I should not eat Snickers Bars in the afternoon. While it is not yet illegal, and probably not immoral, it is certainly fattening. But I like the veneer of chocolate and by now my body has become dependent on the food-like substance of the interior and my brain dependent on the chemical additives with unpronounceable names. So I sauntered down to the diner in the first floor of our office building and checked myself into the small diner for my afternoon fix.
Diners like these are one of the last bastions of free enterprise in the country, run by the lady who owns it. No doubt some day one day it will become a branch of DineMart, and the owner-cook will become an hourly Food Preparation Specialist, forbidden by corporate policy to serve anything that actually resembles food, but for now it remains an honest establishment. It is some standard features. The upright cooler with glass doors that contains a variety of the those various combinations of corn syrup, caffeine and red dye that we imbibe in great quantities because it would be Just Terrible if we had a glass of beer or wine with lunch. It has a machine which, if you inject a little plastic capsule into it and push a button, will churn out a hot brown liquid whose taste reminds many people of coffee. A few tables and chairs, a counter with a cooler for the various salads, and a grill and cooking equipment behind the counter completes the ensemble. For a few dollars you can get a large breakfast and a decent lunch, and the menu is surprisingly creative and varied for such a small place.
I doubt if the business is all that lucrative. It is a small office building, slowly leaking tenants as the recession (now declared “over”) takes its toll. The prices are low enough that there can't be much of a margin, and surely she lacks any buying power and pays retail for her ingredients. But it is her's and it's honest and forms a decent amenity for our shrinking cadre of office grinds.
But the first thing I noticed was that the candy bar rack was empty. “Hey,” I called out, “Who's the Vice-President of Junk Food?”
“I am,” said the owner.
“Well, where are the Snickers Bars?”
“I had to put all the candy behind the counter.”
“Why?” I asked, thinking that it was some weird new “health” regulation, which are surely the bane of operations like these.
“People steal them. When I turn my back to cook, they slip them into their purses or pockets.”
“What?” I had difficulty processing this information. Who would steal from this lady? Since the clientele is mostly the office workers who see her regularly, it must be people who know her. “I'm a real estate agent,” I said, “I know how to steal. You don't steal candy bars!”
Amateurs. There is nothing a professional hates worse than competition from amateurs.
“And I can't keep dollar bills in the tip jar. People take them.” This is astounding. Stealing tips? It's unbelievable.
It is in moments like these that I most fear for the future of the Republic. Trouble in the life of a nation comes as reliably as trouble in the life of a person. It is not the trouble that destroys us, but how we respond to it. That the people at the top are thieves, the people who run Goldman Sachs, for example, is hardly surprising; corruption at the top is nearly an historical constant. What holds society together is what happens at the “bottom,” as it were. All the little courtesies which make a community possible, a community where you don't have to hide the Snickers and the tips.
For example, in the 1930's, when the depression and the dust-bowl forced the Okies to migrate to California (“Thereby raising the IQ of both states,” as Will Rogers observed) they carried, along with their mean collection of possessions, some things of real value. Strong families, solid morals, a willingness to work. And we survived the depression in good order, in ways that Germany did not. Germany was surely a civilized country, but the breakdown of trust and decency led, as it will, to indecent actions, actions that brought the world down in an orgy of violence and hatred. High civilization is no substitute for common courtesy.
What will our future be like? If stealing tips is general enough to make us hide them, then I think there might be some dangers for us. I look at my generation, and I am ashamed. We got everything, and paid for nothing, leaving our children debts they cannot repay, and a nation that needs to be rebuilt. I look at the Tea Partiers of my age, the ones who object to socialized medicine for the young because it might compromise the socialized medicine they already have. They object to paying taxes, but object equally to cutting any services. They want their wars, their pensions, their socialized healthcare, and they want the children to pay for it. My colleagues—all supporters of limited government—are angry that the $8,000 subsidy to home-buyers is about to expire. We want what we want. We just don't want to pay for it. And we look at our children and say, “Where did we go wrong?”
I am no better at the small courtesies. I see this lady two or three times a month, and I do not know her name. We meet in real life, not on the internet, so we have no handle, no avatar, by which to greet each other. Our relations are increasingly impersonal, which makes rudeness and theft easier. (BTW, we at the Distributist Review live in a something of a bubble in this regard. Compare the discussion of my recent post on Goldman Sachs with the discussion on the same post at “BlogsforVictory”. Scary stuff.) We need to have a real political dialog. We need to tackle the serious tasks of rebuilding the economy and society. We cannot do that, as our grandparents did it, with the morals of Goldman Sachs.
And we are all Goldman Sachs now.
Note: No promotional fees or other considerations were paid for any product placements in this blog. But I think Snickers ought to pay me.