In Jason Shiga’s Empire State, the protagonist decides he will “see America” by traveling from Oakland, CA to New York City on a bus. Everyone derides the plan as foolish – he’ll see only the great big slab of I-80 and some gas stations – but, because he’d kept his plan secret to surprise a friend, nobody warns him until it’s too late.
Professional movers, however, take occasional breaks from the highway to navigate their trucks down treacherous suburban streets. It’s those excursions into the world where people actually live that lets movers understand America. Crisp descriptions of those excursions make Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road a charming read.
Murphy’s experience criss-crossing the United States has also give him a sharp perspective on our economy. His political analysis is both more accurate and more concise than what’s been written by most academic researchers:
The next day I picked up I-94 west and stopped for the night in Ann Arbor. In college towns – like Chapel Hill, Boulder, Iowa City, Missoula, Austin, Madison, and Oxford, Mississippi, to name a few – all of a sudden, instead of unemployment, meth labs, and poverty, there are real jobs. … As far as I can figure, the only places left in America that can boast of vibrant downtowns are college towns and high-end tourist towns. In the rest of the country the downtowns were hollowed out when nobody was looking. You might think it’s only your town that’s been ruined by sprawl, but it’s happened everywhere. You’ve got the new CVS, the Walmart, the Home Depot on the fringes, while the old downtown is either empty or the buildings have a Goodwill store, an immigration law office, and an “antiques” store, meaning junk. The chains on the outskirts provide the nine-dollar-an-hour jobs and wire the day’s receipts to Bentonville or New York every night.
I hate it personally, but we deserved what we got. We wanted the eight-dollar sneakers and the forty-five-cent tube socks. … We didn’t consider that maybe it’d be a better bargain to pay twenty dollars for sneakers and buy them from the neighbor who owns the shoe store downtown and stocks sneakers made in Maine.
It’s too late now. The game’s been won by companies who don’t give two shits about community character or decent jobs. Congratufuckinglations, America! We did the deal. Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass.
If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.
Most of The Long Haul is more chipper than the passage I’ve excerpted above – Murphy discusses how he chose his career, the basic principles of long-haul driving and packing other people’s belongings, the zen of hard manual labor, and what it meant to finally let go of his own anger and enjoy his time on this planet. Both K and I loved the book.
But I wanted to share the passage above. I’ve written previously about common misconceptions regarding “free-market capitalism” – a quick summary being that although the phrase “free-market capitalism” is used so commonly that most people sense intuitively what it means, it doesn’t actually mean anything. To have a market, it cannot be free. (This idea is explained succinctly in the beginning of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism – you can read an excerpt in the essay linked above.)
As a handful of business owners and CEO destroy the social fabric of the United States, they depend upon government intervention to help them do it. They need the government to enforce payment on certain types of contracts, but not others. They need the government to prevent certain actions that lower others’ property values – I’ll be punished if I set fire to your building – but not others – I won’t be punished if I dump so much poison that your neighboring property becomes un-usable.
Our country’s particular set of rules & regulations have allowed a small number of people to accomplish what used to be the work of many. Instead of a factory with 100 human workers, a foreman oversees 10 robots. The foreman gets paid more than the prior workers, but most of their salary now goes to the factory owner. And those 100 people who would have worked in the factory are mired in despair. Some get service jobs. Others take drugs. We get the “unemployment, meth labs, and poverty” that Murphy described.
And even the relative prosperity of the main street in college towns is fragile. In Bloomington we have several blocks with bookstores, comic shops, restaurants, bars, a public library, banks, clothing boutiques and smokeshops and the like. But in the past few weeks, an escalating conflict between the police and people without houses has kept shoppers away from the downtown.
Indiana is in many ways a heartless state, so our little town is one of the few places where people in need can receive services. Bloomington always has more poverty than you might expect for a city of just 100,000. Of late, Bloomington is also a destination city for drug use: between the heroin cut with fentanyl and the wide variety of supposed THC analogs sold as “spice,” the ambulances have been responding to upwards of ten overdoses per day.
In jail the other day, T. told me,
“It’s getting to the point where heroin and meth are easier to find than pot. When I got out of prison, I was three years clean, and I thought I was gonna make it … but I was walking by the Taco Bell and somebody handed me a rig, all loaded up and ready to go.”
“It’s really hard to avoid it now. It’s spread to places you really wouldn’t expect. Like I remember ten years ago, the whole middle class crowd was doing the usual, some pot, some psychedelics, you know. But now people from those circles, they’re shooting meth, they’re using H.”
“You talk to somebody, they’re like, yeah, I got it all, what you need, what you need. But you ask for pot, they’re like, naw, I don’t know where to get that.”
“Okay, okay, these overdoses, you know? Trust me, I’m a real spice-head, I smoke a lot of that shit, and these overdoses, they’re all just people, they don’t know how to handle it. You can’t just jump in, you know, and smoke like I smoke.”
I asked him, “If pot were legal, would you smoke it.”
“Hell yeah I’d smoke pot.”
“No no, sorry, I mean, if pot were legal, would you smoke spice?”
The guys all laughed. “Nobody would touch that shit.”
And yet. In our town, now, people with all their belongings line main street. The hospital spends some thirty thousand dollars a day sending the ambulance there for overdoses. The cops hold their roll call several times a day in the public park where unhoused people used to sleep. Occasionally a dozen or so people will be hauled into jail: they lose all their possessions.
And people who had been spending money at the little shops feel afraid to go downtown. The places are all losing money … and when the money goes, compassion starts fading too.
It doesn’t take much for even a college town to become the post-apocalyptic husk that Murphy has seen spread all over our country. Which is sad, especially since it wouldn’t take that much to help people – our most dire need is a guaranteed basic income, probably coupled to a public works program. Instead we’ve settled for rampant inequality. But harms that start elsewhere won’t stay elsewhere.
post-script: in the time between when this essay was written & when it was posted, the crowds of unhoused people have disappeared from Bloomington’s main street. And, two blocks away, the 280-bed county jail has had over 320 people locked inside for weeks. Somehow, this doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.