Saturday, March 08, 2014
Who are the good people?
Some digressions are wonderful.
In the course I teach at the Creative Media Institute, we were discussing David Lindsay-Abaire's wonderful play, Good People. This is one of my picks for important plays of the decade. While it is set in Boston, the true setting is the United States during the Great Recession, the tale of a South Boston woman who loses her job and visits an old friend from her neighborhood in search of help. Thus the play squarely examines the conflict of social and economic class against the backdrop of a competitive economy.
Two fallacies the story portrays very clearly are (1) the tendency to view poverty and unemployment as necessarily the consequence of moral weakness, and (2) the tendency for those who have "made it" to believe in a mythical equality of opportunity, and to forget about help or advantages that some have. Refreshingly, the playwright does not strain the point by contriving any characters of unblemished virtue. Indeed, the ambiguity of the characters' ethics and virtue is part of the point.
I'm not sure how the digression began, but a student in the class spoke up about his experience working in automobile sales and financing. With some encouragement from me, he revealed some vivid details of how salesmen and managers view customers, assessing their buying power and credit-worthiness, the negotiating tactics, and after horrifying the students with all of that he started to talk about the competitive pressure on these staffers, motivated not only by greed (the rewards are great for the successful ones) but how disposable they are. In other words, the cynical handling of customers is driven by the pressure to survive. (Just as, in the play, Margie sometimes may lie or manipulate in order to survive however she can.)
I could not have contrived a better illustration of capitalism's human problem. In an economic system that sets people's health and welfare against one another, short of a revolution against that system people do what they do to survive. Who are the sympathetic people, the "good people" in an economy that does not provide sufficient employment and rations essential needs and political power based on financial power? What do we think about an economic system that obligates people to behave the way auto salesmen behave -- and worse?
It's the perfect title for the play. "Good people" is a phrase that emerges in many discussions about political economy and social policy. The good people, as opposed to those deemed non-virtuous. When I lost my full-time job in 2011, due to circumstances out of my power, I would sometimes hear people remark that people should have to pee in a cup to receive an unemployment check. Although I have not yet had to collect an unemployment check, I see no shame in utilizing a benefit that working people pay for while they are employed, and so I would tell them that I was unemployed and ask them if they felt I was suspicious and should take a drug test. Usually, I would hear something like this: "Oh, I don't mean you." Am I among the good people, then? What makes me so? As opposed to whom?
Who are the good people in a system where opportunity is rationed by money and social class, and where the strong feed on the weak by design?
The salesmen and the customers are an example of how the competitive economy pits working people against one another. Are not managers subject to similar survival pressure? And while CEOs seem to enjoy a great deal of power and freedom, what is their experience as they sit on top of these corporations responsible for delivering the goods to their investors? What happens to them, as human beings?
Does anyone really feel they have a reasonable degree of freedom or control of their lives within this system? Maybe successful entrepreneurs do, or some of them. Maybe retirees who have plenty of money. But no one is beyond the reach of the system's problems. In one recent, amusing example, Exxon's CEO, who has defended fracking in accordance with his company's interests, has personally joined a lawsuit seeking to keep fracking away from his own ranch, and he might lose.
In a system that does this to us -- a system that cannot even protect the victors of perpetual class conflict -- what does a phrase like "good people" really mean?