Your engagement matters: Jefferson Smith at TEDxConcordiaUPortland


Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Denise RQ I want to talk about democracy
and power this morning. I want to offer a simple idea that I think
can help us understand it better, and understand our duty
to make democracy work. But before I do that,
I want to tell a story. I was really honored to be included,
and thrilled to be asked, and I was struck
that we get together live; we don’t just wait for it
to come out on the Internet. How come? I guess it’s because
when we’re exploring ideas, we like to know
there are other people helping, even if we can’t always see them,
and even if sometimes they aren’t. Which makes me think of a story. A man was driving down a country road,
and he crashed into a ditch. To his good fortune came along
a strong pulling horse named “Buddy”. The farmer hitched the horse to the car,
and he said, “Pull, Billy, pull!” The horse didn’t move. He said, “Pull, Buster, pull!” Still, nary a flicker. He finally said, “Pull, Buddy, pull!” The horse very easily pulled
the car out of the ditch. The driver was appreciative and said, “Sir, thank you very much, but why
did you call the horse by the wrong name?” The farmer said,
“You have to understand. Buddy’s blind. If he thought he was the only one
pulling, he wouldn’t even try.” (Laughter) Why do we get together like this? We need to be talking to the people
who aren’t coming to the meetings. But sometimes it’s helpful to know
there’s others helping, even if we can’t always see them,
even if sometimes, they aren’t. So when it comes to democracy, when it comes to our system of governance, who’s pulling the cart? We divide political power
among different lines. Very often political party lines, depending on country
and era, racial lines, religious lines can be more
powerful, more divisive. I want to offer a different understanding, a different way of dividing
political power, and there is a very simple grid. Let’s take this simple grid;
on one side we put “private interest”, the other side, we put “public interest”. That’s not the same
as bad or good, or good or bad. There’s things we’ll like on one side,
and things we won’t like on the other. Rather it is just a rough delineation
of whether the purpose of the entity is to advocate for its own benefit,
the finances of its own members, or whether it’s some conception, for good
or for ill, of the good of the order. Imagine if on the other axis, we separated
between single issue groups, and narrower issue groups, versus multi-issue groups. And it’s not usually accurate to say
that any group is a single-issue group. Right? They’re usually broader than that. But it’s probably fair
to roughly delineate between those that are more focused, and those that have
a little broader issue agenda. So let’s take one group;
the beer wholesalers. That’s a good thing to do
on a Saturday morning. There was a national magazine
that came out with a ranking; they surveyed 22,000 insiders,
came up with a ranking of the most powerful interest groups
in the United States of America. Beer wholesalers ranked eighth. So where do we put them on our map? I would say they have a relatively focused
agenda; the purpose of beer wholesalers is to advocate for the commercial
interest of beer wholesalers, very understandably. I’d put them over there. Similarly, ranked ninth
on that list was the realtors. Where do we put the realtors? Well they also have a relatively,
modestly, lengthened agenda, focused on the understandable needs
of the realty industry. So we might put them in a similar place. I put the health insurers
in a similar place. But what about something
like the National Rifle Association? After we have some beer, we’ll get a gun! (Laughter) Now some might say, “They’re just a shill; a proxy
for the gun manufacturers.” But the National Rifle Association,
for a long time, has had a consistent view to protect
one view; the second amendment. Focused, but there’s not, generally
speaking, NRA members thinking they’re doing it because they’ll get
an IPO at some point. So we put them in that box. Similarly, Right to Life. The nation’s largest
anti-abortion organization. Whether you support their objective,
or find them abhorrent, there’s nobody, I think, who would suggest that people involved
in American Right to Life are doing it because of financial benefit,
but rather because of powerful beliefs. We might put them in the same box. Maybe AIPAC, focusing
on fighting for Israel. What about something
like the Chamber of Commerce? They also advocate for
the financial interest of their members; many, many, many business members. But they’ve got a lot of members,
and they address a lot of issues. So we might put them in that box. They might say, “Wait, what about AFL-CIO?
You have to put them with us!” We might say, “Well, maybe.” We also might say,
with 12 million members, they might be a proxy
for middle-class generally, and ARP might make the same argument. Rounding out the top 20,
we might put in the NFIB. which is sort of a Chamber of Commerce
for smaller businesses. We might fill out the top 20
with the home builders, and the Motion Pictures Association,
and the doctors, and the hospitals, etc. And we might quibble about some places
we might put some of the organizations. Some would say
the National Education Association’s there to advocate for education,
others would say for teachers. Some would say the Farm Bureau
is to advocate for big farms, others would say it’s for food production. And there’s a lot of other groups
below these 20. Or in addition to these 20. But rather than trying to name each group,
or quibble about precise placement, the point becomes pretty clear: that box is harder to fill. And that is one of the most important
structural defects facing our democracy. Because that’s where
we want the voters to be. It’s the same over here. (Laughter) You can look at either one. That’s where we want
our public servants to be. That’s where we want our government to be. Not focused on
any particular or narrow interest, but the good of the order,
and the whole order. Why should politicians be focused there? That’s not where the power is. But it is where a lot of the ideas are;
it is where a lot of the best answers are. To be very clear, it is not evil. It is natural, and expected for doctors
to advocate for doctors, for realtors to advocate for realtors,
for lawyers to advocate for lawyers. I bought a house;
I was glad I had a realtor. I have a doctor; I’m glad I had one. I was trained as a lawyer,
I have no further comment. (Laughter) It is not evil, but it is incomplete. Because a huge portion
of our most important problems are not resolved by that dynamic. A babysitter was babysitting
a brother and a sister. The children each asked for an orange. The household only had one orange,
and the stores were closed. What would you do? What any sensible person would do; cut the orange in half, give each half! Well, it turns out that the brother
wanted the peel to make a pie. The sister wanted the fruit to eat. Had we known that information, had we applied creative thinking,
we could have made them both happier. Here’s our happy orange. I want to thank my staff for cutting
the orange and making that; they did it yesterday. Very impressed. I want to thank the people
who put this together for getting that slide in late at night because the first version we had
we were unsure about its copyright. We own this one though. (Laughter) A powerful example of splitting
the orange in public policy was brought to me two years ago. Umatilla Basin is dry. They have been mining water there
and by doing that, they’ve been able to grow
some of the most plentiful, and best potatoes, onions,
and peas in the world. But they have just about run out
of underground ground water. A set of farmers came out with a plan; “What if we take water
from the Columbia River – it’s big – and put it there during the dry season,
and apply it on the ground to grow crops?” The environmentalists said,
“Wait a minute. That’s bad for water levels, it sets
a bad precedent, it’s bad for fish.” The tribal governments,
the environmentalists, the water watch organizations
said, “Not a good idea.” But thanks to a group
of community leaders, and this guy, Bob Jenson,
who is rural state legislator, has served as both
a democrat and a republican, they came up with an alternative plan,
with the help of engineers. What if, instead of taking it out
during the dry season, they took it out during the wet season,
when there’s a lot of water? And they injected it
into a natural-occurring aquifer, treated it, then pulled it out
during the dry season? Better for the environment, better
for fish, still good for irrigated ag. And fiscally responsible
because you can turn land here, by applying water to it from $50 an acre
dry wheat land, to $1,000 an acre land. So with that agricultural
financing benefit, you can easily pay off the loans
to build the project. It’s good to find creative solutions. It’s good to make multiple value deals. But who makes the deals? Another story. A woman named Allison Belcher
helped build the soul of this city. 40 years ago, downtown
Portland looked like that. It had on its flank,
on its river bank, Harbor Drive. And Allison Belcher learned of a plan to expand Harbor Drive
into a relatively major freeway. She got friends together, and they started
having picnics along the side of the road; offering the idea,
“What if this were a park?” They helped change public opinion. Eventually, the dollars for
that potential project were repurposed. Not only to build a park but also to create the more modern
transit-orientated development that you see in our city today,
that marks modern Portland. That’s what it looks like now. She helped pave the way,
I guess, unpave the way, to making Portland a model
of city planning over the next 30 years. We need people who can split the orange, we need people who can make
arrangements that are creative. We also need people who will stand up
powerfully for the public interest. And this is really important. Because a huge portion
of our most important problems, of our most exciting opportunities, are, in a market-sense, or even
in a traditional political sense, nobody’s job. Whose job is it to get rid of the deficit? Where is the IPO you are going
to file to do that? If you look at the other three quadrants, they could negotiate to do things
that would help them now, but what would be in their interest
to do something for your grandchildren in terms of that? Right now, we have
the biggest gap in wealth disparity, between rich and poor,
since anytime since the Gilded Age. Whose job is it to fix that? Figuring out education policy, healthcare
policy, reforming energy policy; whose job is that? Figuring out a high road economy
that is prosperous, fair, sustainable; whose job is that? A system of democracy
that works for everybody. We have the richest, most diverse nation,
maybe in the history of the world. How do we figure out
how that’s going to work together? Whose job is that? A huge portion
of our most important problems, our most exciting opportunities, are, in an important sense, nobody’s job. That’s why they have to be
all of our jobs. That’s why you are so important. I have something to reveal;
I was going to show this slide. But then I realized
what it’s said is, “Who’s Job?” (Laughter) I wasn’t going to show it,
I was going to flip by fast, but then I realized
that the purpose of these talks is to try to be as candid as possible
and show our words; “Who is job?” I’m not sure. (Laughter) I will tell you if I am invited back. (Laughter) I want to show you
my favorite Onion article of all time. The headline reads, “American People Higher High-Powered
Lobbyist To Push Interests In Congress”. (Laughter) My favorite quote from it is quoting
the fictional lobbyist who says, “The American people
have always been perceived as a little naive when it comes
to their representative government. But having me on their side sends
a clear message they’re finally serious, and want to play ball.” (Laughter) So we can do that,
but what else might we do? Structural reforms. We might think about our system
of campaign finance, about transparency in our budgeting, about open government
in our policy making. We might think about voter access
to make it easier for busy people and new voters
to participate in that process. What if you have some power? We all need to consider
our own fiduciary responsibilities. Whether we’re in the non-profit sector, the commercial sector,
or the public sector. Politicians aren’t off the hook; I happen to be an elected official
in our citizen legislature, and I assure you,
elected officials aren’t perfect. I don’t think any of us think they are;
I am woefully imperfect. But we shouldn’t keep ourselves
from proposing changes because we’re imperfect; we should push changes
because none of us is perfect. What if you’re an interest group? You have a powerful responsibility. Yeah, you’ve got to advocate
for your own mission, but also make sure that mission
is as publicly orientated as possible. I was approached by a group of nurses who lobbied me on workplace protections, and things like wages and benefits. To be expected. But then they advocated
for overall healthcare reform. Then they went on and advocated
for school funding for their neighbors. They were advocating
for what they were there to do, but they were also thinking
about the broader community. So we should do those things. But most of all,
I want to talk about you people. About we, the people. Each of us has a responsibility. We get the government we deserve, and we need to work to deserve better. Bob Jenson is retiring, and he never made
a fortune from his service. Those nurses spent
some of their precious lobbing time advocating for the good
of their neighbors. Alison Belcher doesn’t live
anywhere near that park. They and you are the coalition
of the “Benevolently Irrational”. (Laughter) The good people doing good things
for no good reason. Without you, democracy is not possible. It’s not entirely irrational, of course. Each of us is stronger
if all of us are stronger. If everybody gets access to an education,
I am more likely to find a job. Or more likely to find somebody
to hire who can do that job. Or less likely to be robbed. If fewer people are sick,
I am less likely to catch a disease. If the air is cleaner,
I get to breathe it. So whether it’s benevolent irrationality,
or big-picture rationality, regardless, it’s priceless. And the people who work
for it are priceless. The people like you,
who build power around ideas, not just building ideas to appease power. People who don’t work merely
to operate within machines or to rage against machines, but to build new machines. Not only for self-benefit
but also for the benefit of all. And you are priceless. The definition of priceless:
worth a lot, not for sale. I’ll finish with my very favorite story. A young man was working
in the United States Senate dining room. A man called him over and asked
for another pat of butter. The young man said, “I’m sorry, sir,
just one pat of butter per customer.” The man said, “Son, I don’t know that you
understand; I’m not merely a customer. I’m a United States Senator;
I’m asking you for another pat of butter.” “Sir, I’m terribly sorry;
it’s just one per person.” “Son, I’m Chair of Appropriations; that means billions of dollars
flow through my fingers. I’m asking you for another pat of butter!” “Sir, I’m terribly sorry,
it’s just one per person.” “Son, presidents quake in my presence. I’m a United States senator;
who the hell do you think you are?” “Well, sir, I’m the guy with the butter.” (Laughter) It’s good to get together like this. It’s good to remember
we’re the ones with the butter, and you are priceless;
worth a lot, not for sale. I’m honored to be with you,
and thank you very much. (Applause)

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