Sunday, January 8, 2012

A blueprint for a dump

One of the things that always fascinates me is talking to folks, say, 35 years old and realizing that the USA that I grew up in doesn't even exist as a possibility for them.  It hasn't existed at any time during their lives and since the teaching of contemporary history is virtually non-existent in the country, the ONLY possible way that USA could exist in a 35 yo mind is if they got very lucky and read some good books.

My father was poor as only a small-town preacher can be.  During much of my childhood, he made $300 a month.  There were six of us.  We did get to live in a parsonage so housing was free but there wasn't much left over in any month and it was always welcome when a farmer from church slipped some fresh food into the car.  But this was not poor by any stretch of the international definition of poor.  We children went to well-lit, well-heated mostly new schools that had music, art, and science departments.  Our house had central heating and indoor plumbing.  We had a telephone.  Even though we didn't get television until I was a high-school sophomore, we had radio and a record player.  My oldest sister took music lessons on the piano, flute, double bass, and pipe organ becoming proficient in all of them.

When it came time to go to college, I had a big land-grant university waiting for me that charged $125 in tuition and $300 for a dorm room each quarter.  Jobs within walking distance of campus paid at least $2.00 an hour and because I knew how to build houses, I could get $4.00 an hour working construction during the summer.  Do the math.  It was a lot of work but it was possible to self-finance a university education.

And about those jobs.  In the fall of 1969, I got a part-time job delivering critical care medical equipment.  In the spring of 1970, I got into a hassle with my draft board and would up dropping out of school (long story).  In three month of working full time at the medical delivery service, I was able to save up enough money so I could spend the whole summer hitchhiking through Europe—one of my most profoundly significant life experiences and one only the children of the truly wealthy can afford now.

The other astonishing memory was of a house I helped build the summer I graduated from high school.  It was a modest affair for the times—three bedrooms, a full bath, kitchen, dining room, living room, central heating, a full basement, and a two-car garage.  It would cost the new homeowner $18,400 ready to move in.  Here was the interesting part—the guy we were building it for worked on the line at the local shoe factory doing things like pulling lasts and stitching soles.  Sometimes he would come by after his shift to watch us build his house.  He always looked very tired.  I am sure he earned every cent he made at that factory twice over but he was getting a brand-new house that was literally beyond the imagination of some teenaged girl toiling endless hours making shoes for Nike in Indonesia these days.

Today these things seem to me like a fantasy and I lived through them.  I grew up in a nation that went to the moon just because we could do it.  I was there when the Interstate highway system was new.  I remember when the Boeing 727 brought the jet age to small airports and dozens of other aviation triumphs that culminated with the 747 in 1969—still considered the best subsonic transportation plane ever designed.  The optimism was so heady, my high school graduation speaker (1967) promised our class that we would be the last humans to walk solely upon planet earth.

Well obviously, that USA doesn't exist any longer and so I have decided, as a new year's project, to explain as best I can the economic, social, political, and cultural changes that destroyed the country of my childhood.  None of this is new.  All of the events I will describe happened in public.  In fact, the only reason this isn't common knowledge is because contemporary history is not taught.  I am calling this tale of extended disaster "a blueprint for a dump."


  1. Looking forward to reading this series. I'm almost 30 years old and only understand what you're talking about in the abstract--and even then, not because I learned anything about it in school.

  2. Thanks Bolo. I am writing this especially for guys like you. You certainly deserve better than you got!

  3. Jonathan,

    I have been reading your blog for a while, and would like to thank you for it. I am 43 years old, and received the benefits of the tail end of the prosperity your are talking about, which in my case led to an affordable degree in history and philosophy at a private university, with a minimal amount of student debt. This degree left me well equipped to pursue graduate training, and I was lucky enough to get an academic job right after the burst of the internet bubble. I have also benefitted (twice) from the Fulbright fellowship programs, certainly the best progressive ideas ever to come out of congress.

    I am now a tenured faculty member at a public university. My father was a factory worker (whose company was destroyed in two successive predator operations like those you write about) and my mother worked as a payroll clerk, part time. I just pray my own children are able to participate in a fraction of the prosperity I or my parents have seen, give that tuition at the University I attended is now over 40K per year, and I have three children.

  4. Thanks Prom

    Those overpriced tuition rates may stay around awhile but maybe your kids will be able to afford a decent starter home at the rate real estate prices keep dropping. BTW, I recently drove by that house we built for the shoemaker in 1967. It is still in good shape and the trees are now quite large. So I looked it up—the last time that house sold (2005) it fetched $192,000—too bad incomes aren't up by 10x.

    Hug your kids—they have a very difficult life ahead of them!

  5. I remember as well.

    Maybe we can do something about it, or at least try for the kids.