Two weeks ago today I was sitting in MSP marveling at the Goose-B-Gone posters and the Fox News bookstore outlets. (I'm not making this up.) I had more than a couple of hours between planes, so I wrote what I thought was a humorous little post about competence. Competence. How the Heartland values competence above all else and how linking GOP governance to the complete absence of competence – a very short link – would make them "the other guys" to a large part of America.
(Yes, I know Minnesota is the other way from South Dakota, but they have jets if you connect in that direction. Through Denver, it's prop planes flying low.)
I made the mistake of showing the post to a cousin whose opinion I value very much. Either the piece wasn't written very well or there's a deep-seated defensiveness I couldn't get by. In any event, the message heard was not that the Heartland cares about competence, but that they don't got any.
That, of course, is not so. Self-reliance and the distance between farms tends to generate ability out of seed corn.
The question turned not on the skill of city mice v. country mice, but on my being willing to wait a couple of days till the weather warmed to start a truck. This was not appropriate respect for a borrowed vehicle. But my goodness, it was minus twenty-six and the hood latch was frozen! (Note: I did start the truck and deliver it full of gas. Saving my reputation, I guess.)
Anyway, it was clear I didn't have the proper respect for property.
Then it hit me. This is what the Heartland cares most about. Even more than competence. This is what citizens of every state care most about. Stuff! Sometimes they even confuse it with the concept of "responsibility."
The upshot is that if we on the Left want to reach these people, we need to promise them more money and give them goodies. That means we're in trouble. We can promise the poor sufficience. The moderately well off can keep their stuff. The rich? We'll debate that later. But more? More material is not sustainable. No.
It is absolutely astounding how many of our fellow citizens spend all or most of their time obtaining, storing, cleaning, maintaining, insuring and displaying material goods. These are citizens we are not going to reach with messages on the environment, education, poverty, justice, civil liberties, women's rights, workers' rights, geopolitical balance, health care, or any of the other issues that matter and that the Radical Right is screwing up. Why? Because these citizens think all this noise is just an excuse to get them to give up some of their stuff.
That, or because they can't hear us. They're at the goddam mall getting more stuff or exchanging this stuff for that stuff.
There's a line called "object referral" in Hindu thought which says people will identify who they are by the things they own. A BMW owner is better than a Ford owner. Who are you? I'm a BMW owner. And driver. I live in a house in Sahalee. I'm an Ipod user. I'm a boat owner. I show horses. New shoes? Yes. You like them? Etc., etc. Who they really are is another discussion, but be sure, a person is not any aspect of a material thing through the mechanism of ownership.
Studies have shown that when it comes to material possessions and happiness, it is not the absolute level of possessions that contributes to subjective measures of happiness, it is the relative level. So if your mud hut has a better roof than your neighbor's, you are just as happy as if your garage has a BMW and Jim has to park his Jetta on the street.
Even the boys from the Black Hills tend to look at your pickup before they look at your face. The assembly of things in the shed often seems analogous to the phalanx of servants at the door in an earlier age.
But I ascribe virtue to myself where there is simply a missed gene. I have never understood the fever for stuff. Just like I never got disco, or even the Stones. I take some heart that the most gifted economist of the 20th century John Maynard Keynes did not have a material view of the world either, or an academic one, for that matter. According to Joan Robinson, another first-tier economist, Keynes had an aesthetic view of economies. Poverty was ugly. Unemployment was stupid.
My cousin said to me, "You keep right on with that political B.S., Al. I got business to take care of. But thanks for watching my back."
What he meant, I'm not sure. I have the image of watching the back of an ostrich. Ten years from now if he looks up and sees things are not like what he expected, he is going to get very excited. Is he going to have the wit to blame the right party, or will he just pick the closest one?