Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The politics of Amelia Lorate

In which we see the possibilities, and limits, of a Progressive vision (21st century style)

The Felix Chronicles, # 19

The first day we talk about the Progressive Movement of a century ago, I provide an overview of its temperament: anxiety about industrial capitalism coupled with optimism about reforming it; evangelical fervor coupled with a fascination with scientific efficiency; an affirmation of democracy coupled with an urge for social control. On the second day we talk Progressivism, we walk through a series of primary source document excerpts taken from an A.P. American history exam.

Now, on this third day, I run a simulation to them get a grip on what I'm talking about by setting up a contemporary analogy for 2009. The students are presented with a bill written by Amelia Lorate, an ambitious young representative to the U.S. House of Representatives from the upper west side of Manhattan, that goes like this:

All high school graduates in the United States must give a year of service to their country by either joining the armed forces or doing some form of community service from a prescribed list of activities (one that includes tutoring poor children, working in a national park, and aiding senior citizens). Students will be paid minimum wage; those without parental support and/or health insurance are eligible for welfare and Medicaid. The program will be paid for with taxes on cigarettes, chocolate, beer, and gasoline.

We are all members of Lorate's committee and are debating whether to send it to the House floor. Lorate herself is missing because she has just gone into labor with twins. I'm the chair of the committee, and my leanings -- and my relationship with "Mel" -- are ambiguous (this gives me room to manipulate the discussion). So now it's time to get to work.

"Let me start with a non-binding vote," I say by way of starting the discussion. "We need a majority to pass, and two-thirds for any amendments. Can I just see by a show of hands how many of you are in favor of this bill?" I do a count and see that nine of twenty have raised their hands. Wow. Usually it's far less. "That's pretty good," I say. "Much higher than usual.Well, maybe we'll get get this thing passed quickly before there are too many questions. Can I see that show of hands again?"

It's obvious, without counting, that I have fewer hands now. Phew: I managed to sow a seed of doubt. For a second there I was afraid this thing would sail through and we'd have too much class time on our hands. "Nate, am I mistaken or have you changed your mind?"

"Well, yeah," he says. "I realized that maybe I need to hear more about this first."

"I don't," says Jason. "I hate the idea."

"Really, Jason? Why's that?"

"I don't think it's a good idea to force people to do this kind of work. Volunteering is one thing, and I'm all for it. But not requiring it."

"I think it's a great idea," Kim says. "There's lots of work to get done. And if we all had to do it, that would make it fair."

"I actually think we should all have to go in the army," Roy says.

"That's a terrible idea," Kim responds. "Some people don't believe in fighting."

"Wouldn't have to. There's all kinds of things you can do in the army. Build bridges. Provide security. Peacekeeping missions. Stuff like that. A lot of the other stuff you can do seems like fluff."

"Helping senior citizens is fluff?" Kim asks, incredulously.

"Yeah. Probably be a lot of busy work. And everybody would want to do it. No one would want to take on the hard work the way you would in the army."

Kim is still digesting her shock when Becky interrupts. "I'd want to be a pilot," she says.

"Well, you can forget about that," I say. "A year isn't enough time. Actually, you won't be able to do much more than peel potatoes in a year-long gig. But maybe the program would be a good recruiting device to get people like you to stay on, Becky." Becky frowns in mock disappointment, taking this in. Ellen nudges her and says something I can't hear.

"Why the tax on chocolate?" Mindy asks. "I love chocolate."

"Well, I think Lorate intends these to be 'sin' taxes," I explain. "Things like cigarettes, tax and chocolate are kind of optional, or at any rate, vices."

"Gas isn't really optional for some people," Sam points out.

"Well, no, but it would promote conservation."

"I still don't think we should tax chocolate," Mindy persists.

"Fine. Would you like to add an amendment to the bill? It will take a two-thirds majority -- that would be 14 people today -- but if you get it, we'll strip the chocolate tax from the plan."

"Yes, Mindy says. "I want the amendment."

"C'mon, Mindy," Samantha says. "This isn't going to work unless we're willing to do things we don't like."

"I still have a problem with the issue that Jason raised," Sam says.

"Not now, Sam. Right now we're debating Mindy's proposal. All in favor of the Schwartz amendment raise your hands," I say to chuckles at the use of Mindy's last name. Three hands go up.

"Sorry, Mindy, the Schwartz amendment is dead."

Mindy frowns. Then she brightens. "That's OK." I can't remember a time she's been so active in a discussion. I should talk about candy more often, I think to myself.

"I have another amendment," Ellen says.

"You do? What's that?"

"I don't think you should have to do this right after high school. Maybe you should be able to wait until after college. Then Becky could be a pilot."

"I don't think that's a great idea," Samantha says.

"Why not? If I was to do it later, I'd know more about what I want and could do a better job."

"It's not about you," Samantha replies. "It's about helping out people who need help. That doesn't really require lots of expertise. If you want to, you can do it again later."

"Yeah, well, that's my amendment. Can we vote on it?"

"Very well, then," I answer. "How many people are in favor of the Slater amendment?" Twelve hands go up. Becky's is not among them.

"Becky, why didn't you vote for the Slater amendment?" I ask. "It was proposed with you in mind!"

"I know. But if the Slater amendment passed" -- the smile on her face suggests ongoing amusement with this device of using students' last names -- "then the whole thing might pass. And I don't want that to happen."

Ellen and Kim cry out in unison: "Becky!"

"I see," I say admiringly. "So you're voting against what you consider a good amendment in order to kill a bad bill. Nice little piece of politics there, Becky."

"I can't believe her," Liza whispers with quiet disgust to Lisa. The antipathy seems to run deeper than this classroom exercise.

I turn back to Nate. "You said you needed a little more time to think about this. Do you have any more clarity now?"

"I dunno," Nate says, in a voice that suggests that he doesn't want to disappoint me, but can't quite bring himself to commit, either. "I'm thinking about the housing thing. What is the living situation going to be like? I mean, you can't get an apartment on minimum wage, can you?"

"Well, you'd probably live at home," I reply. "But I'll give you a little inside info here. Mel Lorate knows that people like your parents will worry about this. She's thinking that if her bill passes it will serve to drive the minimum wage up. But I think there would probably be some kind of YMCA dormitory situation."

"That would suck," Mark says.

"Would it be any worse than a college dorm?" Erica asks him by way of reply.

"Maybe not," Mark answers doubtfully.

"It could be a blast," Tom speculates. "I mean, you wouldn't be taking classes. No homework. You'd meet lots of new people."

Samantha looks at me with a wry smile, shakes her head and rolls her eyes. "Kids today," she seems to be saying.

"What the hell," Joey says. "Count me in."

"Me too," Alec says.

"You still on board, Roy?" I ask.

"Yeah," he replies. "Still not thrilled with the social work piece of it. But I'll vote in favor because I like the military service component."

"All right, all right," Mark says. "I'll do it."

Mark, Roy, Alec, Joey, Tom right there. Kim and Samantha have been in favor all along. That's seven there.

"We haven't heard from you, Beth," I say. She's startled, but only takes a second to compose herself. "Oh. Sorry. I've been in favor all along."

OK. That's eight. Three more would put the bill over the top in the committee. Not much time left in the class. I'm about to ask Lisa and Erica their dispositions, when I see Chris and Sam conducting a sidebar deliberation. "Hey you guys, what's going on over there?"

"Nothing," Chris says, looking guilty. Clearly, he's been AWOL for the whole class. But Sam seems perfectly composed, and that composure seems like a kind of defiance. "I'm sorry," he says. "But I just can't go along with this. It's just too, what's the word . . . coercive."

I calculate Sam is strong enough to be challenged directly. "You regard serving your country as coercive?"

"Yes. Yes I do."

"You don't think you have any obligation to a place that has allowed you to grow up in safety and prosperity?"

"Well, I'll pay taxes, won't I?"

All eyes are suddenly upon us.

"And that's sufficient?"

"Yes. I think it is."

"And if I was to call you a spoiled brat who thinks he can buy his way out of obligation, what would you say?"

He smiles. "I'd say you're right about that. But not about making me do this program.That's not what freedom means."

I nod with pursed lips. This is not Sam's most attractive moment, but I find myself admiring his candor and clarity. I think he may have accomplished something today, if not for himself than maybe some of his classmates. I look up abruptly. "So I think it's time for another vote. This one is binding. All in favor of the Lorate bill?"

The eight heads I counted raise their hands. So do Alec, Lisa, Mindy, and Liza. That's twelve. "The Lorate bill has been passed by the committee," I announce. "We will recommend it for passage on House floor. I think President Obama will sign it. Thank you, everybody."

"Whoo Hoo!" says Joey. "This is a great day for democracy." Nate punches him on the arm. Joey hits him back.

"Glad you think so, Joey. Let me ask the rest of you: What did you get out of today's session?"

"That the Progressives were jerks," Nate says, still fighting off Joey. "A bunch of control freaks."

"I kinda liked their idealism," Beth says, now over her spell of distraction. "You can see how it would be hard to get something like this done. But the Progressives did a lot."

"Well, they had the times on their side," I note. "That made a big difference. Actually, I think the times may be changing even as we speak. This is the first time in all the years I've been doing this that the bill actually got passed on the committee like this. Usually we just talk it to death. Or, if it does get through, it's got stuff like the Schwartz or Slater amendments."

"Well, I guess it just goes to show, Mr. Cullen," Samantha says puckishly. "What can I say? We're better people."

"Must be."

"Spoken like a true Progressive," Sam says to Samantha with a smile as he closes his laptop and points at the clock. "I'm outta here."