Sensing Something’s Wrong

“I walked inside Macy’s and faced the pathetic spectacle of a department store full of shoppers, none of whom were shopping for themselves. Without the instant gratification of a self-aimed purchase, everyone walked around in the tactical stupor of the financially obligated.” ~ Rachel Cohn

Yeah, it’s Christmastime again, and that’s a quote from a silly book – but it captures the essence of the season, at least in Manhattan. Scratch that. This captures the essence of the season all across America at the moment. December is when everyone is walking around in that tactical stupor of the financially obligated – looking for the right gift, not too cheap even if utterly appropriate, because that says something not very nice about the giver, and not so ostentatiously expensive that the recipient will think the giver of the gift is a fool – and giving no gift is unacceptable. The gift, whatever it is, shows you care.

Of course the homemade utterly personal gift, the one that took days to create, is considered… thoughtful. That’s nice, but kids hate such gifts. They’re young, still figuring things out and thus following everything in our consumer-celebrity culture, and thus they want the latest whatever. Adults are secretly disappointed. Is something wrong? Was this an evasion, some sort of reluctance to spend at least a bit of cold hard cash, to show where things really stand? As they say, money talks. The silence, when it’s not talking much at all, is deadly.

Then add another factor to all this – any gift is a definitive statement about the giver. If the gift is elegant and sophisticated and utterly appropriate, then the giver must be those three things too, and also doing well in this sorry world. They must be if they have the means to buy just the right thing. Gift givers are thus out to prove they’re not total losers – to prove that they’ve made it in this shaky economy, with style and flair – or to prove that they think nothing of assuming more debt, as they have a fine credit rating, which is close enough to doing quite well these days. Each gift given is an exercise in shame-avoidance.

This explains the tactical stupor of the financially obligated each December. It’s oppressive. Bill O’Reilly is a jerk, as there really is no War on Christmas, but there ought to be, and things are worse than ever this year. Many aren’t making it, and for them there will be few if any gifts, for anyone. There have been all the strikes at Wal-Mart stores across the country, and fast-food workers have had their two nationwide strikes – giant corporations making billions are paying their workers so little that those workers are on food stamps and can hardly make the rent, if they’re not actually living in the streets – and this month Congress cut five billion dollars from the food stamp program, making things even worse. Republicans want to cut forty billion from the program over the next ten years, and at the end of the month, three days after Christmas, long-term unemployment benefits expire for ten or twelve million Americans who still haven’t been able to find work after the collapse of the economy in the final months of the last Bush administration.

Obama and the Democrats want to extend those benefits, but a few Democrats are already conceding that might not fly – they’d rather have a budget deal, and an actual federal budget for the first time since 2009, not another damned six-month continuing resolution. The long-term unemployed will just have to suck it up, and maybe they’ll consider the matter separately, later, maybe. There are also the retired cops and firefighters and city workers in Detroit. The courts just let the city’s bankruptcy filing stand, so the pensions they paid into all their working lives are now gone – they’ll have to suck it up too. Macy’s will have far fewer shoppers this year. Fewer gifts will be purchased, for whatever reason.

Something is wrong here, but at least one Republican visited Detroit:

Democrats responded in a variety of ways to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s Friday visit to Detroit. The Kentucky Republican was in town helping the GOP effort to start reaching out to minorities in Michigan and to introduce his “Economic Freedom Zones” plan.

Paul plans to introduce legislation next week that would turn zip codes with unemployment rates over 1.5 times the average into zones where federal income taxes would be reduced to 5 percent, capital gains taxes would be eliminated and other incentives would be offered to potential residents and entrepreneurs.

If you have no income, a five-percent reduction in the taxes you pay on that non-income is a bit of a joke, and you have no capital gains, as you have no capital – and it seems unlikely that the rich will rush to crumbling inner-city Detroit, seeking a tax break – but that’s his plan, the plan for reaching out to minorities in distress.

A few Democrats appreciated the gesture, such as it was, but there was this:

Michigan Democratic Party officials called Paul’s involvement in the GOP’s African American outreach effort “bizarre.”

“Sen. Paul was a vocal opponent of the auto rescue, which saved over a million jobs, and led the Republican effort to shut down the government, costing Michigan’s economy hundreds of millions,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Josh Pugh.

Yeah, well, there’s that, and then it got a bit more bizarre:

Paul also spoke Friday about what he called a “21st-century civil rights agenda” involving education and prison reform in another attempt at reaching inner city minorities.

“We need to be a more diverse party,” Paul said. “If you want to win, it’s just practically the only way you ever win again…”

“We need people in our party that don’t all have ties on. We need people with tattoos. We need people without tattoos. We need people with pony tails, earrings. We need people from all different walks of life. All different colors. All different creeds. And the Democratic Party is more diverse than us. That’s why they’re winning more elections.”

He may be wrong about that. Democrats may be winning more elections because they propose things to keep actual people alive, not just day-old zygotes and multinational corporations.

Tattoos aren’t the issue, and things like this don’t help matters:

Democratic attempts to extend unemployment benefits for 1.3 million workers were a “disservice” to the unemployed, Sen. Rand Paul said Sunday.

“I support unemployment benefits for the 28 weeks they’re paid for,” the Kentucky Republican said on “Fox News Sunday.” “If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers.”

Paul said a study had shown employers were less likely to hire the long-term unemployed like those who have been on 99 weeks of benefits.

The logic is curious. These ten or so million people have been unemployed so long no one wants to hire them, so cut them off – but they’ll still be unemployable, as he concedes. Something’s wrong here, but he’s only trying to prove his heart is in the right place, even if his brain took the weekend off.

Rand Paul is typical of one side of things of course, but something is wrong here. Sure, the economy is in recovery, but the number of losers is still growing, and much of the winnings are going to a small group at the top. Since the recovery began, it seems that ninety-five percent of the gains have gone to the richest one percent – so someone will be buying very cool gifts for their kids and for their wives, and their mistresses, this year, and it won’t be at lowly Macy’s. Everyone else is a bit out of luck, or they’re at Macy’s in that tactical stupor of the financially obligated, hoping they can meet their obligations, or fake it. How else can they prove they’re worthy? Many won’t get a chance to prove anything.

Everyone is beginning to sense something is wrong here, and maybe that’s a dangerous idea. On the other hand, there is that Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney each year, and this year, David Simon – the creator of that gritty and oddly deep HBO crime drama The Wire – delivered an impromptu speech about this sort of thing, saying that there are now two Americas, and that his country is a horror show:

America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.

There’s no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be. We’ve somehow managed to march on to two separate futures…

Yeah, The Wire is set in Baltimore, but everywhere is Baltimore now, and he now finds himself reconsidering Marx:

I’m not a Marxist in the sense that I don’t think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism if it wasn’t attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.

You know if you’ve read Das Capital or if you’ve got the Cliff Notes, you know that his imaginings of how classical Marxism – of how his logic would work when applied – kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.

In other words, money talks, and that’s all we listen to:

We understand profit. In my country we measure things by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts. They tell us what we’re supposed to do every quarter. The quarterly report is God. Turn to face God. Turn to face Mecca, you know. Did you make your number? Did you not make your number? Do you want your bonus? Do you not want your bonus?

And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.

Or it didn’t really triumph:

Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects, but the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological – it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

It’s pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don’t let it work entirely. And that’s a hard idea to think – that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves. But man, we’ve dug a mess.

After the Second World War, the west emerged with the American economy coming out of its wartime extravagance, emerging as the best product. It was the best product. It worked the best. It was demonstrating its might not only in terms of what it did during the war but in terms of just how facile it was in creating mass wealth.

Plus, it provided a lot more freedom and was doing the one thing that guaranteed that the 20th century was going to be – and forgive the jingoistic sound of this – the American century.

It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us.

It wasn’t just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.

And how did we do that? We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.

Labor doesn’t get to win all its arguments, capital doesn’t get to. But it’s in the tension – it’s in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional…

This is a fairly conventional argument. Many have made the same point, but things really have gotten out of hand:

Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.

That we’ve gotten to this point is astonishing to me because basically, in winning its victory, in seeing that Wall come down and seeing the former Stalinist state’s journey towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Instead we’ve descended into what can only be described as greed. This is just greed. This is an inability to see that we’re all connected, that the idea of two Americas is implausible…

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income. You’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

He also sees the danger in saying that:

Socialism is a dirty word in my country. I have to give that disclaimer at the beginning of every speech, “Oh by the way I’m not a Marxist you know”. I lived through the 20th century. I don’t believe that a state-run economy can be as viable as market capitalism in producing mass wealth. I don’t.

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

In fact, that’s what his hit show was all about:

It was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.

That’s the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalize? It was kind of interesting when it was only race, when you could do this on the basis of people’s racial fears and it was just the black and brown people in American cities who had the higher rates of unemployment and the higher rates of addiction and were marginalized and had the shitty school systems and the lack of opportunity.

And kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realized it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more terrifying. It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?

There’s much more, but it comes down to this:

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labor and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

There are lots of bricks in Detroit. Rand Paul had better not visit again. Sooner or later someone’s going to pick one up. They won’t be shopping at Macy’s. The tactical stupor of the financially obligated is unknown to them. There’s nothing to prove to anyone else, or themselves, through the proper application of money for just the right thing. There’s only staying alive, and a sense that something is very wrong.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Sensing Something’s Wrong

  1. Rick says:

    “[Rand] Paul said a study had shown employers were less likely to hire the long-term unemployed like those who have been on 99 weeks of benefits.”

    Ha! I guess the logic is this:

    Since employers aren’t likely to hire someone who’s been on unemployment for 99 weeks, we should cut you off, thus increasing the chance of you getting hired! Makes sense, if you don’t think about it!

    Overlooking the fact that there are still too many folks standing in line for every available job, yes, I give him credit for original thinking. On the other hand, there may be a good reason certain ideas have never been thought of before.

    As for his other ideas, I guess designed to lure rich people to Detroit, I’m not sure what the purpose of that would be. I guess his presumption is that they would go there and start businesses that would hire all those unemployed people. Personally, since I doubt they would actually do that, I don’t think it would solve our problem, which I think is better described by David Simon:

    For some reason, American capitalism has found a way to work without workers, and until we realize this is not good and we fix it, this country will be on the road to ruin.

    The biggest reason our country is a horror show these days may be that, among the two major political parties, one harbors misguided designs to make ours a third-world economy, while the other, while seeming to be looking out for the poor, is actually fighting in defense of all of us.

    Things will only ever get better here once everyone else is able to convince the conservatives that it is in everybody’s interest — including their own, and those of the very rich — that America not become a banana republic.


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