Reagan and Bottled Water


"If this irresponsible outside power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public, it can be controlled in only one way – by giving adequate power of control to…the National Government."

Theodore Roosevelt, Stae of the Union Address. Dec. 8, 1908

"Big government cannot and will not solve the multitude of problems confronting our nationbecause big government is the problem"

Sen. Jesse Helms, speech to the North Carolina Legislature May 27, 1997

When I see people drinking water from bottles I think of Ronald Reagan and how he destroyed the New Deal. Go back to 1936 when I was born and the first New Deal ended. From 1933-35, President Roosevelt tried to revitalize the economy by paying farmers not to produce while millions went hungry (Agricultural Adjustment Act) and using government as broker between industry and labor (National Recovery Act). The second New Deal, however, turned the federal government into an entity that cushioned poor people as they fell from the ledge of misery toward the pavement of disaster.

The grossly underpaid and mistreated workers population found solace in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), which strengthened protection of collective bargaining. The Social Security Act offered working people a chance to have modest pensions when they could no longer earn wages. The Act also established unemployment insurance payments and a rudimentary welfare system allowing dependent children and handicapped people to get government help. New Deal legislation convinced poor Americans to believe in their government, including its word that they could safely drink the water running from the tap.

In my youth, I don’t recall people drinking from plastic bottles. We used public fountains. Before privatization, bottled water couldn’t have competed with tap water. The triumph of bottled over tap water symbolized the decline of the political alliance between the poor majority and the government: the New Deal, that informal pact between unions and other groups of poor people and their representatives in national office. In the mid 1960s, this alliance included including civil rights and inspired the only other meaningful American reform of the 20th Century: the Great Society Program.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society expanded the New Deal. Between 1964 and 1966, he pushed through The Civil Rights Act and Equal Opportunity Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Medicare Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus programs like Head Start to help poor children of pre-school age, and laws giving legal and medical help to the needy.

The most activist sectors of the corporate world had had enough. Led by extreme anti-liberals like Richard Mellon Scaife In 1963 he began supporting the American Enterprise Institute. Other inheritors of fortunes, like Lynde and Harry Bradley, Joseph Coors, Castle Rock Foundation and the Olin Foundation, set up the Heritage Foundation and other think tanks with well-paid "conservative" intellectuals to undo the momentum generated by three decades of liberalism. This anti-New Deal campaign selected its villain as "big government," which they presented as the corrupt waster of taxpayer money.

They represented their vilification of the federal national government as a step to returning power to citizens. Ironically, weakening the government does not return more control to the citizenry. Instead, the great corporations and banks become stronger as government regulations fades. Arthur Schlesinger Jr phrased it as "Getting government off the back of business simply means putting business on the back of government."

The American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and scores of less known but well endowed propaganda mills cranked out more sophisticated tracts against liberalism and the New Deal. They undermined New Deal and Great Society programs with simple themes: hate the government and don’t pay taxes to it. Instead, respect the virtuous private sector. (Military and police remain, of course, good branches of government.)

By 1976, the aggressive campaign had pushed the Democratic Party to the right, so that candidate Jimmy Carter adopted anti-government rhetoric. In 1978, California voters backed Proposition 13, a tax revolt notion that drastically limited the State Legislature’s ability to raise property taxes and placed limits on spending for public education as well. The results: rich people paid minimal taxes; poor and middle class home owners saved a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars. California schools, number one before voters passed Prop 13, plummeted. But working class voters failed to see that the massive propaganda campaign had swayed them to vote against their own interests. Indeed, in 1980 the blue collar voters tipped the scales of the 1980 presidential election as well.

Reagan drove the nail into the coffin of modern liberalism. In his campaigns for California governor during the 1970s he underlined the theme of government as the enemy of the people. In 1976, stumping for the Republican nomination for president, he talked about a "welfare queen," who drove a Cadillac and stole $150,000 from the government using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Reporters wanted to interview this "welfare cheat," but discovered that she didn’t exist.

In the 1960 presidential campaign, Reagan satirized Carter as running for the presidency on a platform calling for "national economic planning." Then he added, sarcastically, "I’m sure they meant well – liberals usually do. But our economy was one of the great wonders of the world. It didn’t need master planners. It worked because it operated on principles of freedom, millions of free decisions, how they wanted to work and live, how they wanted to spend their money, while reaping the rewards of their individual labor."

In a 1984 Good Morning America show, Reagan went further. "Those people who are sleeping on the gratesthe homelessare homeless, you might say, by choice."

So "welfare" conjured images of lazy black women taking drugs, drinking and having wanton sex, and federal support for housing intruded on personal choice.

Right wing "think tanks" churned out Reagan lessons like shining but rancid butter. Hating your government and not paying taxes to it equated with both patriotism and practical self interest. Simultaneously, he extolled the virtues of the private sector, which would more efficiently meet peoples’ basic needs.

New right ideology sought to reverse the negative connotations that business had earned by screwing workers, consumers and the poor. Even in right wing literary criticism, the 1930s business villains of John Steinbeck and Clifford Odets gave way to capitalist-loving heroes in Ayn Rand’s novels.

Privatization became the White House leitmotif. In this atmosphere of privatizing public property, plastic water bottles appeared en masse. By the 1990s, corporations like Bechtel had even obtained the right to run the Bolivian water supply. Needless to say, the price of this basic need skyrocketed–as Bolivians discovered before forcing their government to undo the privatization in 2004.

US blue-collar workers, however, remained under the rhetorical sway that convinced them to vote against their interests. Citizens who once automatically voted Democrat and trusted their government became skeptical and opted for Bush. Did their political choice connect to the notion that private water was safer than what flowed from the government regulated tap?

At movie theaters 16 ounces of PepisCo’s Aqua Fina cost $3.50. At my university, students pay $1.50 and keep one in their backpacks. Previously, they drank form pubic fountains in school corridors. Now those fountains appear as arcane sculpture. Students pay for a little convenience.

Dining at people’s homes, the hosts assure me that they filter tap water although city scientists have tested and declared it perfectly healthy. Behind this change of water choice hides a key political axiom of our time.

Americans don’t trust their government and pay private companies whose bottles don’t reveal the bacterial and other germ content of their product.

Globally, according to Tom Standage, bottled water is now a $46 billion industry. (NY Times, op ed Aug 1, 2005) Yet, tests show that tasters can’t distinguish between bottled and tap water. Standage also points to an Archives of Family Medicine report in which researchers from Cleveland found that nearly a quarter of the samples of bottled water had significantly higher levels of bacteria than tap water. The scientists concluded that "use of bottled water on the assumption of purity can be misguided."

Indeed, most cities monitor tap water content far more extensively than making fortunes selling the bottles. New York City water was tested 430,600 times during 2004 alone. Ken Blomberg, who directs the Wisconsin Rural Water Association that offers less-expensive bottled municipal water for sale claims that almost 70 percent of commercially bottled water comes from a municipal tap.

Omnipresent commercial water bottles symbolize more than a convenient hydration source. When I buy a bottle of transparent liquid and look at its label, I see a right wing cultural victory, one that will take more than liberal electoral victories to reverse. Will government prove again that it works? Will progressives have energy to re-educate this generation in lessons their grandparents learned during the New Deal?

SAUL LANDAU’s newest book is THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA: HOW CONSUMERS HAVE RELACED CITIZENS AND HOW WE CAN REVERSE THE TREND. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University.


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