Thursday, June 10, 2010

Community, its Markers, and Wealth

When my family arrived in the United States, you could go to college at your state university without paying tuition; you had to pay for lodging; you had to pay for books; the education was free. We got here in 1951. In 1954 National Educational Television beg we. As its support from the Ford Foundation faded, Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (1967); from this initiative arose the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1970. Public TV had no advertising. Its fare was not at first very compelling but became ever better. When we arrived in Kansas City and my parents rapidly found work, they went to work using a streetcar system; it served the whole city efficiently; most people could catch a streetcar by walking a few blocks east or west. We lived right in the city, in a humble but tidy neighborhood. We could walk to grocery stores; one was a Safeway. Other typical services were also within walking distance (pharmacies, restaurants, barber shops, movies, doctors’ offices). One of our regular weekend trips was to the downtown library—by streetcar. In our neighborhood many people belonged to unions; the labor movement was alive, well, growing, much in the news. The working class had a kind of consciousness, unity.

Yesterday another fundraiser began on PBS. “Again?” I said—but not with any kind of heat. Mine was a sort of sigh well beyond resignation. I’d discovered the phone banks and the all-too-familiar fundraising faces after watching three ads, two screens recognizing supporting foundation, and CPB’s plug for itself. This being the kick-off yet another cycle, our station showed a well-made documentary on the Polish Heritage of Detroit; that community was and continues to be highly communitarian, ritualistic, Catholic, cohesive, lasting. This made me think of “community” more generally—and the disappearance of its markers as our life in these states unfolded.

Streetcars had died first. By the time we left Kansas City, only the tracks remained; a decade later even the tracks had disappeared. By the time our children were of college age, every state university charged a tuition. By that time central cities had undergone white flight to the suburbs. Years later, revisiting our first U.S. neighborhood, I found, count them, three burned out houses their sooty hulks still there. Our own house was now a weed-covered vacant lot. I don’t know about Kansas City, but I do know the situation in Detroit. In Detroit retail trade has also left the central city so that the inner-city population has virtually nowhere to shop; the few stores that remain sell chips, liquor, and minimal groceries at high prices. In my professional life I’ve had frequent occasions to study the evolution of the working class—and not least the ever-downward pointing curves of union membership.

People present such catalogues of change to blame some group, class, or ideology for failure to “do the right thing.” But changes on so great a scale have deeper—one might say environmental—causes. Community? It is adaptable, natural, valuable. How then to explain the progressive erosion of its markers? They should not be eroding unless something better can be discovered as the cause of the decay.

That something better turns out to have been wealth. It’s better—from the personal view point, but it carries a hidden cost. In the 50-year period from 1951 to 2001 (to pick a round number) wealth has increased three-fold. Per capita disposable income in constant dollars was $8,408 in 1951 and $25,704 in 2001. If we take the measure of constant dollars seriously, thus equivalent purchasing power in the two years, the population was much richer in 2001 than in 1951 when we set foot on U.S. soil. The distribution of wealth has been uneven, but most people did experience the pleasure of affluence enough so that, well, communal loyalties (which extract a cost) have weakened without appearing to erode the “good life.” To the contrary. Some of the disciplines demanded by communal life could be abandoned too with gains in pleasure and no tangible loss of value except, perhaps, nostalgia.

Not visible in this process, of course, is that the structures of human cohesiveness have weakened; now, more and more visibly, the institutional and even the physical structures are also showing signs of heading south. No single group, class, or ideology can be singled out for blame (not that blame isn’t being issued left and right). The environment changed—but not the constant of human nature. I’m not an economic determinist but I am a student of humanity. Paradoxically, wealth is more erosive of values than want. Community will come back again when things have decayed enough. And it might be built around the still existing nodes of it—like, for instance, the Polish community in Detroit and many other such seemingly backward but still healthy human structures that remain.


  1. Deep thoughts. I see a bit of a theme in your musing this week.

    I love the line:
    "Paradoxically, wealth is more erosive of values than want."

    Makes me wonder about all the studying I did about economic development in what we use to call the Third World. Don't get me wrong, decent working conditions, a living wage and a life that allows for some time and energy to be spent on other than simply survival is, without a doubt, a good goal. But, how you get there is perhaps also important...

  2. Good point there, Monique, about economic development in the Third World. We are up against difficult issues there. An economic free-for-all, for one, is certain to lead to problems. I feel for the Chinese population as it now enters the capitalist meat-grinder...

  3. "wealth is more erosive of values than want"

    Do you think wealth is like currency? With wealth we are no longer tied to physical economic objects of value? Or psychological objects of value?

    Does wealth allow us to create an individual structure which seems to escape the communal structures that bind the poor? ( we can't really totally escape, for we need services for which we "pay" others.)

    If it allows us to create an individualist structure which is not totally dependent upon the community, then the next problem is the "design" of this individualism: is it benign or malign? What design parameters did we use? Charity or Exploitation? And so on...

    We Americans seem to use wealth as a substitute for the Endless Frontier: more land just beyond the river, and Freedom of Opinion - which itself can be an infinite country.
    However, if wealth is as protean as currency, American Capitalism is only one of an unlimited possibility of economics. There is no logical reason that Capitalism may not constrain itself in different ways, reducing profits thereby, but seeking increased social returns; no reason at all. We merely choose not to do so.

    We shall see; the constraints are being felt: the limits of technology, the limits of land, the limits of climate, and the limits of power.

  4. Montag: I guess I have a darker view than you do...

  5. I was talking theory. In reality, it's going to be more like an O'Neil play: The Garbageman Cometh.

  6. I'm with you there, Montag. Then the Iceman, now the Garbageman...