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June 30, 2004

Second World & Internal Empire

The other day I had lunch with Andy and Pete. The conversation came around to hypenation, grade point averages, and a small town in Kentucky.

Since late last year, I have gone downmarket. I am not trying to crack the Fortune 500. Been there, done that. Now I am on my own pursuing software contracts in the mid-market, companies with from 100M to about 2B in annual revenue. I used to need a team of sharp sales guys and spiffy marketing in order to get into the IT department of a large company with my knapsack of quarter million dollar software tools. Now it's just me and my partner chasing down companies and the knapsack of tools cost about 60 grand. In one way it could be said that I have encountered the proverbial Glass Ceiling. I have never thought of it that way until this moment, but I must say that I am fairly pleased with my accomplishments regardless of whether or not that is true. I am embracing the Second World.

The Internal Empire is how I often conceptualize the hundreds of millions of people living in the US who are not among its ruling class. Among them are First Worlders, Second Worlders and a small but real contingent of Third Worlders. The First World consists of that segment of the middle and upper classes who live up to all of the modern standards of the world. Think 'Friends' and 'The Practice'.

Living in the Second World means that you live among faces that don't make the headlines or the soap operas. In Los Angeles, the Second World is where I'm making my money. It's a very different part of town than where I've lived. There are lots of trucks around here. It's Pico Rivera, Industry, La Mirada. It's industrial and warehousy over here in the Second World. But if there is any town in LA County that looks the most like the 2W to me, it must be Downey right in the neighborhood where the huge abandoned Boeing plant is. The Second World could go up or down.

Pete grew up in a household where the parents spoke flawless Spanish. Pete's high school age son is in trouble if he slips below a 3.5 GPA. He told me yesterday about his friend the electrician who just bought a house in Hawaii. It reminded me about my Tupac Epiphany and the days I seriously considered driving a cement mixer.

Andy worked in his parent's restaurant as did all the boys in defiance of what child labor laws might have been on the books. His brother changed his last name and had surgery on his eyes to make him look Japanese, disowning his family in the process. But according to his brother, looking Japanese was an improvement from being Vietnamese. I find it surprising that Andy feels hyphenated himself, but I know that my expectations of people are different than the average bear.

The three of us at lunch represent not much more than we are, a trio of IT guys shooting the bull. But in a way, we can be taken as the faces of the Second World. With any luck we can retire and watch our kids get through college and graduate school. But what's attractive about the Second World is that it needn't be so very attractive. It needn't signify a great deal. We just know what we know and do what we do. In a proper America, this would be sufficient. Alas.

We live in a country run by, or at the least managed by people signifying the First World. I think of Bill Murray in 'Lost in Translation' posing for whiskey commercials in Tokyo. He gets a cool million for taking pictures because symbols in the First World are weighty. The weatherman has to have personality as well as telling the weather. The candidate has to adhere to a 'presidential' code of behavior. These are the requirements of people who do a slightly better job to become kings and captains. The difference between first place and second place is often a small degree in practice but massive in theory. It's why Carl Lewis cares about getting his picture on the box of Wheaties, whereas nobody bothers putting pictures on generic cereals in an aisle with 100 different brands.

I am still struggling to understand how we'll all fit together in a system of ethics that can work for all of our socioeconomic classes. I expect to be pleasantly surprised and at turns quite disappointed. As I have found genuinely inspiring reasons why working class people are attracted to the Republican party, I have also found impenetrable partisan quibbling that nullifies all distinctions other than rich and very rich. Yet I hold out the hope that in the end it is not our economy that makes America so great as it is our peaceable and open society. People may come for the money but they stay for the domestic tranquility.

I believe that it is because we have so many idle and otherwise non-struggling rich people that our standard of living is high. It may be something of a cyncial view, but perhaps our roads are well maintained because so many of us want to drive our fast new cars. That's not a good enough reason, but the professions chug along maintaining that level of civilization for the best of us. We have stable markets and the trains keep running on time because it is in the interests of those who can do, and can profit. The internal empire keeps running, the cops keep showing up for duty, young people keep going to medical school, accountants keep accounting, insurers keep insuring, teachers keep teaching, big wheels keep on turning.

These wheels must continue to work for middle America, the Second Worlders. Our democracy has to become accellerated to keep up with where the First Worlders and ruling class can go. In that is the vitality of the Nation which I am not certain can afford juggling the ethics of each world. Because we are not an actual empire, it must be the demonstrable proof of democracy which makes an insuperable bond between us all. This democracy must show itself able to be in all of our interests no matter which world we inhabit. This is how America will survive - by making this system extensible and robust beyond those ethnic, geographic, economic and religious boundaries that have traditionally separated mankind. A tall order to be sure.

I'll continue to make notes from the Second World.

Posted by mbowen at June 30, 2004 05:47 PM

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