Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small Town Values

During the coverage of the Republican National Convention I heard a lot of talk about "small-town values".  When pressed to elaborate, they described an America without abortion and in which marriage was "between a man and a woman."

Well, I lived in a small town, my parents still live in one.  But there's more to living in a small-town than simply being pro-life and homophobic.  Here are some of the other values that you could find in my small town, and can no doubt find in many others.

Limited Industry/Technology - my town was years behind larger cities in terms of internet connectivity and has a small industrial park on the outskirts of the city--although it's very limited in what it can produce because it doesn't have access to a) the highway or b) the railroad.  But more to the point, there is little initiative within the town to actually produce anything.  The bulk of revenue comes from tourism.  This, in turn, leads to...

The Exodus of Talent - lacking medium-sized or large businesses that can pay a competitive wage to someone with a college degree, the few people of the town that want to do something with their lives move away--although it's amazing that the city produces any because...

Education Shmeducation - years ago they tried to pass a bond issue to build a new middle school--this being necessary because the current middle school (which was, in turn, the original high school) was in sad, sad shape.  The third floor of it, for example, had been condemned after a student fell through it and onto the ceiling of the second floor (uninjured).  But you can't make these old German farmers pass a bond issue for a middle school.  So instead, the city passed a bond issue for a brand new (and largely unnecessary) high school so that the old high school could become the new middle school.  The additional tax burden would not have been much (certainly not more than a new high school), but perhaps the citizens felt they were already over-taxed because...

Taxation Rules - you've got business fees, license fees, if you own a motel or B&B you have to pay a bed tax.  My father, who was a business-owner in town, was convinced that the city was trying to shut down all of the small businesses in town with their constantly-added taxes and standards (which my father adhered to--the man wouldn't steal a pen from a bank--but it was an open secret that many business owners put on window-dressing for the inspectors and then did things their own damned way the other 364 days of the year).  But they didn't discriminate against small businesses.  They were even more...

Unfriendly to Large Businesses - well, no wonder they don't have much industry--if it isn't locally-born, they aren't interested.  Wal-Mart tried to move in, but the city adamently refused, saying that it would run the small mom-and-pop stores out of business.  Well, the small mom-and-pop stores go out of business anyway, because they're badly-run businesses in a market that can't sustain them, and are then replaced by new mom-and-pop stores that will soon go out of business.  As for the people, they go to the Wal-Mart two towns over.  Why?

Everything is Over-Priced - ever paid $11 for contact solution before?  Even the three imitation Wal-Marts (that were also chains, mind you) that opened, stayed around for three-to-four-years, and then folded, all charged too much for everything, which was a feat since they had virtually nothing on the shelves.  So people drive an hour round trip to shop at Wal-Mart anyway (at least for non-groceries; the local grocer actually got it's act together, but it charges competitive prices for food--what a concept!) but the tax revenue derived from the local citizen's spending is now leaving the county.  But it's not just commodities, even the utilities are high.  Why?

The Local Government is Inept - and why shouldn't it be?  Nothing is ever on the line.  There aren't millions of people who will go without food if the city royally wrecks things.  Why not lapse into cart-before-the-horse reasoning, irrational adherence to deprecated traditions, or (my personal favorite) out-and-out nepotism?  What's stopping you?  But wait, there's also...

The Willingness to Kow-Tow Before Anyone with Money - go to a small town with a million dollars, start dropping your name around, get active in the board (without actually running for anything) and see if you can get them to name a street after you.  Seriously--it's not as hard as it sounds.  All except the getting the million dollars (that first million is always the hardest).

Now don't get me wrong, small towns have their perks--they're more relaxed, less polluted, they have less traffic, and property values are frequently lower (i.e., you can own a home in a good neighborhood for cheap).  And when people talk "small-town values", they don't only mean homophobia and abortion-is-of-the-devil.  They're usually talking about religiousity, honesty, integrity, and hard work.

So let me debunk those.

Where to start.  I could throw some statistics at you--mention that the top 100 most populous cities in the US house 68% of it's jobs and 3/4's of it's GDP.  Or I could talk about the slew of teen pregnancies at my high school.  I could talk about the T-shirt shop where they paid employees under the table and sold sweatshirts with a Calvin Klein logo screen-printed on the front.  Or the little mom-and-pop shop whose entire sales model was based on exploiting the Ty Beanie-Baby fad, and that promptly folded when those stopped being popular.  Why that's hard work and integrity right there (at least they were honest about what was propping up their business).

No, I'll talk about Melissa.  She was in my high school graduating class (full disclosure--we weren't close, and by "weren't close" I mean she "hated my guts", but that's another story) or at least she would have been except that she died in a car accident in March of our junior year.  Witnesses from the party she had attended report that she left inebriated, and her death had a tremendous impact on the town.  We took busses from the high school to go to her funeral--the school choir sang (including me--she hated my guts but I sang a dirge at her funeral; we'll see who gets the last laugh, now... okay, apologies, that was macabre...).

It would have been a prime opportunity to mention that this senseless waste of life could have been averted if she hadn't been drinking and driving--which continues to be a bit of a problem in our honest, hard-working little hamlet.  But rather than speaking honestly and address a real problem, it got swept under a rug.  The official police report--the official police report--stated that she "swerved to miss a deer".  The underage drinking, the meth labs, the pregnancies--it all gets swept under a rug.  And this is exactly why small-town values are exactly what America doesn't need.

If "small-town values" prevent you from dealing with, rather than ignoring, the real problems that exist in a small town, what advantage are they going to give you when these are compounded with the real problems that are unique to densely-populated areas?  You can't just ignore traffic and pollution.  You can't pretend that they don't exist.  You can't just gloss over maintaining the infrastructure.  Not if you expect to be in office for more than a single term.

Small towns believe in the power of the aesthetic.  If it looks like a nice, honest, cozy little town, then it must be a nice, honest, cozy little town.  And you know what?  You can get away with that when you have a population of 3,000.  Furthermore, small towns aren't completely bereft of honesty or hard work; I would dare say that all or nearly all of my friends from high-school were brought up by honest, hard-working small-town people (although it's telling that all of my friends then moved away).  I would even go as far to say that the ratio of honest to dishonest folk in a small town is probably exactly the same as that of a metro.  If you want to live there, that's fine; it's a free country--enjoy it!

But I choose to live in a metro.  Depending on how you tally it, between 73% and 81% live in large or medium-sized cities.  Meaning that small-town America is at best 1/4th of the population.  Hardly representative.  America has 300 million people living in it, and we come from a vast array of backgrounds, religious beliefs, work ethics, educations and socioeconomic levels.  The my-size-fits-all attitude of small-towners will not, can not, and does not work for the rest of us.

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