I have reached that position in my life where I am peering intently over the wall at what is to come and looking over my shoulder at what has transpired. The other side of the wall is not a far view. Quite the contrary. The other side of the wall is my “golden years”, retirement, and passing on into the great ether that is outside of the bonds of time. Behind me is a long life which passed too quickly and a few observations learned along the way.
With the recent cataclysmic economic crises that have enveloped us, the time beyond today takes on a lot more uncertainty, just as it takes on more meaning than almost anything that has happened in my life up until now. It won’t keep me from this long planned retirement. Not that I feel financially above worrying about it, but with the realization that if it is going to be a bad time, economically, in which to retire, it will be an equally bad time in which to continue working.
I, and many of my baby boomer compatriots, have the advantage over most other people today if the economy does worsen into a prolonged recession, or even depression. I, like most baby boomers, grew up in the 1950s. We learned then, even if we’ve forgotten since, how to make do. How to get by with what you have and to work for what you need.
There were still pockets of people in those days who didn’t have electricity and weren’t Amish. Many people didn’t have telephones. Some who didn’t have indoor plumbing. As a child I learned that while all of those things were nice, they were also very recent developments in the march of civilization. I spent more than one night in a home without electric lights, and used an outhouse on more occasions than I care to remember.
I remember the advent of television and the demise of the radio as the primary entertainment source in most homes. That may be why I’ve never been a particular fan of television in general and most of today’s programming in specific.
I remember when most of our news came to us on the printed page, from local newspapers to “Time”, “Look”, “Life”, “Saturday Evening Post”, and a plethora of other publications. It was news that we could read and reread, over which we could ponder, discuss, and cogitate. There were no arched eyebrows or vocal inflections of a news reader to sway our opinion or our thoughts. There was no visible corporate philosophy than spun the news in a certain direction.
Those were also times when banks were regulated, and a time in which they were local, serving the needs of the local client base. A time when the money that was earned locally stayed local. A time before deregulation and merger mania drove the economic engine over the abyss.
In those days, I was taught in economics class, every dollar earned became seven dollars of value in the economy. That was because every dollar spent in that local economy then changed hands on an average of seven times. In other words, the dollar you spent at the local restaurant got spent at the local produce market, which in turn paid someone’s wage, which in turn paid onto a mortgage at the local bank, and a car payment from a local dealer, and so forth. In today’s economy that money leaves most local communities and ends up in Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters to Wal-Mart, or on Wall Street, bundled into earnings instruments, or some such thing.
I lived in a little town of ten thousand people in Northeast Indiana until I was eleven. The downtown had two banks, two movie theaters, two nationally based grocery stores, two drug stores, a bakery, a meat shop, a produce market, two hardwares, and a mixture of other specialty shops. There were no subdivisions or suburbs. There were two small neighborhood grocers, an ice house, a few gas stations, three car dealers, and a few other businesses located in town outside of the downtown area.
The first “supermarket” in town was the A&P which closed its downtown two aisle store in 1959 to open the new concept in grocery marketing, a seven aisle monstrosity eight blocks from the downtown region. In short order, Krogers closed their downtown location to relocate to the opposite side of the town’s periphery with a store approximately the size of the A&P.
While in my experience until that time, if we wanted to buy meat, we went to the butcher shop, or if we needed bread, the bakery, we could now buy all of our groceries in either of these two super stores. The 1960s saw the demise of the bakery, the butchers, the produce store, and countless other specialty stores. It saw the burgeoning presence of large nationally based hardwares, general merchandise stores, and drugstores. The downtown died a slow and agonizing death as each of these new stores moved to the edges of town.
By that time my family and I had moved to a rural setting miles away, but we still returned to this town on a regular basis. We witnessed its metamorphosis, whether for the better or for the worse. Local restaurants and their unique fare gave way to the bland sameness of McDonalds and other chain restaurants. Local stores run by local people that sold you not only merchandise, but expertise, folksy wisdom, and that indefinable personal touch, gave way to the big national corporations who brought in management teams from outside of the area and sent the profits back to a corporate headquarters.
At this stage of my life, and viewing many of the current crises in the economy, energy, and other areas, I long for a sensible return to the concepts of community. I hope a time is near where our food is once again grown and marketed locally to a large degree, eliminating much of the costly transportation costs, while giving us fresher, more wholesome food. A time when local entrepreneurship will let our local money remain in our communities, and banks once more serve the local clientele, not a national or international hegemony enriching far-off owners and their needs and desires.
We may have reached the outer limits of concentrated wealth and power, and may stand on the threshold of a return to communitarian principles. One can only hope. For only within that framework may we be able to save ourselves and our progeny from an empty and vacant future.