"The Hands and The Pockets" (Essay)

Wondering about the relative worth of work and capital in a land that has always had winners and losers. It still is a great country, still struggling to figure itself out.

I’ve certainly experienced a tremendous amount in this last month on the road. I’ve seen snow in New England and summer shine in Tennessee, crisscrossed the Big River and the Big Muddy, traced the footsteps of Lewis & Clark and driven America’s Main Street. I’ve stood at Amelia Earhart’s birthplace and watched bald eagles making ready to leave theirs. I feel like Johnny Cash - “I’ve been everywhere, man”. (Note: I've somewhat loosely photojournaled at Instagram and my Facebook page).

Of course, there is a lot to see in this big beautiful country, and not all of it is good. I’ve seen urban decay and rural poverty up close, and passed through some thriving prairie towns ten miles down the road from one fading into oblivion. Accompanied most of the time by the relentless ghosts of history and the hum of 186,000 miles worth of Honda horsepower.

I usually drive in silence. It’s great thinking time, and whenever the loneliness sets in it’s easy to spend a few minutes on the headset catching up with family or friends. I spent a lot of time thinking about progress. It’s inexorable, and there are always winners and losers. I am sure that the last American buggy factory built fine carriages with great features, but that could not save it from the onslaught of the automobile. Some losses and lefts-behinds we deeply lament, while others we are eager to relegate to that infamous dustbin of history.

As the ultimate silly season is upon us, candidates stump and bluster and serve as faces for the machinery of a billion-dollar political industry. There is an ebb and flow to this process throughout our history. We gradually get wise to the new methods and means they use to influence our collective opinion, and they have to evolve new strategies to keep us angry and motivated to give them money and support their candidates. Right now they have the upper hand in a land bitterly divided, where even reasonable people tune out what they don’t want to hear - or believe - probably because so much of the anger and vitriol feels so toxic. The machinery has the upper hand, and the process is a caricature of itself, and of us.

My travels leave me convinced that the lack of civic discourse, and frankly basic decency, is keeping us from a difficult conversation that we need to have as a people. A simple question really, for it seems to my simple mind that most of these hateful food fights really do come from a fairly basic issue. What is the value of the hands that do the work, versus the pockets that provide the money to make that work possible?

We know about the extremes. The anti-trust legislation and the rise of labor unions a century ago recognized the exploitative nature of monopolies and unfettered big business. We’ve certainly wrung our hands and shouted curses about the migration of whole industries to far-distant lands with a cheaper labor pool and cost of doing business. And a lot of us rage about CEOs collecting 8 figure salaries while laying off hundreds or even thousands of workers so that they can pay big shareholder dividends and meet industry analyst projections.

There must be some middle ground, some sweet spot or reasonable dynamic equilibrium, where everyone benefits in some “fair” fashion. Workers make a decent living for their talents, and have some reasonable expectation of a modest rise in standard of living and some comfort in their golden years. There are well-run companies whose CEOs "get it" about having a motivated workforce and a reasonable balance sheet. And of course, those same profits that go to investors and shareholders also form some portion of our personal savings for our kids college and our retirement.

It’s a shame that we can’t even sit around a table with our various different philosophies and ideologies to sort that out. My way or the highway. “How can you not see how wrong you are?” “That’s just propaganda from ”.

Maybe this most absurd and profane election season is like the onset of a good purging flu. We need to suffer the misery, go through the process and get all this stuff out. Maybe then we can see a little more clearly. That there are considerations from various sides of the issue that don’t fall into the narrative of the two political machines. That the hands need the pockets, and the pockets need the hands. And maybe most of all, perhaps that we need the best of each other even if we don’t always agree on the details.

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