Be careful what you wish for…

In my last post I ended with a cutesy sarcastic comment about how I hope there is news for the blog, and now I feel like a mosquito at a nudist colony (in the words of a folksy Appalachian preacher/comic whose name I forget): I know what I’m here to do, but just can’t quite figure out where to start.

So please pardon the blog salad, as I’ve got a really unreasonable amount of ground to cover.

For starters, I know I’m supposed to be changing gears after a month of travel adventures, but I’ve got to squeeze in one more:

On my last train ride, I wound up chatting with someone who lives in Homestead, Iowa, which is one of the Amana Colonies. He happened to have a visitor’s guide with him. He is not a member of the church, but he grew up around them and was quite familiar with their history. Until recently, he owned a bed & breakfast in one of the seven Amana villages that are clustered on 25,000 acres in NE Iowa.

These communities were among the world’s most successful and long-lived example of faith-based communal living, with nearly three centuries of history. They originally formed Germany in 1714 and lived in a variety of places around Germany (including a 13th Century castle), before they moved to 5000 acres in upstate New York during the 1840s in order to escape persecution. There, they grew to 1200 people until the glimmering big-city lights of nearby Buffalo proved to be too tempting and corrupting. So they moved to Iowa.

All members’ needs were taken care of, and meals were taken at 50 communal dining halls. They practiced a high degree of gender equality (although there were some predictable differences in job assignments received from the village council). They also had 11 church services per week. They engaged in all sorts of farming, crafts and industry (yes, including the refrigerators that share their name). They were communal until 1932, when they gave in to growing pressure to be like the world and began to encourage private enterprise. Whirlpool now owns the fridge company (sigh). Even so, the community corporation still exists as a profit-sharing entity, and it provides health coverage to its members.

After my first night at home since Jan 1, I woke up, shuffled downstairs, and joined the ancient McLeod family ritual of reading The (financially troubled) Sacramento Bee. They had a really unproductive doom and gloom front-page story from the Associated Press (which is itself a cooperative, and so this reminds me that co-ops are not perfect and adds to my grumpiness). I’m not even going to link to it since it will just freak you out without really teaching you anything unless you have been in a hole since August. Bleh.

Another prominent story is a bit more enlightening, although it does nothing to undermine my skepticism that government can solve our problems here. It turns out that local governments are spending tens of millions of dollars per year to lobby the state for more money. And of course the state is broke here in California, to the point that it is now shutting down most offices every other Friday, which is going to make an even bigger mess of Sacramento’s economy. On the bright side, The Bee ran an opinion piece that captured just the sort of spirit that is going to get us through this mess: use those days off for community service. I love it so much that I might join this “Furlough Friday” practice, even though I’ve been totally laid off since December.

So I turn to other sources, and it turns out that the Republicans are now warning that the “financial stimulus” proposal is a terrible mistake that will do more harm than good. Stop the presses! Predictably, the Democrats are dismissing this as the incoherent babbling of the very fools who got us into this mess. This might very well be true, but we should also remember that basic logic warns us that something is not a good idea just because fools hate it. On the other hand, Paul Krugman (who happens to be a non-fool) screams bloody murder about how we are teetering on the edge of an abyss, and also says that we actually need to spend about $3 trillion to have the desired effect. I have a hard time picturing that bill passing, so thanks for the encouragement Dr. Krugman.

Government and law are not going to solve the problems here. Remember all the high drama about the $700 billion Grand Unification Bailout? McCain suspended his campaign to deal with it and stuff? Somehow I think that we would have been more reluctant to shovel money at the ones whose greed and incompetence got us into this mess, had we known that we would still be reading about how the banking system is on the verge of collapse, four months later. It seems that we might have used that money in other ways. The economic stimulus approach might not work, but its way more likely to work than what happened with the banking bailout.

One of the most appalling bits of the whole thing is that banking execs keep raking in “bonuses” that are bigger than any amount of money that most of us will ever see. Obama is calling for a cap on this, which is a step in the right direction. But it also illustrates how totally sick things are: It is a really nasty stew of problems with systemic leadership failure (public and private sector alike) at the top of the stinking pile.

Last week a story outlined all the ways that bonuses will keep coming despite any laws. Why do we even need laws for this? Why isn’t there a huge outpouring of rage against any bastards that would even dream of squirming around the letter of the law in clear violation of its well-justified spirit? Why would anyone in their right mind ever do business with such sociopaths? Why don’t we demand the banking equivalent of the humiliating “drive to DC” that was endured by automakers, who actually produce things?

And most importantly, why on earth do we trust government and business leaders to magically fix a situation that demands substantial change in how we value and distribute wealth in this economy? I’m just simply not convinced that we need to stimulate the economy. After all, we have a limited amount of just about everything left, and so we must find a way to scale back our collective consumption. Think of it as being stuck in a house for the winter with not enough wood to keep the whole place warm. Rather than throw more on the fire in order to heat all the rooms, why not have everyone move closer to the stove? Yes, it will be crowded and maybe a little bit uncomfortable. But that’s nothing compared to what will happen if we continue as we have been and run out of wood before summer returns.

That sort of provides a segue to my closing news story of the day, which seems like a pretty good metaphor for why a simpler life is just what the doctor ordered. It turns out that the Amish have been routinely helping their modern-living neighbors who were stricken by power outages for a week or longer following Kentucky’s nasty ice storm. They are providing lanterns and tips for people who are literally taking the firewood advice I offered above, huddling together with their better-prepared family and neighbors. 

I’m hearing more and more words like “disaster” and “catastrophe” and there is an element of truth in this. I don’t think we should focus on the apocalyptic scenarios that might develop so much as the mess that already has. Let’s act in that way that often shows up after a natural disaster, when people let go of their usual selfishness and invite the neighbors in to huddle around the fire. 

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