Can anyone really say a bad word about Hands Across America, this Sunday's 4,000 miles of chain-linked American earnestness, a mass hand-holding against hunger and homelessness? It is an event so wholesome, heartfelt, good-willed, well-intended and celebrity-studded as to be unimpeachable.
Impressive too. The publicity flyer says that Hands is "the largest interactive event in the history of mankind" (World War II not having taken place on a Sunday afternoon). "Most amount of celebrities," offers project director, Fred Droz. And another Guinness record about to be set: "Greatest moment of shared concern and hope ever," note the organizers, meaning no offense to, say, the crucifixion.
In fact, no offense is meant to anyone. That is principle No. 1 of the New Politics, '80s style, whose spirit Hands captures so well: politics without tears, opposed to nothing and to no one. Pure, clean, sincere, uplifting, spiritual.
Rep. Mickey Leland, a Hands supporter but alas a politician, thinks Hands is a "demonstration," a protest against Reagan administration policies. Very '60s, very negative, very wrong. The mood is up. It's Sunday afternoon in America. Coca-Cola does not sponsor demonstrations. It sponsors parties.
And, along with Citibank, it is the major sponsor of Hands. Which points up principle No. 2 of the New Politics: sell the rights. The orgy of sponsorships in these New Politics enterprises (Live-Aid, Hands, Miss Liberty) has yielded a new political hybrid: corporate populism.
Counterculture meets Citibank. The '60s foes have come together to take on the real nemesis: government. Prince has bought mile one of Hands. First American BAnk has bought the Washington Monument stretch. Coke has the White House. And the little people buy the rest at $10 a soul.
Corporate populism makes for a curious kind of antipolitics. One of its premises is that problems such as hunger and homelessness are so difficult that only a body as good and honest and decent and compassionate as the American people can solve them. With corporate backing, of course. (Government is made to pitch in silently through tax breaks for "private" giving.)
The other premise is that this new coalition (the People + Big Business) will prevail where government has failed. The idea -- a triumph of Reaganism, not a protest against it -- is to get government off our backs and let Citibank (and the little people) heal the world.
How? Enter principle NO. 3 of the New Politics, the Tinkerbell principle: if you wish hard enough, it will come true. This is a secular version of what happened in Utah last month when officials declared a day of fasting and prayer to stop the Great Salt Lake from rising. It didn't stop. Utah is now at work on plan B, pumping lake water into the desert.
Hands needs a plan B. It says that it raises not just consciousness but funds too. It hopes to raise from $50 million to $100 million for America's hungry and homeless. Staging the gimmick, though, will cost between $12 million and $14 million. Even the Pentagon would have trouble matching that overhead.
Plan B? I suggest an ancient institution now in disgrace: the state. The Great Society showed what an enormous improvement government can make in, for example, alleviating hunger. And conversely, Reagan budget cuts have shown how many can be hurt when government retreats.
The New Politics believes in getting government off our backs and, at the same time, in putting shirts on the backs of the needy. There is a missed connection here. In a mass society, the only agency that can provide shirts and food and shelter for the destitute is government. Cut back eligibility for food stamps, and, sure, you cut down on fraud, waste and abuse. You also cut out some needy kids.
On homelessness, too, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead of the People and Coke, try government and money. New York City had a plan to get landlords to rent to homeless families for $270 a month for two years. The bait was a $6,000 bonus for the landlord. Few takers. The bounty is being hiked to $9,700. New York reports "a lot of interest" now.
Everybody, even a landlord, has his price. But only government can meet if Hunger and homelessness cry out not for dreams but for funds. The New York plan is a variant on one government approach to homelessness: vouchers, straight housing subsidy. Economist Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution argues persuasively (in his book "Rental Housing in the 1980's") that vouchers are the best way to help the poor get decent housing.
But "roof stamps" are expensive. More expensive than Coke's publicity budget. More expensive than a month of Hands extravaganzas. Who could afford it? Government. How? Downs recommends paying for housing vouchers by mildly reducing the ultimate middle-class tax shelter (sheltered even in the radical Packwood bill): the mortgage interest deduction.
Here is help for the needy that cannot be had for a song. Nor can it be wished upon a TV star. Any takers? A show of hands, please.