Chevron has given out pizza and soda coupons to the citizens of Bobtown in the wake of an explosion that killed a townsperson. [For details, see http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/attytood/Chevron-Endure-our-fracking-fire-and-the-pizzas-on-us.html or hear the NPR story, details of which I refer to in my text.
I am (among other things) a folklorist who focuses on what people say, hear, and share. I head the NPR story and immediately wanted to examine the emerging narrating stream.
Stephen Colbert, representing the sharpest sword in the armory of the left, says, “It’s the least they could do (scattered laughter from the brightest bulbs in the audience.) “No, really,” he continues, “Literally, it’s the very least they could do.” Citizens interviewed on NPR voiced two ends of a range of views, from a home-spun “Aww, they brought food, ‘cause that’s what we do when there’s a crisis,” coo to an indignant “They’re a big-company with deep pockets; they should do more ‘cause my daddy fought for the unions” stand.
To examine this more closely, let’s look at the money first. Were they coupons for a chain restaurant? In that case, shrewd capitalist move, Chevron. Many people who redeem the pizza-and-a-[Coke or Pepsi, depending on what deal the chain has in place with which giant producer of the nectar of ill health] will fill out the order with additional items, thus leaving the pizza franchise with less money than they had when they arrived. Well played Chevron, especially if they share a corporate lineage. For the triple-play, if Chevron uses this pizza chain as a contractor to feed crews on site, then it’s likely Chevron got a discount on those coupons. It’s not hard to imagine that Chevron walked away from that pizza-and-soda event having spent less money per meal than the citizens of the town.
In sum, as Colbert commented, it very well might have been the smallest possible outlay Chevron could have made. As it turns out, the coupons are for a place called Bobtown Pizza, which very well might be locally owned.
Taking the other view, that of the “Shucks, y’all didn’t have to bring dinner, but it sure will taste good with the pie I baked this mornin’” narrator, how often have you heard of a corporation making a gesture toward a larger group than those directly affected by one of its profit-producing actions? I consume a lot of media, and this is the first time I’ve heard of it. To give each side fair play, one must consider that. So Chevron looks like the person you wouldn’t want to hang out with because you would rather get a great cup of coffee or a beer than spend the same money on a cheap meal, yet that person insists on scrimping and cutting corners. After a while, you make plans with companions who invest more in social exchanges.
Imagine if one of us soft-hearted corny UCLA North Campus types had been there at the Chevron board meeting. Perhaps a voice could speak up and suggest this: Get one of our people in the field, someone who grew up there or has been there for years, to make a list of locally-owned small businesses. Make it as inclusive as possible; include gas stations and cafes, bookstores and mowing services, small law firms and carpenters. Make sure the list covers an area slightly larger than the town’s legal boundaries – don’t let a truck farmer get excluded just because he’s outside of a zip code. Then let’s issue coupons of our own that are redeemable at those businesses, coupons that allow the citizens to spend part in one place and part in another, or even deposit the money in a local bank.
Imagine the goodwill such a program would generate as townspeople transacted business with their friends, family, and neighbors. I am sure there would be at least one conversation along the lines of “This $25 dollars sure came in handy this month. My toddler’s growing out of her shoes too fast for me to keep up.” “Don’t I know it! I got to order a fancy cake for our 35th anniversary. Don’t tell my wife – I want to surprise her.”
Those kinds of daily concerns are not meant to imply that the lives of small town citizens are less complex or sophisticated as big city folk. Those daily concerns are universal. More and more American citizens are united in this daily trudge of juggling scarce resources. A gift of money that helps ease what seems small to others but is of great consequence to the individual is, as the big money people say, priceless. That toddler’s mother who gets to buy new shoes for her child doesn’t have to put bandaids on her daughter’s feet every morning and feel the shame of poverty. Imagine telling your sweet child that she has to wear those tight shoes a few more weeks. In fact, imagine telling her that she has to wear those tight shoes again, but get dressed now because we’re going out for pizza and soda.
Chevron, you made a poorly-formed attempt at doing the right thing. You missed a golden opportunity, and I’m guessing you don’t understand how to calculate the value of valuing people as part of families and consumers. My imagination is far-reaching. I imagine the board members reading my little blog post and saying, “A folklorist, a anthropologist, an English professor – my kingdom for a humanities major!”
Well, a woman can dream, can’t she?