like Nickel and Dimed come from a tradition of Populist literature and journalism that should be preserved.

        Ehrenreich is a staunch defender of working peoples’ interests and I have a lot of respect for her. Whether you liked Nickel and Dimed or not, it has, more than any recent work in popular literature, put working people in the public agenda and in the public consciousness.

        If you see value from Scratch Beginnings as a self-help manual to financial literacy, or as a “how to” book on overcoming difficult obstacles, more power to you. Judging from what I have read about it so far it doesn’t speak to me and I find its premise much too simplistic.

        There is a limit to where individual effort, grit, determination, and financial discipline can take you. Sure I agree it can take you far. But as citizens and working people living in a capitalist economy, we are all subject to forces larger than our individual selves. This is where I begin to think not as an individual person but as a citizen with democratic choices to make.

        Who best represents the interests of ordinary folk? Who are only out to take advantage of us? How best can ordinary citizens collectively make use of this system of democracy to represent their interests and advocate for themselves?

        So in my mind, self-help does not end with the individual. It also extends to how populations collectively make use of those principles to help themselves, defend their interests, and get along with one another. The population I am most interested in is the working and middle class — people like me.

        So thanks to the new visitors of my site. Thank you for visiting this blog and leaving your comments. If my regular blog topics seem interesting to you feel free to stop by again.


        An Experiment On the American Dream

        February 16, 2008
        52 Comments

        american-flag.jpgI caught this interesting story from the Christian Science Monitor about Adam Shephard, a 2006 Merrimack College graduate who temporarily left the middle class life and, on purpose, started his life over in South Carolina with $25 in his pocket and little else. His goal: to test the American Dream. His goal was to have an apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within one year. To make it more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his college education.

        During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.

        Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.

        The effort, he says, was inspired after reading “Nickel and Dimed,” in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.

        He tells his story in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve.

        He has a web site based on his book and is currently on a book and speaking tour, and is slated to appear on the Today Show, Inside Edition, and Fox News.

        At first, I thought to myself, OK an interesting experiment by a strong, young, healthy, native English-speaking, single, white, college-educated male who chooses to experience life as a member of the working poor on the wrong side of the tracks to prove Barbara Ehrenreich’s thesis in Nickel and Dimed wrong.

        On many levels, it can be argued that his experiment, judging by his many life advantages, is inherently flawed. I doubt if getting a job, an apartment, a car, and some savings-his measure of ascent out of the life of a struggling working class person-would have been doable so quickly if he weren’t already healthy, young, strong, white, a college graduate, well-educated, or English-speaking. Let him try living on the streets from a different starting point-as a single mother without a high school diploma, for example.

        Moreover, let him try the working poor life for more than ten months. Let’s see him truly leave the middle class life for several years and starting from the streets, go for larger, more significant goals than an apartment, a blue-collar job, and $5,000 in savings. Let’s say, marketable educational credentials like a technical degree or a college degree (oh I forgot he already had that), secure housing, good credit (oops I forgot he also already had those), and doing it all while raising and supporting elderly parents or young children. In fact, trying to raise these children right and send them to good schools from elementary to college. And don’t forget decent healthcare. God forbid he develops a chronic physical condition that will diminish his capacity to perform heavy, manual labor.

        Shephard is entitled to try to argue with Barbara Ehrenreich’s thesis in any way he wants. What bothers me is the undercurrent of a self-righteous, holier-than-thou assumption on his part regarding the working poor and what it takes to escape a life of poverty and struggle. In fact, not so implicit in his little experiment is the question of what we do, as a society, about socioeconomic inequality and poverty.

        He said that he objected to the “victim mentality” of Ehrenreich’s book, especially its thesis that the American Dream is dead. He wanted to see for himself whether or not the American Dream is still alive. And lo and behold, in ten months, starting from his notion of “scratch”, he finds out that it was very much still alive and kicking-for him. In fact, the thesis of his book is that with a little gumption, some middle-class lifestyle strategies like hard work, thrift and savings, and a positive attitude, that anybody can climb out of a life of poverty and struggle perhaps more quickly than they have ever imagined. Hey, if he can do it anyone can!

        When asked if his situation would have been radically different if he had childcare payments or if he had been required to report to a probation officer:

        The question isn’t whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it’s the attitude that I take in: “I’ve got child care. I’ve got a probation officer. I’ve got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life…?” One guy, who arrived [at the shelter] on a Tuesday had been hit by a car on [the previous] Friday by a drunk driver. He was in a wheelchair. He was totally out of it. He was at the shelter. And I said, “Dude, your life is completely changed.” And he said, “Yeah, you’re right, but I’m getting the heck out of here.” Then there was this other guy who could walk and everything was good in his life, but he was just kind of bumming around, begging on the street corner. To see the attitudes along the way, that is what my story is about.

        So there you have it folks, it’s the ATTITUDE that counts. It doesn’t matter if you have real obstacles blocking your path (and not just self-imposed ones like the one Shephard had) such as childcare payments or if you are an ex-convict with a police record, making the right choices and decisions and having a positive attitude is the real key to overcoming a life of struggle and inequality. This goes for everybody-the single mother, the ex-felon, the down-and-out, the young, old, whatever-if Adam Shephard can do it so can you!

        Shephard, his story, and the way he has chosen to market it bothers me. Not because I enjoy being a wet blanket in peoples’ patriotic, self-congratulating, celebrations of their human spirit. It worries me because Shephard’s story is bound to catch on to the media and society in general where Important People can latch on to it and use him as an example of what attitude, grit, determination, and middle-class values can achieve for poor folks. In fact, Shephard, judging from his book tour and media appearances, has positioned himself to ride that wave and make a tidy profit as a result.

        Shephard’s opportunism has policy implications and has the potential to be used as political fodder by ideologues and politicians who would rather sweep the issues of poverty and inequality and the conditions of life for the working poor under the rug. If you’re poor, hey it must be your own fault. You either made the wrong choices in life, are lazy and are not willing to work hard, or just plain stupid. Either way, it’s not society’s obligation to help your sorry ass out. You won’t get a red cent of taxpayer help but here’s an inspiring book of the story of Adam Shephard – maybe it will inspire you to hustle your way out of your sorry situation.

        Shephard the savvy business management graduate appears to acutely know there is a thriving market in American society in putting down the poor. He’s just here to make a buck-it’s the American Way. If it comes at the expense of the dignity and minimizing the situation for poor and working class folk, then so be it.

        If you feel like arguing with me first read this – what I believe should be done about poverty and inequality.


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