A front-page poll in the New York Times confronts an issue no one likes to talk about: the pain of losing a job. Fifty percent of the unemployed have borrowed money from friends or relatives. Around the same number have experienced depression or anxiety. Four in ten are struggling enough that they have noticed behavioral changes in their children.
Normally, a recession as bad as this one wouldn't be coupled with a jobless recovery. The last time the unemployment rate hit ten percent, during the early Reagan years of 1981-82, the country returned to normal by having workers go back to familiar jobs. That isn't going to happen this time. The recovery involves a crisis of identity for millions of people.
Here are the critical factors:
-- Manufacturing jobs have collapsed, leaving Michigan, for example, with the highest unemployment in the nation, at 15%. Some of these jobs can be retooled; others will return with the recovery of the big three automakers. But even before the bubble burst, manufacturing was fleeing to China.
-- As companies rehire, they are more likely to rehire in China and South Asia than at home.
-- Older workers who have never lost their jobs before are among the last to get a new job and the first to be jobless for more than a year.
-- Minority unemployment is around twice the national average, and the young are being hardest hit. Their chance at a good first job -- or even a college education -- has been severely curtailed.
-- All the bad conditions mentioned above will last at least another two years, if we believe the optimists, or up to a decade if we believe the pessimists.
In short, no ordinary bubble collapsed. America was already going through a crisis of identity, spending wildly, incurring foreign debt, living off second mortgages and paper profits as house prices soared, trusting that the rich had a social conscience, passively ignoring corruption in politics, and being diverted by pointless social issues as reactionary politicians and religionists fanned the flames.
I can only see this as a spiritual crisis that was long in the making.
Crises bring uncertainty. They weaken social bonds and increase class antagonism. Fear lurks just beneath the surface. The most basic questions -- Who am I? Where is my life headed? -- beg for answers.
The future will form itself around how this uncertainty is resolved. The reactionary pull is still strong. There is a huge faction that is blinded to anything but free markets, military superiority, church values, and consumerism. The right wants a return to an America that hasn't really prospered according to their creed for twenty years, unless you call two frustrating wars and massive debt to China a way to prosper. The left is more appealing, because it includes the vast majority of progressives. Also, the left is wedded to utopian visions, and utopia is more digestible than neoconservative fantasies.
But neither side will bring us into a new spiritual reality. That can happen only one person at a time, with hopeful but uncertain steps. A recent survey of economic response to bad times revealed that no one really knows what causes an economy to grow. Over seventy factors were studied, including lower taxes, job programs, and bailout subsidies. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. There's an invisible factor that makes one society rise and another fall.
Ultimately, it takes a vision that conquers uncertainty and keeps fear at bay. At this moment, every American is seeking such a vision. It's a challenging time for the pocketbook but even more challenging for the soul. Needless to say, my hope is that America revives on a spiritual basis. A return to the status quo won't work, and it's not going to happen anyway. "May you live in interesting times" is said to be a Chinese curse. I doubt it. Change only occurs in interesting times. Far worse is another supposed Chinese curse: May you live the life you are already living.