Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
Economics is politics in disguise. It is simply a way of rationalizing certain decisions about how to allocate resources from the point of view of the people who have the money to pay economists: the powerful interest groups like military contractors, politicians, trade associations, and the like. Consider the way . . . economic resources are divided up and distributed, particularly in government budgets: how much goes toward the military versus programs for the homeless. The homeless don’t have very much lobbying power, and the military contractors have a whole lot.
“The End of Economics,” Hazel Henderson, interviewed by Ralph Earle, November 1989
We did have a recovery from early 2009 to early 2011, but only for banks, insurance companies, large corporations, and the stock market. Those are important parts of our economy, but they directly affect a relative minority of the people. For the vast majority of Americans there has been no recovery. If you look at the unemployment statistics, or the number of people losing their homes through foreclosure, or the number of people whose benefits have been cut, you’ll see that most Americans have had an economic crisis in their lives for a good four to five years now. To talk about “recovery” to these people, as the mass media did, is cruel. It makes each individual who isn’t doing better feel like a failure: Everybody else is recovering, and I’m not. That’s adding a psychic insult to economic injury.
“Capitalism and Its Discontents,” Richard Wolff, interviewed by David Barsamian, February 2012
As the E train rocks north, I notice that a new sign has appeared on the subway. I read it with the attention one might devote to a communication from interstellar space. It’s a public-service announcement from the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority], the gist of which appears to be that it is no longer acceptable to give money to the poor. The sign carefully marshals arguments against compassion that range from altruistic concern about inadvertently supporting someone’s drug habit to forceful appeals to our innate selfishness. The sign even offers sample replies to give to panhandlers: “Don’t ask me for money,” it reads. “It’s mine. I worked for it.” The depths of a recession seems an odd time to attempt resuscitation of the moribund work ethic, but I realize the MTA is new to the role of spiritual authority, and one shouldn’t expect much from it yet.
“Global Depression,” Andy Yale, May 1995
My three brothers and I grew up on the edge of poverty. Our mother stayed home to raise us, and our father worked two jobs to pay the bills. Although I was never privy to the household finances, I always had an underlying sense that, once the evening meal was paid for each night, little or no money remained.
I was grateful for this meal, which we gathered around the table to eat. During the dark, dreary winter months, the heat from the oven, our bodies, and the food would often fog the kitchen windows, blocking the cold and darkness that loomed outside. Dinnertime was the only time of day our old house seemed amply warm, and the only time I appreciated what little we had.
Now I live in a beautiful new farmhouse on a hill, with two roaring fireplaces and a refrigerator full of food. And I struggle each day to recapture the feeling of gratitude I felt at my family’s kitchen table.
“The Kitchen Table” (Readers Write), Andrea Hayde, August 2002
Through most of human history, people have received their primary gratifications from personal relationships, a sense of community, a sense of being part of something larger. It’s almost as if we were biologically programmed to be gratified in that way. The present emphasis on seeking gratification through material goods is relatively new. Throughout history, material goods were simply not available to most people — much less an increase in goods. There were always small numbers of elite individuals who could accumulate goods, but most people couldn’t. Thus we’re now seeking our gratification in a way that is not consonant with our history. As a result, we’re actually losing many of the sources of gratification that were once available. . . . The competitive nature of our society has led not only to alienation from the family, but also to the loss of a sense of community and cooperation.
“On the Poverty of Affluence,” Paul Wachtel, interviewed by Sy Safransky, February 1988
Portfolio management and profit maximization are extremely linear activities: Buy low. Sell high. Manage your risk by asset allocation. Never ask the big questions, because those are all imponderable “externalities.” Stay focused. Stick to your knitting. As long as we each make a killing, everything is going to be OK.
I’m fascinated by that expression: “make a killing.” And if we’re killing the planet? I guess that’s just an unfortunate side effect.
“Prophet of Modest Profit,” Woody Tasch, interviewed by Thea Sullivan, June 2010
At the age of fifty-eight I was laid off after sixteen years on the same job. I’d intended to work there until I retired, but instead I was escorted out the front door in under fifteen minutes with no explanation.
I sat in my car feeling lost. My daily routine, my income, my friendships with coworkers, my sense of identity — all were gone in an instant. I knew this was happening to thousands of other people all over the U.S., but I felt singled out and alone.
I went to unemployment offices, filled out confusing paperwork, met with officials about pension and severance, and struggled to make sense of the health-insurance bureaucracy. Finally I enrolled in community college. In 2009, at the age of sixty, I received a degree in small-business management. The local unemployment rate was 22 percent, and the commencement speaker told us to go out and volunteer in the community. The day after I graduated, I applied for food stamps. Congress did not extend my unemployment benefits, and they ran out.
Today I am writing a plan for a market-gardening business that I hope to run from home. I am living off my savings, eating two meals a day, and not driving anywhere I don’t absolutely have to. Instead of enjoying retirement, I am facing a future of uncertainty and unfulfilled promises.
“Rites of Passage” (Readers Write), Carol Sommers, June 2011
I had never paid much attention to the Ferris-wheel vicissitudes of the New York Stock Exchange, but when $500 billion in stock value simply evaporates, when nearly 25 percent of the market ceases to exist, when the president of the United States preempts soap operas and game shows to urge everyone not to panic and numerous respected experts explain that the country has seen no comparable financial event since 1929, even the poor take heed. I had also been observing the wastrel, arrogant, and bellicose habits of my country for years, and my sensitive, aesthetic side tended toward portent and hyperbole. So I trusted the news media’s Henny Penny proclamations that our Day of Reckoning had finally come.
Heading down the alley away from the artists’ studios an hour later, I thought I would remember forever this day of ruin, October 19, 1987, the same way I remembered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A man in a white shirt and blue tie staggered toward me with a dazed expression, and from the sky above I expected to see falling stockbrokers. I pictured myself on a freight train full of hobos. From every corner came the dire chatter of radios and TVs. Like all the gloomy broadcasters, I was convinced that the next Great Depression was upon us.
The fishing boats were in from their morning runs, and it now seemed imperative that I buy that albacore. Food would soon be in short supply, and there would be mobs in the streets, breaking windows and overturning cars.
The rheumy-eyed fisherman shrugged when I told him the news. “They can’t break you if you’re already broke,” he said.
“Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel,” Poe Ballantine, June 2012
There is hope. History is full of poor people’s movements. Even though they are poor, even though the system operates to make them voiceless, they can eventually organize against the system. If you drive this many people to absolute desperation, they will speak up. Disorganized protests . . . will occur, and organized protests will follow. And there’s good reason to believe we’re headed in that direction.
“Will Work for Food,” Sharon Hays, interviewed by Pat MacEnulty, August 2004