Lexa and I met her cousin’s husband, who she hadn’t seen in years and years, at an open air restaurant on Clark St. He is a warm, gregarious man who was very open to talking about political matters from multiple angles. He works as the president of one of the worlds largest leather tanning companies, an industry that has a long history in Chicago. We talked for a bit about the world of his business, which I knew nothing about, and about the news scandal over “pink slime,” or as people in the meat industry call it, “extruded beef.” He told us that this kind of processed meat allowed for more of the animal to be used and was therefore less wasteful, continuing that if extruded meat products are banned because of public outcry, a huge number more animals would need to be slaughtered each year to keep up with customers demands.
Then we talked about how Chicago’s political climate has affected his own stance about politics. He said that in Chicago at some point in any person’s career they have to make a choice about whether they want to work for the city government or not, since it is such a big player in the economy. He decided he never wanted to go that route because he felt that would mean always being under someone’s thumb. He feels that Obama is a corrupt politician in the way so many Chicago politicians are: in it for personal gain. He is distressed by the stories of Obama and his family taking luxurious personal trips on the public dollar and told us that Obama’s elder daughter and her friends used the presidential plane, and a bunch of secret service agents, to fly to Mexico for spring break – and it is being hidden in the news.
He considers himself to be pro workers, but feels that the union administrations are corrupt and ineffective. He told the story of trying to negotiate directly with workers in a plant that was restructuring to ensure that they got what they deserved from their working conditions, and how he developed a really good relationship with them, but that the union only made things harder. He told another story about how within one year of opening up the American shoe manufacturing market to Taiwan a majority of American jobs in that business were lost. In an effort to illustrate that the government doesn’t have the perspective to make intelligent decisions about the economy he explained how all six members of government responsible for this decision had voted in favor of opening up that trade market, and then just a year later after watching all those jobs disappear they all voted to end it, but the damage had been done. He also admitted, though, that the companies had their own stake in advocating for manufacturing moving out of the Untied States, because they made more money – even when their workers lost out. He, like most people with more conservative beliefs, is worried about the US heading towards socialism, which to him means a society modeled on the former USSR: economically stagnant, bureaucracy laden, and domineered by centralized power. He asked me what I thought would protect citizens interests and be a strong enough counter balancing force against the government’s self-interest if it took control of our social programs, like healthcare. I replied that I didn’t see the government as being a single monolithic interest, but a combination of competing interests that, hopefully, represent the interests of its citizens. But I do also agree that every organization has a tendency to become self-interested even when its mission is to serve others, and this is part of the compromised reality of democratic government as an institution.
*Artist Lexa Walsh has been my tireless companion and documentarian on these road trips.