Mystified About America

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We didn’t spend much time in California. Driving from Las Vegas, we stopped in Bakersfield, Calif., for gas and lunch. The city fathers had erected a huge thermometer in the town center. It registered 114 degrees. It must be cooler in some parts of hell, we thought.

"Is it always this hot?" we asked the waitress.

"Not always… but this is not too unusual."

"Guess you have to stay inside."

"No, we go out in the evening, when it cools down. The temperature goes down to about 100. Then, we go out. But there’s nowhere to go anyway… so we stay inside."

Leaving Bakersfield, we crossed more desert and soon looked down on a lake of smog. The smell of the inland desert changed to a sweeter odor of sea air and auto fumes.

Before we got into the city, we noticed mile after mile of new houses in various stages of construction. The houses appeared to be huge things; thrown up with two-by-fours and flake board. They are building hundreds, no thousands, of them all at one go. You see one style for a mile or two… and then another style for another mile or two… and then what looks like a shopping mall… and then yet another style of new house in a further stage of completion. Left unchecked, the houses seem to be spreading like some form of virus, filling up all the land all the way up to the foothills and barren desert. What Godforsaken hole must people crawl out of to make these places seem like an improvement, we wondered. One of the trailers on the other side of Barstow? Here, they are far from anything… and stacked one against another with barely 10 feet between. Why not live in an apartment or a condo closer to the center of town?

It was a mystery to us. But then, so much of what goes on in America is a mystery. Why do people live in mobile homes — in the midst of abundant stone and timber? Why do people live in places hotter than Hades… in the middle of a desert with nothing to do… and where even a blade of grass — should it pop up in the early morning — would be dead by noon? Why do people drive four hours from L.A. in order to stay in a tacky hotel in Las Vegas… and lose money gambling? Why would anyone want to buy at 125 times earnings? Why do parents spend $150,000 to send their children to college — when most of what they learn is useless nonsense? Why do people think they are getting richer — when their incomes are falling and their debts are rising? Why do people drive heavy four-wheel-drive vehicles in places where it never snows and hardly rains? Why do people spend themselves into debt when there is so little worth buying? Why do so few people plant vegetable gardens? Or save money? Why don’t they make the coffee stronger?

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

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