Thursday, July 7, 2016

Inside, Over, Upside Down


The week after antiquers leave always finds us recovering from disruption, Round Top style. Traffic is reasonable, again. The Mercantile is restocking. A certain peace prevails.

But the truth is we should be getting used to disruption, and not just during our biannual madness. Because our country is living through it, too.

Nationally, “disruption” has become policy, in both corporations and government.

Silicon Valley is proud of it. A new tech innovation is measured and valued by its level of potential “disruption,” meaning its capacity to upend our world, our lives. The word and concept are everywhere in business today.

Congress is proud of it, too. “Disrupt Obama” has been its motto since the moment our current president was elected.

Some of us have been cheering through it all or, maybe, wondering what the heck is going on?

And the answer is: a revolution.

Not the kind we had in 1776. Or the French had in 1787. Not the kind Russia had in 1917. Not yet.

It’s more like the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Think of the frog in the pot who doesn’t feel the temperature rising until he’s cooked.

We snapped up the labor saving devices that began arriving a generation ago. Personal computers, cell phones, smart phones. World connectivity in the blink of a newt’s eye. We never thought what the logic that had made all that possible might do to harm us.

Not that it would have helped if we had. Change so devastating and transformative is impossible to stop. And somebody always pays for it.

Guess who?

Us. The American middle. The people who have long been called the nation’s backbone, the basis on which our prosperity and democratic success has been achieved.

Jobs are disappearing. Blame robots. Blame the companies who employed us for sending our jobs abroad to cut costs. Blame them, too, for the pensions that have evaporated, for the broken contract between employee and management that offered security and a wage or salary for quality work.

Blame the hedge funds who continually emphasize a corporation’s quarterly earnings over long term success. They say it’s to benefit the shareholders, and we picture people like us. But no, the shareholders they have in mind are themselves, their own large investors. We are afterthoughts.

Disruption is very hard on a nation, harder on its spirit than a declared war. We look for somebody easier to blame, somebody that doesn’t require an economics degree to suss out. But everywhere we look, we see the power of big money exerting what appears to be an outsize influence. Our Congress no longer pays attention to us. They seem locked in their own virtual reality, a cycle of reelection myopia.

Into this situation, stride Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two halves of a whole. Like the mythological Centaur, half man, half horse. It’s no accident that both men shout when making a point. No accident that both men distill their message into easily digested bite-size morsels.

Think bait at the end of a fishing line. And we are the bass, striking.

The professional elites who observe national politics missed the appeal of Trump-Sanders. They missed it completely, because they don’t know anybody who has been damaged by the current economic reality. They’d have to go home to do that. To Iowa, Indiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Oregon. They’d have to visit places where meth use is highest and hope has gone on life support.

It’s odd, in a way, that the media has been so slow to catch on. Few industries have been upended as abruptly and painfully as the newspaper business.

Human beings don’t flourish in the middle of constant upheaval and ceaseless stress. Maybe that’s why the systems of the world move toward stability if given half a chance. People want to feel secure and hopeful of a better tomorrow. No wonder strident Bernie, preaching more disruption, has failed to defeat Hillary Clinton.

But what can any politician do to alter the momentum of technology and the price it exacts from families and individuals?

During last month’s Antique Disruption along Highway 237, I found myself wondering whether I might be seeing a picture of our world’s future. While robots run factories with minimal human supervision, the rest of us might be scrambling to survive in the micro economy of proprietor operated businesses, itinerant sales and service.

The popularity of Frantique Month speaks to the appeal of objects that date from the machine and artisan age, of freshly made food in stalls or tent caf├ęs, of people gathered in happy, chaotic socializing. It harks back to the village market days of our collective past.

Will a resurgence of small family farms be the next step?
(This appeared as my May column in the Fayette County Record.)

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