Mom & Me
A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor
I had three big arguments with my mother this summer. Each was typical of our fights over global issues, driven by different perspectives on the world and people in it—but also connected by a broader theme that only became evident to me more recently, retrospectively.
We argued about environmental conservation, with the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a backdrop. My mother argued her green credentials by claiming that she turns off the tap when she’s brushing her teeth. Now, my mother has been our family’s leader in environmental conservation, perhaps as a result of her northern California roots; this record, however, is mixed. Back in the late 1970s, we replaced an oversized American car (a now-classic Dodge Dart, probably circa 1972) with a diesel VW Rabbit. This same Rabbit was subsequently turned into a self-defeating tortoise with the addition of an AC unit; the compressor probably weighed a couple hundred pounds, enough to slow the car down and make the engine less efficient. A few years ago, Mom also passed on buying a Toyota Prius in favor of a Toyota Matrix, because of the price premium on the Prius. The Matrix is small and efficient, and my parents don’t drive a whole lot, so it wasn’t a huge shame. But for a woman who has been railing about the need for electric or hybrid cars since giving up the Rabbit back in 1982, it stung a bit to watch.
As we watched the BP spill helplessly, like so many other Americans, we also suffered through a tremendous heat wave all along the East Coast, also like many others. Over lunch or dinner in the gazebo—with the AC on in the farmhouse behind us—we argued over greenhouse gasses, the fragility of the planet, and the seeming impossibility of any individual having much of an impact on the environment. By that point in July, estimates of the flow out of the BP spill were running close to 60,000 barrels per day, or 2.5 million gallons; over the course of 90 days, that’s 225,000,000 gallons. I have no desire to minimize the scope of damage from the spill, but keep in mind that the Gulf of Mexico has about 660 quadrillion gallons (2.5 × 10^15 m3) of water. So to call the oil spill a drop in the bucket is terrifying in part because it is true—and at the same time because one can see the impact that a “drop” can have.
And so my mother declared she was doing her part by turning off the tap when she brushed her teeth. Easy to dismiss—and I did—as being an equivalent kind of drop in the bucket. We live in areas not known for having challenged water supplies, and reclining there in Massachusetts we were in fact drawing from our own artesian well. In contrast, the tailpipe emissions from the Toyota seem more damaging, as did running the window unit AC full-blast when the whole point of being in the country (even in the heat) is to get the fresh air.
Of course, that overlooks the impact of turning off the tap. If Mom saves (on a typical gallon/minute sink) a gallon of water a day, that’s 365 gallons a year. If every able-bodied American did this, we would save 36,500,000,000 gallons of water a year (assuming 100 million participants). Not bad, right? Maybe my mother should start a campaign. Moreover, I can concede that my mother has a point, I just wish it was a point with a greater impact or likely to capture anyone’s imagination.
In argument number two, my mother forwarded a manipulative e-mail from liberal activist group (and reflexive supporter of Democrats) MoveOn, urging people to boycott Target over their donation to a right-wing gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. “We can’t let corporations like Target get away with trying to buy our elections,” went part of MoveOn’s message—though it’s OK, of course, for MoveOn to try to influence elections with similar kinds of financial support for candidates and party line issues. My mother and I fought over this in August, long after Target had officially and formally apologized, which (as the Los Angeles Times noted) still wasn’t enough for MoveOn.
I cannot defend Target’s political contribution in this case; I didn’t like it a all. Here’s the thing that really ticked me off, though: my mother doesn’t shop at Target. I am not sure she’s ever been inside one, and if she has, it was surely brief and not a trip of her own making. I do shop at Target—with two small kids, I cannot afford not to shop at places like Target—and indeed, consciously choose Target over WalMart because of the company’s generally better record as a philanthropist in a world that is important to me. Target is one of the largest national corporate supporters of the arts, and a visit to their website will show the wide scope of activities available at reduced (or no) cost as a result of their generosity. So while I support marriage rights for gays and lesbians (and, really, any other combination of consenting adults), and was not happy with Target’s donation, I also think it is important to look at the broader context. Not to mention that boycotting a store you already don’t shop at strikes me as the height of passive-aggressive activism. (Sorry, Mom.)
Finally, there’s the whole mortgage financing and capital markets disaster that the nation and the world have been living with for the last two-plus years. Our argument here was really simple: my mother blames greedy banks; I blame greedy banks, along with greedy borrowers and greedy investors and shareholders. Sure, the banks were greedy and manipulative and acted outside of the rules as much as possible. Certainly “risk assessment” became a lost part of the vocabulary, and they were looking at short-term gain not long-term success. But none of this works without homeowners who believed—against all logic!—that an interest-only mortgage was a good idea. Or without investors who had become oddly conditioned to double-digit financial returns, with no understanding of the potential risks, let alone a clue about what “paper profits” means. The libertarian-communitarian in me found my mother’s point of view naive and absurd: we all have to take some responsibility for this mess, because (like it or not) most of us were involved in one way or the other. Even our passive, psychological assumptions of “wealth” spurred greater spending and greater household debt. Never mind the political and financial implications of a host of ill-managed government programs, from our two foreign wars to Social Security. In a society governed by the rule of law, we cannot simply displace blame by always saying that someone offered us a deal that turned out to be too good to be true.
And here we are. But what became clear in all this is the degree to which both my mother and I, with our intrenched positions, are motivated by the same frustrations: an inability to have much of an impact, and a failure to see a way out of our country’s current problems. Whether it’s conservation or political influencers or the security of her retirement funds and mine, we clearly feel trapped—indeed, we are trapped. Nearly everything about United States policy on these issues is just place wrong. We penalize savings—pure, cash-in-the-bank savings—while incentivizing market-based savings that may or may not bear fruit. We (still) incentivize the sale of fuel-inefficient cars if only by not taxing gasoline heavily enough. We talk about public transport infrastructure investments, but until it costs significantly more to drive than to take the bus or light rail or subway, a majority of Americans will opt for their cars. And good god, the building janitors in New York City who are forever spraying good drinking water down the drain, via our sidewalks, well … at a minimum, the price of water—even in water-rich locations—should rise to the point where we tolerate such waste much less easily. (Just watch how fast an NYC co-op’s board would rule out sidewalk spraying if the price of water doubled.)
My mother and I are very different people. Her approach tends to favor an analysis of what is right in front of her, what has the most impact on her directly; so a more expensive car is just that, more expensive; water saved is just that, water saved. I tend to look for the underlying problems, and to push on a broader sense of personal and civic responsibility. So I don’t trust the Democrats any more than the Republicans, because they seem just as corrupt, once you get past the talking points—which means I dislike attempts at manipulation by organizations like MoveOn as much as come-ons from bankers.
But clearly, my mother and I are also more alike than it sometimes seems.