Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Marking the Divides

Ramble alert...

As someone who grew up just west of the continental divide (in the Congressional district of West Wing's fictional vice president, Bingo Bob), I was keenly aware of how geographic barriers sometimes help highlight philosophical differences. The Western Slope periodically threatened to secede from the Front Range of Colorado, where the rivers and the money flow in the opposite direction.

Inhospitable and difficult to cross, the great divide ran through the middle of the state. The natives knew where it was but very few actually lived there. The divide was just something to get past. The tourists got out of their cars to snap pictures of themselves next to the signs that marked the summit of every pass. So Across the Great Divide naturally came to mind for the title of this blog. It signified for me a clear line of separation that determines whether everything flows left, right or goes nowhere.

The phrase has been widely applied to many apparently unbridgeable gulfs — of religion, class, race and personal relationships. For example, to describe a dialogue between the father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl and a Pakistani Muslim. Or as the title of a blog entry referred to in my first, brief post here. Or as a song by The Band, which, trust me, flows a lot better on record than on a lyrics sheet.

Last week, I was stumbling around the archives of a University of Utah listserv on economics (don't ask!) and came across another reference to the Great Divide. It was made back in 1997 by a retired aerospace engineer, whose pastime appears to be explaining money and finance.

Some day, if you are lucky or clever or thrifty enough you may amass enough personal wealth to cross the Great Divide where your investment income exceeds your living expenses. You can then be an absentee owner calling on the labor of others while you clip coupons, cash dividends, or collect rents.

Wealth begets wealth. Beyond a critical mass, like a chain reaction, it can produce more than it consumes. Obviously only a small fraction of the population can cross that divide. Real wealth is created out of labor, and that leads some to take umbrage at the absentee ownership of capital. Yet unequal wealth is an inherent aspect of a market economy and the capitalist system. Its redeeming feature is that everyone is equally eligible to become a capitalist. Unfortunately it is also true that some are more equal than others.

In my view, the issue has less to do with morality than it does with stability. Can we find an acceptable equilibrium, or will
the political power that accompanies great wealth lead to such serious inequities that it ultimately destroys the system that creates that wealth?

William F. Hummel

Left and right, rich and poor, straight and gay, Israeli and Palestinian. It's naive to think we could all live happily together in the middle, or that we could knock down all the divides in our world forever. But I believe it's worthwhile to mark them, to give them a name and to show which way is which.

Where I came from, you knew there would always be days when you needed to see the other side of the mountain.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charlie, you can still ponder a Great Divide here in Minnesota. Did you know there's a continental divide in the north-central part of our state? Go to Savannah Portage State Park and you can walk the Continental Divide Trail...water to the east flows to Lake Superior, to the west flows to the Mississippi.

Of course, the continental divide is not as impressive in Minnesota...just a forested ridge of birch and red maple. And I don't think people in Moose Lake think particularly ill of the folks in Grand Rapids.

- Gus

8:44 AM  

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