Summer’s Discontent Tempered Here

Summer has finally arrived and with it our discontent. Two summers ago, retirees screamed about death panels and warned of a government takeover of Medicare. Last summer’s coming out Party of the Tea amplified the usual midterm election noise. Protests this summer were contained to Washington and Wisconsin over debt ceiling mania and union-busting respectively (if not respectably.)

Instead of widespread panic this summer, we’ve done what America does best. We outsourced the real work to other countries, allowing others to manufacture the rage. London was ablaze for most of last week. But will Americans buy what’s being made overseas? If the price is right, then the answer — as always — is yes.

The dis-ease London’s suffering from looks like a contagion we could catch. The United Kingdom launched its government austerity program sooner than ours, but we seem to be following closely. Safety nets are becoming torn, while investments in infrastructure and education are being eliminated. To the generation coming of age, the future looks bleak. As one observer noticed, “The rich get richer, and the poor get more numerous.”

Poverty and protests are not related as directly as they would seem. The most extreme examples of poverty heart-wrenchingly hinder protests. Somalia is starving quietly. It takes energy to protest. Meanwhile, disaffected youth in London are smashing windows to get free iPhones.

Riots occur when people feel poor, driven less by hunger than desperation. The peasants joined in the French Revolution not because there wasn’t enough food, although there wasn’t. After the very-rich invented lawns as a decorative replacement for vegetable gardens, the people rose up. If it wasn’t the first, it was history’s most literal grassroots movement.

If people believe their hunger is a short-term condition, they will carry on. The human spirit is amazingly resilient, so it doesn’t take much. Lottery tickets sell best in poor neighborhoods. It’s when people feel both helpless and hopeless that turmoil begins.

As the poor become more numerous and more desperate, they band together against the very few, often with bricks in their hands. They feel they have nothing to lose.

But here’s the surprise. Less egalitarian societies tend to be more innovative. The rich innovate for status. (“Automatic sprinklers!”) The poor innovate for survival. (“Dung-fired stoves!”) Inequality will produce societal wealth more quickly than equality, barring an implosion of insurrection. Witness the Cold War. Modern capitalism lurches between entrepreneurial fever and regulatory bed rest, because you need the latter to consolidate the gains of the former.

The cheerful folks behind the Happiness Index will tell you that people are happiest in places where incomes are most uniform across their society. In wealthy Scandinavian countries with high tax rates and poor South American countries alike, people tend to be happier, but they don’t invent iPhones. What they have is good enough.

History agrees. Anthropologists have compared the Chumash and related tribes native to the Northwest Coast with the Shoshone people who inhabited more barren lands to the east of the Cascades. The people living in harsher environments were considered more warrior-like, while the tribes who enjoyed our lush abundance became known for their potlatch gatherings — celebration, benevolence, and redistribution of wealth.

Which brings us to Eugene, 2011. Eugene is a happy place, partly because that abundance of climate is unabated. We have wealthy among us, but they tend not to flaunt it. I know a millionaire who buys shoes less often than my sons, even though his father started a shoe company. Another friend whose name you know, thanks to a family bequest, buys her wine on sale at Bi-Mart. A businessman who owns several downtown buildings told me he would never buy a new car, when a barely used car costs so much less. We celebrate our political and cultural differences, but not our economic ones.

We’re recreational rioters in Eugene. We show up for protests as social outings, because our book clubs had too many rules. We’ll hold a placard and wave from a busy street corner to promote our deeply held beliefs, unless it’s raining. Protestations aside, we’re a contented bunch. Perfect summers help.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column for The Register-Guard each Friday and blogs.