It was my first day in Washington, D.C., and I was trying extra hard to be cool. I knew I was overly excited about taking my first steps towards smashing the corporate infrastructure and building a more socially just world, and it was a struggle to calm myself down. On the inside, I was a warrior for hope and change, but on the outside, it was important that I appear to be just another anonymous person in the corridors of power.
Of course, I hadn’t seen any corridors yet, and I was sort of wondering to myself exactly how a corridor gets to be powerful, or whether some corridors are more powerful than other corridors. I thought about it all the way through my commute, and that’s how I missed my station on the Metro. But I was able to backtrack and get the right station the next time. I was kicking myself a little, because I hated to wait even a minute to start the first day of my internship. But then I remembered I was here to make a difference, and that was more important than being late.
I was interning for a progressive organization, dedicated to ensuring fairness, justice, and civil rights for everyone. I can’t say exactly which organization here on the Internet, but rest assured that they play a large role in making sure that progressive voices are heard in the national media. It was a real coup for me to get this unpaid internship straight out of college, and I was looking forward to making the most of it. I walked into their building, checked in at the front desk, and was told to wait outside the conference room where they were completing the intern orientation.
I didn’t have to wait long. About ten or so other people my age filed out of the conference room just then, and they walked across the office to a set of cubicles. I was wondering where my cubicle could be, and what the rules were about decorating them, and whether or not Mom would let me borrow some of her old McGovern for President stuff or not. Then a short, dark-haired person with a feminine gender expression came out of the room, and said, "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
"Hi! I’m Justin Trudeau-Fairchild, and I’m an intern, and this is my first day here. I was told there was supposed to be an orientation."
"There is, and you missed it. Why were you late on your first day?"
"Well," I said. I didn’t want to tell her the real reason, because it might make me look stupid. "I was doing some meditation this morning, you know, thinking really deep thoughts about the organization here, you know. The mission. Making this country a fairer place for everyone. I was thinking really hard, and I got carried away, that’s all."
"Don’t do that anymore."
"Meditation?" I asked.
"Thinking. Okay, this is your first day, and there’s a lot you need to learn, and that’s the first thing. We didn’t give you this internship to think, we gave it to you to work. Being on time is an important part of that. Got it, Justin?"
"Got it," I said. My professors at Amherst told me that the level of intellectual capital in Washington was running a little low, and now I had confirmation of that.
"My name’s Polly Marshall, I’m the intern coordinator here. The first thing we do every day is orientation. It’s like the roll call in a police department. I tell you what to expect for the day, what’s coming up in the news cycle, what you need to be prepared for and what you need to listen to. Today’s a good example, because we were talking about Piketty."
"Oh, really?" I said. "Where?"
Polly looked at me with an odd expression on her face. "In the conference room."
"Well, that doesn’t make any sense," I said. "When Mom used to take me picketing, we’d go all kinds of places. Nuclear power plants, Indian reservations. And one time at a car factory in Michigan, but we had to go home early because I threw up on the UAW vice-president."
"What are you talking about?"
"What you said. Picketing."
"Not picketing," she said. "Piketty."
"What’s that?"
She rubbed her temples with her fingertips, like she was trying to ward off a sinus headache. "Not what. Who. Thomas Piketty. He’s French. He wrote a book about income inequality, That’s what we were talking about."
"Is it a good book?"
"I don’t know," she said. "I haven’t read it yet."
"Then why would we be picketing him?"
Polly looked pained, as though the sinus headache was hitting her very hard. "Can we continue this discussion in my office?"
"Sure," I said, and we walked down a long hallway–it didn’t look ornate enough to be a real corridor–down to her office, and she sat down behind her desk, which didn’t have anything on it except an extra-large computer monitor and a Joe Biden bobblehead doll.
"Do you have a resume or something I could look at? It will help me figure out just what you’re going to be best at doing," she said. I hadn’t brought a copy, but I e-mailed her the link to where it was on my Dropbox. She took a look at it on her monitor. "You went to Amherst?" she asked.
"It’s one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country," I said. I feel very positive about being an Amherst graduate, but it’s difficult sometimes. Dad still gives me chaff about not being able to get into Harvard, and Mom is even worse about me not trying harder to get into Yale, or Berkeley, or even Oberlin.
"Don’t sweat it," Polly said. "I went to the University of Delaware. It’s just that… your major was really social justice?"
"It was really kind of an interdisciplinary thing," I said. I didn’t feel like explaining that my mom had put the curriculum together for me. "I had a lot of different kinds of classes, all about the different expressions of the corporate patriarchal culture and its corrupting influence."
"Queer Geographies?" she asked. "Women and Gender in South Asia? Cuba: the Politics of Extremism? This was your course load?"
"Well, sure," I said. "All part of a well-rounded education."
"You really had a course in fanaticism?" she asked.
"The professor was really interesting. And I learned a lot. You know, about fanatics."
Polly leaned back in her chair. "How does a bill become a law?" she asked.
"Oh," I said. "I know all about that. The idea for the bill emerges from the revolutionary consciousness. Advocates gather to demand social change. That gets transmitted to the political leadership, and they channel that positive energy into progressive legislation."
"Please tell me you’re not serious," Polly said.
"Of course, then it gets blocked by the greedy corporate special interests. But committed advocates for social justice can help change the system. You know, make a difference. That’s why I’m here."
"Of course," Polly said. "That’s why we’re all here." She looked like her headache was getting worse. "I don’t want to discourage you, you understand. But we’re operating in the real world here, not in an academic ivory tower."
Mom always said that "ivory tower" was a phallic reference, but I decided not to mention that.
"I just don’t think that you’re going to be cut out for the kind of work that we do here. I’m willing to let you try out for a few days, but I’m not sure what you’d be really suited for. Although… wait a second." She reached into her desk and retrieved a large, white book. "This is the book we were talking about, the one that Piketty wrote. It should be up your alley. Find yourself a cubicle and let me know when you’re done and what you think about it."
"All right," I said. "Is it controversial?" I always like having a trigger warning before I read anything controversial.
"Fox News thinks so. They’re trying to brand it as Marxist propaganda. We think the ideas that Piketty has are worth discussing."
"And those are?"
"He advocates for an eighty-percent global wealth tax to redistribute wealth among the poor worldwide."
"That sounds like a great idea," I said. "That would really make a difference. So, is that something we’re really going to be doing, then? Advocating for a wealth tax?"
"Well, no," she explained. "Don’t get carried away. Even Piketty doesn’t think it’s a realistic proposal. It’s utopian."
"It’s what?" I asked. It wasn’t a word I was familiar with.
"It’s not serious. That is to say, not to be taken seriously. It’s kind of like a framework for something that could happen, you know, like, years from now, when there’s more support for progressive ideals."
"Well, that’s what they said about health care reform, wasn’t it? And progressive advocates fought for that, and now we have Obamacare. If we fight for a global wealth tax now, we’re that much closer to making it a reality, right?"
"Don’t call it Obamacare," she said. "It’s the Affordable Care Act. Keep that in mind. And, yes, that was a generational triumph of liberalism, and it cost us the House of Representatives. The idea is to push the eighty-percent wealth tax as an academic theory, but one that’s certainly ripe for discussion as one way to fight income inequality, while stressing that there are other ways, like raising the capital gains tax, that might not be as punitive. Do you see why that might be more effective?"
"How can we say income inequality is a serious issue," I asked, "and not fight for a policy that we know will do something about it?"
Polly looked at me, blankly, the way Dad looks at Mom when she starts quoting Angela Davis to him.
"Justin," Polly said. "It’s your first day, all right? Don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to make a difference tomorrow. For the time being, just go. Read. Get back to me if you have any real ideas about the book that might help us."
I found a quiet cubicle and sat down to read the Piketty book. I wasn’t sure how reading a book by a French economist was going to really make a difference, but I was anxious to find out.