When the new epoch began with such savageness almost four years ago, it was not possible to see what was unique about it. Clearly, the bursting of the real estate bubble and collapse of the banks was more than just your garden variety economic contraction.
Facing constant deadlines, pundits and policy-makers – who are now expected to find a solution to any problem in the same short period of time – all looked back to the Great Depression.
There was a retro-feel to the thinking.
Remember all the talk about WPA style infrastructure programs? No one gave any consideration to the fact that in contemporary America’s service based economy most of those losing their jobs – men and women – had never done a day’s manual work in their lives and so were unlikely to have the skills required to be re-riveting bridges over the Mississippi or building a new Hoover Dam.
Everybody has images burned into their memory of the Depression. But photo-journalists were not bringing back pictures framed in multi-hued black and white that recalled Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, When soup lines failed to materialize, and Wall Street traders didn’t jump out of windows, and thousands of hobo’s didn’t start riding the rails, the press decided things really weren’t so bad.
But you can’t fast forward reality, and now we can begin to see the singularities of this historical moment and figure out the questions that must be answered to understand what has happened.
1. What name can we give to this period of American history? This is not the Great Depression, although in some parts of America it is, and among those under 25, enduring record levels of youth unemployment, it certainly is. “Recession” isn’t a unique enough word because over the last four decades recessions have become the norm in our raw Boom-Bust style of capitalism. If a person says, I lost my job in the recession. A reasonable response would be, which one?
“The Downturn,” always capitalized and with the definite article seems the best appellation for this event.
2. As a result of globalization New York, my birth place, and London, my home, have more in common with each other than with their national hinterlands. In turn these cities have more in common with Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. People in the global cities gulped in 2008, then realized that for them things would be ok. So long as their financial exchange colleague in the other cities were ok there was no need to worry too much about their fellow countrymen, those to whom The Downturn is happening.
3. We can’t see the unique nature of the current situation because the statistical models for understanding the economy – especially the world of work – are clearly outdated.
Headline employment measures do not seem to take into account the ways in which American wage earners who have been laid off, like myself, continue to work full-time for what is a part-time wage. Nor do they measure how much household income was the product of two salaries now reduced to one or two part-time incomes. For decades, many families have required two incomes to make ends meet. What percentage of the work force lived in this kind of household, how devastating is it when one of the family wage earners is rendered unemployed?
Yet each month the government publishes information on claimant count and job creation and the like. Those of us who are several years into the existential hell of unemployment, who keep scrabbling at our professions for half what we used to earn, can only shake our heads in despair at a statistical picture in which our lives are not represented.
4. Other statistics that we should know but don’t: Who does what in America? How many people work in profit-making enterprises like manufacturing, retail, construction etc? How many work in non-profit making activities like teaching, government, the voluntary sector? How many people in each category lost their jobs, in The Downturn, how likely is it they will remain without work?
I’m sure the Bureau of Labor Statistics has some of the answers, and I imagine there are a few academics who are working with the data and plan to publish peer-reviewed studies in the next few years but ordinary folks can’t seem to find the answers in sources of general information like newspapers. This is probably because the fully-functioning newsmedia are now super-concentrated in the global cities. Reporters don’t see the problem on their doorsteps every day so most are not concerned about it.
5. Without these numbers it is impossible to answer the greatest question thrown up by The Downturn: When it comes to creating jobs has the Anglo-American model of raw, free-market capitalism run out of road? Factor out the housing boom created by the mortgage ponzi scheme and can the American economy create enough work to employ people?
The above are mostly economic points, what follows are thoughts on the singularities of the social fall-out from The Downturn:
6. The death of solidarity. I’m not talking about the kind of solidarity sung about in old union songs or shouted for in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty or the kind of solidarity we saw recently in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s good there is some of it still around.
I’m talking about something different: the kind of human solidarity on display in catastrophic episodes in history – and The Downturn is a catastrophe – where one person risks their own personal security to help another. No society survives a catastrophe without a show of this human solidarity.
It is something I heard about as a reporter covering conflicts: like the story of the Bosnian Serb peasant who went against her own community and sheltered her Muslim neighbors from thugs, and then helped the neighbors escape to safety in Sarajevo.
It is something I have heard about as a Jew: like the story of a woman at Auschwitz who worked in the kitchens and gave extra rations of food to another woman who was very ill. This woman was severely punished for giving away that extra nourishment. Decades later at a Holocaust survivors’ event in Israel this brave woman heard her name being called out in the crowd. The woman she had fed had survived also.
There is the solidarity I heard about in my own family. During the Great Depression, my grandfather was a dentist with a modest practice in the Bronx. His sister’s husband could not find a job. Her sons were his own sons’ age. On Fridays, when he gave my father and uncle their allowance, he gave his nephews an allowance as well, and always more than my father got. “Why?” my father asked once. “Because they have nothing,” was my grandfather’s response. My grandfather eventually fronted his sister’s family the money to start over again in California where they were able to build a life.
How much of that reaching out beyond charity is there in America today? Oh there is plenty of concern – concern is the curse of liberalism. Concern is plentiful in America but how much solidarity? Especially when it comes to helping people find work.
Thousands of individual acts of solidarity grow into a social norm. The terrible rent in our social fabric caused by The Downturn can not be repaired without it.
7. In early 2009 I went to Hamburg Germany to report on the recession. The docks, the main business of the city, were empty. Global trade had come to a screeching halt in 2008 and it wasn’t clear when the great container ships would move again. Yet the worst of the downturn was mitigated because people were kept at work. Businesses, banks, local government and unions worked together to find a way to keep people employed, even when there was no real work to be done. Jobs were shared, loans were available to keep enterprises open.
To achieve this, bankers and managers were willing to miss quarterly profit targets and forego their bonuses. The politicians in charge of local governments were willing to risk the wrath of the electorate by taking on debt. Union members accepted fewer hours of work. The society, how can I say this without irony, was “United.”
When the global economy began to rebound, Germany was ready to take advantage of it. Its work force was in place and motivated.
In that same period of time what happened in America? We entered a phase of pre-emptive downsizing. When the banks tottered, and the press filled up with “the world is coming to an end” stories, people began to be laid off even from profitable enterprises. Managers had to meet quarterly profit targets and if the only way to do so was throw people out of work, tough.
Another measure of employment we don’t know – how does the precariousness of American work life effect employees’ motivation? Where no loyalty is offered how much loyalty does a worker give back?
8. America remains a phenomenally rich country. It must be if it can afford to squander the experience of millions of workers over 50 and frustrate the potential of those just entering the world of work.
This brings me to the most frightening singularity of The Downturn. A whole section of American society has been cast adrift, like one of those massive chunks of Antarctica that are breaking off with increasing frequency. A significant minority of people under 25 and over 55 have been removed for the foreseeable future from the world of full-time paid employment. Pretty soon the entire economy will be powered by people between the ages of 30 and 50, while the rest of us struggle at the margins.
Yet stockmarkets and bonuses continue to rise. GDP is expanding. The Recession is over … but The Downturn isn’t.
(c) 2011 MIchael Goldfarb. Please feel free to link but do not quote without permission.
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