How can government and corporate officials become more sensitive to the anguish, hopes, ideas and strengths of the people?
This is one of the cardinal, age-old questions of justice and democracy, particularly in a society where huge organizations are headed by remote, often inaccessible rulers with more power than they can responsibly use. It is a question that requires many answers.
SEN. WILLIAM Proxmire (D-Wis.) thinks he has one answer to make him more aware of what people go through than what he can obtain from statistics or reports.
Instead of just circulating through Wisconsin’s fairs, stadiums and shopping centers shaking hands with citizens (although he does plenty of that), the Senate’s leading sprinter (he runs to and from work a total of 10 miles every day) spends entire days actually working with laborers.
On June 30, 1975, a garbage man made his early morning rounds in Fond Du Lac, Wis., to pick up bundles and boxes of trash. His helper in the heave-and-ho effort was Sen. Proxmire. “Worked like a trooper,” said the driver of his assistant.
The next day, Proxmire spent a day working with production laborers at a GM division in Oak Creek. The next day he spent at the Milwaukee office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The senator is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles the department’s budget.
All this is nothing new for him. In past years, Proxmire has worked for a day as a Salvation Army kitchen helper, a paper maker, construction laborer, cheesemaker, peapacker, bank clerk and men’s store clerk.
SUCH ACTIVITIES, of course, make for good publicity and give more people the feeling that they can give their senator some suggestions or a piece of their mind. Beyond that, it gives an elected representative an early alert system about what is on people’s minds.
While many other members of Congress are off on junkets or vacations, Proxmire is logging hearings on the economy during congressional recesses. Before most legislators, Proxmire sensed how upset people were about waste in government contracts with business, especially in the defense industry. He is a leader in rooting out government waste.
Working for a day on different jobs also opens up more opportunities for groups to lobby the senator. Whereas for most senators, citizens have to make appointments, Wisconsin residents find themselves trying to entice Proxmire into a day’s work — their kind of work.
Consumer cooperatives currently are trying to entice the senator into appreciating how superior the consumer cooperative form of private property can be over corporate stock type firms. Would the senator be interested in working at Eau Claire, Wis. consumer co-op?
THE PROXMIRE principle needs to be adopted in those bloated bureaucracies we call corporations and government agencies where the need is greater than in the Senate. Imagine Henry Ford II spending a day mining coal underground at one of his company’s properties.
Or Mayor Abraham Beame collecting garbage instead of deficit figures along the streets of New York City.
Or James Schlesinger getting up at 4:30 a.m. for a week in Army basic training.
Or Earl Butz, agribusiness booster at the Department of Agriculture, harvesting crops in a California valley with the migrant workers.
Or Thomas Murphy, the General Motors boss, joining his employes breathing fumes in an automotive plant for an eight-hour stretch followed by another day or two laboring at an old GM foundry.
Having top executives of large organizations soak up some reality at the street level of their institution or with the consumers of their activities is no panacea. But, as J. Paul Austin of Coca Cola found out when he went down to his company’s orange groves, it does take some of the excessive abstraction out of these powerbrokers’ insulated experience.
IT RELIEVES them of their oft-repeated response when a crisis erupts —namely, that they didn’t know. It also gives them an end run around the sycophants who often surround these Mr. Big Shots with what they want to hear.
The Proxmire principle needs a regular beat from these people at the top. How about a shareholders’ resolution for each company and an executive order for top bureaucrats that has then spend two weeks a year living it up at the bottom of their ladder?