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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Public Good

Carmen Alborch
I happened upon what I thought was a magazine sitting on the top of the bar in a restaurant that I frequent. It turned out to be campaign literature for the socialist candidate ( PSOE PSPV Partido Socialista Obrero Español/ Partido Socialist País de Valencia) for mayor of Valencia, Carmen Alborch. The magazine is a very slick, glossy affair with over 100 pages, all with photographs. I suppose that campaign literature is all about false promises but I think it is extremely interesting to see the sort of promises the Spanish want from their political leaders. I think they are completely different from those we Americans have come to expect.

First of all, there is nothing in the literature or in the campaign about abortion, gay marriage, or evolution. I haven’t seen anything equivalent to our Terry Schiavo affair, no stupid emotional issue that has nothing to do with the constituency and everything to do with divisive politics. No one talks about prayer in schools or stem cell research. What they do talk about are issues that have direct and immediate bearing on the public good. They already have good public health care so they talk about improving it. The public good seems to be something we have ceased to even consider in our survival-of-the-fittest, every-man-for-himself version of democracy.

The heart of the campaign magazine is made up of a feature entitled, The City of 100 Faces which asks 100 citizens of Valencia what they would like from their government. A lot of the requests are for meat and potato things like jobs, affordable housing, and better public health care, but most of what is featured in the campaign magazine are pretty lofty items, at least they seem lofty for American standards.

The first request comes from an unemployed youth for work and cheaper apartments. Number two is a woman asking that Valencia become a more cultured city, not just on a grand scale with museums and concert halls, but culture that filters down to the lives of all citizens. More and better public transportation is another request. This is in a city that I think has an excellent public transportation network. I felt a surge of pride when I went into my metro stop and noticed that the new line had opened going from the port to the airport.

Each request is followed by the mayor-elect stating, “Me comprometo,,,I promise…,” which adds up to a lot of promises. I realize that it is just campaign rhetoric but the point is that all of the requests are for the public good. There is no call for fewer taxes. People prefer things like better bike trails, more public spaces, more funding for the arts, shorter work weeks, educational benefits for the elderly, and a lot of other silly socialist notions.

I think that the nature of city life demands that people think collectively because what is the use of a government that helps only one small segment of the society while ignoring another? Dense urban living doesn’t allow much in the way of insulation from the less fortunate, so it’s better to raise everyone’s standard of living. There aren’t any really bad neighborhoods in Valencia and there aren’t any wealthy neighborhoods either. There are nice buildings but right around the corner there will be an apartment building that isn’t quite as nice.

The rich (that’s very relative here) don’t have the luxury of avoiding anyone below their economic status. Poor people aren’t viewed as the enemy in Spain as they are in America. The poor are viewed as a problem that needs to be resolved, like public transportation or health care. Government isn’t looked upon as something that we need to get off our backs, but as a means for solving a vast array of social, cultural, and economic issues. I was never able to understand the hostile attitudes of American conservatives towards government. Their panacea for all of the country’s problems is handing control of governmental responsibilities over to private industry which is a pretty lousy strategy for things like health care and public transportation.

In a democracy I have never understood how people can have such a hatred of government. If you don’t like the one you have you can always elect another. Try doing this if you don’t like the directors of a private company.

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