Saturday, September 03, 2005


What is happening on New Orleans reminds me (very tangentially) of how things changed after the dot bomb. For those of you who aren't Silicon Valley nerds, I'm talking about the tech industry crash at the beginning of this century. Bear with me here, I'm not a completely callous bastard and don't mean to trivialize this disaster.

During the unbelievable times that led up to the crash, all kinds of neat stuff came out. The Internet became a really fascinating place, with so many cool products it was kind of scary. Most of these products didn't have a way to make money, but that didn't make them any less cool if you didn't know that there was no business model behind them. Briefly, it was possible to order Ben and Jerry's ice cream for immediate delivery for cheaper than the price you'd pay at the corner store. To be honest, I can't even remember all the cool stuff anymore, but it really was a heady time.

When the crash came, all the companies with no real business plan, and many of those that had a real business plan, folded. All the goodies went away. The web really felt like a dreary place. It still isn't where it was (and this is probably a good thing, because lighting other peoples' cash on fire is really bad karma). This is probably the closest most of us in the United States who aren't at or beyond retirement age have ever felt to a genuine loss of infrastructure, and frankly it's not very close.

Those of us who live in the United States, in Japan, in Korea, in parts of Europe, Israel, Bangalore, Australia, and many other countries that I have forgotten to mention are experiencing something unusual right now. It's called affluence. Affluence comes from infrastructure, not from dollars. In Japan, you can get on a train to virtually anywhere. That's affluence. In the U.S., you have access to amazingly high-quality food for ludicrously low prices, cheap fuel (still, at $3/gallon, it's substantially cheaper than in Europe). Cheap toys. Amazingly good toys. Fresh water that won't give you dysentery. From a pipe in your house.

We don't notice this affluence because we are steeped in it. It is how we think the world is. But the world isn't inherently a place of affluence. And what's happened in New Orleans, in addition to being an immense tragedy for those affected by it, is a lesson to us all. This morning as I was brushing my teeth, I thought about the people who are still stuck in New Orleans, who have no fresh water in which to brush their teeth. The people in New Orleans no longer have city services that do things like remove dead bodies, or arrest snipers. They no longer have convenience stores.

Andrea and I used to drive from Bisbee up to Saint David a lot, and frequently we'd see the Safeway truck as it came in the other direction. To me the Safeway truck says it all. In that truck is what will keep the people in Bisbee alive. If that truck stopped coming, people would literally have to leave town, because the town can't support its population strictly based on local food production. The big glowing 'S' on top of the truck is a beacon of hope.

Okay, that's sappy, but here's the thing: there are no Safeway trucks going into New Orleans. Safeway trucks aren't some automatic thing that happens. They happen for a reason. Much of the infrastructure across which Safeway trucks and their like pass every day to bring food to you, wherever you happen to live, if you live in the U.S., is not being properly maintained. Where you live, there is a good chance that no plans are in place to deal with whatever catastrophe may strike there.

I say this to strike fear into your heart. Our country has, for a very long time, let ideology stand in the way of practicality. Our country is being run by a person who has never had to worry about whether the Safeway truck would come. We permitted this person to be elected. No, Democrats don't get a pass on this. Just like the Republicans, the Democrats have been fiddling while Rome burns. Issues like Safeway trucks don't get talked about.

It's really bloody well time that we started insisting that the people who we are interviewing for the job of running the country had to talk about Safeway trucks. It's time to start throwing rotten tomatoes if they want to talk about being pro-life, or pro-choice, or about stem cell research, or about litmus tests, about the economic threat of China, or some other mechanism for blaming someone else for our problems.

That's all noise - it has nothing to do with the job of running the country. We can decide for ourselves about stuff like that - we don't need George Bush or John Kerry to tell us what to think. And we're already seeing the signs of our failure to hold them accountable. Bodies are rotting in the streets of New Orleans. Our infrastructure, our affluence, is going down the drain, not because of foreign competition, but because we have permitted the ascendance of an idea, that affluence is free, that infrastructure just happens, and is not something for which we have to pay, in which we have to invest.

Don't blame President Bush. The buck stops here. We are a citizens, not a consumers. It is a duty, not a privilege. Failure to do our duty will not be a theoretical problem. It will affect each of us, personally, significantly. Which of us will be the next to have to see ourselves sitting in a disaster area, with no help on its way? Standing for three days neck-deep in water, and then slowly, quietly sinking? Driving off the edge of a bridge that has fallen into the water, and feeling the brief, horrid thrill of free fall before our car smashes headlong into the water?

What do you have to do? Stop accepting what people tell you at face value. Look underneath the story. If you're a conservative, read the liberal press, and take it seriously. If you're a liberal, read the conservative press, and take it seriously. Learn to research the backstory using google. Stop watching TV news, or if you must watch TV news, broaden your horizons. Watch the BBC as well as CNN. Even if you're a conservative and find it hard to take, try to watch the Daily Show sometimes. Comics are very good at finding the weaknesses in politicians' positions. Read the International Herald-Tribune, not just the Washington Post.

As a citizen, your first duty is to be informed, and you have to do it yourself. You can't just rely on CNN to do it for you. And if you don't have time to be completely informed, which is completely understandable, at the very least, stop assuming that what people tell you is true - if you haven't checked the facts yourself, assume that you just don't know. It's better to not know, and know that you don't know, than it is to allow yourself to believe that you know, when in fact you don't.

The most important thing, though, is to let go of the idea of us versus them. Us versus them is how the wrong people get elected; how the right people never even make it onto the stage. If a politician can't find anything good to say about his or her opponent, they don't deserve your vote.


Post a Comment

<< Home