Of Bread, Circuses, Secretaries, And Other Distractions
One of the enduring mysteries of the economic meltdown – at least to me – is not only how sanguine our political and financial elites are, but also how subdued the people suffering from long-term unemployment are. It wasn’t always thus. Over at The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz posted some articles discussing a riot in Iowa back in the 1930s. My favorite snippet:
The abduction followed Judge Bradley’s refusal to swear he would sign no more mortgage foreclosures. The farmers had entered his court room to discuss with him hearings which are to determine the constitutionality of two new laws relating to mortgage foreclosures.
The judge requested them to take off their hats, and to stop smoking cigarettes.
So the farmers grabbed, him, beat him up, and put a rope around his neck. Awesome. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, from the arrival of the “Bonus Army” to various other hunger marches and riots, people just didn’t take the Great Depression lying down.
There are a number of reasons we haven’t responded by taking to the streets this time: 1) the fact that the war on drugs has already incarcerated huge numbers of our rowdiest citizens, 2) unemployment insurance, which is just enough to keep people in their apartments, watching cable, surfing porn, and playing Wii; and 3)the unemployment rate among the well-educated is still low (through underemployment is high).
Perversely, the cushions that have been put in place, are causing our downward mobility to feel less sudden, and more grinding – well, not mine, which was sudden – but long-term downward mobility warps perspectives and misdirects anger. People should be pissed off at Wall Street – and they still are – but as far as I can tell, brick 1 has not been thrown through a plate-glass window of any of the Wall Street banks.
Much more common is the attitude of Cynthia Norton, a former secretary from Jacksonville profiled in the New York Times:
Ms. Norton has sent out hundreds of résumés without luck. Twice, the openings she interviewed for were eliminated by employers who decided, upon further reflection, that redistributing administrative tasks among existing employees made more sense than replacing the outgoing secretary.
One employer decided this shortly after Ms. Norton had already started showing up for work.
Ms. Norton is reluctant to believe that her three decades of experience and her typing talents, up to 120 words a minute, are now obsolete. So she looks for other explanations.
Employers, she thinks, fear she will be disloyal and jump ship for a higher-paying job as soon as one comes along.
Sometimes she blames the bad economy in Jacksonville. Sometimes she sees age discrimination. Sometimes she thinks the problem is that she has not been able to afford a haircut in a while. Or perhaps the paper her résumé is printed on is not nice enough.
Misdirected blame toward herself, and more ominously:
Ms. Norton says she cannot find any government programs to help her strengthen the “thin bootstraps” she intends to pull herself up by. Because of the Wal-Mart job, she has been ineligible for unemployment benefits, and she says she made too much money to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid last year.
“If you’re not a minority, or not handicapped, or not a young parent, or not a veteran, or not in some other certain category, your hope of finding help and any hope of finding work out there is basically nil,” Ms. Norton says. “I know. I’ve looked.”
The article really isn’t that good, and comes across as a preachy screed from the elites to the poor, but Ms. Norton’s an example of how grinding downward mobility warps your perspective, and impairs your judgment. Believe it or not, Ms. Norton’s story actually gets worse:
Ms. Norton, for her part, may be reluctant to acknowledge that many of her traditional administrative assistant skills are obsolete, but she has tried to retrain — or as she puts it, adapt her existing skills — to a new career in the expanding health care industry.
Even that has proved difficult.
She attended an eight-month course last year, on a $17,000 student loan, to obtain certification as a medical assistant. She was trained to do front-office work, like billing, as well as back-office work, like giving injections and drawing blood.
The school that trained her, though, neglected to inform her that local employers require at least a year’s worth of experience — generally done through volunteering at a clinic — before hiring someone for a paid job in the field.
Uh, yeah, the school “neglected” to inform her. I suspect the school actively misled her about her job prospects, but when you’re desperate anything that could provide a leg up sounds desirable, and it’s difficult to ask the tough, probing questions in such circumstances.
Look, this lady should be furious, but not at the minorities, young parents, handicapped, and veterans that she perceives (mostly incorrectly) have at least some government support. Her anger has been misdirected away from the elites who caused her problem in the first instance – she should be bitching about Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and Larry Summers – yet they earn nary a mention.
Instead, the grind of downward mobility had warped her perspective, severely impacted her judgment (17k for medical assisting, really?), and has misdirected awareness away from the true causes of her hardship: Wall Street, the incestuous relationship between the banks and government, the lack of an adequate social safety net, the (no doubt) for-profit school that hung 17k in non-discharageable debt around her neck for a worthless “certificate.”
Ironically, the best thing about the Great Depression in the U.S. was that is was quick, severe, and widespread enough that it gave rise in short order to the New Deal. What we’re going through now is much more like death by slow puncture, and with every passing month the elites are counting on us forgetting what happened, and who’s to blame – and it may be working.