Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.
Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.
The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?
I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.
The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?
It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.
Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.
I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.
Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.
There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.
(First published July 20, 2013)