Returning to the issues of today has been overwhelming. Last year, I suffered a health crisis nearly taking my life. I’ve since returned to a better place, though I remain deficient. So many issues are current and pressing, and it’s difficult to know where to begin. The separation of children from their parents by Trump’s border gestapo seems in need of triage, though Trump seems to have understood that harming children isn’t a reasonable means of coercing cooperation from Democrats on the wall funding. We could examine a myriad of issues, including North Korea, DuPont’s coverup of the dangers of teflon, Scott Pruitt’s $43K phone booth, the ongoing Mueller investigation and Trump’s repeated witness tampering, and so on. But instead, I’d like to talk briefly about a journey I made recently.
To support my best friend during a difficult loss, I returned to my hometown of Gainesville this past month. Cathartic and lengthy, my visit permitted time to get a good look at how the city of my youth has changed in the eighteen years since I lived there, along with a reunification with my college history professor, Pat Ledbetter, faculty at North Central Texas College (NCTC), and my high school calculus instructor, E. Clyde Yeatts. It just so happens that my twenty year class reunion transpired during the time I was there, as well as a town hall by Beto O’Rourke, Democratic representative from El Paso, and most recently candidate for the upcoming U.S. Senate election, pitting him against Ted Cruz. I attended the latter, eschewing the former. The town hall was lively and energized, though a fair amount of shallow, rally-around-the-flag banter and gladiator hero worship persisted. I did manage to query Beto on economic issues during the question and answer, available around 50:00 or so in his recorded version. The issues raised there, along with the drawn, sober look at my city of origin, are topical of this post.
Beto, Piketty, and Income Inequality
My question specifically asked about the approach one might take in addressing income inequality, something we all understand, at least in the first order. I referenced Thomas Piketty, the eminent French economist with rather dire predictions for industrialized nations with respect to the current balance of rents and labor. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he describes an economic dystopia in which the super-wealthy need not invest in labor, as the return-on-investment (ROI) for capital exceeds that of material investment. Put more simply, money by itself makes more money than any kind of investment benefiting the apocryphal middle class, so investing in manufacturing, science, health care, and so on, simply isn’t as lucrative as investing in real estate, credit cards, and the like. Piketty describes this as a grim portent of political instability, as a larger and larger share of household wealth becomes inherited. Once all capital is owned and controlled by heirs, the extreme poverty imposed on working class and indigent people reaches a breaking point. It’s worth considering that fact for a moment.
The Role of Public Relations
Since the dawn of the public relations industry, sociologist Anne M. Cronin suggests that we’ve been told rather feverishly that occult forces, be it God, the market, patriotism, and so on require that we accept the station to which a would-be wizened corporate and political elite may assign us; it’s a kind of brainwashing, guaranteeing society-wide compliance in tyrannies historically entrenched. Walter Lippmann said it best:
[t]he public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.
The framers believed this problem compelled the formation of a strong government:
[t]he primary function of government is to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority of the poor.
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, spear-headed the wartime propaganda from within Woodrow Wilson’s administration by exploiting his uncle’s pioneering work in psychoanalysis to shape public attitudes. As the great war ended, he recognized that these same mechanisms ought apply to peacetime attitudes as well; he successfully increased revenue for the American Tobacco Company after originating the “torches of freedom” campaign, a means of convincing women to smoke by equating the cigarette with a penis. Subsequent to this and similar campaigns, Bernays emerged a superstar and corporate darling, fathering public relations, a watershed science capable of convincing very large numbers of people to purchase the unnecessary and ignore the uncomfortable. These facts are public record, and they’re invaluable in partially contextualizing how my hometown has deteriorated since the post-war boom.
Gainesville, Boom and Bust
Gainesville prospered significantly following the second world war, benefiting principally by railways constructed in the nineteenth century and the intersection of two significant highways, one being I-35, an federal interstate running from Mexico to Canada, the other locally known as state highway 82. Armco Steel and National Supply, steel and oil pump manufacturing companies, co-owned a plant where my grandfather and many other Gainesvilleans found employment. The population dipped with the closing of the plant in the 1980s, and big retail became bigger retail, closing hosts of stores. Thus, the Gainesville of my childhood was stagnant economically, and downtown rapidly became a series of vacant buildings and warehouses. My grandmother recollected to me that municipal leadership of the town deliberately limited growth, though I’ve not been able to corroborate that. Principal employers in the city were the local college, the independent school district, Weber Aircraft, and retail, grocery stores, and restaurants. My mother worked for Weber for a couple years, but lack of jobs led my family out of town during the 1990s, though we returned for my high school years.
Gainesville Gambles, Floods, and Stagnates, Regressing Toward Trump?
In the years since I left town, the Winstar Casino opened across the Red River in rural Oklahoma. Despite the pervasive religious overtones of Cooke County, its primary source of employment now is said casino. Crime rates spiked after my exit, though they settled downward in the decade to follow; a devastating Biblical flood struck the town in 2007, killing some people and destroying considerable property.
Is it possible many of the run-down buildings I saw in my recent visit were condemned after the flood? I’m uncertain, but the demographics have changed, the poverty seems deeper, and Gainesville seems more dangerous to me. On the other hand, some downtown stores have appeared, and there are places in town reminiscent of a more economically rich history. In any case, should Gainesvilleans accept their station on the strength of the word of Trump or some other demagogue? Considering that capital is more valuable than labor, the future is grim for a city with a quarter of residents living below the poverty line, per City Data. A large number of toddlers and slightly older children fall into this category. Eight-in-ten Gainesville voters selected Trump in the 2016 election. This must include a large fraction of those quarter denizens below the poverty line. With such striking numbers, I may very well know personally every person in Cooke County who didn’t vote for Trump…
To escape poverty and lack of jobs, many of us expatriated elsewhere; I also find the sharp support of far right politics reviling. To that end, I found employment in the midcities, then Atlanta, and finally Seattle. My good friend Pat Ledbetter, whom I’ll interview for this blog in the days ahead, mentioned to me that Texas needs “thinking people” now more than ever, and considerably moreso than does Seattle. Though a permanent return to Texas isn’t on the radar, I do think it’s time to offer aid to my city of origin. Beto’s campaign seems a good starting place. He, like Bernie Sanders before him, refuses funding from PACs, relying on local and individual donors. Perhaps there’s more to be done. Pat, my former teacher Clyde Yeatts, and I will have to cogitate…