A year ago tomorrow, I started this series of blog posts. The idea, as I wrote then, was to post every day that I could for a year, talking about the new experiences of a city guy living out in the country. Circumstances changed during the year, causing me to take a day job, which took me off the ranch and kept me from having some of the experiences I otherwise might have, and from having the time to post about some I did.
What have I learned during this year? That’s hard to put into words. Of course, this was my sixth year on the Flying M, so much of what was new to me when we moved here no longer is. Some aspects of rural life are now second nature, just as others remain mysteries, and probably always will.
I haven’t changed my mind about the idea that this is where I belong. I’ve visited cities during the course of these 12 months, but they haven’t managed to lure me back. Leaving the ranch is always hard; returning is always easy. The peace, the natural beauty of our surroundings, the diversity of plant and animal life, the quiet mornings that seem impossible in cities, the infinite starscapes at night...these things are not to be traded away.
I’ve tried, mostly, to keep politics out of these Rural Year posts. But there is a socio-political issue raised by the facts of my first post, and of this one. Until very recently, in terms of humanity’s overall history, people have rarely had the opportunity to move someplace entirely new. People knew at birth where they would always live, and how they would make their living. There have always been migrations, of course, but those were more often on a societal level than a matter of individual choice. When the “New World” of the Americas opened up, people came from Europe and Africa and other places to fill it. But then, once having settled in Chicago or Detroit or Salt Lake, successive generations were more likely to stay put than to move away. This remained true until the 20th century and the birth of a robust middle class, not just here but in countries around the world. Regular folks—not just the wealthy—could, finally, decide their own futures. They could become educated, they could embrace a wide variety of careers, they could go to new places and experience new things.
Now, though, income inequality threatens the ability of our children to do the same. The rich have always done well, of course, by definition. They prospered during the years that the middle class became ever more comfortable. But the rich, apparently, aren’t happy with simply prospering. They want more and more, as much as they can get (and I’m speaking, of necessity, in general terms—some wealthy people are perfectly nice and extremely generous with others—see Bill and Melinda Gates, for example).
In today’s America, though, the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else. The middle class is being squeezed, and the poor are becoming ever more destitute. During the so-called Gilded Age in America, the richest 1 percent controlled 15-18% of the wealth, depending on how one calculates. Today, the richest 1 percent controls 24% of it. Today’s robber barons have far surpassed those of the past. As Timothy Noah explains in Slate, “From 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent.”
Income inequality is declining in Latin America, even as it’s growing here. So much for those “banana republics.” We’re transforming ourselves into a banana republic, and hardly anyone is talking about it.
While the wealthy rake in more and more of the loot (and keep more of it, thanks to tax cuts that favor them over the interests of society as a whole), those things the poor rely on—good public schools, open libraries, accessible parks, other services and safety nets—are being slashed, because there’s not enough money to pay for them. The money is still in existence, of course, but it’s hoarded more and more in bank accounts and stock portfolios and 30,000 square foot mansions. Income inequality, it seems, translates to social inequality and to opportunity inequality. I want my children to be able to have good jobs and to live where they want, to have families and to wish the same for their children.
The middle class growth of the postwar decades allowed me to live my dream of becoming a writer and moving to the rural West. The growing income gap may crush that dream for future generations of Americans. The mobility—social and physical—to which we as a people have become accustomed is under attack. We had better start paying attention to this issue, because it’s the root of many, many others.
So that’s where I stand—grateful to wake up, most mornings, on the ranch (even when it’s way too damn early), and to go to sleep here, whether or not it’s to the sound of coyotes or the neighbor’s internal clock-less rooster. I love the land and the landscape, the people, the silence, the howl of the wind, the sun on the hills. I despise those who demagogue the immigration issue for political gain, and I fear for the ability of future generations to make the same choice I made. Some of us are meant to be in the country, some in the city. Give me a society in which we can all make that choice for ourselves.
Thanks for reading and commenting, this past year. I’ll continue writing about the ranch and country life, but the Rural Year series is officially ended. It was fun.