My “Place” (Photo by AMS)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  If you think I’m reprinting yet another old essay because I’m too lazy or beset to keep up with my bettors on this fine site, you are probably right.  But so as to provide some “value added”—as the marketeers say—I offer some authorial commentary.

The following essay is the result of my first serious grappling with the presence of “place” as a serious political actor on the social stage.  This realization was itself, I think, fortuitous, as it set me intellectually as well as practically on precisely the right course at a time when there was very little acknowledgment of “place” as a necessary constituent force for a healthy political community.  Or to be more just, there was little acknowledgement of these truths within the narrow confines of movement conservatism which I was then beginning to chafe against.

This period of thinking about place and its political implications occurred while I was in law school from 1997-2000, in my hometown, at the University of Kansas.  However, the essay that follows wasn’t written until 2002 and was originally published in the now defunct Regeneration Quarterly.  Its genesis was the very practical issue of my future employment.  I had done well enough in school to have joined the meritocracy, as Jeremy Beer has so clearly defined it.  I had high-paying job offers in Los Angeles, Denver, Pittsburg, and Washington D.C., and really, I could have gone to any major metorpolis I chose.  My classmates were envious, but I was restless.  My provincial inclinations required a defense that could overcome what was then the over-riding imperative of uppward mobility and the siren song of talent put in service to the great causes of state and money.

You will judge for yourself the result, and for fun, I will render a brief judgment myself.  On the whole, I think the essay holds up fairly well, but there are a number of clear weaknesses I see, and a few observations to make, and I will note them in passing.

1.  My treatment of “individualism” is woefully inadequate, especially as I name it the chief black hat in my narrative.

2.  I can see that I was still struggling to clarify certain key concepts because I was mostly still working within the confines of a neo-conservative cannon: from Burke to Eliot.  This cannon did not even include, for me at least, works like Nisbet’s Quest for Community which I had not yet been exposed to, but which would have helped.  I can, however, see an emerging agrarianism as evidenced by my encounter with Wendell Berry, which proved invaluable, and my use of Santayana, who gets the bulk of the credit for rescuing me from the movement conservative ghetto with his prescient essays on the essential gnostic American character (see Jason Peters’ recent FPR essay).

3.  It is curious to remember how “hot” the concept of “civil society” was, even just a decade ago.  Whatever happened to that?  A good indication, I suppose, of the faddish nature of public social commentary. 

4.  Another major flaw I see is that I am almost entirely ignorant of economic forces at play and the way they interact with and are entwined with geo-political and cultural considerations.  I can see that I put my finger on a key concept in mobility, but I defined it almost exclusively in cultural terms—I viewed mobility as an imparative of the new morality rather than of the meritocracy.  I would have benefited from the analysis Jeremy offers which is, I think he would agree, in debt to Christopher Lasch, another non-cannonical thinker I had yet to encounter.

5.  I think I was essentially correct that the root issue remains love.  This I knew from my grounding in classical Christian texts, Augustine in particular, but I struggled to transmogrify this kind of love into a politically saliable force.  I have most appreciated Bill Kauffman’s writing in this regard, and I do believe that the revolutionary character of any Front Porch Republic must, at its core, be grounded in love, and just as important, be able to make that love effective for political action.

I’m sure I could find more to say upon review of my decade old self, but enough for now.  Here’s the essay.

Commencement speakers sum up the wisdom of the age, and last May, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen did so with particular clarity. “I have seen your salvation, and it is you,” she told the graduating seniors of Sarah Lawrence College. “Custody of your life belongs in full to you and you alone. Do not cede it to anyone else,” she warned. “Why should you march to any lockstep? Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse … because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen to what its tympani is saying.” For Quindlen, conformity of any kind is our original sin, and salvation comes when we discover and express an authentic self unencumbered by the demands of others.

But there is plenty of evidence that the more intensely and dogmatically our culture has embraced the freedom to march wherever our hammering hearts take us, the less free we have become. John Adams wrote that should the citizens of this country surrender “for any course of time to any one passion, they may depend upon finding it, in the end, a usurping, domineering, cruel tyrant.” For most of Quindlen’s audience, the realization may dawn too late that they are not, in fact, a triumphant phalanx marching together for their rights, but a confused assortment of individuals cut off from family, community, and every other meaningful connection.

In fact, one has to wonder why Quindlen herself has not noticed that unrestrained individualism is on the defensive. Alarmed by individualism’s less appealing fruits—corporate fraud, sensationalist television, sexual licentiousness, voter apathy, to name a few—everyone from communitarian activists on the left to family-values proponents on the right is taking up the call for “civil society.”

Civil society—a ubiquitous phrase these days—generally refers to some conglomeration of voluntary associations, from family and church to PTAs and community volunteer programs to Little League and book clubs. These “mediating structures,” as they have been called, negotiate between the two competing freedoms of a liberal democracy: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the community. Only the structures of civil society, it is said, can nurture what Fletcher Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable”—the consensus that restrains individual freedom enough to make a community livable, while still honoring individual particularity in a way that government and the marketplace cannot.

It is now conventional wisdom that civil society is failing. Robert Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone,” which catalogued America’s declining stock of “social capital,” was in the vanguard, followed more recently by the essay collection Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America and Putnam’s own book-length follow-up. Putnam and others warn that the decline in voluntary association in American society is symptomatic of a deeper sickness, which could imperil democracy itself.

Hard on Putnam’s heels are a plethora of forthcoming books with names like Civil Society in the Information Age; Global Civil Society; Church, State and Civil Society; and The Civil Society Reader. If the established pattern holds, these books will be filled with a variety of proposals for increasing volunteerism, or encouraging voters, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or returning to community-based education. To be sure, these are good things. But let’s pause for a moment and apply a bit of skepticism. Chances are, when so many are so enthusiastic for something, it is either not a good thing, or its proponents have not fully calculated its cost.

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb sounds just such a skeptical note in Community Works. In Himmelfarb’s view, our society’s mediating structures are actually part of the problem. She notes that “the institutions of civil society—private schools and universities, unions and nonprofit foundations, civic and cultural organizations—are stronger and more influential than ever.” In fact, the mediating structures of our lives “have been complicitous in fostering the very evils that civil society is supposed to mitigate.” They have promoted the “ideology of rights” that ends up being the cause of their dissolution, or worse, their transformation into “bureaucratic quasi-public institutions.” Himmelfarb argues, for example, that efforts to force deadbeat dads to pay child support have backfired. Rather than promoting genuine community, focusing on child support reduces fatherhood to a “cash-nexus” between the father, mother, and children whereby all are freed from real responsibility to one another. The groups that promote child support will not acknowledge that “money itself is not the problem; the real problem is the absence of the father.”

Far from providing a check on individualism, the institutions Himmelfarb cites perpetuate it, because they are the fruit of one of moderrnity’s most corrosive features: mobility. “The existence … of strong and enduring voluntary associations,” historian Wilfred McClay has observed, “depends upon the existence of strong involuntary associations.” It was easier for civil society to flourish when people were stuck—with a family, a job, a church, or a community. But in the modern world, people are rarely stuck anywhere, or with anyone. We moderns are mobile partly because it is easier and cheaper than ever to seek greener pastures in the next state or on the other side of the globe. But we are also mobile because civil society itself has taught us to be. One need look no farther than higher education, site of Anna Quindlen’s paean to radical individualism. Civil society itself now instructs us in the fine art of following our own hammering hearts. As Karl Kraus said of psychology, it has become “the disease from which it pretends to be the cure.”

Restoring civil society, then, may be far more difficult than we have imagined. It may no longer be sufficient simply to encourage volunteerism or community spirit. We have not yet considered changing how we think and how we know; which is another way of saying that we have not attempted to change what we love.

Why does the mindset of individualists make it nearly impossible for them, even when advocating an invigorated civil society, to stigmatize divorce rather than to stigmatize deadbeat dads? The answer lies deep in the roots of our democracy itself, which is, in the broadest and best sense of the word, liberal. Liberalism in this sense, characterized by individual freedom in markets and politics, is triumphant at “the end of history.” It is unquestionably the single greatest means human beings have developed of producing economic prosperity and political security. But liberalism’s successes naturally run downhill: safety and full stomachs, yes, but also consumption over charity; technology over art; and license over self-control. The great weakness of liberalism is that it cannot support the soul. Reflecting on what he called the “the wild gas” of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke wrote that the “effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.”

Burke understood that individual liberty is no friend of civil society. Individual freedom alone cannot shape what individuals may please to do. And freedom without responsibility is eventually not freedom at all. It becomes, rather, just another kind of mastery, subjecting people to the one thing liberalism cannot negate—the ever present I want. In a completely liberalized society, there is nothing left but appetite.

So liberalism rests on what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the “politics of the felt need.” Oakeshott used the heading of “Rationalism” to describe this temperament:

That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense… . [The Rationalist sees unrolled before him] the blank sheet of infinite possibility. And if by chance this tabula rasa has been defaced by the irrational scribblings of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the first task of the Rationalist must be to scrub it clean.

The Rationalist, says Oakeshott, has a “deep distrust of time,” owing to his “impatient hunger for eternity.” Likewise, “his mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void.” The flaw in the liberal temperament is its deep distrust of place owing to its impatient hunger for the eternity of the void. Both time and place restrict our ability to be whatever we choose, to find our “salvation,” as Quindlen would have it, in the actualization of our rootless selves. But particular times and places are, in fact, the essence of civil society, anchoring us to the real and the concrete instead of allowing our appetites to soar through the infinite expanse of possible desires.

So the restoration of civil society will require disciplining ourselves to this other temperament, one which draws its moods and tones from the “season and temperature” of its atmosphere. It is the temperament, or discipline, of place. And this discipline brings with it a concrete way of thinking. Instead of seeing through things, those who embrace the discipline of place see out from within them.

T. S. Eliot meditated on these themes in the fourth of his Four Quartets, a poem called “Little Gidding,” which charts modern man’s struggle to know the infinite reaches of both history and the universe. In this liberal search for timeless, placeless knowledge, “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit proceeds.” But when the poem’s pilgrim ponders death—“the constitution of silence”—he begins to approach humility, and recognizes that “love of a country / Begins as an attachment to our own field,” that “History is now.” Towards the end Eliot offers this benediction for those who embrace the discipline of place:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Eliot is summing up the wisdom of Western history: from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to the parable of the Prodigal Son to the history of the American frontier, we inherit a continuing dance between exploration and homecoming. We cannot “know the place for the first time” unless we have first left it; but in leaving, our end must be to return back home. Wendell Berry writes that the reader of the Odyssey knows—“as Odysseus undoubtedly does also—the extent of his love for Penelope because he can return to her only by choosing her, at the price of death.” The good human life does not end with individual liberty, but proceeds on to responsibility.

WE moderns are defined by constant motion rather than by sitting still. We can be anywhere in a second, but rarely stay somewhere longer than that. We have developed an aversion to fixing things—and to fixed things. We would rather discard and replace than care for and renew.

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine making Odysseus’s choice to forsake eternity for home. Liberalism’s ideas have consequences—from widespread divorce to mass marketing to spaghetti interchanges—but those consequences also shape ideas, reinforcing the frame of mind that gave birth to them. They break our ties to imagination, to craft, to the land, and to the shop, so that our cities and pastures alike are blighted. Because we have repeatedly bowed at the altar of convenience, we are isolated from the very things that would feed and nourish our imagination. It should be no wonder that civil society has largely lost its ability to mediate between the individual and society at large. It should be no wonder that people live with a vague sense of lostness. We have become a people without a place.

The good news is that while we have abandoned place, it has not (yet) abandoned us. Place is still all around us, to be picked up, dusted off, repaired, and used again. To be sure, doing this is hard. The discipline of place is sacrificial, and it is often seen as foolishness in a liberalized world. But as with all sacrifice, it can be redemptive.

What might this look like? In his 1986 book The Horse in the Furrow, George Ewart Evans quotes an old English farmhand, Harry Groom, on the difference between farming “today” and farming in an older time.

It’s all rush today… . You see it when a farmer takes over a new farm: he goes in and plants straight-way, right out of the book. But if one of the old farmers took a new farm, and you walked round the land with him and asked him: “What are you going to plant here and here?” he’d look at you queer; because he wouldn’t plant nothing much at first. He’d wait a bit and see what the land was like: he’d prove the land first. A good practical man would hold on for a few weeks, and get the feel of the land under his feet. He’d walk on it and feel it through his boots and see if it was in good heart, before he planted anything: he’d sow only when he knew what the land was fit for.

One man sees “from above”; he quantifies things and measures his time in number of acres plowed. The other man, however, sees things “from within”; he values things and measures his time by the meaning of what he has done. The first man is merely at work; the second is at home.

“This world has a spiritual life possible in it,” wrote George Santayana, “which looks not to another world but to the beauty and perfection that this world suggests, approaches, and misses.” This is the only spiritual life possible; and it is possible only by placing oneself in time and place. Not only is this life possible, it is necessary. Civil society is ultimately about protecting the vulnerable—but to protect the vulnerable places and people around us, we must not just know them rationally, we must love them.

This is an agricultural model of renewal. It is about making a way of life closer to home, more becoming our better natures—attached to the soil, as it were. But the renewal of civil society is certainly not restricted to the farm. It can occur anywhere people are willing to begin to try to see out from within things rather than always trying to see through them. But the discipline of place must always involve real places and real things. If modernity is an exercise in un-sticking ourselves from family, job, and home, the discipline of place is an exercise in re-sticking.

Anna Quindlen is wrong. The good life, and the good society, begins only when we unhitch our hearts from radical individualism. Civil society will only be worthy of the name when people begin to make Odysseus’s choice: to step out of the void, gather together the permanent things scattered and strewn throughout their lives, and begin the hard work of cherishing.

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  1. You’re absolutely right in your foreword, it’s sad that civil society is absent in discourse in modern times. To the Libertarian, civil society is the insulation between the individual and the coercion of government.

    To me, the Individualism and instant gratification present in modern society is not inherent in liberalism – to say that it is is to say that man is inherently selfish. I think man has no inherent nature.
    Liberalism gave us rights and affirms the equality of man. It says nothing of how we should use them.

    Instead, I think it has come about through the artificial creation of the “Corporate Person”. A Corporate Person, or Corporation, is an artificial entity whose legal structure, legal DNA, is psychopathic. It is bound by fiduciary duty to obey only the quest for money and power. It has Limited Liability and nobody is bound to it’s action. It is legally allowed to own vague ideas and sue for infringement of patents. Last, it is not bound to any country, not even any supra-national entity. Being the only entity with this privilege, it IS the HIGHEST law on this earth.

    Anyhow in a fascist state (The most efficient for of totalitarianism) the State commands the corporation through fear, to it’s benefit. It encourages the opposite of individualism, unquestioning fidelity to the state. We have quite a reverse: The corporation has begun to command governments. This state of affairs is more like anarchy, and is unlikely to be a sustainable for any period of times for our globe, as resources diminish and as claims of “Intellectual Property” are viewed for the speciousness they are.

    But what type of state should we build? Liberalism has led to destruction of old structures that have failed and enslaved us such as monarchy, slavery, Patriarchy, and (now largely) religion. But it has not strengthened our civil society insofar. The Best society that humanity could build… would be an entirely voluntary one, entirely without coercion. Banks replaced by credit unions. Health insurance replaced by fraternal organizations(used to be). All software open-source. All hardware, other, technology open-source. Every action is not only voluntary, but collaborative and benefits all of humanity. The alternative – is of course, Orwellian. If society is to survive, one of these two choice must be made. If not, by default, annihilation.

    Back to now. Liberalism has not, as you perceive, granted us anything to improve our relations between eachother. It fails to recognize that when humans relate to eachother, when we love eachother, that each human benefits not linearly as the number and strength of his love for others increase, but exponentially. His love produces art, technology.

    A Liberal society, the pre-industrial land and agricultural relations of neccesity, makes them all voluntary and increases their intensity. Liberal society, also recognizing the inherent equality of man, mocks the state. So is lost a love of one’s group, a tribal love which is not inherently bad or good, but a remnant from our ancient past.

    Only by attain full sentience, full awareness of self as an separate entity from others who experiences his own thoughts and feelings… and then the CHOICE made to LOVE EVERYONE belonging to the highest life, the human race AS THEMSELVES. And, the choice made to love the creator. As themselves. Does man achieve his fullest expression.

    Rather than setting out to destroy the corporation, to destroy tyrannical governments, to destroy ideologies of separation; recognizing oneself… in all of humanity, and loving it is how to unite us.

  2. Your comment: …”And Freedom without responsibility is eventually not Freedom at all.”…..sums it up nicely. The only way for a human being to achieve a strong and abiding sense of place in their own person…their individual identity …is to establish a continuously accreting and strong sense of their fellow human being….in all it’s myriad forms and expressions…and celebrate it not in the “one size fits all” grabass of multiculturalism but in the love and respect you speak of…..a kind of curatorial approach to individualism. Funny, but this requires both pride and humility…..both wonderfully individual resorts.

    Quindlen, as best as I can tell is part of the “have a nice day” wing of modern consumer liberalism. This is the kind of cheery Chamber of Commerce boosterism that obliged her to tell the fresh-faced graduates who had their lives in front of them that they were each great people and if they embraced their greatness , they would do great things. The hapless pox of American Exceptionalism is based upon this very notion. I do not, by this…assert that America has never nor will ever do exceptional things. The historical record demonstrates otherwise to both ill and good effect but so what? No nation can be inherently exceptional and a people, like ours who continue to claim this as a veritable birthright will surely deflate the definition of exceptionalism toot sweet. In fact, kick my own ass for adding an “ism” to the word….as though it were a livelihood of sorts rather than a potentially ennobling but , by definition, disappointing well it should be. Exceptional stops being exceptional when it aint , well…gee, exceptional.

    A society that has pretensions of civilization but in practice, is one of rather facile means and ends within a Skinner Box of Consumer Virtual Paradise needs to practice boosterish hugs with their young and old alike because without it, the consensus unravels quite quickly in the face of cognitive ability….assuming that it still exists in this consensus-mad, everybody is swell-say only nice things, presumptuous era. Snark is the fitting antipode for this happy herd. A tribe of skeptics array themselves in skin to the shirted happy tribe and we can spend a few moments throwing mud at one another and depart knowingly to our club houses. This nadir of any kind of informed and well-adjusted individualism is best explained by the current paranoid times when the hunch is out that the cognitive dissonantometer is a tad pegged. All around we hear great tributes to American Freedom and Liberty and the misnomer of Democracy and all the rest of the “self-empowerment” industry and it is a great salve for a nation of joiners…..a great herd….a “boiling pot” of deepening sameness that is increasingly imperious, alarmingly vacuous and terrestrially voracious . Our individuality in this country is quite formulaic almost from the cradle to the grave and if you want a good example of this , watch how any First Grade class will begin to self-select and identify any eccentric activity and set the eccentric on a path toward abuse and sneering prejudice all their lives…..unless they are somehow absorbed into the categories of well-upholstered “eccentricity” the marketplace deems “productive”.

    Apparently, Quindlen resigned from a journalistic post that she wanted to step aside from so that all the great young minds could come up. She was far from feeble at the moment of her announcement and while one might say , in this youth-crazed culture that it was a great and noble thing she might do, it demonstrates a near total lack of respect for the individual….and in particular, the wisdom of our elders and the vital need …the responsibility of the elders to continue their ministrations to the young. They say this generation of ennui and anomie has a sardonic love of the Ironic. This would seem to be put to question by the near constant presence of unintentional irony in virtually every component of what is said by this self-proclaimed “modern” culture vs. the outcomes of what it does.

    The old cabin up Mt. Aire Canyon was loaded with tourist plaques and two stick out in memory: First , “To have a friend, Be one”, and the other: “That helping hand yer looking for is at the end of yer own arm”. An individual without friends cannot even define themselves as an individual.

    The other plaque , my life’s work said : I get my exercise by jumping to conclusions” but thats a story for another time. If it only consumed calories.

  3. So I did a little reading up on radical individualism. I confess my reading confused more than it resolved – so, Caleb, just what do YOU mean when you say radical individualism?

    Somehow I think you have missed that philosophical point that we all choose, all the time. That we are, in fact, all radical individualists (in the simple meaning of the words themselves). We do exactly what we choose to do, and nothing else. That those choices are constrained by probable outcomes does not lessen the power of our choosing.

    Viewed through the lens of free choice, one can see how few people choose wisely. You mentioned stigmatizing divorce rather than dead-beat dads, but all you are suggesting is that we make the price for such a choice so great that fewer will choose to pay. Is it not more to be desired that we work to make better choices to begin with?

    You betray an authoritarian mindset, Caleb, one in which YOU get to make the better choices for those around you as you perceive yourself, or your fellow travelers, to be better qualified to decide how individuals should lead their lives.

    I doubt it.


  4. Caleb – thanks for reposting this here, with the new forward. Its refreshing to read that this was a starting point, of sorts, for you. Reading this article when it was first published a few years back had the effect of taking me back to square one in my own thinking as well. I appreciate the tension you’ve laid bare, and even more, that you have not proposed that there is simple resolution. By directing the eye to sacrifice and foolishness, you point anew to true hope.

  5. What is it within a person who chooses to leave his/her “roots”? What is it within a person who chooses to “stay where they’re planted”? Or to return to that place once their education is complete?

    (Of course, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, wars, plagues and governments. While it is true that women and children usually didn’t voluntarily set out on their own. Many went, to varying degrees, willingly with their “menfolk” to any number of situations and places. I’m not talking about these demographics.)

    I’ve often wondered if the choice to leave or to stay has more to do with personality type or ingrained values rather than externals such as mobility, money or education. The externals may make the choice easier for some; however a choice is made.

    Throughout history, if transportation routes were accessible, some stayed and some left their hometowns voluntarily; for any number of “reasons” (“excuses” ?). It stands to reason that those with more education would have more opportunities for wealth and social mobility than those who lacked a similar advantage. However, lack of an education (or money) hasn’t stopped many from seeking “greener pastures” in faraway places or within cities of any number of societies throughout time.

    “This world has a spiritual life possible in it,” wrote George Santayana, “which looks not to another world but to the beauty and perfection that this world suggests, approaches, and misses.”

    This is the only spiritual life possible; and it is possible only by placing oneself in time and place. Not only is this life possible, it is necessary. Civil society is ultimately about protecting the vulnerable—but to protect the vulnerable places and people around us, we must not just know them rationally, we must love them. ~~Caleb Stegall

    Ah…Where does that love come from?

    My short answer would be “from God.” I am convinced that “love of place” has much more to do with the early experiences of one’s life, within one’s family; as opposed to the zeitgeist of an era. Our parents’ and our extended family members’ spiritual life and values shape our preceptions of the world.

    Although I wouldn’t say that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world;” it seems as if a society’s attitudes towards the family have much to do with success, or lack thereof, the world’s societies.

    Perhaps “love of family” influences our civil society more than “love of place.” Dare I say: “Home is where the heart is…”

  6. I think people largely leave the places they call home for 3 reasons – work, education, and spouse – which spouse is likely following work and eduction. If we take the family as the basic social unit (and I am not sure I do) then there really are just two. And if we consider that an education is usually aimed at attaining a better job, the we can say there is just one reason – work.

    So fix that one, FPR’rs. Make it so that a one wage earner family can make a modest but successful life anywhere they just happen to be raised.

    You wanna fix things? Fix that.

  7. Jake,
    It seems to me that many folks (not all) could make it on one income if they decided to simplify and down scale. Look at something as simple as the size of the median house now as compared with fifty years ago. We expect a lot more now and, as a consequence, require a lot more money to meet our expectations.

  8. All too true, Mark. But lets look at the numbers.

    Median Nationwide Household Income in 2007 – $48k

    Median Head of House Income in 2007 – $32k

    Mean Head of House Income in 2007 – $46k

    Cost of modest home in good condition – more that $100k no matter where you live, costing perhaps $12k/year in PITI, utilities and depreciation

    All taxes, including FICA and excluding real estate for family of 4 – hard to say, maybe 10% of total income per year

    Cost of ownership of ONE reliable (that is, fairly new) vehicle (not actually possible in most parts of the nation) maybe $4k per year

    Food for 4 person family – $10k per year (that’s 200 per week – not beans and bread, but not luxurious either)

    We are up to approximately $30k in readily identifiable and very modest expenses. Half of the head of households in the entire nation make less than $32k. Is $2k enough to cover everything else? Saving for college for children? Saving for retirement? Not gonna happen for half of all households in the nation

    The bottom line is that there is no way in the current version of America for most families of 4 to meet all their legitimate needs on one income. It seems likely that most families can’t make it on TWO incomes, as the median spousal income in $31k, giving $63k as the combined income. How many places have houses in good repair for $100k or less? How much house can a household income of $63k buy? $150k? How much house can be bought for that amount?

    Imagine what it would be for a family of say, 7 or 8 (think no contraception)?


  9. Those median income stats represent a wage-slavery mindset. Needless to say, people making 34k should not buy a home worth more than 100k nor should they pay 4k/year for a vehicle.

    I could make more than 34k/year mowing lawns. More gumption, less defeatism! The hive-mind and corporate masters want your soul and will make you believe there is no other way.

    The big hurdle is early consumer and student debt which encourages submission to the wage slave mind. I saw a Barbie toy the other day that came with her own master card which, when swiped through the toy department store check out, would reply in a sing song voice, “credit approved!”

  10. $4k per year is out of line?

    Gas at $2.50/gal, 25 mpg, 50 miles per day (one car, dontcha know) gives about 18k miles per year and a fuel expense of nearly $2k. That leaves $2k for other costs, such as maintenance, insurance and any debt payments. $4k is probably right at the bare bones for a reliable and safe car.

    Now, about that $34k mowing lawns. Is that before or after expenses? If it’s before the expenses of your business, it’s a meaningless figure. Lets say that to make $34k after expenses you have to earn $50k. The mowing season in most of the nation is less than 6 months long, but let’s use 6 months. Working 7 days a week for 6 months you would have to earn $275/day. Are you mowing your neighbors’ lawns or BIG lawns? If it’s your neighbors’, then you need to mow something like 10 lawns a day. That’s if your neighbor’s are all above median household incomes because if they are not, they don’t have $27 extra for you to mow their lawns.

    So you worked approximately 10 hours a day (and one hour per lawn is insufficient, given that the lawns are not those of the median family income or less)and more than 1800 hours in that season so that you could make the median income. Now, the rest of the time you can do what you want, maybe do snow removal too. So if you spent the other 6 months working like you did the first 6 months, you could make what the two income family makes. Except, of course, you worked 10 hours a day, at least, for 365 days, so you don’t really have a family. YOU have dependents. They don’t know you at all.

    I agree with you about consumer debt, but I am unsure about your point with regard to student debt. Most students I know both acquire education debt AND work their way thru college. Are you proposing that no debt be acquired? What kind of work/school schedule do you imagine as doable? What wage is required to make your scheme work? How much time should it take to get thru college? Will the loss of income over that time be less than the cost of the avoided debt? What about lost opportunity? Those of your peers who have sufficient resources to not have to work – the nation’s elites – are now years ahead of you in the workplace.

    Caleb, your diatribe in your comment is simply more meritocracy disguised as virtue. Those who have, get. That ain’t virtue, it’s the luck of the draw.

  11. Yes, I am proposing no debt should be acquired for a college education.

    I have a 1980 Ford Lariat I bought for $600 and put very little into it in terms of maintenance. I pay less than $250/year in taxes and insurance on it. It’s reliable and I view any breakdown as an opportunity for neighborly exchange.

    10 hours of work a day! What a curse!! And whoever proposed 25% of gross as overhead on a mowing operation based on your own labor must have gone to the General Motors school of business management. My 8th grader knows better than this.

    The only way I know to overcome whiney girlish defeatism in this medium is a virtual board to the head. Take a snort of the hard stuff and man up. The pathetic timidity on display here is a good reason to stay OUT of the educational system which trains us to this pliable, subservient standard.

    As Russell Means says to his Lakota brothers, you want to be sovereign, then act sovereign. The rest is just excuses.

  12. Regarding the slave state…..well said. I would argue the college experiance is phase one of the slave state….get these youngsters in debt up to their eyeballs and off they go….paying daddy warbucks the rest of their lives……

    * Don’t sell your soul for four years of party time… post college self taught period has edjumacated me infinitely more than the official paid for thing……There is a place for college, but I am convinced it is not for the masses… many degrees do you actually need to work at Borders bookstore?

    I hope to unload my big bucks city box and move into a country box on my land…..even if it is a trailer for the time being……I don’t want my debt obligations owning me…..

    You know the courts ruled against uber high interest rates of credit cards because it was the same thing as slavery, debt could not be paid off in a lifetime using minimum payments…..the court ruled this in violation of the 13th ammendment……

    But indentured servitude? This is the american way! I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!

  13. Jake- I gotta disagree with you big time….the only way to swim is to first get in the water….!!!!

    My wife does couponing and feeds us on around 200-300 bucks a month!…she spends a lot of time doing it, but we are a family of five!

    i don’t think you are giving yourself enough credit, either that or your standards are too high. To live within your means you must first tell yourself it is okay to do so, and your not some poor dude who is beneath everyone….personally, I sometimes happily look at my in debt up to their eyeballs neighbors with contempt….those poor bastards….but i am persuaded to have pity, and rightly so, and try to help them in my own way…..they usually reject the life raft….oh well, to each his own…..

    I prefer time with family over a cool motor boat and new car……

    btw, i drive a 93 chevy truck, bought it for 1g, still drives great after 2 years…..minus the no turn signals…..sacrifice is a bitch…..

  14. Your 8th grader can’t mow 70 lawns a week without transportation and equipment and his/her share of fica. Face it, Caleb. I don’t think you’ve got what it takes for true capitalism. You aren’t a colege professor or something, are you?

    Is this truck your only vehicle, or do you perhaps have access to other vehicles, Caleb? Does your current employment require you to be somewhere on time ALL the time and which current employment is not within walking distance?

    I gotta tell you, you sound way crankier in an crazy old coot kind of way than someone with an 8th grader. More like a get-off-my-lawn kind of guy. Where’s the “love”?

    Although, 8th graders can bring on that kind of distemper.


    PS – that 1980 truck is probably a death trap. I certainly wouldn’t want my granddaughter driving around in one.

    Not that I mind if YOU do. >:)

  15. Oh, and more on the truck – a 1980 Lariat doesn’t get 25 mpg. Maybe 15. So the ownership expense for gas alone just went to $3k. That $4k keeps lookin’ good, don’t it?

  16. The whole world is a death trap.

    Yes, I have other vehicles. I offer the truck as a good example of how it can be done.

    “I don’t think you’ve got what it takes for true capitalism.”

    I don’t know what this means.

    Love never walks alone. I love the inheritence of American freeholder liberty–and I especially love my place and the people in it–and threats to that life make me angry. And one of the gravest threats of all is represented well by this mewling self-victimization. All the “haves” that you blame for our current predicament rub their hands in gleeful anticipation every time another candidate for wage-slavery falls to this temptation.

  17. Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.
    -Thomas Jefferson

    people are afraid of doing…….

    better to try and fail, than to never try at all………

    Jake-perhaps you cant lower your standards because you feel your wife might be killed in a car crash because she was driving an old truck?

    better stay in the shallow water and keep complaining about how things are unfair…..

    Perhaps, in the end, cows will behave as cows, and birds will be have as birds… cant make a cow a bird, can you?

    Junker says: better to fly, fall and learn to fly better….than to give milk for the farmer until teats run dry and you turn into a cheeseburger……

  18. Jake,
    Thanks for the stats. Add the increases in prices vs. the real purchasing power of the dollar and it’s not a pretty picture.

    What is the amount of income that would be considered over the poverty line for a single person? (Please see the last part of my post to frame the question. TIA) ~~EP

    “Those median income stats represent a wage-slavery mindset. Needless to say, people making 34k should not buy a home worth more than 100k nor should they pay 4k/year for a vehicle.

    I could make more than 34k/year mowing lawns. More gumption, less defeatism! The hive-mind and corporate masters wants your soul and will make you believe there is no other way.

    The big hurdle is early consumer and student debt which encourages submission to the wage slave mind. I saw a Barbie toy the other day that came with her own master card which, when swiped through the toy department store check out, would reply in a sing song voice, “credit approved!” –Caleb


    I admire your “gumption.” Isn’t $34K/yr. a little high for grunt labor lawn maintenance (without the help of efficient equipment–$$)? Don’t forget that you’d be competing against immigrant labor.

    $4K/yr. for a car? That’s about $334/month ? Don’t most “reliable” used cars cost about $10,000+ (I am referring to a car that can handle a highway commute of 45min+ twice a day; for 3-4 years. Without regular breakdowns.). It seems like a lot of money; especially since a good portion (3-10%) would consist of interest.; at least for most people.

    I agree with you about the silliness of most of the toys sold on the market today. Barbie is certainly the epitome of the trend.

    Yes, the “wage-slave” mindset is alive and well in this country; especially among the working and lower class. Considering the sheer numbers of off-shored jobs; illegal (and legal) immigrants and the favoritism by corporations to hire foreigners in the IT field: it’s a wonder there aren’t riots in the streets!?

    Student debt (for education; not frivolity) is a burden for many young people. Consumer debt is a huge problem for large sectors of the population!

    Has anyone here read “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and/or “Bait and Switch” by Barbara Ehrenreich? Two other people have written books as a response to Ms. Ehrenreich’s experiences. “,Scratch Beginnings” by Adam Shepard. Others have written similar articles or books.

    I believe that the different experiences as recorded by Ehrenreich and Shepard have to do more with the dividing lines between male/female jobs (at the lower wage levels) and the age of the writers. If Mr. Shepard had been a middle-aged man; he might not have found as many opportunities.

    A large number of American households are headed by women; many who are not well-educated, they don’t have secure jobs. Having raised a family, with the help of a husband and a profession; I don’t know how the women at the lower end of the economic spectrum do it!

  19. Mewling Self-Victimization!!!! Cool. Overblown, but cool.

    I spoke of knowledge, specifically knowledge about how to be a capitalist or a successful businessman. To be successful requires that you understand the basics of running a business – expenses on one side, income on the other, so to speak. You can’t run a business without expenses.

    Ok, an escort service might not have much in the way of expenses. And most small professional offices are not too dissimilar from escort services and they too have fairly low expense, but even then not zero. Any business that actually does something has equipment and it’s attendant maintenance, debt, labor costs, health insurance, all that kind of stuff. One of the reasons your 8th grader can do as much as he or she can is because you, acting in the stead of the omnipresent state, provide all those things. So, if we are being truthful, your child is simply sucking on the teat of a standin for the state – the parent. He or she provides labor only. Take away the parent, and he or she would be bereft of the means of support.

    Which is as it should be. We are parents for a reason. I don’t think the state should become a defacto parent. I also don’t think it should enact as law barriers to real equality of opportunity, or fail to remove or diminish barriers which only serve to keep wage slaves as slaves.

    Preferential access to good education being one of those barriers in serious need of removal.

  20. “I admire your “gumption.” Isn’t $34K/yr. a little high for grunt labor lawn maintenance (without the help of efficient equipment–$$)? Don’t forget that you’d be competing against immigrant labor. ”

    you can get a job as a telemarketer paying 18 bucks and hour in my town……that is $37 gs right there……

    some guys i know mow lawns on the side and make 18-25gs…that is only part time (15-20 hours a week in mowing seasson…..)

    there is always a way…you just have to find it… can be done.

    cut expenses! live like a pauper for a while… isnt so bad….

  21. Jake, you aren’t reading carefully. I said my 8th grader “knows better,” not does better. In other words, if you are spending 16k to make 50k (which were I believe your numbers) when your primary product is your own labor, your overhead is too high.

    For the record, I own three small businesses and paid way more in taxes last year than the median wage servant “earned”. Paid, not of my free will, but under compulsion. It’s people like that who keep this artery-clogged fat beast of a State on life-support in its sickened condition.

  22. Are there positions open at that telemarketer place, George? Because when Dell opened up a shop here (and the pay was quite a bit less than that) the lines were around the corner (any corner), the jobs filled, and the people went back to fast food at $7.

    If it was that easy, don’t you imagine the median income would be higher than $18/hour? I do. But it isn’t. That tells me that those kinds of wages are in extremely short supply. As are the added on mowing jobs. There are only so many lawns, after all.

    Examples are easy to find, but as they say in the world of statistics, the plural of anecdote is not data. We are talking about an entire population, not just your buddies.


  23. As did I, Caleb, as did I. (the tax part).

    In any case, you can’t mow those lawns without a vehicle, a mower, a weedeater, health insurance, liability insurance, fica – my expenses are probably too low, not too high.

    Of course taxes are compulsory. How else are we to pay for wars?

    These are your words:

    5. I think I was essentially correct that the root issue remains love. This I knew from my grounding in classical Christian texts, Augustine in particular, but I struggled to transmogrify this kind of love into a politically saliable force. I have most appreciated Bill Kauffman’s writing in this regard, and I do believe that the revolutionary character of any Front Porch Republic must, at its core, be grounded in love, and just as important, be able to make that love effective for political action.

    Just what form does your love take, Caleb? Because I agree with you that love is at the heart of it. I don’t get the feeling we are talking about the same kind of love.


  24. you do have a valid point about work availability…..but my point in general is not the income portion of the equation, but the expense side……you CAN control it……

    again, if you come from nothing, are willing to work hard and live like a pauper FOR A TIME, you can get free…….

    be creative…live in a house with another family, find ways to cut expenses…..

    if people blazed trails across the US in wagons, bearing and burying their children along the way….i think we can deal with living in “cramped” quarters eating rice, raman noodles and potatoes for a while to get free……shop at the thrift store…..

    and by cramped quarters i mean…not a sod house or shanty……a cheapo apartment….

    we have to get rid of the idea of status quo… owns many people.

  25. “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may your posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”

    -Samuel Adams

    I think he is talking to some of you……

    but again, to each his own……

    Junker Says: life is to be lived…..

  26. Minor nit, Jake-Not-Hte-One: $200/wk for family of 4 sounds a bit high. I’m feeding a family of 9 (soon to be 10) on a $1000/month… in NJ… no Costco, no Walmart. But hell, who am I to talk, I’m still on the corporate teet… while it lasts at least.

    The bottom line is that FedCo (the corporation that runs this part of North America) has totally screwed us. It has subsidized (by its picking of winners and losers over the last 100 years, at least) subvervience, amorality, externalized costs, wage slavery, infantilized consumers. The only real way to “fix” this is to kill the beast (military coup)… or at least escape from it (secession).

    I take issue, Caleb, with the notion of (need for) revolution. Right wing revolutions never work. (And left wing ones rarely fail.) I think “restoration” is the more accurate term.

  27. Caleb, thank you for the links. I’ve read the first one, and I have a question for you. You quote this passage, with admiration:

    [T]he most ennobling work we do is seldom remunerated in greenbacks. Bearing and raising a child, cultivating a garden, just being there for a sibling or friend to lean on: this “work” is compensated in a currency far more valuable than Uncle Sam’s paper. This, in fact, is the work that should be honored on Labor Day. The work we do for “nothing.” (For everything, really.) The work that enriches us as human beings; that binds us to our families and our neighbors; that shrouds even the most commonplace of lives in glory. This is the work whose coin, whose only coin, is love.

    Tell me, Caleb, what woman is not your sister? What man is not your friend? Are only the people whom you know personally worthy of love? Is your love all to exhaustible, so that you must portion it out to those most near and dear, with little left over for others?

    I don’t see the kind of love to which you say you aspire as being all that parsimonious.

    Anyway, I will keep reading. I enjoy your writing, mostly, even if I often shake my head in disbelief at what you say.


  28. But, Steve, little kids eat so little. 🙂

    $800 a month may be high. My only excuse is that it made for a nice round $10k per year.

  29. “I think “restoration” is the more accurate term.”

    That’s what all good rebels say!!

    Besides, I only said that the character of the effort is revolutionary, as in, it seeks to overthrow the current order, which it most certainly does. This does not mean it seeks to overthrow the current institutions, which is does not, except for the IRS and various and sundry other pipsqueek meddlesome and perfidious federal agencies.

    Now there’s a restorative thought.

  30. “Is your love all too exhaustible, so that you must portion it out to those most near and dear, with little left over for others?”

    In a word, yes.

    In more than a word, it’s not about portioning. My heart is not a gumball machine kicking out little morsals of love here and there. To love truly is to give the fullness of oneself in time and place. In other words, it is to embrace the limits of this world of suggested yet missed perfection.

    Or as I wrote elsewhere and linked to above: “It is to live in love with the frailty and limits of one’s existence, suffering the places, customs, rites, joys, and sorrows of the people who are in close relation to you by family, friendship, and community–all in service of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is best experienced directly.”

    Yours is the counterfeit coin of John Lennon’s “love.” Which is a form of life-denial and self-loathing at root.

  31. Whoa!!! Counterfeit coin!!!


    We love those who are near and dear best, most certainly. But to say that we have no love for those we don’t know well, or those we don’t know at all, is simply to say that we don’t know love at all.

    Love is not a feeling, Caleb, it is something you do. You spoke of taking breakdowns of your old truck as an opportunity to build community (my words). If you were in a strange town, not your home town, would you feel the same? If you felt the same, then are you not saying that you agree that community is everywhere, not just in one place, but wherever you are? If you tie your love to your sense of community, then when you take that community with you to someplace new, does it not deserve your love? Then, if it deserves your love when you are there, does it not deserve your love when you are not present?

    Apparently, you have a very narrow view of community, Caleb.


  32. Who said anything about love being a feeling?

    You are moralizing. I am talking about politics. Like I said above, I think this moralizing was one of the weaknesses of my original essay. This is not to say political questions are amoral, but rather that moralism is a cheap way to escape and avoid difficult political questions; or, worse, it is a trap laid by those with more political savvy than you.

    “Apparently, you have a very narrow view of community, Caleb.”

    Yes, I do. See Aristotle and Jefferson.

  33. Well, at least you are aware of your faults, however few they might be.

    So, what is the political question you feel you and I avoided thru cheap moralizing? Perhaps you have stated it elsewhere in this conversation, and if so, please, point it out to me and I will go reread it.

    Although, taken altogether, your fix to whatever the problem might be seems to tend towards the standard conservative cant – lower taxes!!!

    Like they aren’t already the lowest in living memory (well, my living memory).

  34. I’m guessing those three businesses are your law firm, any publishing and speaking you do, and your farm. That is most likely the order of profitability as well.

    Bootstrappers tend to be all talk and no cattle, no offense. 90% of all small businesses close within 5 years. Family farms are dying not growing. Very few people make good money in real estate. Yet there are always people not only arguing there are exceptions – obviously there are – but you and everyone else will be the exceptions. The only thing that can hold you back is a lack of industry, or at least they claim.

  35. Caleb, those may be the ONLY questions that politics addresses. Morality is the milieu in which the debate takes place. We have seen the act for what it is – greed is a good, war is a good, torture is a good – how and when did moral action come to encompass such things?

    Money talks, is what I guess. As Jefferson wrote, rogues rise disproportionately to the top. And when they do, they redefine what is moral so as to justify their actions, past, present and future. (see Cheney et al).


  36. I work with and thought you might be interested in a recent job offer for Ms. Quindlen by Stephen Reily, Founder & CEO,

    A copy of the letter sent by Stephen Reily, founder and CEO of, is published below:

    Dear Ms. Quindlen,

    Like many Newsweek readers, I was stunned when I read your final LAST WORD column. I was even more surprised — and a bit concerned — as I considered your rationale for “Stepping Aside.” Don’t get me wrong; I respect your decision. Among the great advantages of living and working in the USA are our freedoms: of speech, of the press, of the choices we get to make in our personal and professional lives.

    But as the founder of, a website for women age 50+, I’ve got a vested interest in ensuring the voices of this powerful, yet often ignored niche of the Boomer generation, continue to be heard.

    Now, more than ever, our nation can benefit from the strong, wise and opinionated voices of the women who comprise the Vibrant Nation. In a world where women over 50 are too frequently pushed aside, written off and broadly ignored by marketers despite their exceptional purchasing power, stepping aside to create opportunity for a younger generation cannot be the best or only solution.

    As you regularly do, you eloquently wrote in your farewell column about how, “Barack Obama hopscotched over an entire generation of politicians to reach the White House; he had not waited his turn because a majority of the American people decided that he ought not to do so. They agreed that the country needed change.”

    I respectfully suggest that the reason Barack Obama became President Obama had little to do with his age and lots to do with the potent combination of better ideas and inspiration. He surrounded himself with advisors (younger and older) and combined the latest advances in communications technology with traditional, proven political campaign techniques. He called upon us to bring our best to make this a better world — regardless of one’s age or generation.

    It is this combination of smart ideas, diverse experiences and well-stated opinions from our nation’s youngest and oldest citizens that truly represent the image and likeness of our nation and our world. Stepping aside is not an option, because we don’t believe you’ve said all you want or need to say.

    Surely I’m not the only one who worries that your self-imposed retirement simply reinforces what the marketplace has always imposed on women over 50: silence and invisibility. Why else imply that it’s time for women like you to get out of the way? I am confident that women your age (and you’re only 56, for goodness’ sake) can make room for younger voices while continuing to share everything they’ve learned along the way, both in the broader arena and (as they always have done) with each other.

    Please accept this formal offer to join the chorus of smart, passionate women over 50 as Contributing Editor for We hope we can play some small role in helping you continue to share your important perspective on our world with other women like you who are eager to hear your voice…trust me, they’ll let you know how they feel about what you have to say.


    Stephen Reily

    Founder and CEO

  37. […] Others have made similar arguments on this site, but generally we hear little about the advantages of staying home, and lots about the negatives.  Ours is a culture that either celebrates all the possible pluses of moving, or shrugs its shoulders at the assumed necessity, and there is no question the economic deck is stacked against any place that isn’t hip or a megalopolis.  The argument is often couched in economic and so-called quality-of-life terms, as if our income and our entertainment were the essential deciding factors of the value of our lives.  In Who’s Your City Richard Florida spends a few pages acknowledging the value (to some) of remaining rooted, but devotes the rest of the book to describing the best places for your type of personality at your particular stage of life.  His assumption is we can happily leave most human relationships behind, or squeeze out all their juice in an annual visit.  That kind of talk makes me want to shout my case for the other side, because our ties to a certain place and certain people are not so easily replaced. […]

  38. In verbage I often contradict the “Discipline of Place.”

    YET- In practice my life and family have blossomed under the disciplines of “Discipline of Place.” Tomorrow, my son Micah marries Adriene Willems. Like his father, Micah is a rolling stone that will never gather moss.

    Adriene too is a “busy-accomplisher.” She gets it honestly. Her parents model it.

    Yes, both are only twenty, but as driven-dreamers, motivated, and already successful by many definitions I intend to remind them, through my brief comments during the ceremony-the strength, solidity, and bent, yet never broken character of the two families from which they are born and loved have come from the Barclay’s and Willems practice of the “Discipline of Place.” This has been accomplished by Pieter, Alice, Cindy, and I saying no to more things than we have said yes.

    Both sets of parents are quite capable people. We have been and thought ourselves into many new places, but how excellent to always know how to return from some glorious horizon and sit again on our own front porch, under our own familiar blue sky. God is everywhere, but He and we are at our best when we are “home.”

    Marriage and relationships thrive under the “Discipline of Place.”

    Thank you Caleb!

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