Monday, July 3, 2017

A Brief, Unscientific Economics of Fireworks

It sounds like the Baghdad Green Zone outside my window now. The closer we get to July 4th, the longer the firecrackers explode. It starts around eight, when it’s still light outside, because it gets dark so late in midsummer that children can’t stay awake that long; but once adults take over, it continues, only mildly abated, until nearly midnight. I can handle it, but my cat looks traumatized.

Living across from a complex of subsidized apartments, I’ve noticed many recurrent characteristics. I’ve noticed the police patrol the parking lots without being called, and distribute tickets for penny-ante parking violations, ensuring disadvantaged residents keep distrusting the law. I’ve noticed children being high-spirited, noisy, energetic, sociable—in short, kids being kids—tax overworked parents’ ability to supervise. And I’ve noticed who discharges the most fireworks: children and the poor.

The pattern has become predictable over the years. Children on the brink of puberty start discharging fireworks when the heat and humidity accumulate enough to become truly oppressive. Usually this means around eight, though this year, which has been hotter than normal, this has meant as early as six some nights. Presumably they want the sensory stimulation of blowing things up when the stimulation of running loose becomes too difficult.

Because bedtimes become unreliable during the summer, the fireworks duration is inconsistent. Last week, we had several cool, cloudy afternoons, and kids pooped out and went inside relatively early. But a clear, hot weekend encouraged them to keep firing their explosives until dark, after 9:30. Their energy is apparently contagious, encouraging one another to light cherry bombs, laugh, test cusswords they haven’t completely mastered yet, and generally be kids.

Around the time children’s energy peters out, parents come home from low-paying jobs, still relatively energetic but lacking focus and attention span. Kids stagger indoors to watch some TV, drink fizzy drinks, and collapse, recharging for the next day. Parents then take over. Because their options continue into twilight and beyond, adults prefer brighter colors. Whizzers and snakes give way to catherine wheels and roman candles.

Since I’ve recently started walking wherever it’s feasible, to the grocery store or dinner, I’ve observed half this pattern applies as I get further from the subsidized apartments. Children and teens discharge age-appropriate fireworks in the evenings, even when I’m down relatively middle-class streets. But no matter the hour, it seems, the better-off the neighborhood, the fewer adults indulge in fireworks. It’s like the well-off don’t enjoy blowing shit up.

From this I’ve derived that two groups most like fireworks: children and the poor. My observation is completely non-scientific, certainly. There’s some racial correlation here, since some groups, like Hispanics, have a more thorough fireworks culture than white Americans. But in my largely working-class town, with its service economy, it’s mainly children and the poor, the two groups with the least autonomy, who most prefer commercial low-yield explosives.

It’s dangerous for (relatively) well-off white people like me to generalize. Not only do we have less information, we also have a tendency toward broad, ill-informed moralisms. In observing that children and the poor love explosives, I already hear some plush blue-nose sniffing that clearly, the poor think like children, and their immaturity proves they deserve to be poor. That’s not what I mean at all.

Rather, children and the poor share the a lack of control. Both schools and hourly wage-paying jobs share a tendency to create arbitrary rules and harsh punishments. Both require people to be there certain hours, whether they’re accomplishing anything or not. Both require the people forced to attend to go where they’re told, and do what they’re told, regardless of whether they truly understand why. Schools and jobs circumscribe autonomy.

So when kids and workers get home, they want to assert themselves however they can. That’s why kids love yelling as they spill, pell-mell, off school buses, because they’ve been forced into constrictive circumstances all day, and need independence. The bright lights, loud sounds, pretty colors, and skittering motion of typical fireworks, give children and workers the sensory stimulation, and self-determination, they lack in schools and tedious jobs.

My middle-class friends cast moralistic aspersions on poor people discharging fireworks. “They’re just setting money on fire,” someone recently said. But in America, we associate fireworks with celebrations of national independence, so why not accept that they also represent personal independence? People want to control something, anything, which school and work deny. Blowing shit up seems counterproductive, but let’s give people their freedom.

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