Main Street America is as much responsible for the current economic crisis, and its solutions, as any of the major players we have come to know and despise. For all its political nostalgia, the average American's resistence to reform is a major obstacle towards solving our current problems and making America, and its small towns, strong and healthy.
We can be collectively angry about AIG bonuses and unfathomable bailouts for the Wall Street executives that ran their companies into the ground. We can express frustration over Detroit's inability to reform themselves into modern car companies, despite obvious warning signs and decades of pressure to do so. We can be seriously peaved at our elected officials for letting this all happen and, now that it has, senselessly bickering about what to do about it.
We can do these things, but if we fail to acknowledge our role in this economic crisis - the small-town, main street role - nothing is going to change. If Average Americans can't come to grips with how we have contributed to bringing this about, America's long, slow decline will not just be inevitable, it will be irreversible.
You see, pointing fingers and assigning blame has its place, but it inevitably excuses some very destructive behavior on our part. It also permeates a culture where everything is someone else's fault, we're not responsible, and so (and this is the important part) we are powerless to fix it. It is Madoff. George Bush. Enron. Wall Street greed. Hedge fund managers. Detroit union bosses. Barack Obama. Congress. Courts. The Man.
Just not us. Us fools. We're the ones getting taken.
So, to follow up on my article from Monday about the subsidy of my road by my neighbors (thanks guys), I've decided to focus this entry on all the ways I have helped cause this economic crisis. See if you share parts of my story.
Live on a large, private (and subsidized) lot. If you have not read this week's posting on the true cost of the road in front of my house, you should. We have a modest house in a modest location, but as the article points out, it exists due to the generosity (or ignorance) of the other taxpayers in my town.
Bought a Townhome. Back when I decided to go to graduate school, we were able to buy a townhome in a north-metro suburb. It was cheaper than rent, especially with two Samoyeds. Despite having practically no income (I went from engineer to grad student) and an existing mortgage (we rented our house at a monthly loss), I was approved for double the house I could ever have afforded or even wanted. We were able to easily get into the townhouse and build equity while paying less than we would for renting. Our mortgage was sold twice in the short two and a half years we owned the place.
Sold a Townhome. After graduate school, we were able to sell the townhome really easily. The person who bought it paid top dollar, thanks to a generous appraisal, but did so with a first mortgage, second mortgage and third mortgage, plus a little scheme where their realtor got a bonus, which was somehow applied to the first couple of payments. We actually walked out of the closing because it did not seem right, but were convinced to honor our contract and wound up closing anyway. Everyone made money on the transaction, except the buyer.
Refinancing. Building a business is expensive. Rising home prices - fueled by those evil derivatives trading, etc... - gave me a nice bank to draw on when finances got tight. I believe I have had three separate home equity loans that have funded Community Growth Institute, either directly or indirectly.
Low Transportation Costs. We work with small towns in all locations. I have had years where I have put 40,000 miles on my car. Not possible if gas prices are high, roads are not wide and well-maintained and car prices are affordable. My wife works an hour away. Again, not possible with higher transportation costs.
So, in just a couple of minutes, I've demonstrated that I have benefited in my own way from the economics of the last 20 years. Low interest rates, easy home loans, subsidized infrastructure, low fuel and energy costs are obvious ones. Now, granted my degree of benefit has been different than the "fat cat" at AIG. But our fates are tied more closely, and the hypocrisy of any of my criticism more acute, than would be comfortable to admit.
Two related stories pop into my head. The first: A couple years ago, (the hated country of) Iran announced that they would be lowering fuel subsidies. Riots ensued. At the time we all thought it ironic that a county floating on oil would ration fuel. Less discussed was the fact that citizens of a repressive theocracy did not show up to protest the lack of freedom or opportunity, but the fact that they would now have to pay closer to market-price for gasoline.
The second is a story about school busing in my local district. The prior policy was to pick up kids within one mile of school, and everyone else too, essentially at their door step. To save costs, the district created a no-pick-up area of one mile and requiring outlying parents to get their kids to major intersections (no 1/4-mile trips down cul-de-sacs for buses). Outrage ensued.
It is easy for many of us to feel like fools when we see people with more access and more power benefit from a system that is seemingly set up to benefit them. Is that really what makes us fools, though, or is it the fact that we, in a sad and incremental way, benefit from this system too? Are our minor excesses, multiplied across millions of instances, part of the problem? Are we holding the country hostage by resisting change more than Iranians and their gas rations, and over things just as trivial, in the big-picture sense.
I can hear someone saying, "Let them eat cake."
We should not be outraged over bonuses or bailouts. We should be outraged by the pathetically little we have received in this bargain. And we should be shamed by how much that little bit means to us. A house with a little bit of private space (and a large mortgage with lots of maintenance). Freedom to travel the open road (through terrible commutes in a financed car). Roads and streets to commercial strips and shopping malls (along with rising taxes and increased public debt). New school campuses in the countryside (while we abandon our neighborhood schools and the spontaneous joys of youth that come with it).
Is this really worth it?
Only when we stop demanding to live like fools ourselves - or are forced to do so by massive inflation, interest rates and taxes - will the things happening on Wall Street and Detroit truly change.
We're not powerless, but a revolution from Main Street requires that we first change our hearts and minds about what it means to live on Main Street.