March 07, 2012

Bye Bye American Pie

I do not want to sound like the kid with the Magic Decoder Ring in overusing the insights from Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good, tempting as that might be. Nevertheless, there is something uniquely useful about employing basic, evolutionary principles when trying to understand something as complicated as the species Homo sapiens, of which I (and presumably you, since you're reading this) are members.

Thus, in trying to understand the long slide into degeneracy of the United States, the fading of its empire, and the eclipse of its Middle Class (that bastion of Good Living that thrived, for a time, in the 1950's and 1960's, the decades of my own consciousness-formation), I have been intrigued, and highly amused, by Dilworth's recapitulation of certain anthropological evidence that strongly suggests that human beings resisted the use of horticultural technology (farming, cultivation of the land for food) for quite some time after the basic techniques were known, preferring to remain in the hunter-gatherer mode even as this approach to living was straining against the ecological limits. To wit, for about thirty thousand years.

Now in truth, some anthropologists have noted that, quite in line with what Gary Taubes has written in Good Calories, Bad Calories (about the benefits of the Paleolithic Diet), that as soon as humans embarked on a grain and vegetable based diet, dental caries and other disease markers began showing up. Still, it was getting obvious that hunting and gathering, even at a point when there were only about 5 million humans worldwide, could not go on for everybody. As a general principle, once Homo sapiens is on the scene, the other species begin disappearing. (I can just hear the mammals who survive our 200,000 year Reign of Terror talking among themselves after we're gone: "Oh God, you mean you were alive during the humans!") Granted also that hunting and gathering are just intrinsically more fun, and much closer to the uses for which we actually evolved. This second point is closer to the truth, because the real reason that farming was resisted for so long was because it's just too much damn work, and humans prefer doing nothing whenever possible. Early humans finally capitulated to the sedentary, agrarian life style because they had no choice; it was the only way to feed the burgeoning population, to create a surplus that would get the swelling tribes through good years and bad and to substitute for all the plentiful game that humans had already succeeded in driving to extinction. (Sure, Rick Santorum: we're terrific Stewards.)

Bringing things up to date and applying this "insight" to modern America: it all depends on where you want to start the analysis, I think. Pretty convincing economic evidence suggests that American males topped out in their earning ability, in constant dollars, by the end of the 1960's. What has contributed since to the increase in household income (a misleading stat used interchangeably by economists who wish to confuse the issue of which of our two utterly useless political parties, the Dems or Repubs, are "better" for the economy) is that women have had to go to work, much as the species as a whole had to settle down into the utter drudgery of earning a living by the sweat of their brow, tilling the fields and harvesting the grain. In our highly-specialized, monotonous, Weberian organic society, we are apt to romanticize the agrarian life, a self-indulgence which my Southern farming forebears would no doubt find highly amusing. It's just a lot of hard, back-breaking work when it's done at the small scale which is actually sustainable. Not a whole lot different from mill work, which James Taylor wrote about:

Mill work ain't easy, mill work ain't hard,
Mill work it ain't nothin' but an awful boring job...

Given these insights, it is somewhat instructive to reconsider the disappearance of the American "manufacturing" base in favor of what was breathlessly described, in such glowing terms, as the "service" or even "information" economy as those fads took root in the 1980's and 1990's. While we have now settled into a national narrative where there are Bad Guys (the 1%) versus the newly-crowned Good Guys (99%), a narrative in which all the Commoners were simply hoodwinked, and sold out, and forced to the economic cetera, I wonder if the truth is somewhat less convenient and self-laudatory. Namely: who the hell really wanted all those awful boring jobs on the assembly line? Did we really want to be workers like those at the weirdly-named Foxconn in China who assemble all those Apple and other hi-tech gizmos, the workers who are restrained by suicide nets on the top floor of the building because their work drives them stark staring mad?

Admittedly, I have framed the question in a somewhat manipulative way. The point still remains that it is in fact possible to maintain a reasonably high standard of living in a globalized economy, one where energy use per capita is about one-half that of the United States, where engrained habits of thrift and use of public amenities such as trains, bicycles and walking predominate, where the great superfluities of sprawling suburban "countryside-imitating" housing tracts are not mindlessly indulged, where the personal automobile running on gasoline is not the only way to move from Point A to Point B to keep the economy moving. And for proof of this assertion I give you modern-day Germany. Germany does all these things and has a reasonably solid economy, with a higher GDP per capita, a higher standard of living, and a much higher availability of basic public amenities than the United States. It does all these things while still maintaining a manufacturing base (because it maintains a manufacturing base). Its exports create the surplus necessary to keep the internals going, and the Euro crisis is first and foremost about Germany's loss of its captive export market within the European Zone that is at the root of the hysteria over there. (I would bring up Denmark, but I don't want to rub it in.)

So we could have done it another way, but it would have required a different outlook on life, one that is not based on the self-destructive notion of "American Exceptionalism." Germans have maintained a work ethic which is more realistic than the American self-image, which is that we ought to be able to afford everything, live like royalty, while essentially mailing the economy in. When it became apparent that this approach was not going to work, that we as a nation were broke except for a handful of schemers and fraudsters (whom we tolerated, of course, and even idolized so long as the rest of us could enjoy la dolce vita too), we decided to switch the national narrative to a Manichean framework; to wit, we wuz robbed!

Oh please. We were completely complicit in our own destruction. Face it, if your house could make you rich, why the hell go to work? Work is awful. Let the house do it, let it finance everything, let it ka-ching! like an ATM for all those fancy SUVs and flat screen gizmos that fill to overflowing the American crapscape.

Americans, always ahead of whatever Zeitgeist curve is bending, are simply all too human. We're lazy about everything, lazy about how we eat, about our political civics (if Congress is filled to the brim with clowns, how did that happen?), about taking charge, about assuming leadership, about everything. And this is what happens when God kicks you in the butt and tells you you are being evicted from the Garden of Eden. See ya, and don't let the apple branch swat you in the ass on the way out.

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