Matapalo: Stepping up to preserve freedoms, by Daniel Lechner, 2010, 272 pages
Review by Curt Prendergast
In 2008, the financial system in the United States found itself on the brink of collapse. In 2011, it appears that the next wave of financial troubles will be
here soon, as cities and states across the country flirt with bankruptcy. For many people, these troubles come as a surprise. They ask themselves, how could this happen? Didn’t we make sure that something like this would never happen?
For Daniel Lechner, author of Matapalo: Stepping up to preserve freedoms, the seeds of these crises were planted in the halcyon days that followed the end of World War II. Thanks to the peace dividend, the Baby Boomers grew up thinking that prosperity was their divine right. In order to maintain this way of life, the people of the U.S. and the federal government put in place measures meant to guarantee this prosperity for generations to come.
And that, according to Lechner, is where the train went off the tracks.
Guarantees, such as union-negotiated contracts and the 1982 Garn – St. Germain Depository Institutions Act, were sprinkled throughout the past seven decades. Lechner likens these guarantees to the seeds of the matapalo tree, which grows around a healthy tree and draws nourishment from it. Eventually, the original tree is consumed, leaving only the matapalo tree with a hollow center. Guarantees choked the life out of the freedoms that allowed prosperity to flourish, according to Lechner, leading to the economic and political situation in which we find ourselves.
The book follows five members of the Blessed Generation as they grow up in a mythical Midwestern town, known as Blissville. In the early years of their lives they danced to the music of post-war prosperity, buying fast cars and generally enjoying themselves. As this prosperity deteriorated, they were forced to make difficult choices about their future. In some cases, the characters opted for get-rich-quick schemes rather than sacrifices.
The characters react to the consequences of their choices in a variety of ways. One character uses her skills as a saleswoman to salvage what she can from the collapsed housing market in Blissville. Another grows up to be a politician who champions the rights of unionized auto workers, but as the years go by, she begins to question whether guaranteeing higher salaries for workers did not come at too high a cost elsewhere in the economy. Still another character joins the military to fight for freedom on an international level.
A major strength of this book is that it tells the stories of these young people in the form of a novel, rather than as an economic treatise, making it easy for readers to identify with them. As happens in real life, they must deal with building a career, providing for their families, and seeking personal fulfillment. Some worked hard and sacrificed in order to succeed while others based their careers on the hollow promise of exorbitant returns on investment. In the end, the healthy trees grown by sacrifice were consumed by the matapalo trees of greed and guaranteed wealth.
Among other things, this book is accessible, well-reasoned, and devoid of fanaticism. In a time when common ground is exceedingly hard to come by, it offers the chance to turn down the volume on angry rhetoric and reflect on how we got here.