Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Magical Thinking and The Age of Something for Nothing

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote that when her husband died, she would not throw away his shoes, because he might need them when he comes back. This is the magical thinking in the book’s title. Whenever we talk about the economy “coming back,” we are engaged in exactly the same kind of magical thinking.

That is the problem with both parties. They have been telling us for a generation that we can have something for nothing.  And we have believed them. We believe it is our most fundamental right and would trade the Constitution for this magical power in a heartbeat. When we talk about “our way of life,” that’s what we mean: something for nothing. Magic is our way of life.  We can give you a war, not ask you to serve, and not ask you to pay for it. Really?

It is impossible to have a consumer-based economy. It is so obviously unsustainable. We’ve seen that. But no one in either party will admit it. Instead, we talk about when the economy “comes back.” It shows how infantile we have become in our isolation from reality.  We are like Didion after she lost her husband, or like children when their grandmother has died, wondering when “she’ll come back.” And yet, we have done nothing to bring the economy back. We still don’t make anything.  Sure, it would be great if Marvel Comics and Netflix were enough to maintain control of the world, but they just aren’t.

During the second half of the 20th Century, freedom was defined as the ability to buy whatever you want. I remember when I was a child during the Cold War and I asked my parents why the Russians weren’t free, I was told that they couldn’t even buy blue jeans.

The Baby Boomers, especially, have been the grand recipients of this idea—it was built around them. A consumer economy seemed possible only because their generation was so large. Now that the consequences of this false idea have come home, the Baby Boomers are angry. They can no longer buy whatever they want. Therefore they are no longer free. This is where all of that tea party anger comes from.

People are pissed that they can’t really have something for nothing and so they will vote one more time for whomever tells them that they can.  But, neither party will be able to deliver. If DeMint really let government fail and told all the tea-partiers on Medicare and Social Security that they could not get their benefits so the U.S. could cut back on its deficit, he would lose to Alvin Greene, guaranteed.

We need to reinvent ourselves. Instead, the supposed champions of the Constitution, religion, and private property have spent the summer arguing that a religious group should not be free to build a mosque on private property, and no one will even acknowledge the deadly irony.

If we don’t grow up, perhaps the government should withdraw from the economy entirely so that we actually taste the fruits of our own failure.

There is a remarkable group of writers, including Suzanne Hudson, Joe Formichella, and Everette Capps, at a place called the Waterhole Branch out in Alabama. Every year, the Waterhole Branch group has a shoe burning. They build a big bonfire and throw out all the bad juju of the previous year by burning their old shoes in the fire.

We need a national shoe burning night in order to get over the magical thinking that Didion described. Sure, we might have hangovers the next morning (just ask the Waterhole Branch crowd about that), and we shall certainly have lost our innocence. But that is what we need as a country. It is time to face reality.

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