Pre-Election Rant-A-Day 3: The Wrong Kind of Better

Blogger’s Note: I’ve had a terribly long and curmudgeonly blog post brewing in my head for months, and no time to write it. So I’ve settled on the “Rant-A-Day” format. The first Pre-Election Rant-A-Day is here. Number two is here. To recap: “It’s All Good” (aka “Go Along to Get Along”) kills democracy, and you can’t legislate happiness. Okay. Where are we today?

“[It’s] The Economy, Stupid.”
— James Carville

These rants began to take shape in my head a few months ago or so, after I posted a status to my Facebook page that got people talking. From August 11 at 8:31 a.m.: Jim Thorp wonders: If parents today feel as though, for the first time, their children may not have a better life than they had — maybe we’ve been seeking the wrong sort of “better” all along?”

What is this better we’ve been after? In my day-job, I write a great deal about economic growth and quality of life and human capital, and to a point, I believe we need to turn the economy around, lift folks out of poverty, and generally make life better for everyone. I mean, it sounds good. It makes sense. So why does my heart rebel?

Maybe it’s because, deep down, I agree with this guy (any excuse to use this clip; I picked this version on this site because the site was obscenity-free). In case you choose not to watch a very funny video clip (or in case they pull it at some point), permit me to quote: “When I read things like, ‘The foundations of capitalism are shattering,’ I’m like, maybe we need that, maybe we need some time where we’re walking around with a donkey with clanging on the sides…because everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”

We could use some perspective. We could count a blessing or two, and be content.

I’ve talked with my parents about their childhoods, and I know I am a generation removed from poverty. I’ve talked with friends who can’t find work — I know that edge is closer than we think. I also know my solidly middle-class five-figure salary puts me in the top quarter of earners in the U.S., and way ahead of most of the rest of the world. I know people making 10 times what I make, raising half as many kids, who look at me and shake their heads: poor stiff. I also know how comfortable our existence is. We’ve got too many bills, but we’re paying them. I’m in debt to my ears, for a modest house, yes, that has lost much of its value — but also for a million little things I used to think we needed so my kids could have a so-called better life. I know that if my family finances collapse because of reckless spending, it’s my own fault, and I know with each minivan load of stuff that goes to the church garage sale, or friends with new babies, or Goodwill, our lives improve, if for no other reason than we’re letting go. Even the kids are happier. They don’t miss it.

I remember when I got accepted to Yale — what a burden it was at first, to think that thousands of other students were trying to get in, and I applied almost on a dare, and got in. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go — I’d never thought seriously about it — and now I had the golden ticket. Leave Remus, Michigan, for a school of presidents.

I was scared.

I remember my dad pulling me aside after a day or so, and saying, “I just want you to know, you don’t have to go to Yale if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to college at all. If you decide you want to stay here and work in the shop, that’s fine with me. Whatever you do, I just want you to be happy.”

Sure he wanted a better life for me, but that wasn’t measured in dollars or degrees. He had already given me a better life by being home for dinner, pulling me out of school to take me hunting and fishing, insisting that I work hard and well and contribute to the family, not drinking or smoking, and teaching me to say I love you (and even to cry like a man, on occasion). He sacrificed for his family. He gave me more than he got as a kid, but it wasn’t more stuff. It was more of himself.

My fellow freshmen at Yale thought I was nuts when I said I wanted to be a high-school biology teacher. They rolled their eyes when I shrugged and said I came East for an education, not a job. (Hear that? That’s the sound of a squeaking halo.) They were incredulous when I came back from Wall Drug engaged.

We used to want these things: to serve others, to better ourselves, to love and be loved. Financial independence used to mean “owe nothing to any man,” as St. Paul said his letter to the Romans; now it means a strong credit score and purchasing power.

On the radio yesterday, a prospective voter wondered aloud why his legislative candidates were obsessing over which president, Bush or Obama, was to blame for the economy, while Americans are dying in two wars. Where in this economic engine (and myriad other car analogies) do we, as people, live and move and have our being?

It’s not the economy. It never was. The economic collapse is a symptom of a world so suffering-averse that it would rather sell out its children than sacrifice its lifestyle.

We vote our pocketbooks and consume ourselves.

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