Divided we fall

Have you thought much about our way of life?

I think about it a lot, and I rarely come away from such thoughts pleased with what I concluded. Our way of life, as I see it, represents a lot of the reasons our nation–and really the entire western world–is in trouble.

My previous statement, as grandiose as it is, will cause most people to tune out, and perhaps that is for the best, because I am not sure it’s possible to convince them that something else has to be done anyway. For those of you who are still reading, all I can ask is that you stick this out with me because it’s going to be hard.

I have concluded in all my thinking about our way of life that the reason that we don’t have enough money, are so dependent on government, and have such a hard time figuring out what to do now is that we have destroyed the complex fabric of life that used to be knit together in the form of families, communities, and shared origins that used to define all of us.

This destruction resulted in the creation of one of the most inefficient periods in human history, defined by the word “consumer” and underscored by the word “debt”.

I am certain of this fact because I have spent a lot of time studying the period that just preceded our own, and it’s remarkable how different that period looked than our own.

The official narrative is that, before the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1909, the United States was a poor, backward nation, and it was the government’s job to change that fact. Yet, if you dig into the actual facts, you discover that the people of the United States were doing just fine. It was the federal government that was poor and backward, just as the founders intended it to be.

If you look at the United States in the 1880s, you discover a vast amount of personal wealth stored up in sprawling family farms and the impressive and beautiful retirement homes many farmers built in nearby towns. It was these families and farmers that started so many of the businesses and industries that are now household names today.

I am not saying that there were not poor people, nor am I saying that there were not huge inequities just like there are today. What I am saying is that the distribution of wealth and power in the United States in the 1880s rested with the people, and left alone, no one can say whether or not those inequities would have righted themselves or not.

So what happened? My conclusion is that the United States and the western world became the victims of one of the most destructive deceptions any society in history has ever inflicted on itself.

Think about what has happened since that time: the children of wealthy farmers in the 1880s became well-to-do business owners in the early 1900s. Their children became middle-class workers by the 1920s. Their children saw the combined wealth of their parents and grandparents wiped out in the 1930s, and by the 1940s, most Americans were content to work anywhere that would pay them. By the 1950s, the goal most Americans shared was to work long enough to enjoy a short retirement, and by the 1970s, even such retirements began to be in doubt. By the 1980s, most of what defined the “American Dream” had been replaced by massive personal and government debt, and starting with the Dot Com bubble, things began to slide.

At the same time, people left the family homestead in droves, selling off their land and flocking to cities for the promise of jobs whose wages stagnated in the 1980s and which have been in decline relative to inflation since then. The drive toward individual ownership of houses, cars, and consumer items has driven the average family to the point that it spends somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of its annual income paying for stuff while the same family spends less than 7 percent of what it earns on food.

What we have now is a nation full of people living isolated lives that consist of working themselves to death as individuals to pay for the same groceries, rent, mortgages, cable, cell service, car loans, and credit card bills that, if we shared even some of these things, would return us to a state of solvency in short order.

This labor in isolation serves to destroy everything that defined what America was in the 1880s: small towns filled close-knit extended families and community networks built around common work and trades. People in 1880s American rarely went hungry or unemployed for long, and even in the worst of times, everyone helped everyone else until things got better.

I do not point these things out to create some sort of idealization of those times, because there were things wrong back then too. Yet most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, know it was better then than it is now.

And now, we face stark realities whose immensity only a few can understand in their fullness:

  • As many as 50 million Americans (16 percent of the population) living below the poverty level
  • As much as 18 percent of the population effectively out of work
  • A debt that will exceed the total earning potential of the United States as early as 2015 (4 years from now)
  • Debt payments that may exceed $1 trillion a year by 2020 (9 years from now)
  • A Medicare program that will reach insolvency anywhere between now and 2024 (13 years from now)
  • A Social Security program that will be bankrupt anywhere between 2017 and 2037 (26 years from now)
  • A population that will have more adults collecting retirement than producing income as early as 2025 (14 years from now)

From my point of view, the only way to fix these problems is to work toward rebuilding the things 100 years of consuming and debt have destroyed. We need to rebuild our families, our communities, our towns, and thereby, our nation, and we can do it by returning to the things that worked.

What worked was a society where things were shared. Homes were shared. Meals were shared. Work was shared. Success was shared. Hardship was shared.

People in that era of shared life could cushion the burden of things as diverse as paying for a house or sending a kid to college through a network of people who all had the common good in mind. Wealth could be accumulated in such networks and disbursed through those networks in a way that benefited everyone in it.

This is not some kind of appeal toward some sort of communistic system, although it does represent a kind of practical socialism that has dominated human societies since there have been such things. What’s more, this kind of practical socialism worked, and everyone was better off for it.

Until we, as families, communities, towns, and an entire society realize this is the only way it can work, I believe the problems we face as a nation will only grow worse. Coming back together is the only way to survive.