This New American Century

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Imagine a young couple, both less than 30 years old, with two children, who can’t find jobs. There must be a lot of such people around now, with the economy the way it is, especially if they don’t have any particular education or specialized skills. They’ve made some stupid mistakes, so they have legal troubles not yet resolved. Not everyone has those problems, but all of us have probably done stupid things when we were young. It would be one thing if they weren’t trying, another if they’re trying, but so far without success.

Some might say, let them die. America’s largely been about competition throughout our history, but relatively fair competition. And I don’t think anyone can say that Americans in general are hard-hearted, though some are. Are we becoming hard-hearted as a nation? Mitt Romney didn’t think so when he said that Americans couldn’t possibly die from lack of health insurance. The pain he’s likely to cause by revamping Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security isn’t real to him, since he’s not in the position of needing those things, and apparently has no idea about people who are. Maybe he means well, though I wouldn’t count on that, but being clueless doesn’t suggest his being good presidential material.

Cal Thomas, in a column a year or more ago, talked about how there were good things in the Great Depression: that people helped each other more. Certainly that part of it was a good thing. How many of us would trade a financially comfortable life for that?

Maybe it would be good for us if we did, though. Maybe each of us would find a sudden new perspective on our own value and that of others. I think that many of us hunger for that, but are afraid of the price. The problems we face as a nation won’t be easy to solve, any more than our personal problems. We all want security, but we also want to live, and too much security can eventually strangle life. Maybe that’s one of the root causes of the hatred we see here. People are insecure, and prefer to blame others for it.  Scapegoating is pretty universal. It’s a symptom of fear, and fear is very useful as a tool for manipulation.

So, returning to the couple I mentioned before, let’s suppose further that their health isn’t very good, and that they have no health insurance. Whoever might be helping them is going to help them with those problems too, and healthcare isn’t cheap. Since neither of them have jobs, they can’t repay whoever helps them. What happens next? Does whoever helps them stop? Do they finally find work and begin supporting themselves?

I’m speaking here of only one couple, but the above problem is a lot larger than that. A lot of young people are unable to find work. Sometimes it’s their own fault, sometimes it isn’t. What is to be done? Do we as a country, as a community, as a state, invest in these young people and help them to eventually succeed, or do we cast them adrift?

I read a book on 17th century pirates, whose main place of activity was the Caribbean. According to this, English families, during the Cromwellian Civil War, used to send their boys away from home as early as the age of 7, since they couldn’t afford to support them. Many of these boys ended as pirates in the Caribbean. Where else could they have gone? They had no education, and no one to sponsor them in getting one or finding a decent job. So they drifted into being outlaws because it was their only way to survive, and into homosexuality, since women were rarely available.

As a country we’re entering into a period comparable to that one. We have no actual civil war as yet, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility. And I also wouldn’t exclude the possibility of poverty touching a lot more lives than it does now.

The age of cheap energy is about over with. We have some oil, natural gas and coal left, but the supply is finite, and we don’t know how much longer it will last. People have begun using renewable energy like solar and wind, and there are probably other sources out there to be exploited if we can figure out how and invest in them. But suppose we don’t. And suppose that even if we do, we can’t use energy as we’ve become used to doing. Then our economy stops expanding.

The age of cheap energy roughly corresponds with the history of the USA. The American Dream was built at least partially on cheap energy. Can there be an American Dream without it?

We’re in an age that is in some ways unprecedented. There have been ecological catastrophes before, but they’ve been mostly pretty localized. That’s unlikely to be true this time. Most areas of the world have been subjected to ecological degradation. We can change this if we want to, but we get things from this behavior that we like.

We like possessions. We like wealth. We don’t like to think of the true cost of things, that means that when the cost comes due we won’t want to pay it, and the price will grow correspondingly higher.

We’ve had many people tell us, beginning thousands of years ago, and continuing through the last century and into this one, that we need to change our ways. But we don’t like change. We’re willing, as a group, to do almost anything to avoid it.

Not that there aren’t those who do like change, and will rise to meet it, given any resources at all, but they, I think, are a minority. Perhaps I’m wrong about that. Humans can be quite adaptable when it comes down to it, but being willing to do the things to adapt doesn’t come easy to many of us.

It’s easier to ignore the problems, hoping they’ll go away, and maybe some of them will. But there are too many, and too excruciatingly difficult for many of them to just disappear. This coming century will be a time of adjustment, and maybe for long after that. We may have reason to consider the command-ments of Jesus again, that we are told to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and be humble (which I imagine is the interpretation of  ” poor in spirit”). To say nothing of his exhortation to treat anyone in need as if it was him.  How many of us do these things now? Perhaps we ought to start practicing.

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