My travels and adventures largely circle around mountain climbing and hiking. This means I must traverse the great expanses of the great plains, inching my way to the Rockies and the thousands of miles of geologic beauty that lay to the west. Aside from Denver and Salt Lake City, there are very few large metropolitan areas so the majority of time you're either crashing at a hotel or getting gas it's in a small "traditional" American town.
Unconsciously, this meant I was not just pursuing the latest greatest hike, but conducting a near-10 year study on small town America and its corresponding economy. At first my observations were simple ones, primarily noting, even ruing, the demise of these small towns. You typically have a "main street" where old buildings from the 1880's to 1920's have the date they were built etched into the headstone. Their architecture is beautiful, usually brick or stone and it doesn't take much imagination to see what a bustling town it was over a century ago. But by my last back-of-napkin estimation nearly 70% of these gorgeous buildings are empty or up for rent. And the towns I revisit because they're on common throughways I use, you can usually bet at least 20% of the buildings that were occupied have switched tenants. It's a sad sight to see, a quaint little town that was once a genuine, tight-knit bustling community, now approaching ghost town status, but in the demise of these small towns there is hope as it is a testament to genuine progress in America, as well as a lesson for our economic future.
The first thing to realize about small towns is that they were largely built based on an agricultural economy. There were enough farmers and ranchers in a certain area that there was enough economic demand for a town that provided wares, equipment, machinery, banking, etc. (notice how a lot of small towns, though decimated, still have a John Deere dealer?). However, as time went on and technology advanced farming techniques become multiples more efficient, not only increasing yields, but requiring a lot less labor.
Overall this is a good thing for the country. Food becomes cheaper, the bane of hunger and starvation that plagued human kind since 200,000 BC is defeated, and farmers don't have to toil as much as they used to in the mule and ox days. However, the town itself suffered. With farmer Joe able to do thrice the work with 1/10th the labor, demand for labor fell and with it the population of these small towns. Couple that with transportation technology and the managerial efficiency of large retail stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.), not only was your population decreasing, but the local hardware store, grocery and butcher were no longer needed. Thus why those beautiful buildings sit empty in small town America, and anybody born there usually leaves for the city.
While we may lament this natural horse-replaced-by-car death of small town America, there was another thing I noticed about these small towns. The businesses that WERE in business and replacing the grocer, the butcher, the mechanic, etc., were a testament to how these advances in technology, farming methods, and other general improvements in economic efficiency were making the lives of everybody easier. People were no longer running hard businesses like "butchering animals" or "repairing tractors," but "fun" businesses like opening a coffee shop, an art store, or (my favorite) the small town dive bar.
I didn't fully connect the dots until I started taking pictures of the various small town bars I was visiting as kind of a hobby. But the more time I had on the road to sit and think it through, the more I realized that technological advances were making it so people in these towns today could live more leisurely and enjoyable lives than their ancestors did 100 years ago. And that the empty brick buildings on main street that were being replaced with antique stores, bars, and restaurants was a good thing and not a bad thing.
There is just one "thing," however. And that is what this trend in small town America portends for the rest of the country. And most Americans are not going to like it as it directly addresses and destroys what they hold most dear - their egos.
Realize that what is ultimately driving this change in small towns is the replacement of labor with machines. I've addressed this before in a post about the Roboticized Economy, where more and more humans are rendered obsolete as they are essentially replaced by robots. On the face of it this seems like a great thing. Robots doing all the work, humans just kicking back doing nothing. It's so utopian it has inexperienced, leftist academian morons orgasming over their latest half-baked idea of a "minimum guaranteed income." But there's a problem with this new economy. While it may feed the human stomach, it won't feed the human ego. And people, especially Americans, value their egos above all else.
Realize this new REAL WORLD economy and what the latest generation has been brought up to believe about itself are like two runaway trains heading towards a horrific collision. Because of technology the new economy does not need unskilled, untalented human labor. It needs technicians, engineers, programmers, doctors and all related professions that go into supporting the increasingly-roboticized economy. However, kids today are increasingly brought up to believe the world bends to their wills and desires. That they can "follow their heart and the money will follow." So they major in the most worthless and un-intellectually-challenging subjects. And upon graduation when their skills (or lack thereof) do not match up with what is in demand in this new economy, they sit their, their dreams destroyed, unemployed and with a crippling level of debt. They may have been a runaway freight train, but the real world economy was a much strong, faster, and powerful one.
Naturally, this does not sit well with a generation brought up to be the most spoiled and entitled of them all. They protest, they demand student loan forgiveness, they demand other people's money, anything and everything, whatever it takes, they demand their pound of flesh because they've been brought up to believe they're entitled.
But understand the real reason for their anger.
While the real world economy demands doctors, engineers, specialists, programmers, etc., to keep this roboticized economy going, and all these people work hard, attend school, and study rigorous subjects to make this technological miracle reality (AND make it so NONE of the talentless people go starving or without shelter) this new economy still has SOME demand for unskilled labor. However, since technology has advanced so much (and will continue to do so) the jobs that remain for the unskilled/overeducated class are deemed "insulting."
And given the overeducated mindset of today's latest labor market entrants it's like slapping them in the face. They have no real skills. They have no real achievements. The only thing they "have" is their education. And in refusing to hire them for jobs they think they're entitled to, but rather give them the only jobs they're qualified for, you insulted the only thing they have in their lives - their worthless educations.
This is why I don't mind seeing the local coffee store, art store, antique store or dive bar taking over beautiful small town America. Those people actually get it. They don't know how to program a tractor to self-reap a 100 acre field. They don't know how to repair a diesel engine on a John Deere. And they don't know how to route a computer network for the local feed lot. But they can pour a decent beer, cook a quality stew, and provide decent customer service.
The question is whether the vast majority Americans today have the intellectual temerity and honesty to realize and accept the same thing. That their "Masters in English" is not of any value, that they have no sought after skill, and that their future is not one of greatness or participation in the cutting edge of economic development, but rather one of customer or "vanity" services servicing other humans. And if they don't like that, then they need to let go of the ego, work harder and go into fields where they will be in demand.
Of course that would require a genuine work effort, a passion for rigor, and...dare I say it...math.
But wait, let me guess. "You're just not good at math?"
I'll have fries with that.