Last week, the Terminator mainframe that has replaced the American news media accidentally let a little old-fashioned news slip in between Kardashian bikini updates:
Economists Locate End of Recession, the headline read. It turns out the worst economic crash since the Great Depression actually ended some fifteen months ago -- although you could be forgiven for missing it, as you likely were out selling plasma or you don't get CNN in the sewer-grate cardboard box where you live.
So wait. That's it? It's... over?
When this recession began, I was angry, agitated, upset. It felt like something structural had broken in our economy -- that it was permanent and would require serious attention by serious people -- reform of Wall Street and policies that would finally address the economic caste system we've been building the last thirty years in America.
So certain was I that we were experiencing something historic and profound I did the only rational thing an angry person could do: I began working on a comic rant of a novel called The Financial Lives Of The Poets, about an unemployed guy who writes financial poetry, smokes pot outside his neighborhood 7-Eleven and stalks the man his wife is flirting with on facebook.
At the time, my protagonist's deep middle-class anxiety felt like life to me. Many of my friends were out of work, my house had lost a third of its value, and I was trying to figure out what to do about medical insurance.
Two years later, the recession is over and it's a new world. Many of my friends are out of work, my house is worth two-thirds what it was and I'm trying to figure out what to do about medical insurance.
It's Morning in America.
And I can't find my pants.
To be clear, I'm not a real victim of this recession. I'm doing fine. A former journalist and now fat-cat-novelist, I am part of that media elite that President-Elect Palin keeps warning you about, a veritable multi-thousandaire whose assets are spread evenly between hard liquor (I'm hoarding; it's the next gold) and signed copies of my friends' books.
And don't get me wrong: I'm happy those economists finally found the end of the recession. (Turns out the damn thing was here all along; it had just slipped between cushions of the peasant-skin couch in the Goldman Sachs executive lounge.)
I just wonder, now that it's over, what's changed?
Remember in history class, how periods of American trial were followed by seismic sociological change? The Depression leads to government regulation and the beginnings of a social safety net; World War II leads to the baby boom, the beginning of racial integration and a burgeoning middle class. So what did we get for our collective trouble over the last few years?
That's easy. More of the same. The same week that economists found the end of the recession, another news story moved between Lindsay Lohan crime spree bulletins:
During the last year, 3.8 million Americans (or roughly ... Oregon) slipped below the poverty limbo stick. Now, 42 million people, or one in seven Americans, lives in poverty (for a family of four this means living on $22,000 a year; you should try it sometime.) This represents the largest percentage increase in that number since 1959, two full years before our current President was born (to sleeper cell agents in the very cave where Osama Bin Laden now lives; sadly, the cave is only worth 70 percent of what it was then.)
This could end up being the first recession in history in which the gap between rich and poor actually gets bigger. According to several studies, the top 1 percent of people makes 23 percent of the money, the highest measure of income inequality since 1928, the year before the Great Depression. Not so fast, says the right-wing Cato Institute; these numbers aren't fair because they don't factor in government programs like food stamps, which would lower that number to the top 1 percent earning only 21 percent of the money. Yes. Food stamps.
This is the world we live in, post-recession. The rich are richer and whining about food stamps in their attempt to keep former President Obama from raising taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year. And are the 80 percent of Americans making 20 percent of the money the ones who are inflamed? No, it's the rich, who are fighting mad about socialism or food stamps or... something. Meanwhile, the poor are that much poorer, and more disenfranchised than ever. On CNBC, ratings are back up, along with the S&P, and they're playing "Eye of the Tiger" as the up-ticking stock price flashes for a soaring financial concern that figured out the way to increase share price was to not hire people, to not invest its money, and seven million American homes remain in danger of being foreclosed while a handful of billionaires secretly and cynically fund the Tea Party as their own personal Trojan Horse, using religion, immigration, guns, and any other old distracting issue that will separate low- and middle-class Americans from voting in their best interest.
Don't raise taxes on the rich because you're not factoring in food stamps.
We went to the recession and all we got was this lousy T-shirt.
"So what's your book about?" a woman asked me at a reading recently.
It's a rant about the financial crisis, I said.
She made a face.
And it's got poetry, I added.
She made a worse face.
It's a comic novel? I tried.
Finally, she smiled. "Ooh, I like those," she said, "and do you draw the pictures yourself?"
I started to say that it wasn't that kind of comic. But baby needs more grain alcohol. Why yes, I said, I most certainly do.
Jess Walter is a former National Book Award finalist and author of, most recently, The Financial Lives Of The Poets, now available in paperback.