I got an important reminder today that at least where the country’s economic crisis is concerned, it’s really mostly just about stuff.
The reminder came in the form of a very large limb, about two feet in diameter, projecting out over my driveway from an ancient horse chestnut tree. The limb suddenly decided it had been hanging around long enough, and it just broke off, unannounced, and landed on top of my car.
I heard an enormous cracking sound out my window, looked out, and where there had been a car, there was an enormous pile of branches and leaves.
I went outside and surveyed at the situation, and it was clear that there was a good deal of damage. The left front fender had been badly dented and pulled away from the body, and the hood was buckled. Worse, a larger part of the limb had fallen across the roof midway back, making a small dent on the left side and a large one on the right side. Looking more closely, I could see that on the right side of the vehicle, the upper frame and the upright post between the doors had been bent. Neither door could open, and the two doors were overlapped near the top—another indication of a bent frame.
I spent two hours with a chainsaw clearing the huge limb off the car, and then drove it to a body shop, where the owner looked it over and assured me the car was totaled. A 1993 vehicle, it would cost far more to fix the frame and replace the roof than the value of the car. This was bad news, since I had put a brand new engine in the car only a year and a half ago, and had rebuilt the transmission a year ago. That’s an investment of about $8,000, and I’ll be lucky to get $3000 from my insurer if they total the car, even though it was in perfect condition inside and out.
A thing like this can be pretty depressing, but after a cold beer I got to thinking, “Heck, it’s just a car.” Nobody got hurt, after all, which was something. If the limb had fallen on our other car, a Honda Civic, it would have crushed the thing flat, and anyone sitting in it, too. If it had fallen on a person, forget it.
And so it is with our economic crisis. Homes are plummeting in value, jobs are being lost (magazines I have depended on for assignments have been folding or cutting back their freelance budgets). But most people have places to turn to—relatives, churches, friends, food stamps. Losing a house to foreclosure can seem like a tragedy, but it’s not terminal cancer. It’s stuff. Renting isn’t the end of the world.
What makes our national crisis seem so terrible is that so many people have been so focused on their wealth, their possessions and their standard of living, we’ve stopped thinking of ourselves as part of a community. We see a house in foreclosure in the neighborhood, and we don’t think, “How terrible. I wonder if those people need help.” We just drive on by and go home to watch TV. In fact, we worry so much about what this economic crisis is doing to us personally that we aren’t focusing collectively on the real issue, which is how the ruling elite are profiting from the mess, and stealing us blind, with the help of Congress and the White House.
We see our 401(k) plans tank, and we panic, but the reason we panic is because we had this fantasy vision of retiring on our own, and living largely as we have lived, i.e. on our own. We don’t think about retiring to a communal house with old friends, or moving in with our kids. People today don’t do that. They did that 100 years ago, but no longer. The truth: It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to go back to the communes of our youth when we get old, pooling our Social Security checks and compensating for each other’s health deficits and handicaps. Again, we’re so focused on our personal loss of assets that we aren’t focusing collectively on the battle to rescue Social Security—and I don’t mean the kind of “rescue” being contemplated by Congress and the White House, which is all about cut-backs and delays in benefits and privatization. I mean rescuing Social Security as it is now.
This all might seem a far cry from having a tree take out your old car, but my point is simply that a lot of what causes people to freak out these days in America is our fetishism of material goods. And a lot of our anxiety about the current crisis has to do with our loss of any sense of community.
We should have a single-payer healthcare system, with the government providing all the funding, not because it would be cheaper for some of us, or because it would remove a major cost burden from employers, but because 45 million of us today are unable to simply go and see a doctor when we feel sick, and because we should want every American to have decent, affordable healthcare.
I’ll take this further. Instead of going about our lives, and obsessing about America’s economic woes, we should be demanding an end to the stupid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the attacks on Pakistan, and not because they cost too much, but because our neighbor, or our neighbor’s kid in uniform are at risk for no good reason, other than to project American power, to control foreign oil reserves, and to enrich defense contractors—and because too many innocent Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis are being killed for no other purpose.
I’m at peace with the demise of my good old Volvo wagon. It’s just stuff.
There are much more important things to think about, including where to stack and season all that wood I just cut up.
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