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We are now delivering to government the same message that many hardworking Americans are being forced to internalize  in their own lives: learn to live with less. I’m not sure what our country will look like when the lesson is fully learned. But, if you are willing to start educating us, www.livewithless.com, dear reader, appears to be yours for the taking.

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I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

It is a short chapter in A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, and it doesn’t appear until page 83. But it’s an important one. It clearly seeks to establish his claim as the most-traveled pathfinder of his day.

The chapter is curiously titled “Deadly Figures.” Westgard begins by listing the top two questions he gets: What kinds of tires do you use, and how far have you driven? His answer to the second?

My answer is invariably that I do not know, though I have most likely traveled more different (note the different) miles on rubber tires than any man in the world. This I believe to be true.

In the old days, drivers had to affix their own odometers to the dash. While inconvenient, it was much easier to roll back--or forward, depending on whom you were trying to impress.

But to establish the truth, Westgard needs more than  belief. So he  proceeds to deconstruct the assertion of some “relatively” young man who told reporters he  had traveled 800,000 miles in 15 years. A little math from Westgard reveals that the man would have had to travel 141 miles a day,  every day. It’s possible, Westgard writes. But given the condition of roads in those days, it is “hardly within the range of probability.”

Let the record show that Westgard was not one to make idle boasts, nor one to tolerate them either. After demolishing the young man’s claim, Westgard reassures the reader that he limits himself to a simple proclamation, that he has made “more trips across the United States, East and West, North and South, than any other man, and that those trips were mostly over different routes.”

I’m still wondering what was so deadly about those figures. I’m also wondering about his tires. Surely he could have earned a little extra cash for in-book product placement.

It’s a paradox of modern life: We are mobile, yet sedentary. Blame the auto? Blame the glowing, pixellated screen? Surely it can be no coincidence that the rise of those two great technologies–moving carriages and moving pictures–took place over roughly the same period.

And at their joint birth was our friend, A.L. Westgard. In 1916, he conceived–or at least was associated with–the idea of taking motion pictures of the

It would have been more exciting if the car had fallen off the planks. But that would have to wait for more sophisticated film editors.

entire United States. This according to an article in volume 20 of The Camera: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Advancement of Photography.

Here is a selection from the article (note how two nascent industries stand to gain, and, of course, use of the word “dream,” as in “The American Dream”):

Mr. Westgard, who knows the beauty spots as no other man knows them, believes that he can show Americans things about their own country of which they scarcely dream.

The Pathe Company, which will distribute the films, believes so, too, and so does the Combitone Picture Company, which is financing the expedition. The pictures are to be entirely different from any hitherto seen, because made by the new Combitone process, invented and perfected by F. W. Hochstetter, formerly of the Edison staff, now consulting photo chemist of the American Photo Chemical Company.

Today, with our much richer business vocabulary, we would call this commercial venture an example of synergy.

It’s easy to say we’ll miss W. after he’s gone. It’s harder to say why, however, without resorting to cliches. Here’s a feeble effort:

* We’ll miss having an obvious, high-profile target for our political self-righteousness. The comedians will survive  W’s passing. But what about the everyday blowhard writing letters to the editor?

* We’ll miss the air of superiority we felt in believing ourselves smarter than the man in the oval office. No one feels that way about Obama, at least not yet. Quite the opposite. People are placing great faith in his intellectual ability to get the country out of its current jam.

People at least knew where they stood with Bush, either with him or against him. Maybe it’s for the best that we melt the polarizing style of contemporary politics. And maybe we really are prepared to give Obama time.

But patience is a virtue best left untested. While it may be the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, our attention spans may be at their shortest since, oh, Moses shattered the ten commandments in anger at an unfaithful people.

Here they come, DC…Imagine the traffic congestion this truck convoy will cause around Washington, where the roads are normally smooth sailing on a weekday morning…Yup. This should get people’s attention.

If truckers really think government should intervene in this case, why have they fought the government when it tries require cleaner engines, cleaner fuel and cleaner air? Someone, somewhere is benefiting from high diesel prices, and I bet they can afford some pretty sharp lobbyists.

I’m sympathetic to the trucking industry’s fuel-induced pain. But if I had to place a bet, I would put my money on nothing much happening at all. A true, long-term solution is likely to induce further pain, or pain in some other area of the body politic.

The problem is our myopia. The US is used to being — has been for nearly 20 years — the sole superpower and chief consumer of natural resources. The ride’s over, but we are so enamored of our recent size and strength, we fail to see beyond our borders, that other countries are getting bigger, if not yet stronger.

Failing any other solution, we can always fall back on the free market: if something costs more, buy less of it. Oh, but we need trucks to haul things a long distance. Fair enough. Here’s another tip from the free market: if it costs a lot to haul something a long way, make it closer to home.

Maybe truckers undermined by high diesel prices can start growing rice. We may need it.