October, 2004

Special Note

Voting With A Purpose

It is not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble; it is the things you know that aren’t true that get you in trouble. Almost everyone has heard of the phrase, “What is good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A.,” credited to Charles E. Wilson, then heading up General Motors, in a hearing before Congress. The phrase was so widely noted and derided as an example of greedy, self-serving capitalism that Al Cap in his Li’l Abner comic strip created a character named General Bullmoose. He was a ruthless capitalist and his motto was, “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for everybody!”

The only problem with quoting this phrase is that it was never said. Charlie Wilson, who had been nominated to be Secretary of Defense, was asked at his confirmation hearing what he would do if faced with a situation in which the interests of the country were adverse to the interests of General Motors. In a very sensible manner he replied: “I cannot conceive of one because for years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

Perhaps we are at a time and in a place where we all need to reexamine whether what we know is really true.

Politics is how people get along, and that is a noble and important subject. So it is a shame that in the produce trade, as in all industries in the United States, what passes for government relations is a kind of exercise in procurement — procurement of favors, procurement of protection from others seeking favors, procurement of advantage over competitors.

Still, as much as I recognize that we are fortunate to have a governmental system that does not depend on people behaving selflessly, surely there is a time when we must ask more of ourselves.

Today, with our soldiers all at risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and other flashpoints around the globe, surely, with the election upcoming, this is one of those times when we are obligated to do more than think of the ag bill or PACA funding.

It is incontestable that the premier issue has to be the war. It is not that domestic issues are unimportant; it is just that if we are not safe, then nothing else will matter. Besides, we are fortunate to have many levels of government and many mediating institutions. If we need more low-income housing or job training or what be it, states, cities and private charities can help fill the gap. But no other level of government or private institution can conduct the war.

The President has made many mistakes. After we were attacked, it was a mistake to not go to Congress to get a formal Declaration of War. There was a failure, still not fully remedied, to correctly identify the enemy. A War on Terror doesn’t encourage clear thinking because terror is a tactic, not an enemy. It is as if when the Germans sank the Lusitania, we declared war on “Ship Sinkers” or after Pearl Harbor we declared war on “Surprise Attackers.” We are at war with Islamic extremists, and we need to acknowledge that fact.

War is politics carried on by other means, and the President has been a bit tone deaf in this department. Domestically he has hesitated to ask Americans to sacrifice for the war effort, and he was unwilling to commit the kind of massive force to Iraq that would have been capable not merely of winning the war but of controlling the country.

Even the President’s dedication to bringing freedom, democracy and liberty to the Middle East seems incomplete. At Passover, the Hebrew scriptures are famous for the phrase “Let my people go,” which God, acting through Moses, told Pharaoh. But the phrase doesn’t stop there. The full phrase is, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert” (Exodus 7:16). In other words, freedom is not an unqualified good. It depends on what you will use freedom for.

The story of Passover has been co-opted by many groups as a story of liberation, but it is really not that simple. It is a story of being liberated from service in Egypt so that people could be servants to God. Yet the President seems to simply assume that if given liberty, the Iraqis will use it to good cause. If he is right, and if he sees it through, the President will go down in history as not merely a great President but one of the greatest men who ever lived. But it is not clear he is correct.

Yet neither is Senator Kerry persuasive when he explains he has a plan to win in Iraq. It seems highly unlikely that he will be able to persuade other countries to take on more of the burden. It seems unreasonable to think that summits and what not will somehow result in stopping attacks on Americans, our allies and Iraqis. There is no reason to think his administration will train Iraqis any better than the current one.

Indeed there is a question as to whether a Kerry administration would actually carry out the policy that Senator Kerry pronounces. Since the President can’t run the country himself, he appoints a few thousand people who do. These people are generally drawn from the ranks of party activists, and in the Democratic Party, one could expect many, indeed most of these workers, to be far to the left of the positions Kerry has proclaimed.

Being in business, most of us are adept at taking the world as it comes. Business people sort of specialize in finding opportunities under the structure that exists. Sure we lobby through our trade associations for legal and regulatory changes, and, if we have contacts or if we are big enough, we lobby directly. But most of us just aren’t that political. Oscar Wilde once said of Socialism what most Americans think about government in general, “It would take too many evenings.” So, for those of us lucky enough to live in America, where political decisions are rarely life-or-death, it is easy to let others decide and keep one’s evenings free for the pursuit of happiness.

If you close your eyes and think of 9/11 and picture the airplanes and the horror, you will realize that this election may be a matter of life and death.

I’m not a big one for urging everyone to vote. I’m a big one for urging those who want to vote to pay attention. One day I think I am going to start a foundation not to simply get people to the polls but to get people to do the things — say read a newspaper daily — that can help make them voters who vote with intelligence and purpose.

That’s what we’ve always tried to do in the pages of Produce Business ... not merely give out some info, but to present the meaning and importance of that information so that people can really think about how to plan their careers, do their jobs and lead their businesses in the years to come.

The issue you hold in your hands is a special one, and this Special Note is a milestone as well. Normally every page of Produce Business is devoted strictly to the industry, but once each year, on the anniversary of the launch of Produce Business, we take this one page to address larger issues and discuss where this industry, this magazine and this world intersect.

Produce Business was launched in 1985 at the PMA Convention in San Francisco. So it is our 19th birthday, and this is the 20th Special Note I’ve had the privilege to pen. We’re going to kick off what will be two years of celebration of our upcoming 20th anniversary. We’ll be looking back at those who made a difference over the past 20 years, and we’ll be looking to the future to determine where this great industry will be 20 years from now.

I know I owe thanks for the past — to our suppliers, our staff, our customers and, most of all, our readers, as they are the ones who make a magazine live. But beyond that, all of us here at Produce Business want to honor the past by serving the industry in a future not all together clear.

Tuesday morning, we are one of the sponsors of the breakfast at PMA and, this year, the speakers are James Carville and Newt Gingrich. We always believe in spirited debate and hope that if you are in Anaheim you’ll attend. But mostly, I hope that before any of us hit the ballot box, everyone in this industry and indeed all Americans everywhere will take the time to think hard about how to vote.

It is easy to take for granted all we have and to forget that in human history, the number of people who have been able to participate in electing their own government is inconsequential, that the peace and prosperity we mostly have known here in America is an aberration in human history.

To remember this is to realize how important this election is and how vital it is that each vote be the result of serious thought and reflection. We have to each make sure that we really know what we think we know and are not simply seeing things through the prism of a pre-9/11 world.

I was a very young man when I wrote that Special Note in the very first issue of Produce Business. Now I am a husband and a father. I think a lot about the children and, maybe one day, the grandchildren and the kind of world they will know. Perhaps if we all vote wisely, that future will be a tomorrow both safe and full of achievement. I would sure like to write a column about that.  pb