Monday, October 25, 2010

The Hollow Places

   Anyone following this blog will probably have a passing familiarity with James Howard Kunstler's blog documenting the slow collapse of the American society and economy.  He is a well-educated journalist who has spent a lot of time on the outside of society, looking in at its foolishness and self-destructive bent.  In constrast, I've spent most of my life on the inside of the madhouse, doing my best to live out the American dream, even as it has begun to falter.  Obviously, I've reached a conclusion that it's not sustainable, not because of personal reversal of fortune, but enough reading and observing the way society works and operates. 

   Regardless of one's scientific study of something, the "up close and personal" is sometimes just as enlightening as poring over economic information or historical analysis.  This past weekend, I visited our local mall to track down some odds and ends. 

   A couple of years earlier, the beginning of October would've marked the start of the Christmas shopping season.  While many people would wait a month or two to ramp up, there would already be people carrying out armloads of crap bought on credit that their friends and relatives would return en masse on December 26th.  Going to the mall this time, even on a Saturday, I saw it was relatively deserted, maybe like what a weekday afternoon would've been before the banking and economic crisis.  Even more sobering -- and probably in line with the impending commercial real estate crisis -- was the large number of empty shops, even a whole wing of the mall with absolutely no businesses in it. 

   Of couse, there are ever the optimists out there, who think "green shoots" can be found in the form of Eastern European entrepreneurs who scrape together enough cash to open a sunglasses kiosk or calendar stand.  There was a new spin on this I saw, too.  What had once been a Steve and Barry's (hawking flimsy, over-priced clothing from Vietnam and Sri Lanka) was now occupied by a deserted-looking fitness place that looked like it was offering a mixed martial arts type of workout.  Maybe they know something we don't -- surviving the coming economic apocalypse will require Sambo or Combato or whatever. 
Much has been made of the "open air mall" phenomenon, too.  Somehow being a throwback to Victorian shopping days, or something equally romantic, those facilities are foundering as well.  It's not a scientific analysis, but taking a quick stroll around one of these heavily-leveraged and heavily-subsidzed redevelopments will show the same sort of thing, as cheaper and more marginal business spring up to replace once-sound commercial giants.

   If I were threatened with my life and asked what I really thought about all this, I would say it reminded me of a cleaner, nicer, less dirty version of how people in post-apocalyptic movies are always shown co-opting a ship or a jetliner to live in.  The vehicle will never move again, will no longer fulfill its majestic former purpose, but will become a bad parody of istself.  The American mall has turned into the same thing.  Going back twenty or thirty years, it was intended to become a community center (with civic events), a place to eat, a place to shop, the modern version of the Roman forum.  Now, it is nothing but a collection of marginal businesses, each one trying to be the last man standing in a dying economy. 

   At this point, it doesn't take much imagination to picture a forum in any one of the Roman cities toward the end of the empire, with a "barbarian" from Scythia or Germania or somewhere sitting around with a table full of cheap junk that his tribe put together to sell for a quick denarii, while waiting for the whole thing to fall apart for good.

   On a lighter note, I am looking forward to next Wednesday, when the campaign signs that are blown over or knocked down aren't replaced by fresh new ones, and campaign TV commercials vanish for a while.  The political process, regardless of whichever party gets into office, is like a prison camp beauty contest, where people dress up as something they aren't to win a prize which is absolutely meaningless.  These days, instead of being a position of power and prestige, holding political office is going to make the holder part of an increasingly vilified and demonized class.  There is really nothing they can do to keep the ship of our society and economy from crashing on the rocks of inevitability.  All they are going to be now are the people who are blamed for an increasingly ugly mess.  

   The more perceptive readers will probably point out that this means anyone running for politicial office now is stupid, in that they don't know what's coming, greedy, in that they have figured out some angle to profit before it all falls apart, or insane, in that they have no idea why they're doing what they're doing, but that they're going to do it regardless.  Whichever case is true, it doesn't bode well for the leadership of the nation.

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