In the Middle of Nowhere

It is endlessly interesting that, when I tell someone that I live “in the middle of nowhere,” they always act as if they know exactly where that is. I suspect that many people think they know what “nowhere” looks like. It is an image in their minds of what they imagine an American Hell to be — a place where boredom is never relieved, where time crawls, and where no one exists to blame for one’s agonies except oneself.

I am approaching my first year in the land of nowhere, and have discovered that nowhere is actually somewhere. For me it is in a small town in the Midwest on the edge of the Great Plains. One of the first things I noticed when I moved here permanently from the Philadelphia area is that the rural world made me extremely aware of the temporality of life. Cattle trucks roll by, and one is acutely aware that the cattle are on their way to be slaughtered. Thousands of acres of corn and soybeans are planted in the spring, but by late fall the land has become barren again. I also became aware of the fact that there is rarely ever the right amount of rain; the ground is either too wet or too dry. In a large city the main concern is generally the cost of water, not its existence.

My first month in the land of nowhere I had to take my car to the local car repair shop for a minor repair. Like many car shops around here, it is an old service station that still pumps the gas for its customers. On that particular occasion, an elderly man behind the counter wrote down what needed to be done to my car in a spiral notebook. The shop did not have a computer. The elderly man behind the counter was interested in me because he had never met me before. He came out from behind the counter and told me a story about his father and him working on a car together when he was a teenager.

Less than a month later, I found out he had died from cancer. I did not notice sickness when I met him.  Nevertheless, the story I was told was that he had been sick for a good while, but he liked working and meeting people, so he worked in the shop. Another local man who went to my church was killed in an accident at the age of eighty-two when he was cutting down a tree on his farm. Eighty-two. In a large city, one always has the feeling that a human being can be replaced; when a person dies here, that is not always the case. One begins to sense that a human life is not always replaceable. The American belief that something better is always on the way loses its grip under these circumstances.

But there are many in the nation beside me now who do not believe in the ever better future for America, and the economic reports coming out now are certainly no reason for optimism. The American corporate structure is revealing what may be in store for America in the foreseeable future. In summary, while the corporations of the world are moving the world’s industrial base to Asia, the Western capitalist world is going to try to survive as the financial capital of the world. The are many among us in the banking world who are not sure this will work, but on this particular occasion, I figure that it could be interesting to consider what this means for the land of nowhere.

The landscape of middle America is dotted with abandoned factories. The reason for this is has been debated for years and will likely be debated for years to come. In political terms, both the left and the right take credit for de-industrialization and refuse to take the blame. As I have discussed in other articles for America’s Right, the left blames the right for de-industrialization in its need to squash American labor under its capitalist boot. For years the right-wing banking wall street gangs promoted the idea that America no longer had the political and social atmosphere to promote sound business models, and took their money elsewhere. At the same time, the left promoted world economic equality. In my years in college in the 1970’s the left never stopped preaching that America consumed too much of the world’s resources in an attempt to promote its version of a Western imperialist model.  (Now, it seems that the left has shifted gears ever slightly, preaching preservation of resources in an attempt to foster a new age of global socialism.)

What both sides ended up doing was terrible, if not cruel, to much of the American middle class. Both the left and the right knew that even if jobs were lost and thriving lives were diminished, no one in America would literally starve because the government would feed them. To put it bluntly, the right and the left both believed they could dump huge portions of the middle class on the government and get away with it as long as the American public bought into the idea that the world was changing, that we were in a period of readjustment, and that things would get better in the future.

But now there are those who feel this readjustment is permanent and may never end because there is nothing on the horizon to fill the empty factories. (One of the reason Americans have managed to survive at all is that ten-dollar-an-hour American workers are buying goods from countries that pay their workers one dollar per hour.) A recent Associated Press piece demonstrates the problem. In Where Are The Jobs? For Many Companies, Overseas, AP Business Writer Pavalli Gogoi provides the following quote from Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute: “There’s a huge difference between what is good for American companies versus what is good for the American economy.” (Stocks are up because overseas sales are up.)

We all need to understand that there are millions of people in the world that love American money, but have no loyalty to America. Consider the now-famous line from the Watergate era: “follow the money.” Right now, the money is heading far from the American shores. A great deal of this is simple math. I heard an economist admit a couple years ago that Americans need to be realistic. India and China, he pointed out, have a combined population of three billion people. If ten percent of them have a college education, that comes to three hundred million college graduates — almost equal to the entire population of the United States.

Why would anyone want to mess around with lazy, greedy, bloated Americans when corporations have millions of needy people in the world ready to climb out of poverty? Gogoi, in the aforementioned article from December 28, 2010, maintains that “[b]y 2015, for the first time, the number of consumers in Asia’s middle class will equal those in Europe and North America combined.”

This is the world the Republican Party faces as it begins this new 2011 legislative session in the House of Representatives, back to work after the hiatus brought about by the terrible shooting in Tucson, Arizona. The GOP has a daunting task before it — it has to figure out how to stop this transfer of American labor and talent to the life of waiting for that government check to arrive. In the most recent tax deal, the Republicans agreed to extend unemployment benefits once again, so I’m not so certain that they’re up to the challenge.  Is anybody?  Is there any common ground the Democrats and Republicans can find to end this economic vicious cycle of unemployment and rocketing debt?

We shall see, but the problems are obvious. An aging population, overprinting of dollars, massive bad debt in the banking industry, and an uncooperative corporate sector that simply wishes to boost stock prices by taking their business elsewhere. Good luck to all the Republicans, new and old. Well, frankly, luck won’t do. There has to be a comprehensive policy of spending cuts and American corporate resurgence at home.

___

A final story from the land of nowhere — On a lovely summer night in July of 2010 I stopped by to chat with a neighbor who was working on his car. He was ready to have a smoke and talk about “things.” In our conversation he mentioned he was having a terrible time getting health insurance. He told me that some of my neighbors and him were already preparing themselves for jail time when the Obama health plan would require health coverage or else.

It was hard for me to believe how resigned he was to the idea of being arrested for not having health insurance. The Republicans need to do better that this. Even for people who live in the middle of nowhere.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Looks like all the pensions are running out, just in time.
    What a sobering, spot on, assessment.

  2. William A. Rose says:

    Hi folks. Haven’t posted in a while. This is a great article. I recently ran across a video entitled “End Of Liberty”. It speaks to the content of this article as well as much more. It’s an 1:15 long, but well worth your time. There are also other video documentaries on the site that are compelling. I’d sure like to hear what you all think of them. Here’s the link to the homepage (go to the video section): http://inflation.us/

  3. Brad Fregger says:

    There’s an note of sadness in this article that is best illustrate by the final story. Here’s a man having trouble getting health insurance, yet he is willing to go to jail rather than pay to be part of ObamaCare. He must truly understand where that path leads.

  4. Gail B. says:

    Your last paragraph:
    “It was hard for me to believe how resigned he was to the idea of being arrested for not having health insurance. The Republicans need to do better that this. Even for people who live in the middle of nowhere.”

    Well, I believe the Republicans have found the answer! Check this out:
    http://www.tothepointnews.com/content/view/4372/2/

  5. Randy Wills says:

    Ronald, I think that this is a great piece and I thank you for writing it.

    Regarding Brad’s comment “there’s a note of sadness in this article”, I too felt that sadness, but I believe it’s entirely appropriate. One cannot help but feel deep sadness as one contemplates what’s in store for the United States when the facade of dependence on the government to solve the unemployment problem collapses and the true landscape of our future is revealed to even the most optimistic person.

    As I have said before, the middle class has served this nation well as an emblem of hope for the lower class wage earners, buffering the natural tension between the rich and the poor. But the historical middle class of America is a thing of the past, thanks to the flow of money and jobs to lower-cost venues, and that ugly reality will create a vacuum into which the proletariat will flood, seeking economic redress.

    That having been said, there is nowhere that I would rather be than “in the middle of nowhere” when what I believe is inevitable becomes a national reality.

    Randy

  6. In the middle of nowhere, and tracked says:

    ObamaNet – Government issued Internet ID card required for all Americans

    The government will be able to track every web site you visit, every keystroke you send, every purchase you make, every blog comment, and every Facebook and Twitter post.

    The Washington Times is warning that the White House cybersecurity adviser and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are drawing up “ObamaNet,” President Obama’s mandate for what amounts to a national ID card for the Internet.

    President Obama wants to establish passwords for every citizen to centralize your personal information. Instead of logging onto Facebook or one’s bank using separate passwords established with each individual company or web site, you will be required to use the government-issued password.

    According to the Washington Times, here are the problems with “ObamaNet”:
    The government will be able to track every web site you visit and every keystroke you send on your home computer.

    The government will be able to track every purchase you make and every deposit and withdrawal, and gain access to your electronic health care records.

    The government will be able to track every blog comment you make, along with every Facebook and Twitter post.

    The government will be able to create lists of your friends and acquaintances and lists of all your political affiliations, political donations, club memberships, hobbies and interests.

    It’s impossible for the government to make this system 100% secure (remember Wikileaks?), meaning criminals would need to steal only one key to unlock a vast amount of your personal and financial information.

    Although the White House will tell you it is a voluntary program, the government “voluntary” programs too often end up becoming mandatory. See Web I.D. = more gov’t control.

    TAKE ACTION

    Your elected officials can stop President Obama and the Federal government from prying into the personal lives of American citizens.

    Email your members of Congress today, asking them to issue a public statement in opposition to President Obama’s plan to issue government-based Internet ID cards.

  7. graypanther says:

    But the historical middle class of America is a thing of the past, thanks to the flow of money and jobs to lower-cost venues, and that ugly reality will create a vacuum into which the proletariat will flood, seeking economic redress.

    Randy, you hit the nail on the head so often that “the Hammer” shouldn’t be Tom DeLay’s nickname – it should be yours.

    I would add one thing, which to me is the clincher. Money and jobs were not the only components that flowed “to lower-cost venues;” the most advanced technology of the industrialized world did too, in pursuit of short-term gain. Naturally, low-wage workers combined with cutting-edge technology made an insuperable combination for economic competition. Nobody, it would seem, stopped to think that in this context, short-term profit was absolutely the reciprocal and structural enemy of long-term profit.

    As for a flooding proletariat seeking economic redress – how exactly do we intend that the Constitutional framework of the United States should withstand the realization of the core vision of Karl Marx?

  8. Randy Wills says:

    Wow, “graypanther”, you ask some pretty tough questions – actually, some that I instinctively would like to avoid giving an answer to.

    In this case, I honestly fear that it’s very possible that the Constitutional framework of the United States will be unable to withstand the assault on free-market capitalism by a disenchanted and enraged (once they realize how badly they have been duped) populace.

    The antidote for what I foresee coming if we don’t change our ways and funnel the working/middle class frustration into some productive action is for this selfsame populace to take control of the buying habits within the United States. What I’m talking about is the refusal to go along with “Made in China” (or any of the other third-world economies) and, along with that, acknowledge that we will pay more for many, many items, thus lowering our standard of living. Ultimately, we will again be competitive in the world market and the jobs and captital will start to return. Even at their worst, capitalists always follow what the market tells them and we gave them the wrong message by going for the lowest price, regardless of whose job was lost in the process.

    Those who think that we can produce enough actual, value-creating, jobs for all who truly want to work, absent a full spectrum of employment opportunites, is a fantasy propagated by politicians and starry-eyed theoreticians who know little of the realities of creating value. The effects of productivity improvements alone make this an unreasonable expectation.

    Now I’m rambling on, and I may be all wet, but my gut tells me that the path that we’re on is headed to a place we don’t want to go, all of the talk of budget-cutting notwithstanding – if we love our country and our progeny.

    Anyway, thanks for asking and thanks for your kind words.

    Randy

  9. graypanther says:

    …for this selfsame populace to take control of the buying habits within the United States. What I’m talking about is the refusal to go along with “Made in China” (or any of the other third-world economies) and, along with that, acknowledge that we will pay more for many, many items, thus lowering our standard of living.

    I see that I put myself in an excellent position to play devil’s advocate. I think popular refusal to go along with “Made in China” will not be voluntary – for two reasons. The first is that, yes, many people would buy American-made goods in preference to Asian-made goods, were it possible. But consumers in this country still want to buy things that this country no longer produces. When was the last time anybody bought a US-made television set? A US-made computer? A US-made pair of socks? Disclaimer: the socks I’m wearing as I type this were made in Pakistan.

    Even in cases where American and Chinese products compete head-to-head, the Chinese price advantage is tremendous. I concede that labor cost is only one component of manufacturing cost – but the discrepancy between US labor cost, and Chinese labor cost, for manufacture of a photovoltaic solar panel, is 20 to one. The USG literally had to pass legislation saying that the Department of Defense could only purchase American-made solar panels. Do we want that kind of piecemeal protectionist legislation for every variety of consumer goods? What proportion of overhead would that add to the operations of the consumer market? Wouldn’t consumers denounce that as “intrusion by government?”

    Yes, rectification of this imbalance will lower our standard of living. Furthermore, it’s not the only adjustment of that on the horizon. Our standard of living is about to take it in the chops.

  10. Randy Wills says:

    You make a good point, “graypanther”, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate government intervention (i.e. trade barriers or purchasing mandates), but I honestly believe that only the buying public can influence the huge trade inbalance. We will have to make significant sacrifices, but I believe that it can be done.

    But I agree; the means of production for many of the commodities that you mention (plus dress shirts. Have you tried to buy an American made dress shirt?) have been completely demobilized and it will cost mightily to restart those competencies, but if the buyers demand it, it will happen. However, the government can only play a minor role in this transition without violating fair trade agreements and causing grievous unintended consequences.

    As it has been ever since the founding of this country, it depends on the people, not the government.

    Doesn’t sound very realistic, does it, but the alternative – continuing on the course that we’re on – is economic suicide. And yes, the prices from China and other Asian suppliers will absolutely increase over time and, without the domestic capacity to produce those goods that we now import, we will suffer the consequences. Higher unemployment along with higher prices is a sure formula for civil unrest.

    Randy

  11. We're a global world says:

    What is the truest definition of Globalization?

    Answer: Princess Diana’s death.

    Question: How come?

    Answer :

    An
    English princess
    with an
    Egyptian boyfriend
    crashes
    in a French tunnel,
    riding in a
    German
    car
    with a
    Dutch engine,
    driven
    by a Belgian
    who was
    drunk
    on
    Scottish whisky,
    (check the bottle before you
    change the spelling),
    followed
    closely by
    Italian
    Paparazzi,
    on
    Japanese motorcycles,
    treated
    by an American doctor,
    using
    Brazilian
    medicines.
    This is
    sent to you by
    a
    Canadian,
    using
    American
    Bill Gates’ technology,
    and
    you’re probably reading
    this on your computer,
    that
    uses Taiwanese chips,
    and
    a
    Korean
    monitor,
    assembled
    by
    Bangladeshi
    workers
    in a
    Singapore plant,
    transported
    by Indian
    truck drivers,
    hijacked
    by Indonesians,
    unloaded by
    Sicilian longshoremen,
    and
    trucked to you by Mexican illegals…..

    That, my friends,
    is Globalization !

  12. graypanther says:

    Once again, Randy (and Ronald), I can play devil’s advocate while neatly bringing my comment around to the nominal topic of this thread.

    My personal definition of “the middle of nowhere” – shared, to be fair, with many of its residents – is a small town in the Southwest whose population has been declining for years. Among such places, it’s slightly exceptional because it boasts a community college and (oddly) a pretty good steakhouse. It’s also been the lifelong residence of one of my good friends. I don’t think it’s the most advantageous place for her to exercise her talents and skills, but she and I have had that discussion many times.

    In this town, a “job” typically pays between $12,000 and $15,000 a year, while a “good job” pays between $15,000 and $22,000; very few people in the town, except probably the administrators and senior faculty of the community college, are paid better than that. Since most of the households in this town are families of between two and five, just about any available employment puts a family right at Federally defined poverty level. I sometimes think the place really survives on a blizzard of IOUs, endlessly circulating hand to hand.

    On the outskirts of this town, there is a Wal-Mart, where almost everybody buys almost everything. If Wal-Mart doesn’t have what you want, you drive to the nearest larger town, which is a forty-mile round trip and of course makes the cost of gasoline a material addition to the cost of your shopping. But if you shop at Wal-Mart, you have your copious choice of Chinese/Sri Lankan/Cambodian/Pakistani/Salvadoran/etc. consumer goods – most of them of acceptable quality and durability.

    For this community, the practice of demanding US-made goods and the concomitant “shared sacrifice” becomes problematic. For many of the products available in Wal-Mart, US-made exact equivalents would cost at least 50% more and possibly up to three times as much. This would put them completely out of reach of the town’s residents. At that point, Wal-Mart would fold its tent and go away, these people would have nowhere to shop, and they would resume their expensive weekly trips to the larger town – which were their practice before Wal-Mart opened.

    I agree with the concept of patriotic shared sacrifice, and I believe that it’s practical – indeed, I know it’s practiced to some extent – in coastal communities and affluent cities. But in “the middle of nowhere,” we don’t have the economic infrastructure to support it. So what, I ask you, should be the response of the free market to these material conditions?

  13. Randy Wills says:

    I understand the scenario which you describe; it is very similar to the conditions within the area that I live. Granted, bringing about a significant change in our purchasing habits will be a Hurculean task, not well suited to individuals or communities acting independently but rather as an organized national effort rising up from the grassroots. An apt analogy would be the Tea Party movement which proved to be very effective, politically.

    Once the number of those committed to this task reaches critical mass, the movement should target (oops. My bad) a specific chain, such as Costco or Wal-Mart, and simply boycott it until we get attention. At first, that won’t change anything regarding our trade imbalance but, in business, large or small, anything that affects the bottom line becomes a board-room topic of conversation. Sooner or later, as more and more Americans become aware of the effect of our trade imbalance on the employment situation and join in the effort, I believe that an engaged public can turn the ship around.

    But if we don’t readjust our standard of living expectations, we will never be able to compete with the developing nations, and an expanding economy cannot be achieved without an expanding market for its goods and services. This economic condition cannot be realized without balancing our trade with other nations. Investors are not dumb, and at the moment, as a result of the developing nations’ economies growing three times – or more – faster than ours, that’s where the investment money is going.

    But the “cost of not doing” is still much higher than paying the price that this type of nationalized effort will cost each and every one of us and our progeny.

    Randy

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