Riding the bus and drinking with Republicans

I’ve known Charleston attorney and outspoken public transportation advocate William Hamilton on a personal basis for only a few months.  But I’d seen him around town at one bleeding-heart event or another for the past few years and frankly I was a bit frightened of the man.  Even after getting to know him better over the summer, it seemed to me that he was one of those wild people living on the edges of society, barely holding onto his sanity.  So I looked forward to spending a few hours riding the Charleston bus system with him last Saturday with a considerable bit of trepidation.  

I used to be a “drive-thru” progressive.  I supported all the progressive causes of making the world a better place for EVERYONE but never got out of my car to do anything about it.  For years I lived an upper-middle-class life working in the high-tech industry, flying first-class every couple of weeks all over the developed world, staying in the finest hotels and eating at the finest restaurants. When I came home it was to a custom house in an exclusive neighborhood only a stone’s throw from the high tide line.  

If there was poverty in the world, I didn’t see it in my usual travels.  If there were people struggling to get by in my little suburban town, I never ran into them.  Most of my friends were upper-middle class devoted Republicans who were more or less also drive-thru progressives (a common occurrence in New England).  It seemed to me and my friends that the world was humming along just fine for everyone.

Until the great recession.  Within five years of vacationing in the most remote and exotic inhabited place in the world - Easter Island - I was homeless and living out of my car.  The details aren’t as important as my conclusion - if this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.  Perhaps the world was NOT humming along just fine for everyone.  I was no longer a drive-thru progressive.  I became a boots-on-the-ground progressive.  

William Hamilton has had his boots on the ground his entire life primarily because he was born legally blind.  He has always had to rely on the public transportation system to get around on his own because he can’t drive a car.  Consequently, he’s been associating with those struggling and poverty-stricken people I never saw when I was living in an exclusive neighborhood.  Interestingly, William lives in the exclusive neighborhood of Ion in Mount Pleasant, where after spending a few hours on the bus with him, I also happened to run into him at an outdoor concert the evening of the Saturday we rode the bus together.

On our bus ride earlier in the day William told me all about how Mark Sanford has voted against any money for public transportation and how the resulting federal public transportation budget cuts were applied around the country.  Funding for operations were maintained, but funding for improvements and replacements were eliminated.  Which means as the buses fail, funds to replace them are not available.  For most of us with cars living a suburban lifestyle, the bus system, indeed any sort of public transportation seems like a waste of public dollars.  Everyone has a car, right?  Unfortunately, that’s not true.  Everyone I met on the bus last week is working some minimum or low-wage job and uses the bus system to get to and from those jobs, and none of them has a car.  

For those of us relying on our cars, William also said that he’s learned from traffic engineers that city-wide traffic stoppages - “gridlock” - is not a linear process - it’s a step function.  One minute traffic is heavy but moving smoothly.  The next minute it’s completely stopped throughout the entire Charleston area.  Apparently it is now happening every month for at least an hour.  I get to witness this many mornings as I’m driving out of Charleston and pity the fools driving into town from Summerville and Goose Creek, stuck in a three mile long, four lane wide parking lot.  Fixing I-26 first will not help.  I’ve been in Los Angeles on sixteen lane highways that were all locked up.  

William says that with the monthly increase in cars here, it will happen more and more frequently.  He says NOW is the time to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation.  Unfortunately, any light rail project from the burbs will be years out.  I don’t know about you, but once I’m off the truck, I’m going to set up my life so I can bicycle everywhere I need to go.

I understand very well how the people I met on the bus are living.  If my sister hadn’t given me her old car, I would never be able to save up enough to buy a car.  And if my car should happen to breakdown any time soon, I won’t be able to afford either repairs or replacement.  The 70% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck - 223 million of us - are in exactly this same situation - one minor disaster away from complete financial ruin.  Without a way to get to work, you lose the job and you lose any chance of finding another job.  And of course without the job, you can’t eat.

The public transportation system is critical not just to get our fellow Americans to and from work, but to keep them from quickly starving to death when they can’t get to work.  Perhaps more importantly from a macro-economic point-of-view, if the Americans at the bottom end of the economy aren’t throwing dollars into the economy, very soon manufacturing outputs will be dialed down, shops will close down, and before you know it we’re back into another recession or worse.

In the last few years I’ve heard billionaire conspiracy ideas from a number of people and don’t know if the dystopian books and movies like “Hunger Games” were driven by these ideas or whether the movies drove the idea into the general public.  William subscribes to some of these ideas and told me very convincingly that he thinks there is a conspiracy of the billionaires and their representatives (Mark Sanford being one of them) to systematically crush the poor and the middle class, destroy the cities, and make a suburban enclave of rich people living very well until the few remaining natural resources are all gone.  Sort of a enclave strategy in expectation of the collapse of society.  Frankly, his scenario explains an awful lot of the lunatic actions of the Republican party lately.  

However, looking back on my own history, I don’t think there’s any conspiracy at all.  I don’t think there is a group of evil billionaires planning their moves for world domination in a smoke-filled room.  (Yes, there are some idealogically twisted billionaires who could definitely benefit from sleeping under a highway overpass for a few nights.)  Instead I think what is happening in America - why people like Mark Sanford and his supporters are more concerned about their personal tax bill than the suffering and lack of opportunity for millions of their fellow citizens - is first because they don’t understand how our monetary system works.  And second because our game of capitalism is all-consuming for the winners of the game who focus on nothing but their own score in the game.  

Ironically they focus on their bank accounts to their own detriment.  If the mass of America has no disposable income, capitalism will grind to a halt, no one will be left in a position to buy the assets of the rich when they’re ready to sell, and they will suddenly realize that stocks and bonds are the original pyramid scheme and they came in at the bottom of the pyramid.

After that outdoor concert Saturday night, I happened to run into an old friend attending a little porch party with other Ion residents, and they invited me to join them.  It was exactly like the evening parties I regularly attended and hosted in the exclusive seacoast neighborhood in which I lived in the 2000’s.  Since my personal ejection from the capitalism game in 2010, I haven’t been back in that kind of situation before last night. It was nice and relaxed and familiar.  But I was struck by how the conversation topics were different from those of the boots-on-the-ground progressives I’ve met over the past couple years.  Nobody at this party was talking about social problems and solutions, or even politics, other than one joke about Nancy Pelosi.  

Instead the talk was all about first-world problems - lack of cell signals, slow laptops, good and bad restaurants, good and bad places to vacation, what jobs their kids were in and how they enjoyed their grandkids - the exact same things I used to discuss a few years ago with my wealthy friends.  These people are winning at the capitalism game and it’s working great for them.  Consequently all they think about is the game and what it has enabled them to do.  In their daily lives they don’t see anyone struggling to survive.  They don’t see anyone stuck in poverty.  They think everyone lives like them.  Exactly the way I’d thought just a few years ago.  

I worked at IBM the last seven years of my high-tech career and had the opportunity to be a regional salesman for a couple of years where I could earn “unlimited” income.  If you ever want to see where the “rubber” of the capitalist system of incentives and compensation plans “hits the road”, hang out with some sales people working on commission.  We were all “coin operated”.  Our compensation plans - which changed a few times a year - determined exactly where we focused our sales efforts.  Our total compensation truly was “unlimited”.  If we could exceed our sales quotas, the compensation got crazy-big pretty quickly.  

When I was with IBM those years, compensation plans with increasingly large bonus components increased in size the higher you were in the organization.  Why do CEOs of the largest corporations seem heartless and callous, able to suddenly cut entire divisions of the company?  Because their compensation plans incent them to focus on nothing but increasing profits and/or the stock price, not the people behind those numbers.  Hit your “targets” as a division president at IBM and you could earn millions of dollars.  It’s not that the “executive class” doesn’t care about anyone or anything else, it’s that they spend all their time with people just like them.  Everyone they know is doing great and playing the same game they are - chasing their targets and measuring their personal success by the size of their bank accounts.  As I was.

So I don’t think there is a conspiracy of rich people systematically trying to crush the poor and middle classes.  It’s just that the winners of the capitalism game are distracted by the game they’re playing - eventually to their own demise.  The problem with America today is not from evil rich people making decisions about the poor.  The problem with America is from rich people who are too insulated in their own worlds and too distracted by their own game of capitalism to even notice what is happening to the rest of us.

The people I met on the bus yesterday are in the same economic strata I’ve been living in the past few years so it wasn’t a shock for me to hear their stories of homelessness, disability, job-loss, living paycheck-to-paycheck, and the struggle to survive. I spoke with one guy who clearly needed some anti-psychotic meds.  Another guy with no teeth.  Numerous people who didn’t vote because they didn’t understand how their votes for the right candidates could keep the buses running.  William is doing good work out here.  He really is a saint hoping for miracles.  For political candidates and office-holders who haven’t slept in their cars for a couple of months, riding the bus with William could be a big eye-opener.

Personally, I’m looking for the root-causes of America’s dysfunction.  How can we change the incentive program for the highest earning Americans so they become aware of and care about the lowest earning Americans?  After giving that question an awful lot of thought for the past few years,I think we need to link the financial success of all Americans together.  If a decade ago my maximum take-home pay was tied to the take-home pay of the lowest-paid Americans, I would have paid attention to their plight and tried to make their lives better if for no reason other than to make my own life better.  It all comes down to the incentives and the compensation plans.  Especially for the rich.

To that end, I’m proposing a legislative action I call 100:1.  No one in America can take home more than one hundred times the pay that anyone else in America is taking home.  Conversely, no American will ever take home less than one hundredth of the pay that the highest paid Americans are taking home.  Suddenly, Wall Street hedge-fund managers will be concerned about the struggle of single moms working three jobs to survive.  If you improve the plight of those struggling moms, you improve your own.  Combine that with my other four legislative actions and we can make America the “land of opportunity” that it used to be for ALL of US.  And maybe, we can even save the entire planet from becoming uninhabitable for our great grandchildren.