You know, I really wonder about people like Judith Warner, how they can look themselves in the mirror every morning and not throw up:
Economists may assert that we’re in the early stages of a recovery, but surveys continue to show that the impact of the Great Recession on American families is deep, widespread and grim. …
And yet, despite this bleak reality, some talk persists of silver linings: less cash to spend means less materialism, a real change to “the definition of living well,” as Jim Taylor, a vice president of Harrison Group, a market research firm in Waterbury, Conn., told The Times as the big banks melted down in the fall of 2008. At that time, unemployed Wall Street dads were said to be discovering the unexpected joys of domesticity. Minivan moms in the summertime learned that days at the public beach were just as rewarding as playing tennis while the kids improved themselves at foreign-language camp. The glue of all this new happiness was meant to be togetherness — a belief that still sustains reports that people are volunteering more, pulling together and even replacing their propensity to compete with their neighbors with a new spirit of cooperation and solidarity. “There’s a new level of social coordination,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, relating to me how parents of his acquaintance recently agreed to a multilateral halt in the escalation of kid-birthday-party madness in favor of back-to-basics cake and balloons. “In some areas of our life we’re resetting. Over time, we may get de-escalation.”
Warner goes on to inform us that even though the Great Depression was “mostly wretched,” that’s not how “we frequently choose to think of it.” (Emphasis is mine.)
“Who is this ‘we’ who think of the Depression ‘as ultimately redemptive’?” Steve M. wants to know:
Did you ever have a “rosy picture” of the Great Depression? Me either. Perhaps that’s because my parents and in-laws and other older people of my acquaintance actually lived through the Depression and can talk about what it was really like — but I don’t think that’s the sole reason. I think I never had a “rosy picture” of the Great Depression because I didn’t grow up well off, and thus never really experienced the conspicuous-consumption arms race Warner writes about; I don’t feel I had to be forced away from consumerist excess by an economic cataclysm and, more to the point, I don’t think the most important aspect of the economic cataclysm is the end of my economic subgroup’s ability to wallow in excess. For heaven’s sake, large numbers of people have been driven to long-term joblessness, bankruptcy, and even homelessness by this downturn — the key economic fact of this moment is not how much they pay for kids’ birthday parties in Greenwich, Connecticut.
In Warner’s circle it is, of course — but Warner’s circle is very, very small, and the problem is, she doesn’t know that. Steve M again:
It must be nice to have too much and to see having too much as your main problem with regard to the consumer culture. But please, Judith, don’t assume that everyone in our society feels the same way.
Also at the New York Times, we get David Leonhardt telling us to cheer up, the recession has a silver lining: Even though almost 15 million Americans are unemployed, and even though of that number, “Almost 45 percent … have been without a job for at least 27 weeks,” the people who DO have jobs are making more money than ever, and getting more purchasing power from their higher wages, too!
In the deep economic slump of the mid-1970s, the average hourly pay of rank-and-file workers — who make up four-fifths of the work force — fell 6 percent, adjusted for inflation. In the early 1980s, the average wage fell 3 percent. Even in the mild 1990-91 recession, it fell almost 2 percent.
But since this recent recession began in December 2007, real average hourly pay has risen nearly 5 percent. Some employers, especially state and local governments, have cut wages. But many more employers have continued to increase pay.
Something similar happened during the Great Depression, notes Bruce Judson of the Yale School of Management. Falling prices meant that workers who held their jobs received a surprisingly strong effective pay raise.
This time around, nominal wages — the numbers people see in their paychecks — have risen throughout the slump, as companies have passed along some of the impressive productivity to their (remaining) workers. Meanwhile, inflation has been almost non-existent, except for parts of last year, when real wages did briefly fall.
Alexandra Jarrin and the millions of other Americans just like her can take a lot of comfort in that, I’m sure.
The overriding impression is of most Americans actually doing OK, with an unemployable underclass bearing the brunt of the recession. Maybe we really are all middle class now: there’s the unemployed at the bottom of the pile, and the plutocratic elite at the top, with the overwhelming majority sitting in between, doing OK but hardly great.
The problem is that persistent unemployment at or around 10% is unacceptable in the U.S., especially with the social safety net being much weaker here than it is in Europe. Leonhardt is right that Euro-style safety nets aren’t particularly innovative, but they do at least keep people housed and clothed and fed and living outside poverty — reasonable expectations for anybody to have, I think, in the richest country in the world. If David Leonhardt can’t think of any bright ideas for solving the persistent-unemployment problem, then the chances are such solutions aren’t going to magically appear. Which means we need to help the long-term unemployed, rather than simply ignore and forget about them.