The perception of how the economy, and the country in general, is doing is made up of the experiences of the people – if we are lucky – and not just the uncritically accepted jabbering of the media. There are also the statistics, the actual (hopefully) numbers of unemployed, time out of work, shift in the kinds of available jobs, possible amounts and distribution of income and the larger patterns of change that the country is going through (the forces driving the changes are another matter). I present here the perspectives of one man, who doesn’t agree with much of what he is hearing from media and government, on the assumption that he represents a variety of others with similar points of view.
I am not endorsing my witness’ views, nor am I using them to support an agenda – this is not the mainstream news! I am reporting them because they are interesting and because a man without guile or purpose other than talking to another human being that he took to be more or less “on his side” and who was willing to listen and interested.
A brief preamble to set the stage: An old man on a motorcycle packed for traveling, to most normally functioning human beings, is almost irresistible; something has to be said. And that is all I need to be invited into the space of the other person.
I was camping in a state park that was clearly a retreat for the more adventurous and leisured from the nearby city. The large camper trailer next to me was surrounded by vehicles: a ‘momma van’, large pickup and at least 4 bicycles. The kids yelled their various delights and peeves in the local accent. The Man of the family (capitalized to recognize his alpha male status) spoke a neighborly and non-committal greeting; that duty done, went about his business.
The next morning I was up early as was he. Since I had proved an acceptable neighbor, and that I seemed to know my business – and the irresistible motorcycle – brought him across the few yards separating my little tent camp from his rolling palace. We began with the bike, but soon moved on to other matters.
I don’t know if is it just me – political and economic matters dominate my thinking and so my choice of words and comments may move the direction of conversation – but many conversations I’ve had seamlessly and quickly turned to the issues of jobs, economy and “what is happening in America.” This one was no different. However, it may be that these matters are just what are on most people’s mind.
After the various sparrings typical of two men completely unknown to each other beyond their observable stuff, we settled on me as retired old man on a motorcycle with good camping gear and my correspondent as country boy made-good in the oil fields.
In a nutshell: my camping neighbor believed that there was plenty of work in America; that the unemployed were unwilling to do what was necessary to find and keep a job. He saw natural gas as the singular and sufficient salvation of the energy ‘crisis’ and the political establishment as criminally unaware or complicit with ‘green energy’ people in failing to appreciate it.
I cannot attest to his familiarity with major media or his political awareness other than that his time was almost completely consumed by work and family. I had the strong impression that he was not studied in the subtleties of political, economic and scientific intrigue, but had formed a comprehensive and complex worldview from his life experience and was not going to be easily swayed by anything less powerful than his grandfather’s wisdom and the observable consequences of his own life product. I don’t know what he listened to on the truck radio as he drove around, and to and from, the various job sites. His assertive comments to me were supported by his own experience and the ‘professional’ advice and opinion from the contractors, engineers and such that he worked with, supplemented by bits of family wisdom. I heard none of the buzzwords and phrases from the likes of Limbaugh .
My interlocutor was in his late middle thirties; by all outward appearances, economically prosperous; a high school graduate who had had several unproductive jobs and various setbacks until he finally settled into the oil fields. There he prospered with working hard, what he would call common sense, intelligence and his grandfather’s and father’s code of ‘getting it done.’ He rose quickly to a supervisory position.
He judges himself to be ‘every man’ and therefore sees no reason that others couldn’t do what he has done. Here is some of what he told me:
His company (I don’t know which one) is looking for workers, can’t get enough good people for the available work. By workers he means men to do hard physical and dirty work. They live in a bunkhouse situation for a week (“7 on and 7 off” is the routine) out at the drill sites. Some come from as much as 500 miles away.
High school kids, I could hear the distain, would come out, work a couple of weeks and suddenly remember dentist appointments, sick parents, the plethora of ‘dog ate my homework’ excuses and then they were gone. A few months later, they might try to get back on, but they had used up their chance.
For the work, on-site living and the ‘7 on and 7 off’ schedule the workers receive about $18.00/hr for regular time, overtime pay beyond that, per diem and safety bonuses. He claimed that a man could get $80 to $100 thousand a year; that would have to be an experienced worker making well above the base pay. I would guess that he is making a good bit more than that. (I calculated, using the numbers he gave me that a base pay worker could make about $36,500 for a 25 week work-year; that is 1400 hrs/year. 40 hrs/week for 50 weeks is 2000 hrs/year.)
Wind farms were to him a great scam; although it wasn’t clear who was doing the scamming. The wind of the High Plains being sent to the West Coast as electricity was unfathomably silly and wasteful. I don’t know from my own information that the great wind farms of western Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico are dedicated to the West Coast, but that was what my communicant had been told by an electrical contractor and he believed it to be so.
With a practiced hint of snarl – the way that it is required to say the name in some circles – he said that Obama had not been saying anything about the benefits of natural gas. He told me that a simple addition to some of their diesels allowed ‘straight from the well’ gas to be injected into the diesel fuel flow increasing fuel mileage sufficiently to warrant the conversions. No one was pushing natural gas properly; it was the energy of the future. I suggested T. Boone Pickens as someone who was the public face of ‘the cause.’ “Yes, he is talking about it.” And a minute later as though to finish up with Mr. Pickens: “T. Boone wants everyone to know that he’s rich.”
Progressives and progressive politics ignore this man to our peril. He is honest and comes by his worldview honestly. He is not a fool and he is not ignorant. He is misinformed and under-informed and deserves the effort required to meet him on his own ground with the courage and effort equal to his own to live his life well by his lights. He is someone that I would want on my side when the shit hits the fan.
Failing to become aware enough, educated enough and thoughtful enough to communicate with the people who are the Salt of the Earth of this nation is an even greater failing than the one often attributed to them of being ignorant of forces driving the country’s economics and politics. No one can learn what they are not taught. The great effort to teach the people has, up to now, been left to and made by those who intentionally mislead and lie to them. The wonder is that the lessons have been so often rejected given our failures to counter them with reason and the truth.
 I dwell on this because I think that in this way he represents a large percentage of “middle America.” I don’t mean middle class in the economic sense, but the great swath of people who work and play in some coordinated experience with friends and family, whose attention is on the daily movement of their lives and not the events that are over the horizon. The kind of life, I maintain, we are best equipped to live.