Wintertime in Phoenix

I woke up this morning and the bedroom was 70 degrees. So I climbed out of bed, wearing my warm sleep pants, turtleneck and thick socks and added a fleece vest, slippers and a warm robe. It’s good to be well fortified against the cold.

The odd thing is that I’m not exaggerating. Having lived here in Phoenix for three winters now, 70 degrees really does feel uncomfortably cold. Going outside in 50 degree weather requires a cap, jacket, scarf – and if I’m going to be outside for any length, gloves. I don’t think the temperatures are comfortable anymore unless they’re in the 90’s. My family is now the same way. My daughter who used to insist she was plenty warm when it was in the 30’s and she was just wearing a light jacket, is now complaining about how cold her room is and sleeping under a great pile of blankets.

People who’ve lived in Phoenix for a while tell me that this isn’t all that unusual. After about three years it’s common to hear people say that your blood “thins”. There’s truth to the fact that there’s a change, but it’s the other way around apparently. After a few years of living in the hottest city in the US, your blood actually thickens, not thins. But either way, it’s a real and very noticeable change. It’s obvious in town during these months who lives year-round in Phoenix, and who’s a winter visitor (snow bird). The Phoenicians are walking around in this 70 weather all wearing jackets. The visitors are all walking around wearing shorts. (It’s really quite striking when you walk down the street.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how this adaption happens automatically. It’s really just a matter of living here. You immerse yourself in this climate and in a few years what you perceive as hot or cold changes.

I’m thinking it’s like that in our ability to perceive the world around us as well. Here in America we’ve been living in period of our history where the culture around us has tacitly decided that the greatest common good is most efficiently found by the free market models of Adam Smith. The character Gordon Gecko coined the phrase “Greed is good” in a movie back in the eighties, and because we’ve lived so long in a culture that acts on the belief, we’ve come to think of the desire to acquire goods and power as not just normal but laudatory.

Mind you, there’s something to this idea. It turns out that when we model various different kinds of economic systems, the most equitable distribution of goods and resources happens if every agent involved acts in the most personally greedy way possible. The problem is that not everyone acts equally greedy, not everyone plays fair, and most distressingly, the equilibrium state can take generations to achieve. The latter seems to me to be the root cause of most of the pain people experience because we are living in a period when the true equilibrium is yet to be achieved. And since it’s not clear that we as a society are willing to live into the pain it will cause to allow the market forces the freedom they require to find their optimum function, it may be that the economic disparity and inefficiency we endure will be never ending.

I wonder if the present recession/depression is going to be the catalyst for changing our perception of what is normal and acceptable for our common economic life? I’m told that the Great Depression had that effect. The reason the “greatest generation” was the greatest generation was because they discovered the interconnectedness needed in society to navigate their way through that particular economic downturn. The seeds of our present greed were sowed in the time of great abundance in the 60’s and 70’s when it seemed that resources were limitless and upward economic trends would continue forever.

In the parable of the Talents and the parable of the Shrewd Steward Jesus seems to be telling us that we need learn to connect with the community and work cooperatively if we want to be able to survive and prosper. (See my sermons on these topics this past fall for the full explanation of why.)

Maybe it’s time we gave Our Lord’s counsel a try? The idea of everyone acting in their own self-interest doesn’t seem to have born the fruit we were promised.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...