Who Is the Public?

I have just finished another book I would not have read if not for my job, Barry Bozeman’s Public Values and Public Interest: Counterbalancing Economic Individualism. First, permit me to confess that, left to my own devices, I would read fiction, poetry, and an occasional history — so I am being forced to broaden my horizons and get educated, which is never a bad thing. Second, let me say that, as a wannabe writer, I have many, many thoughts about this book, mostly concerning its readability. I would not say that I enjoyed it, but it did provoke thought. The primary thought it provoked may be worth sharing. I say “may be” because I am not an economist, a philosopher, a political scientist, or a public interest or public management theorist, so it’s possible that I simply didn’t get it.

My primary thought about the book is that it spends a great deal of time on the topics of whether and how it is possible to identify public values and the public interest, and contrasting those with private or individual economic values and interests (which are often not the same), but it spends remarkably little time on the question of “Who is the Public?” The author is very conscious (almost too conscious) of the limits — the squishiness — of terms like “the public interest” and “public values,” but while his book tackles “interest” and “values” at length, it gives short shrift to “public.”

Especially in the U.S., a vast nation with remarkably diverse cultures, religions, lifestyles, and economies depending on where in the country you reside, it seems to me that the more immediate the “public,” the more practical and realistic it is to identify shared public values and pursue the public interest. At the state level, this becomes less realistic: every state in which I’ve ever lived has had marked, or even deep, social, economic, political, and cultural divisions (“Outstate” or greater Minnesota versus the Twin Cities metro. East River versus West River. Downstate versus the U.P.) and different lifestyles worth protecting. At the national level, then, it seems unlikely that we could identify public values and a cohesive public interest, aside from the broad priorities of securing the nation and preserving our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The difficulty of pursuing public values and the public interest is not identifying values and interests — these are abundant, diverse, and obvious — but identifying who shares them, which helps to decide at what level of society they should be implemented.

The critique of economic individualism (which, says Bozeman, is increasingly driving our public policy agenda) in the book insists that individuals in this model are concerned primarily with their own economic interests, and perhaps those of a few close others (immediate family and the like). That may be the proper definition of economic individualism, but I don’t know anyone who lives this way. As a friend in Western South Dakota has explained, in his part of the prairie, neighbors take care of each other — and if someone doesn’t contribute to the good of the community, over time they are made unwelcome. They simply don’t last. Those who remain recognize that it is in their personal interest to take public interest: to be engaged in the community and preserve their shared values and lifestyle.

I enjoy a similar experience in “The Bubble” — the devout, small-town Catholic communities in Albertville and St. Michael. My circle of public interest begins at home, with my family; then expands to encompass my parish and the people with whom I share a fundamental belief system and way of life; then to my town(s), which provide the education my children receive and the goods and services we need to live and thrive; then to my state and nation, which should be responsible for ensuring my towns, parish, and family have the opportunity and freedom to thrive. I invest what time, talent, and treasure that I am still free to spend as I wish in the circles closest to me — which makes sense, since the more distant circles I am already obligated by law to support.

It seems to me that Bozeman’s approach to identifying public values, public interest, and ultimately, instances of failure of public policy to deliver in the public interest, is useful in inverse proportion to the size and distance of the “public” considered. At the local level, the public interest is much easier to identify — because although our population is increasingly diverse, we tend to cluster together with likeminded folks who share similar values. But as long as the majority of public resources are allocated at the state and national level, we will struggle with coming up with one-size-fits-all solutions to generic political issues that approximate real-world challenges, but do not reflect the actual problems of real people living in genuine community with each other.

The Second Third, Week 15 (Belated): Boot Love

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here.

Most regular readers (like, two out of the three) know that I met my bride while selling western boots one summer at Wall Drug. You might not know that I actually worked three summers at Wall Drug in an effort to be near my bride, and that each summer, I bought a new pair of boots.

Up until a few moments ago I was convinced that I had written at length on this site about my once-and-future obsession with boots. Apparently not. I know I wrote about it in a newspaper column at one time; I’ll try to round that up and post it shortly. In the meantime, suffice it to say there was a time when I knew more than was healthy for a boy my age about boots and boot makers, leathers and stitching, fit and finish. I could convey that knowledge to cowboys, bikers, and foreign tourists, using only my hands if I had to, and I lived in boots, at least in the summer months.

My three pairs of boots are pictured below. In my Second Third, I intend to wear the soles off them again and again. Why? Pfft. Just look at them!

My first pair (also pictured at the top of this post). Summer 1994. Nocona size 12 1/2D (the perfect fit from day one). Chocolate oiled bull shoulder with black tops. Soft as moccasins; tough as nails. I’m on my third set of soles and heels.

My second pair. Summer 1995. Blucher Boot Company, custom-made for someone else, but didn’t fit them; fit me like a second skin. Black French calf tops and bottoms. Soft and smooth and takes a nice polish. Great for dancin’ if they didn’t look so wicked. And if I danced. Still on the first set of soles and heels.

My third pair. Summer 1996. Nocona size 12 1/2D. I special-ordered these for rougher use: oiled cowhide foot; high green goatskin tops, and a bit higher and more underslung heel, just for kicks. I also put a black rubber half-sole on them for extra durability in the wet or on pavement. Scratched, gouged, salted, and paint-spattered. Second set of soles and heels.

The Second Third, Week 3: Faith and Family

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here. I’ve had multiple half-baked ideas for posts these past few weeks, but this one jumped to the forefront after reading Prairie Father’s latest post. Kudos, Father Tyler, for sparking this. The choice between two goods is the very definition of a dilemma, don’t you think?

Here at the beginning of my Second Third, I’ve gotten more comfortable with a me I never thought I’d be: a church guy. You know, a weekly worshipper, and more than that: a known quantity in the gathering space after Mass, a meet-n-greeter, a volunteer. One of those guys…

This is somewhat surprising. I was raised a good Catholic in every way except the church-on-Sunday way (so-called “old-fashioned” morals and values, but aside from a brief stint my late elementary years, no Mass or catechesis), then went on to study evolutionary anthropology, which was generally an atheist discipline. Thankfully I had just enough churching and manners to not drive Jodi away entirely when we first met. She brought me around.

The funny thing is, I got along with all sorts of people in school, but didn’t necessarily fit in anywhere. I was a poor athlete, and Coach asked me to help the first-stringers study for their exams. My bearded and be-hatted dad drove the mule to town now and again; that and my square tendencies caused even some of my closest friends to contemplate my Amish-ness. In college, too, I was square and old-fashioned, never an outcast, but never A-list. Friends were surprised when I went to South Dakota to sell western boots, and floored when I came back talking marriage and kids. These were not Ivy League aspirations — at least, not in the near-term.

Jodi brought this baptized Catholic back to the church. A number of good priests — good friends — inspired me and advised me to follow my doubts and questions. Even my dad, who does not share my faith, has never discouraged me from seeking and finding.

So I’ve searched and searched for people like me. Michigan to Connecticut to South Dakota to Michigan again, and finally to St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Michael, Minnesota. I have family in Michigan, family I miss terribly. But I have brothers and sisters here, too, and each week, each Sunday, it gets harder to imagine living anyplace else.

In early October, I had the opportunity to meet my dad on the Tahquamenon River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to fish on our old houseboat. I could get just Friday and Monday off from work: drive all day Friday, sleep Friday night, and head up the river at first light on Saturday to the fishing hole. The boat landing was a couple hours downstream from our fishing hole, and the closest Catholic church was 40 minutes from the landing, and offered just two Masses: 5 p.m. Saturday or 9 a.m. Sunday.

Either we’d have to pull up our anchor after lunch on Saturday, go to church, and sleep ashore again, then resume fishing mid-morning Sunday, or we’d have to pull anchor a couple hours before sundown on Saturday, sleep ashore at the landing, then drive into church Sunday morning. We’d get back to the fishing hole in early afternoon and get a couple hours of fishing in before we needed to head back to landing, since I’d need to leave first thing Monday to make it home.

I prayed on it, talked to a friends, and decided it was important to spend this time with Dad, even if it meant missing Mass. I further resolved to spend time Sunday praying the rosary and reading scripture — and to receive the sacrament of Confession before Mass the following Sunday.

I had a great weekend with Dad, a great Sunday, and honestly never felt far from God. But all weekend, when I thought about missing Mass, a little pang would shoot through my chest. For the first time, it wasn’t so much guilt for missing Mass…it was missing Mass. Longing for it.

How weird is that? I thought.

I did go to Confession the following Saturday, and another good priest told me he thought it was important that I spend time with my dad, but reminded me that if I truly believe, then I must also understand that attending and actually praying the Mass is the most powerful thing I can do for anyone I love. More food for thought.

In Matthew Chapter 12 is a passage that used to trouble me. Jesus is with his disciples, and he is told that his mother and brothers wish to speak with him: But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” — Mt 12:48-50

I think I’m beginning to understand. So in my Second Third, I’m embracing my inner Church guy, and working to balance our family by blood and our family in the Body. I can love both — and I should if I am to love either one well.

The Dark Humour

[Blogger’s Note: This is kind of a dark post. Really did see the two crows today, and heard a story like the latter one once. But where exactly this came from, I don’t know…]

Midwinter morning. Atop a threadbare shrub along a littered suburban artery, two young crows jaw above the din. I speak no Crow, only English, and my windows are rolled against the cold, but I imagine their daring: the double-dog, the triple, the triple-dog, the dark humour hot in the veins of each, the guffaws and squawk of chicken! They cheat death daily, these two, walking the yellow lines for bits of salted flesh. It passes the time.

The light goes green; on cue, they darken my windshield, chasing each other with unexpected agility, rolling and climbing alongside the oncoming delivery van, sweeping past truck and traffic to frolic like fighter planes before a rumbling Ford moving too fast for conditions along the service road. They bank and ascend to a high bare branch, laughing breathlessly.

They eat death for dinner, these two. From a far tree two houses over, their mother calls. They flap slowly away.

I think of them now, in the long night. I think of a summer day, and two black-clad bikers crossing the plains, winding through the hills and narrow canyon roads, wind in their hair and devil-may-care, the sun warm on their leathers, the dark humour hot in their veins. They eat danger for breakfast, these two. They take turns riding the yellow lines with their feet on their pegs, boot toes turned outward to the oncoming cars, egging each other closer, closer. They play this game for long miles and hours. It passes the time.

The end was not monotonous. High in the mountains on a narrow switchback, the winner’s toe caught a fender at fifty. His leg turned to jelly. With unexpected velocity he took to the air, rolling and climbing, darkening the windshield of the car behind the one he clipped. He bounced from glass to pavement, pavement to rocky shoulder. Leather did little; flesh did less. Bone met stone and gave way.

The paramedics came and went. The volunteer posse cleaned up as best they could. The dark humour stained the pavement even after the crows paid their respects. From far away, the cries of a mother.