Saturday, January 16, 2010

Slipping Back

2009 retail sales figures are in and show the worst year in decades. I know my wife and I have cut back on spending money and it seems we are just two white mice among millions who have figured out that things really aren't getting better. It's odd to see the mainstream press dredge up the tired old cliché that 70 percent of the US economy is driven by consumers. You and I aren't people, or families, or neighbors, not to the people at the top. We are consumers and when we stop consuming the money making machine grinds to a halt. It matters not that we aren't spending money for two very good reasons. It only matters that we aren't spending money.

One of the hardest things that I have had to learn about living in the United States is the relationship between the haves and the have-nots. My definition of being wealthy is having enough capital to either a) do nothing productive or b) do something productive on strictly your terms. Everybody else is a working stiff one way or the other. And if you think begging isn't work, maybe you should try, experimentally, before you have to take up that trade in earnest. One way the people in charge keep us consumers in our place is by directing our anger at the shiftless layabouts who do nothing all day, or better yet who live in jail with free meals and television. I always say it's easy enough to join their ranks if you really do think that's a desireable lifestyle. It's much harder to join the ranks of the banksters and political lobbyists and their exclusive lifestyles. And no it is going to get much, much harder to stay in place never mind climb economic ladders.

And yet us working stiffs in the US are never supposed to even feel envy for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The proper attitude is respect that they made it, tinged with a little bit of guilt that we shiftless masses haven't taken sufficient advantage of our opportunities in this limitless land to join them. The fault lies not with them but in us. If we really wanted to, our leaders tell us, we too could become multimillionaires in business, politics and the arts. When people harangue me on this subject, because apparently my views are radical, I point out that Bill Gates would never have achieved his absolute wealth, had he been building Microsoft in say, Latvia. What has given him untold wealth is we, the US consumers. He produced a product, advertised it, and we, worried about our shiftless image, we the hundreds of millions of US consumers buy it and he makes a personal fortune larger than many nation's annual budgets. But without us consumers there would have been none of that. Don't believe me? Wait and see because now we consumers are no longer spending wildly for two reasons. We've either lost everything or are terrified of being the next pawn to drop off the bottom rung of the ladder of insecurity. Even Microsoft can't make money if we don't buy. And if we don't buy the shiftless leaders of our economy not only get to keep their fortunes, they get to add to them even as one quarter of children in the US live in foodstamps.

That is to me the reason why we have an unspoken social contract in modern civilization, very similar to the feudal relationship between serfs and their lords. We help them make money but they help us to live decent, if undemanding, lives. Most of us after all don't really want that much, a decent job, a home, a family a modest sense of purpose, and now, while our leaders savage our economy to death in front of our very eyes, they still expect us to be grateful. And weirdly enough we lower our eyes from the unsavory spectacle and meet their basest expectations. At least we aren't Haitians, who eat mud pies and are to blame for their own misery for "disrespecting" God, according to Evangelical Christians who speak out on the subject of the recent earthquake.

I wonder how long we will have to decline into being "used-to-haves" before we put the brakes on the wholesale looting of the US economy? How can we? I read that we are going to spend, in official numbers, 103 billion dollars killing Afghans in 2010. I cannot help but ask myself if the charitable thing would not be to pledge that amount to oil-free Haiti to rebuild. Of course not, we are engaged in a life or death struggle to own cheap oil and that is what we will do, no matter how many Americans die to achieve that goal in Iraq, in Yemen, in Oman, and God help us all, in Iran. Because without cheap oil we are doomed to a slow unravelling of the consumer economy, and we shall return to our former status as people, instead of consumers, and that won't do at all.

Turn up the volume on the TV.

Anatomy Lesson

Doctor Norris flaunts a picture of himself in the Key West Citizen on his office furniture, alongside all those other bits of paper doctors accumulate during the course of a career- diplomas, certificates and Rotary Club encouragements to do good. In the waiting room where I sat while waiting to get my expiring shingles examined one more time, there lies my favorite book:It's a big floppy tome that has apparently been around for a while, and I expect will be around for a while longer as humans aren't going to change that much in the foreseeable future.While waiting I like to flip through the book and try to come up with some confounding diagnosis before the doctor gets into the room. "Yes, I think I may be suffering from an impacted esophagealic sprung splangefusket in the lower anterior nerve endings." " Very good," says the unflappable doctor, setting the book aside "let's have a look at those shingles."After we had established my blisters were gone and all that was left was a burning sensation round my waist I got to ask about the book. "This picture," Doctor Norris said, "shows how we evolved from fish. Look at the lines of the nerves, see how they coil round."
We started as worms and then as the flippers developed the nerves traced spirals around our body. "The blue on the arms and the purple on the feet look like flippers."
I stared at the pictures and it was at this moment perhaps that I got a glimpse of how little I know. I have never had reason to doubt Darwin's On the Origin of Species, even though I tried to read it once and found it as dry as chalk dust and just as illegible. I am reliably informed millions of people do doubt evolutionary theory and I wondered upon what they base their distrust. The more I learn the more obvious it seems, not that I have ever had reason to doubt evolutionary theory. I don't doubt the reality of Relativity Theory either, though most of it goes way over my head. Dr Norris worked at a teaching hospital Up North and it shows because he has a remarkable capacity to explain the most impenetrable medical knowledge. I really like having to go and see him, I always learn something.The anatomy book laid out the human body just as one would lay out an electronics schematic or a parts diagram for a motorcycle. How little do I know, I thought to myself as I idly flipped the pages of the book. What seems obvious to a human educated in the sciences seems so remote and abstract in a world where newspapers dumb down their language to maintain the interest of a reading public with the attention span of a ten year old. There was a photograph of the author making his painstaking drawings of us as we are underneath our skin:I liked this one the best, it makes us look like sides of beef, the marbled fat on the right hand side, the barbecue ribs on the left.
I suppose once we accept the physical-ness of our being, all those thoughts that flit behind our eyeballs, all those emotions that spark in our heads become part of the machine. No more and no less.

I managed to have my own bit of fun when I signed in to see the Doctor. "Er, sir," the sweet young receptionist hung out of her cubicle holding my sign-in sheet. "What is this date?" she asked, looking at my signature next to the word Date:___ "Thanks," I replied, "I don't need a date. I'm married." She giggled and withdrew. I wondered what she'd make of my notation that my main complaint was lack of health care reform. We may just be sides of beef on our hind legs, but there's no proscription against having a bit of fun before we go to the knacker's yard.