Category: Archive

Echo Opinion: The (skewed) view from the ivory tower

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

That’s right. The taoiseach flew commercial, just like any one of us.
Of course, this excursion with the masses wasn’t planned, but when the official ministerial airplane (Shamrock One?) was deemed unfit for flying, well, the man had to get to New York somehow. And that’s how the PM wound up seeing how the other 99 percent lives.
The chances are pretty good that Ahern won’t have to submit to such an ordeal again any time soon, or at least as long as Fianna Fail maintains its power in the D_il. But hopefully, he learned something during the seven or so hours he spent stuck in a flying tube with a few hundred other mortals.
This little episode was compelling because it was so very unusual – a head of government forced to fly commercial. Some people might argue that the story told us something about the state of repair of the Republic’s government aircraft. But there’s another moral to this tale: The hundreds of ways in which public officials are shielded from the everyday lives of the people they lead.
That may not be entirely true in Ireland, where, after all, the taoiseach did wind up on that commercial flight. But on this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be enamored with a new breed of political leader – zillionaire business leaders who are even more removed from everyday life than most traditional politicians.
In New Jersey, for example, two very wealthy businessmen are spending millions of their own money for the dubious privilege of being that state’s governor. Jon Corzine, a Democrat and a freshman U.S. Senator, is worth hundreds of millions. His challenge, Douglas Forrester, numbers his millions in the mere tens.
Both men say they stand for the hardworking middle class, and maybe they do. But the average hardworking member of the middle class might well wonder if either one really gets it.
In New York, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a favorite to win re-election, thanks to a record of competence and, don’t forget, a personal campaign war chest that rivals the GNP of several small countries (perhaps even the pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland).
Bloomberg surely is one of the most-successful businessmen of the late 20th Century, and perhaps is on his way to being one of the most-successful politicians in modern New York history. But Bloomberg understood from day one that his wealth and his success might lead some to conclude, understandably, that he was out of touch with the daily concerns of New Yorkers.
That’s why he rides the subway to work every day, from the Upper East Side to City Hall. If that seems like a gimmick, well, maybe it is. But it works. Nobody can say that Michael Bloomberg doesn’t know what it’s like to be stuck on a subway platform in the mid-summer heat, or squished into a rush-hour train.
That’s the difference between a wealthy politician who says he or she understand middle-class life, and a wealthy politician who at least tries to experience some of those concerns first hand.
If Americans are going to continue to vote for wealthy business leaders, they should at least demand that those who seek their vote at least make an attempt to understand their lives.
That doesn’t seem to be happening in New Jersey, where voters don’t seem particularly concerned about whether the candidates’ concern for property taxes or suburban sprawl is based on first-hand knowledge.
New Jersey voters don’t seem curious to know if Corzine or Forrester have ever been stuck in sprawl-fed traffic jams, or been hit with annual 10 percent increases in property taxes while on a fixed income. Perhaps the answer is so obvious – yes – that the question doesn’t bear asking. Still, as Bloomberg understood from the very beginning, it’s good for candidates to show that they understand voter frustrations, because they experience them, too.
That’s what’s missing in so much of American politics today: A sense that politicians have first-hand knowledge of the lives of their constituents. Politicians spend so much time begging for money – except, ironically, for the rich ones who finance their own campaigns – that they simply don’t have time to ride subways or check out schools or really do much of anything else.
That’s why so many political staffers will tell you, privately of course, that a fair amount of their time is spent not on public business, but on doing chores for their boss, who is too busy to do things like pick up the dry cleaning, pay the telephone bill, or sit at home and wait for the cable guy.
An argument could be made that a congressman or state senator shouldn’t have to be concerned with such trivia, considering the important issues he or she deals with on a daily basis.
Nevertheless, shouldn’t we demand that politicians do more than feel our pain – shouldn’t they actually experience it, at least on occasion?
After all, can even the brightest legislator really understand the nation’s health care mess unless he or she has experienced what it’s like to have an HMO refuse to pay for a needed procedure? Can a local political leader appreciate the problems in public education if he or she doesn’t use the public schools?
No doubt many politicians and business leaders who wish to be politicians will say that whatever success they enjoy now, they, too, remember what it was like to struggle.
Perhaps so. But more of them ought to rely on more than their memories every now and again.

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