Bowling alone… by preference

One of my favorite jokes goes like this: Two economists are looking at a fancy car.  One economist says “I’ve always wanted to buy that kind of car.”  The other economist says “no you haven’t.”

The point being that if we don’t do something that we say we want to do, sometimes we really don’t want to do it.  (Not always, of course).

I’ve been thinking about the concept of Mark Regnerus’ blog post earlier this week that mentioned how community life used to be stronger (Gemeinschaft if your playing along at home).

Countless times I’ve heard people lament that community ties aren’t as strong as they used to be, and it’s probably true.  Why it that the case?

At the heart of it, I think that we don’t have as strong a community ties because we don’t need to.  Many of the ties that we look back on fondly were there out of necessity.  There was no internet, so if people needed to communicate, they would call or stop by.  People had less money, so they would borrow more.  Women had less access to jobs, so they had more time to volunteer.  Etc…

Since about the mid-1990s, Americans have higher family income than ever in our history, and we use it, in part, to buy our independence.  We can afford two or three cars, so we don’t need to use the neighbors.  We all have our own lawn mowers and snow blowers.  Basically, we have less community because we can.  Money and health means that we can interact with whom we want when we want–convenient but not the basis of community.

I was reminded of the link between community and material wealth when the power went out this year.  Actually, it went out twice–both times for at least several days, if not more, for most people in town.  (We were without for 10 days the first time).   Immediately I started seeing a lot of friends at the local Community Center, because they had hot water and food there.  Many people in town congregating in public spaces, it felt downright 1950ish (at least as I think it should have been).  As power came on in different neighborhoods, we stopped seeing those people until the end it was just a few of us hard cases left.

There’s no reason people can’t still congregate at the community center in mass, we simply choose not to.

Me? I’m keenly aware of the inconveniences of interacting with others, and I find being alone or with close friends & family much easier.

There’s a tension here with the tenets of Christianity. Today’s ethos is do what you want with the people that you like. In contrast, the Bible has ideas of loving others, even when you don’t like them. Putting others first. Attending to the stranger.

Living in a strong community becomes more of a moral choice than a practical necessity. A commitment to relationships is inherent in Christianity, but we’re finding less and less support/ need for it.

I deeply respect the people I know who have made this commitment, and I hope that I can learn from them.

  • j smith

    I realized this is not the main point of your post, but you say “Since about the mid-1990s, Americans have higher family income than ever in our history, and we use it, in part, to buy our independence. ”

    Is it true though that Americans (especially middle and lower income Americans) have more buying power than they used to? I’m not talking about the ability to buy shoddily produced merchandise thrown together in China, but to buy things such as uninterrupted basic health care and pay for the kinds of education that will lead to good jobs.

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Overall, yes, at least compared to before 1998 or so (since when family income has been flat). Some things have gotten more expensive, especially a good college education, but many things have gotten cheaper, adjusting for inflation of course. Health care is tough to compare because it’s so much better now, and the advances cost money. You could probably get 1970s-era care for really cheap, but of course we don’t want that.

  • j smith

    So our dollar may well not go as far toward college. That’s no small thing.

    For health care, we don’t know if we’re getting more value for the increases in health care. Since many advanced nations spend less on the US than health care but live longer, it may be the case simply that we’re being charged more for less when it comes to health care, no?

  • j smith

    Let me try that again:

    For health care, we don’t know if we’re getting more value for the increases in health care costs. Since many advanced nations spend less on the US than health care but their populations live longer, it may be the case simply that Americans are being charged more for less when it comes to health care, no?

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Compared to health care in recent decades, I would think not. But… I’m not an expert in health care costs.


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