There is a wisp of commonality between Pope Francis, President Donald Trump, and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson. Whether this is a ray of hope or a natural sign of the end times is an open question.
The Pope’s Easter message to members of Popular Movements made headlines worldwide for its apparent embrace of a “Universal Basic Income.” However, buried within the missive was a critique of our society’s “frenetic rhythms of production and consumption.”
Meanwhile, President Trump has been advocating a return to production and consumption. “Re-opening” the economy is meant to refocus us on material comforts. That doesn’t seem to jive with the Pope’s letter. But hold that thought.
For years, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson has sought after a legislative white whale. During his time as a “regular” elected official, the Democrat from Aroostook County attempted to restrict Canadians from working on state-owned timberlands. His bills passed the Legislature — twice. Each time, they ran into a veto pen. Once under Gov. John Baldacci, and then again under LeGov. Paul LePage
After his selection as Senate President and the election of Gov. Janet Mills, Jackson set his sights higher by attempting to encompass all of state government purchasing. He couched this effort with a title worthy of Trump: “The Maine Buy American and Build Maine Act.”
Yet it once more ran into headwinds. Before the coronavirus pandemic cut the Legislature’s session short, the Mills Administration came out against Jackson’s bill.
So where do Pope Francis’ critique of consumption, Trump’s desire to restart the economy, and Jackson’s “Maine First” policy meet?
Like I said, it is a wisp. But our “stay at home” period has likely created a new appreciation for quality. Without the ability to go out to stores and buy copious amounts of cheap, often Chinese-made, stuff, having things which hold up takes on greater importance.
You see it with food. The products you get at the neighborhood farmstand probably cost a little bit more than their Walmart analogues. Local farms do not have the massive scale of industrial producers, which means their per-unit cost is probably more. So they need to charge more for their product.
However, their product is probably much better quality. The same is true for countless other goods. L.L. Bean — a Maine icon in its own right — is not a place you go to save money. Yet their products often stand the test of time; I’ll be 36 this year, and the backpack I got in middle school still holds up.
Trump has been beating the “America First” drum for years now. And COVID-19 has highlighted both the fragility of our supply chains, particularly those starting in China, and the importance of resilience in our domestic manufacturing. A Texas company — Prestige Ameritech — had ramped up capacity to make disposable masks back in 2009 during the H1N1 crisis.
A year later, they were nearly bankrupt. Because their masks were made in America, they cost a few cents more each. When H1N1 died down, people went back to the lowest-cost provider. In many cases, those cheaper masks came from China.
But the impact of the coronavirus on the United States may have engendered some economic antibodies enabling a more resilient future. With stimulus payments — plus paycheck protection loans and enhanced unemployment — hitting bank accounts, there are efforts encouraging people to spend that money locally (or, at the very least, domestically). The choice on how to spend dollars is itself a value judgment.
That is where we circle back to the pope. Combating frenetic consumption begins with buying fewer, better-made, less disposable things. A pair of Maine-made New Balance sneakers might cost a little bit more than those made overseas, but they will probably last much longer. That quality comes at a price, but it is worth it.
As we move towards restarting economic activity in the United States, hopefully, we place new importance on quality. That holds true whether we are talking about food or clothing, tools or vehicles. The more we can do at home — literally and metaphorically — the more prepared we will be for future challenges, as well as better positioned to help others.
I know, I’m stretching in calling this a wisp of common ground. But the Pope’s Easter Homily also pointed out that we have a God-given right to hope. We might as well use it.