Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

    Pete Seeger died three days ago. The Press is calling him a hero. But not that long ago the establishment portrayed him as a villain, a Communist who refused to testify to the US Congress in the HUAC hearings of the early 1950s. I was a little boy at the time, but I recall my parents being outraged at the way Joseph McCarthy and his know-nothings were smearing Americans who had as much right to be Communists as to be Republicans or Buddhists. Seeger's days as a Communist were long behind him by then, but he still believed in communal ideals. Alan Lomax was so worried that he (Lomax) would be tarred with the same brush and then unable to accomplish the work he felt called to do, that he fled to Europe, where he was able to continue that phase of his remarkable career, collecting and promoting folksongs and folksingers. Seeger remained in the US, convicted and sentenced; and although cleared later on a technicality, he was blacklisted and prevented from appearing on major venues such as television. He was the original “alternative” musician, forced to make his way outside the established channels where only a few years later folksingers like The Kingston Trio, who had not taken the same political stand, became establishment darlings and were well paid for it.
     Pete was a populist, someone who believed in the inherent worth and dignity of the so-called common person. He gave his heart and soul, his hands and his songs to the workers, the unions, the oppressed and downtrodden. So humble a man he was, that only now is his influence in the various rights movements of the last century—labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, the environment, the right to dissent--becoming known. Until now few knew, for instance, Pete was a crucial link in the chain that transformed the old, African-American gospel song, “I Will Overcome,” into the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
    I spent some time with Pete Seeger in 1981. We were working for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, trying to decide how to apportion grant money in response to the dozens of proposals for projects that had come in. At our meetings where we discussed these proposals, Pete didn’t say very much. Much of the time he seemed bored, distracted. He would tilt his head back, showing even more of his already prominent Adam’s apple. I could understand how some people might have been put off over the years by what they thought was a patrician distancing, inherited from his father, the musicologist Charles Seeger. But he was paying close attention. He just didn’t think he had much to contribute, so he mostly kept silent. But there was one proposal that I recall he spoke for, passionately.
    It was a proposal made by an arts organization in one of the northern New England states, possibly Maine, or maybe it was New Hampshire. The organization wrote that they wanted to hire a professional photographer, with experience in taking pictures of vernacular folk art, to travel around the region documenting the yard art that people used in decorating the spaces outside their houses. Not the carefully manicured bushes, walks and foundation plantings of the suburban middle-class, but the oddball sculptures, the paintings and things hung on barns and garages, the junk carefully constructed and arranged in seasonal collages to depict the first Thanksgiving, or the piles of stones balanced one on top of the other—the sort of thing you'd find in the countryside. The best of these were to be collected into a traveling photo exhibit that would tour the public libraries in the region for a few years.
    We had read all of the proposals well before the discussion. This was one that I myself had particularly liked. I’m not sure why, but I’d been fascinated by yard art for years. Not the pink flamingos and stooping-over ladies showing their bloomers—that was store-bought yard decor—but the eccentric, individual expressions, the one-of-a-kind homemade signs like those announcing the end of the world, and the elaborate figures made out of found objects, the flowers made from old springs and gears and bottle caps, the window shades that people painted with allegories of their dreams, the old tractors and farm machinery reminding people of the way that land once had been treated, everything showing how so-called ordinary people weren’t ordinary at all in their impulses to create, to pattern their worlds aesthetically and turn the most common objects into things that deserved witness.
     I must have blurted out something like that when the discussion of this grant proposal finally began. At any rate, I spoke in favor of it. Everyone else, except Pete, looked at me as if I were crazy. One of them said, quoting the old saw, “Yes, but is it Art?” A second person said that he didn't want to see a photo exhibit of junk cars and old lobster traps. Another was worried that the Endowment would become a public laughingstock when some Congressman intent destroying it pointed out that we had given someone a bunch of money to go around the country photographing Christmas lights.
    At that point Pete, who had been unusually attentive, cleared his throat. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I like this idea. Yard art is something lots of folks do. And it’s something lots of folks understand because they do it. And something lots of folks like. Maybe not the highfalutin’ folk who sit up here in the national endowments, the ones who have paintings on their walls that ordinary folks wouldn’t know which side was up. This yard art, or whatever you call it, is of the people, by the people, for the people—you know that. And we should celebrate it, and support it, not just by how it looks, but for what it is.”
    That was the longest speech Pete made to our group. I hope I remembered his words right. I think I got the gist of it, anyway. When he was done I was ready to applaud. But the others were like trees standing by the water, and they would not be moved. Pete and I were the only ones in favor of the proposal. We were outvoted. Majority vote ruled, and the proposal was not recommended for funding.
    Pete Seeger is gone now, but as I was saying to a friend two days ago, and to the radio man who interviewed me about Pete yesterday, he isn’t gone. Like Joe Hill, whom he often sang about, Pete Seeger lives on.
   

Monday, January 27, 2014

The US postal service — a tragedy of the commons?

    Today the US postal service announced it is raising the price of mailing a first-class mail letter to 49 cents, and a postal card to 34 cents. I am old enough to remember when it cost one cent to mail a postal card. It even had a name: the penny postcard. Good grief. Meanwhile, the postal service is losing billions of dollars. It’s tried and failed to get government approval to close to smaller post offices, and to halt Saturday mail delivery. What is wrong with the US postal service? What is wrong with us? Is our fate a tragedy of the commons?


     I’m prompted to ask the commons question not because of the price increases and threatened cutbacks, but because of a meeting I attended at my small nearby post office last week. The postal service had declared that its window hours were going to be cut back from 8 to 4 hours per day. We were surveyed about (a) whether we’d prefer that it be shut down entirely (no one chose that option), (b) whether we’d prefer that it be shut down and a stamp-selling operation be opened in a nearby retail shop (no one chose that option either), or (c) whether we’d prefer four hours of window operation instead, and if so, mornings or afternoons? It was like being mugged and offered a choice between a broken arm or a broken leg. As someone at the meeting pointed out, we were not given the option to vote for it to remain open 8 hours a day.    
     I wouldn’t normally think of the mail as a resource commons. True, it appears to be what these days is called an “entitlement,” a utility that government provides citizens in exchange for taxes. It became partly privatized back in the 1980s. It’s still a government agency, though, and it answers to Congress and, one would hope, to the citizens. But what made me think of it as a commons was something that came up at a citizen meeting last week.    
     In an effort to save money, the head of the postal service proposed closing the smaller post offices, which ones to be determined not only by their geographical distribution, but also by the amount of gross sales they make—that is, how much money they take in from the letters and packages that are mailed from their post office, how much money they make in selling stamps and postal supplies, etc. Citizens protested to their representatives at the state and federal levels, and the postal service decided that instead what they would do would be to cut back hours at those post offices, not eliminate them entirely—or at least, not yet. 
    What this did, though, was to put all of the post offices, and their postmasters, in competition with each other to do the most business so that they wouldn’t have to cut back hours. Those of us who regularly use the postal service weren’t informed about these criteria or the competition. The commons analogy appears here. Given a limited resource, if the post office were managed as a commons, the citizens would have been informed and decided which basket(s) to put their eggs into, and the postmasters would have been part of the discussion and gone along with those choices. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the postmasters of each of the smaller offices competed with one another, probably because they wanted to secure their own working hours. In my neck of the woods, what this meant, among other things, was that the postmaster in charge of the largest post office regularly withheld supplies (including stamps) from the postmasters of the smaller offices, forcing the customers to go to the largest post office to obtain them. Of course, they were given some stamps and supplies, but not so many as would meet the larger and more costly purchases of the customers. Predictably, the largest post office has kept its hours, while the one nearest me has been cut back to four, and another one not too far away has been cut back to two hours.
    As we pointed out when we met with the regional postmaster at our local post office, this is a slippery slope. The postal service will continue to evaluate based on sales volume. Now, a post office with its window open only four hours a day is at a disadvantage, and one open for two is doubly disadvantaged. The handwriting is on the wall. Soon they’ll be cut back further, and then cut out.
    The US postal service is not yet enacting a tragedy of the commons. That tragedy, as Garret Hardin famously wrote a few decades ago, supposedly occurs when individuals acting out of selfish interests overuse and deplete a resource commons, making everyone poorer as a result. True, the behavior of the postmasters in competition with one another might qualify as this kind of tragedy. But Hardin neglected to consider the possibility that those who used the commons could get together and discuss the problem and then attempt to manage it, by agreeing to follow self-imposed guidelines and regulations. In fact, that's what the lobster fishery off the Maine coast does, although the management is done by the government as well as by the fishing communities (and they don’t always agree).
    In the case of the postal service, citizens were not offered an opportunity to help manage the resource. Postmasters—who knows if they discussed among themselves the possibility of cooperation as well as competition? The result was the predictable tragedy anyway. The situation is made even more complex since the post office loses most of its money not because its own operations cost so much, but because the US government requires the postal service to pre-fund retirement health care for its employees. This is something no other business organization, to my knowledge, is required to do; and in fact very few do. My employer, Brown University, not only does not pre-fund health care for its retirees, it doesn’t fund retirees health care at all. They’re on their own, just as almost every other US retiree is, now. The result is that citizens are increasingly inconvenienced because Congress cannot agree on lifting the pre-funding requirement (let alone much anything else).
    Re-thinking and then managing the postal service as a resource commons might just help solve the problem. The tragedy that’s being enacted now was scripted by the US government; the postal service and the postmasters are the bad actors, and the citizens are the captive audience. Ticket prices are too high, and local theaters are going to be closing soon anyway. It can all be avoided. And there are analogies with music and sustainability to be made here, as well, particularly when considering such things as Internet neutrality, copyright legislation and monopolies.