Economy of Emergent Stuff

Last week, over on SE Stark Street, a pothole the size of Devil’s Punchbowl emerged in the eastbound lane. Someone had erected a barricade that barely covered the problem. I told Susan a local state of emergency should be declared – call out the Guard. I might even be willing to get back into uniform and man the compressor truck, my old specialty. She scoffed at these ideas, yet several dangerous days passed before a detail was finally dispatched, during Friday rush hour, of course, to fill the gaping pore. I drove slowly through the detour, obeying the bright orange pylons, saw the road crew assembled like a team of dentists, one in the hole up to his neck, picking in the horrible cavity.

Portland was once the City of Bridges. Now it’s the City of Roses. Soon it will be the City of Signs. We see new signs popping up everywhere, like teenage acne on the urban landscape. One new sign currently multiplying rapidly is affixed below stop signs, and reads: “Traffic to the right does not stop.” What did we do before these signs were deemed necessary? There are signs, seemingly randomly distributed, posting a phone number to call to report rampant potholes. I did not see one, though, near the Stark Street Devil’s Punchbowl crisis of last week. James Joyce once challenged his contemporaries to walk across Dublin without passing a pub (though I think he considered the impossibility a good thing). Our challenge locally is to drive cross-town without encountering a roadblock. Yet the roads don’t improve. One new sign I’ve noticed, at the end of our block, reads, at the entrance to what we used to call an alley, “Caution: Unimproved Roadway.” The roadway is obviously unimproved, and the sign does nothing to improve that. In any case, are there any roadways in Portland that are improved? If we don’t soon become the City of Signs, it will be because the City of Potholes sticks first.

While the Stark Street pothole crisis still threatened locally, I happened to pick up the March 19 issue of The New Yorker and turned to James Surowiecki’s “The Financial Page.” I’m a regular reader of the feature, for in a single page Surowiecki is usually able to do for the economy what Robert Frost suggested poetry does for the soul: “a momentary stay against confusion.” But this week I came out of Surowiecki’s “Great Expectations?” feeling like I had just hit a pothole. “One good sign,” Surowiecki argues [that the economy is improving], “is that Americans are buying new cars again.” But where will they drive them, as the country’s road and bridge infrastructure continues to deteriorate, potholes proliferate, and the price of gasoline again threatens to spike? The age of the average car on the street today, Surowiecki says, is at “an all-time high,” suggesting a “pent-up demand for new cars.” But surely the fact that Detroit finally started making better new cars at least in part helps explain the improved longevity of the used car.

But the number of households is not increasing, Surowiecki says, a bad sign, for young people can’t afford to move out on their own, but “when this trend reverses there will be a spike in demand, both for housing, especially rentals, and for all the stuff that you put in a house.” Thus the economic recovery relies on thoroughly anti-Thoreauvian principles, for what we need are fewer, more efficient new cars, improved mass transit of all kinds, smaller, more affordable and more efficient houses, and less stuff, not to mention freedom from oil dependencies. Meantime, the potential of rising rents and the consolidation of available rentals in the hands of a few speculators may conspire to throw both the young and old to and from combined households. And why would a young person want to add to student loan debt the absurd cost of a new car loan? And how will they qualify for home mortgages with increasingly stricter requirements, saddled with their student loans? And then I came across another article, this one pointing economic blame at the same young for their alleged entropic and torpid inactivities.

Over at the HBR Blog Network, I found Sarah Green “stewing all week about a logically sloppy op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times.” Amazingly, the op-ed Green refers to, titled “The Go No-Where Generation,” blames the continuing poor economy in part on young people’s staying home, even citing a downturn in driver licensure as evidence, when, as the Surowiecki article also suggests, what we need of our young people is early licensure for the commute from the new home to the de-benefitted new job to afford to fill the new car with ever more expensive gas and the new home with new stuff. I quickly saw why Green stewed, for the op-ed invokes Steinbeck’s Joads as the prototype of the flexibly mobile go-where-the-jobs-are independent American worker – as if they had a choice. Besides, I was also reminded of John Grisham’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Painted House. Set in Korea War era Arkansas, the story compares and contrasts the stay-at-home, determined but economically doomed cotton farmers with friends and relatives who move up north and find jobs in the automobile factories, and who return to visit driving outlandishly expensive new cars. The irony, not found in the novel, is that not too long ago, the descendants of those local defectors to the north could now be found returning to the south to find jobs in Texas and environs as their manufacturing jobs in the north disappeared.

But what if, Sarah Green suggests, young people have decided on something new, an innovative idea toward value: “The choice young people face,” Green says, “isn’t whether to be jobless in Nevada or employed in North Dakota. It’s whether they’re going to drag themselves unwillingly into an unfair game or decide to invent a new one.”

On Thoreau On Clothing

Thoreau worked a number of jobs around town, some voluntarily, though he had hoped for some recompense, and hoped too for something to be that would both pay and be a good fit. At times, he seems almost to have thought someone should have paid him for simply sitting or walking about observing and thinking; in this, he anticipates a Buckminster Fuller argument, that if 1,000 people were paid to take time off and think, one of them would come up with an idea that would pay for all the others. Both Thoreau and Fuller were optimists. But Thoreau seems happiest when his work is its own reward, and he neither spends nor collects in the bargain. Thoreau worked, he tells us, still in “Economy,” as a reporter, and comments, “…as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward”; a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms” (for damage, presumably); a “surveyor,” though its not clear his use of the word matches our own; and a waterer of the town’s trees (15-16). When he finally realized his voluntary pursuits were not going to lead to a permanent, paid position, he lit out for the woods.

His narrative of “Economy” then jumps into a discussion of another of his “necessaries,” clothing, and we come to one of my all-time favorite Thoreau aphorisms: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (21). Yet many jobs require a uniform, as do many schools. I attended school for twelve years before I was allowed to dress myself in whatever I wanted, at which point I chose blue jeans and tee shirts, letting my hair grow out as part of the deal, but soon I then went into the Army, where I found my schooling had prepared me for a dress requisite, not to mention the haircut. Still, even in uniform, since, according to Thoreau, people are judged according to how they dress, a great many anxieties arise from our clothing habits, and we dress to impress others rather than to accommodate the basic need of the necessary.

Thoreau navigates his way forward using metaphors for his oars: “Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, liked that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives” (21). Clothing is a kind of shelter, perhaps a shelter from the storm of opinion. And we might consider how long it takes for the oars of opinion to start rowing together in the same direction, for when we finally arrive at something called “business casual,” we might recall Thoreau’s comment that “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new” (23). Thoreau might have winced at Jeeves dressing Wooster.

An Economy of One’s Own

In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).

He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).

Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).

But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty

Albert Camus on the Economic Collapse

RefugioAn old friend from our South Santa Monica Bay days writes, “Did I hear that right? 5 day forecast for around here is in the upper 80’s.  Visibility for miles.  Air quality is wonderful. But, this is January.”

In the mornings we went surfing, and in the afternoons we played whiffle ball in the yard or in the street. Maybe we walked to the five and dime for a pack of baseball cards, but if there were no good cards in the pack there was still the bubblegum, the smell like a perfume. Summers we camped on the beach at Refugio and for days wore nothing but our swim-trunks. 

Camus Lyrical and Critical EssaysWe are reminded again of Camus’s “The Sea Close By”: “I grew up with the sea and poverty for me was sumptuous; then I lost the sea and found all luxuries gray and poverty unbearable” (p. 172). And this, from “Return to Tipasa”: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” (p. 169).

Camus, Albert. (1970). Lyrical and critical essays. Vintage Books: New York.