Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Nation of Rebels IV

How to relate all of this to my own life, and my decision to live in Taiwan? First, let's acknowledge, this is not a book about "them". A blue- state, tail-end-of-the-babyboom, counterculture-influenced consumer would peg me pretty well. I see plenty of myself in the behavior diagnosed in this book –from an original intention to live a simple, non-materialist lifestyle to an adult life in which, shall we say, money management is not exactly a strong point. A positive spin on this is that I have tastes that are more sophisticated than my parents.“Indian food!,”my mother marvels."You didn't learn about that in my home!" An invidious take would point out that, though I earn less than my parents, my consumption habits –whether in clothes, food, travel, music, whatever –reflect a disinclination to settle for the weekend by the lake when I could be trekking in Nepal. To my amazement, this turns out to be rather more expensive.

Another interesting angle from which to reflect on this book is the blue state/ red state divide. It's a source of deep satisfaction and vindication for blue –staters to point out that the blues on aggregate earn more than the reds. Moreover,while the blues contribute more in taxes, the reds receive more from the federal government. The flip side of this coin is that, consistent with the thesis of "Nation of Rebels", the children of the counterculture are more, not less, implicated in the cycle of earn and spend. I've often reflected that, if I were to return to the states, I would prefer to live in the south or west, albeit within driving distance of a blue oasis like Boulder or Austin. "Nation" clarifies for me that this is not illogical –it really is the case that the "positional goods" race to the bottom is farther along in blue states, and this is because of, not in spite of, the 60's "movement" legacy.

And moving to Taiwan? It's surely no coincidence that I've chosen to live in a country with low, red-state-like tax rates, but which still manages to adequately subsidize fundamental "social contract" sectors like health care and public education. Taiwan's GDP ($25,000 per capita) is exactly at the mid-point between the U.S.($40,000 per capita) and the figure cited as the transition from a subsistence to a "positional goods" economy –not a bad place to be. Of course, the very decision to live as a foreigner in a (mostly) ethnically monochrome place like Taiwan is symptomatic of the need to be "distinctive" the authors diagnose. When I spent my first six months here thirteen years ago, a running joke was "Get out of my Asian experience, whitey!" upon seeing a foreign face once a week or so. Of course, we also said that what we loved about Taiwan was that it didn't have the cloying "self-consciousness" of America. We wanted to be distinctive, that is, but we didn't want to live in a society where everybody else wanted to be distinctive. At some level of self-awareness, we knew where that ended up.