I didn’t meet any centi-millionaires in Montrose, a town struggling, as are many across the United States, to rebound from the Great Recession.
Centi-millionaire, which is one zero short of billionaire, is a new term for me. I was introduced to it in a New Yorker piece on dot-com entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers who believe American democracy could collapse and is perhaps unsustainable as the gap widens between the wealthy and the rest of us. New Yorker writer Evan Osnos described Silicon Valley survivalists stocking luxurious bolt holes in New Zealand or under the Kansas plains and making plans to fly there with their families. And the families of their pilots. Because these people are not monsters.
I’m sure a lot of the people I’ve met in Middle America Montrose would be baffled at the dangers city folk on both coasts have dreamed up. Melanie Kline, who founded a project to support veterans in Montrose, mused over our habit of expecting hatred and perils next door.
“It looks like the whole world’s falling apart and there’s all this stuff to be afraid of and you should just hide in your house,” Kline told me. She ventured out of her house, spoke to her neighbors, and discovered you can “meet wonderful people in your community. You meet people who are strong and committed.”
Kline and others in her western Colorado town might even be outraged at the money being sunk into escape as a solution to perceived dangers.
In Montrose, I spoke to people who aren’t asking how to escape. Instead, they ponder how to get new businesses to open on Main Street. How to persuade teachers and doctors that small-town life has its advantages. And how, as I describe in my book, to ensure veterans can live meaningful and fulfilling lives back in the civilian world.
I’m most impressed with the optimism that people in Montrose have brought to their problem-solving. They make pessimism look like a luxury.
New Yorker writer Osnos also writes of people like Robert H. Dugger, a former hedge fund manager who now devotes himself to philanthropy. He thinks his peers who are imagining dystopia and ways to build their own private utopias are missing the point.
“People know the only real answer is, Fix the problem,” Dugger told Osnos. “It’s a reason most of them give a lot of money to good causes.”
In Montrose, people don’t have a lot of money. So they give of themselves. City folk have lots of resources. Small towns have people who know their bench is shallow so they have to step into a variety of roles. People like Robin Berndt, who had been executive director for the Montrose office of Habitat for Humanity, which organizes teams of neighbors to build houses for one another. In addition to that job, Berndt volunteered at the Center for Mental Health and took on a range of other community activities that made her a popular figure in Montrose. Berndt combined the fierce desire to serve I had seen in vets, and the habit small town citizens have of taking on multiple tasks to ensure things get done.
Robert A. Johnson, another hedge fund manager interviewed by Osnos, wishes the wealthy would adopt a greater “spirit of stewardship.” Many do. But I’m glad we can also look to places like Montrose for leadership.