A friend sent this to me – a longish (and good) Atlantic article about how the economic meltdown will change the “look” of America in a geographic sense – and, while I don’t necessarily think everything the author puts forth is entirely accurate, it’s definitely one of the best assessments I’ve heard of what’s coming our way.
My only real point of contention is not with what’s in it, but actually with what Richard Florida left out. Specifically, one of the biggest challenges to America’s stability and continued success (existence, even?) lies in how we, the people, both as individuals and collectively, think about consumption and waste, how we define and measure success, what we give importance to.
His policy analysis (meaning what he says our new policy needs to encourage or discourage) is generally accurate – the exception being his suggestion that banks rent foreclosed homes rather than sell them at foreclosure rates: the last time banks were land lords was during the Great Depression, and that resulted only in a huge exodus out of Dust Bowl states, the horrible mistreatment of those migrants, and a subsequent further land grab that resulted in out now-lamented mega-agribusiness farms. Oops.
However, there’s another part of this issue that is just as important as policy changes, and it goes unmentioned in Florida’s article. Simply put, how we view ourselves, our place in the world, and what we give the most import to must change. Florida does mention that we need to remove homeownership from its place at the pinnacle of the American Dream Pyramid (right above overpriced and ineffectual higher education and buying your first non-used car). But he doesn’t really address other facets of the same misguided quest for Happiness. Rampant consumerism is one, yes. It wasn’t until the Boomers’ generation that everyone thought they absolutely had to have a big-ass house (don’t get me started on how screwed up the Boomer’s have left this place) and the subsequent generations seemed to have agreed. Same also for a car for every family member, a laptop for every car, and a television/DVD/Blu-Ray combo for every laptop, man, woman and child.
But what all of that really actually indicates isn’t that we buy too much stuff, or even that we put too much emphasis on money – it’s that we don’t put emphasis on anything else. Each of these consumer imperatives (houses, cars, gear) are symptoms of one particular disease of the American (and increasingly western-world/the entire planetary) psyche: we have nothing to love but the money. Let’s face, what, to any one of us, is the only reasonable alternative to buying stuff? Saving money, right? Put in your mattress, put in the bank, buy up some of that foreclosed property as an investment for when the Olympics people buy all of Douglas Park. But save it, because you might want it later.
These are our two choices, right? Spend money or save money. There’s no in between, but in between would just be a third symptom on the same spectrum. So what to do with our time and energy instead, what to love? Seems that’s the hardest question to answer. Everything that comes to mind sounds simplistic or impractical: the pursuit of knowledge, the creation of works of art, the welfare of a family. But the only reason those things sound so silly is that they’ve been discredited as less important than money, by the same cultural forces that propel us toward the love of money. None of those pursuits make money, and they’re all viciously maligned – nerds, art fags, Susie Homemakers. Neither am I suggesting that everyone should be one of these things. It’s not black and white, one or the other, and none of them are better or worse than the other or even than making money, which is the point, so lay off already. So we deride these endeavors, we call them impractical, since you can’t feed yourself on knowin’ stuff, or drawin’ pitchurs. But all of the things I can think of as more satisfactory pursuits than wealth were given much, much more credence than money in societies before our own, and I think we’ve all realized that our society has some hang-ups, yeah?
So I don’t exactly have an answer, but there has to be some other course, some other thing that we can say is the driving force of our lives other than doing something with money. I know I need one.