(from the archives)
I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith again – “Gorky Park” and “Polar Star”. It’s a fascinating snapshot of another country at another time, and the contrast of that vision throws the realities of our own time and place into sharp relief.
The great boast of the Soviet Union was that it was a Worker’s Paradise. Everyone was guaranteed a job, no matter what. For some the work was difficult; for many, the work was that for which they were not well-suited; for all, the dark spectre of political correctness was all around; spies and informers lurked everywhere, even (and especially) in one’s friends. There was little freedom, no room for individualism and little chance for personal liberty and expression.
Due to a lack of personal motivation, quality suffered and quickly became minimal. In a store, the shelf of goods that came damaged from the box was more full than the shelves of inventory. There were lines for everything: toilet paper, bread, the essentials of life. You would be offered a choice: an apartment with a kitchen or one with a bathroom (sounds like economy living in Manhattan).
But every worker was guaranteed a job. No matter what.
In 1964, a prominent California Democrat decided to switch parties. He addressed the nation on behalf of Barry Goldwater, and his speech closely parallels the same problems we see today, both on the news and in internet back-chatter. I’ve mentioned it before; it’s called “A Time For Choosing” and can be seen on YouTube.
The cost of our welfare system was a major theme. It was vast, bloated, far excessive considering the returns. As an alternative, the speaker mentioned bringing back the old CCC, making work camps for the indigent to do public works. Acadia is now a lovely place with granite-paved hiking trails and bike paths because of their work. Tennessee has electricity and Pennsylvania has several vast public parks.
But should government be in the business of employing the people? I thought business was supposed to do that.
Today I read of a study that explained why the modern generation is avoiding marriage. The conclusion is that, unlike the large proportion of us that held union manufacturing jobs through the 50s, 60s and 70s, the majority of our workforce is either in a high-end career that leaves little time for a personal life or holding service jobs with no real security or benefits. The mere thought of the clerk at Best Buy needing to provide for a family is a terrifying impracticability – in comparison with the numbers above, this is a worker that earns $400 a week ($21k a year) with minimal benefits.
I’m not worried about whose fault this situation is – which political party is in the wrong, whether corporations should have as much power as they do, what the minimum wage ought to be – because all of those are mere factors in an economic equation that is at its heart flawed and unbalanced. Unlike the Soviets, we have no right to a job; instead, we have motivation to work and work well. We lack an easy path to entrepreneurship; it’s filled with obstructions placed by the ignorant and well-meaning, but it’s still possible to make and succeed at a cottage business. What we lack, however, is the societal will and motivation to excel.
It is now unstylish to be intelligent, much less to be successful at business. It has become somehow immoral to be rich. Schoolchildren disparage knowledge and learning; they do this in large part because they fear they cannot attain it, that they are unworthy of a success which would even soil them should they actually manage to achieve such. Our heroes today are rappers, musicians, actors, people that are famous for being famous; what can they inspire? Realistically, what could we possibly expect them to do?
In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit. Two years later, they landed a rocket on the moon (well, crashed into the moon – but it was more than we had done!) America was terrified and responded with a crash course; vast funds were thrown into a research and design program that landed American astronauts on the moon ten years later. We employed defecting Soviets, former Nazi scientists and heroic feats of espionage to beat the Russians to the moon. This great achievement was undertaken in a time of terror, when it was commonly supposed that a failure of American technology would be enough to lure the Soviets into attacking us.
Today, we no longer have this fear. Oh, we have our fears and terrors, but we have no great enemy, no rival to spur us to greatness and make us fear failure as we would the grave. We have little nationalist pride – many would call this a good thing, for nationalism leads to arrogance and needless, causeless wars of aggression – but we have little with which to replace it. The fear of indigence, of joblessness and homelessness – this we have.
It is not enough.
Negative motivations never are enough.
We in this country need something vast and great and mighty. Something to inspire us, something to aspire to. We need the passion from a bygone day in a form suited to today’s Americans. And we need it now.
We are in a cycle of increasingly pervasive general poverty. I’m talking globally now, not nationally; of industrialized nations, only China is experiencing general and sustained economic growth, and that is slight. The mean wealth of the world’s population is decreasing over time. The economic peaks are lower than they were and the valleys that much broader and deeper.
We should be doing more to fight against this global ennui. We could be leading the world; I can remember a time when we would be doing just that. But that day is not today. That America is not this America.
And so I ask: What should we do about this?
I don’t have all the answers, but this I do know: This is our problem, right here and right now. And we all have the power to change the world, even if only a little, that tiny bit of the world that we can reach. We can each make our little bit that much better for our being there. Our contributions may not be much individually, but put them all together… and who knows? It might just catch on. Then, we could see some real change.
Me, I don’t do much. I operate a station for pre-recycling and sorting of books; I try to get good reading to those that want it and brain candy to people that need it. I talk to people and get them to think, even if only a little. It’s not a high and noble calling, not really; many people that do what I do have far different motives and they do quite well at it. I’m not that good at business… but I do know books, and I know a little about people; with that, I do what I can.
And every now and then, the opportunity comes to write something that might make a little difference. Like this, in fact.
But some people – some of you, in fact – have a greater chance. You can stand up and influence those around you. You can motivate and inspire. Because you have this power, you have the responsibility to use it, and to use it wisely.
I mentioned a speech earlier; here’s another that I’ll end with. I would ask you to listen to this in full, applying the words to the world of today.