The Depression is Lumpy

May 16, 2011 4 comments

Depression? It Depends on Where you Live

Most of the time, when we speak of the economy, our language seems to represent it as a sort of national monolith. As if we all experienced the current situation the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact there are several economies in America, and which one you are a member of will determine whether you are living through a depression, a recovery, or the one of the biggest booms of all time.

The Recovery

For a certain group of people in the upper middle and upper class, there was a fairly steep recession, a terrible scare in the market, and then, for the last couple of years, a slow but steady recovery as stock market prices climbed back to their pre-crash condition. Though this group still suffers from the general malaise of the real estate market, in general they are out there buying things again.

Let the Good Times Roll

Another very small group of 1%ers made obscene profits from the housing and market crashes. These self-styled “masters of the universe” have grown fat on fraud and the misery of others, and have no intention of stopping now. Paying no taxes and avoiding the prison sentences they justly deserve, they are, at this very moment, engaging in further speculation of the type that fuels inflation that none of the rest of us can afford, and causes grave harm to society.

Main Street

For the rest of us, it depends on where you live. When we see articles in print and online touting the “recovery” it is this fact that they rely on. Statistics are easy enough to skew. What we focus on determines what we see. That is why the employment numbers posted by the government are so confusing and at times misleading. It is common knowledge that the official definition of the word “unemployed” serves to skew the figures right from the start. Add to that the excitement whipped up over the job creation figures when many of these new jobs are not at all comparable to the old (lost) jobs, and we have a very murky picture.  It is true that if you happen to live in a state with comparatively low unemployment you probably aren’t catching the worst of the depression. But what would happen if we all moved to these few states?

The Rest of Us

For all of us regular citizens that have the bad luck to be denizens of the more unlucky regions of the country, such as the south, the rust belt, or the whole state of California, the depression is an obvious daily fact of life. In fact, sinse I began using the term “depression” about three years ago, not one person from any of these places has challenged me. I think of this every time I see a headline once again proclaiming that we are in “recovery” from the “great recession”.

The Poor

This final group has been living in depressed conditions forever. The reasons that a certain number of Americans have always lived in poverty are complex, but with enough will on our part it would be possible to reduce these numbers to near zero. Instead, under the flawed logic of supply side economics, that great and cruel experiment in social engineering brought to you by Ronald Reagan and the billionaires club, the number living in misery is actually growing. Soon it won’t matter what state you live in.

Food Insecurity and What we can do About it

May 12, 2011 3 comments

When These Squash Mature They will Feed us all Summer

One thing that keeps coming up over and over again as I travel the country and as I hang out in my Sonoma County home is the lack of food security for those living in poverty in the United States. Food security is an issue everywhere as large corporations have colonized both our supply and our production capacity. But, as prices skyrocket, the system now in place hurts poor people first, and hurts them worst. There are many right now that must choose between food and electricity.

What can be done? The first line of defense is to grow a garden, whether it is on land you control, or in little containers. Whether you do it alone, or with friends and neighbors.  Just get out there and grow some food. This is the weekend for the 350 Garden challenge. All over the country people are starting first-time gardens and taking control of their own supply of fresh produce. For more information on this movement, here is a link: http://www.350.org/en/about/blogs/growing-bigger-350-home-garden-challenge

If you don’t know how to grow your own food now is a good time to start learning. There are master gardener groups in many areas that can help answer questions. The people at your local seed supply will be able to suggest good plants for your eco-system. There may be a free or very cheap class at your local junior college. Or, you could just ask around till you find someone in your world that is a class A gardener. Gardeners love to talk about what they do. Just ask.

Once you get the garden in, there are a few other things you can do. Join or start a locally sourced meat-buying collective. Shop at local grocers and at farmer’s markets. Get to know the people that feed you. Even if you live in the city you can ask questions about where your food comes from, and make wise decisions accordingly.

It is also necessary to get involved politically. The corporations in the factory farming business and in the convenience food business have a vested interest in controlling what you eat. They make periodic attempts at making self-help around food illegal, usually using safety as an excuse. As if human beings haven’t been feeding themselves from this good earth for untold millennia. It is our job as citizens of these United States and this planet to resist these food-control laws. And if they do manage to pass such a law, to use civil disobedience by continuing to produce and share our own food.

The Inflation

April 26, 2011 1 comment

The Inflation Special

I’ve been taking a break from the road for the last three weeks and plan on another ten days or so. The rhythm of life is very different here, but the constant concern with controlling expenses remains the same. I have this in common with at least eighty percent of my fellow citizens. No one but the very rich feel secure in the current economic climate. And the inflation is making it much worse.

During the last depression there was no inflation. But now the price of crude oil is driving up the cost of everything, especially fuel and food. This is tantamount to a very regressive tax, levied not by government, which would presumably give us back the money in the form of programs, but rather by private companies. And, to add insult to injury, the runaway price of oil is being driven not by the invisible hand of the market responding to a shortage but instead by un-regulated Wall Street speculators.

I call it a regressive tax because strong inflation, especially in gasoline, heating fuel, and food, always hurts the poor much more than the rich. A year ago I could buy three bags of basic groceries for about thirty dollars in my local (somewhat upscale but competitive if I shop right) market. Now the same three bags is about forty five dollars. If I don’t have it I must buy less food. The beans and potatoes stay in cart, but the fresh strawberries are traded for a can of pears. A whole chicken will make three meals for two people. The white eggs are a dollar cheaper than the favored brown eggs. I really must get chickens again. I could go to a known discount outlet, but I would have to drive further. Gas is over four dollars a gallon. This cruel calculus is my constant companion. Usually there isn’t quite enough and sometimes there is a dangerous shortfall. And I am lucky because I live in a semi-rural county with a ten month growing season. In the wastelands of the inner city and the rust belt it is so much worse…

Crossing the Country by Greyhound-Detroit to San Francisco

April 13, 2011 2 comments

 

Leaving Detroit

I arrived at the Detroit Greyhound station at ten PM though my bus wasn’t scheduled to leave till the wee hours. Bill and Shirley gave me a ride, and I didn’t want them navigating that neighborhood too late at night. Besides, once I was in I was safe. Modern Greyhound stations are like forts, with lots of security. The first stop would be Chicago, at the crack of dawn. I spent the time discussing progressive and Detroit politics with a lovely educated woman. Once on the bus, everyone either slept or tried too. Sleep is a very valuable thing on a long haul by bus.

 

Chicago

I had a five hour layover at this station, the largest of all the Midwest hubs. This may have been the most uncomfortable five hours of the trip, but a person gets to watching people. It is dangerous to relax completely because of the luggage situation. I found a seat close to my gate and hunkered down. A party of three, an old man, a girl, and a young man, all tumbled in and dropped their bags. I thought they were together, but when the old guy and the girl took off (he was her grandfather) the young man said that he “didn’t know them from Adam” and that the girl had been driving him nuts. He was from Kentucky, going to North Dakota for work. He said he had tried every fast food place for miles around his home and come up empty. His mom had something for him to do in North Dakota. Times are hard when a willing seventeen year old can’t find work in a fast food joint.

At last the bus pulled up, an older model with no electricity and no internet.

Through the Midwest

I was surprised at the beautiful scenery across parts of Iowa and Nebraska. I had no real knowledge of the fact that

Iowa City

both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers cross the Midwest. Davenport in particular looks like a good place to explore further. An old river town. The sun set over the plains as we headed for Omaha. It was then that I realized that there was a contingent of people going to San Francisco. We formed a little mutual protection society, making sure we were all aboard when the bus left a god-forsaken “rest stop” at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, watching each other’s stuff on layovers, and hunting for the ever elusive plug. My favorite was a tattoo artist from Wisconsin who was heading to Sonoma County, my home.

I started counting the Walmart trucks in Iowa. There seemed to be hundreds of them. This began to make sense considering the number of giant Walmart super stores we passed. I know we have them in California, they are just hidden better.

Riding the bus is a little like jail, except you can walk away. They remind you over and over again that you can be arrested for one infraction or another. One driver claimed that if anyone were caught with a bottle of booze, everyone on board would have their luggage searched and warrants run. I doubt it’s true, but I was fantasizing my constitutional search and seizure suit, if they tried that on me.

 

 

The Rocky Mountains

We reached Denver at daylight. There is a great charging station there and decent coffee. I will not eat most of the food proffered by the outfits associated with the bus-line. Normally what I bring keeps me from outright hunger. But coffee is a tricky thing, and I was glad to have it.

It turned out they had routed us over a gorgeous stretch of the Rockies, through Steamboat Springs. It took several hours longer than taking I80, but it was worth it.

Salt Lake City to Home

We arrived in Salt Lake City in the early evening. It seems like this is always the case. I would like to see this town by daylight one day. By this time everyone on the bus was sleep deprived, and I was a little hungry. I had powered through my apples, cheese, nuts, and most of the candy. Note to self-bring more food next time. The only big stop was at the Reno station, a true pit. No coffee, broken vending machines. But, by then I was close enough not to care.

 

Categories: The Midwest, The Road Tags: ,

Detroit is Misunderstood

April 12, 2011 3 comments



The Spirit of Detroit

When I arrived in Detroit I had, like most Americans, many misconceptions. The first thing I noticed as my cousin drove me through the downtown area, then along Jefferson Avenue, and then out to her suburb, was what a beautiful old city Detroit is. It was founded by the French in 1701 and is the second oldest city in the United States, after Saint Augustine in Florida. Many of the buildings now standing were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have gorgeous art deco architecture. Once the fourth largest city in the nation, Detroit had a storied history during prohibition due to its proximity to Canada. As the auto industry grew the people of Detroit became prosperous. Midwestern money, mostly from Chicago and Detroit built the Los Angeles we know today. The Big Three were very important in creating the American Middle Class, which is now on life support.

Yes, there are ruins, and yes, the city has been hit hard once in the sixties and seventies and again in this most recent

Some Ruins

economic crisis and the ensuing depression. But, there is also much reason to love Detroit and to work for a renewal and a return to prosperity. Long stretches of wasteland and ruins are punctuated by thriving areas where the more well-heeled Detroiters watch sports, dine on fine food, and drink at their favorite watering holes. And even in the wasteland there are signs of life. I plan on returning to the area in June to see the gardens that are being cultivated in those beleaguered areas.

What happened here in the time span from 2004 to 2008 should have been a wake-up call to members of the middle class everywhere. But not many saw what any of this had to do with them. Very few connected the dots until those weeks at the end of 2008 when we all watched in horror as Wall Street went tumbling down. Of course Wall Street was bailed out by our tax dollars and is back to business as usual, while Main Street sags under the weight of what appears to be just the beginning of a long depression.

Most people love the place they were raised in and that they call home. Detroit is no exception. There has been no poison rain, no salted earth, no nuclear disaster here. Just a string of economic decisions, by companies, governments and private citizens that have caused an entire region to lose economic viability. If this slow motion catastrophe has happened here, in this beautiful, old, once prosperous city, how can any of us feel truly secure?

 

Help send Annabel to the Netroots Nation Conference in June!

My friends—would you do me a favor? I am trying to get a scholarship to be at Netroots Nation, a very large gathering of bloggers, in Minneapolis this June. There are only 40 scholarships available. The top three in each round go for sure and the rest are selected by committee. Would you give me your vote? Just click the link and fill out the little form and that is it. There is a place to say something nice about me if you want, with an unknown character limit. I am very excited about this! Thanks to all of you who vote.

http://www.democracyforamerica.com/netroots_nation_scholarships/1187-annabel-ascher

 

Is America in a Recession or a Depression?

March 26, 2011 3 comments

Signs are Everywhere

In the hostel in Madison late one night a few of us were talking about the affairs of the day. I brought my reason for travelling-that is, documenting the depression in America. I was then asked “why do you think this is a depression?” I realized somewhat sheepishly that I have never publicly defended this point of view. So I will now. The available literature is somewhat unclear on the definitions of either term. But all the literature seems to center on the health of the Gross Domestic Product (GNP). But, I would argue that in an economy that has seen tremendous gains in productivity without the need to hire more workers, and that is capable having a “jobless recovery” as we are now, has to come up with a better definition, one that more accurately reflects the human costs of an economic crisis such as this.

I would suggest that we look instead at the true unemployment rate, at the foreclosure rate, at the bankruptcy rate, and at the rate at which small businesses are being forced to close their doors, among other indicators. We could also look at increases in the use of the social safety net such as food stamps, and the increase in homelessness.

A February Gallup poll finds that the official unemployment rate is at 9.8%, which is already quite high, but as we know, the official rate consistently understates the problem. It does not count the 99ers who have exhausted their benefits without finding work, or other “discouraged workers” who have simply given up. It doesn’t count the under-employed worker who lost a job that paid a healthy living wage but now works part time for far less. And it does not count the small business person who has had to close up shop and can’t find any paid work. I don’t know what the exact figure would be if these people were included in the unemployment rate, but I think it would be fair to say it would triple, giving us a rate of 29.4%.

A recent Real Estate Investors Daily states that the foreclosure rates have actually climbed in 2011 from a already alarmingly high rates in the last several years, and warns that “while we are seeing some markets in the US showing signs of “hitting bottom” and some are evening saying some markets have begun a “recovery“, I think we should be very slow and cautious to say the worst is behind us. Perhaps for those markets that had extremely high concentrations of the foreclosure activity (Nevada, Arizona, California and Florida) most of the damage may be done, but for other markets foreclosures are going to continue to put downward pressure on home prices.”

As for personal bankruptcy rates, numerous sources state that they are at a five year high and expected to rise in the coming year. Multiple sources also state that the poverty rate has gone up substantially, and this is poverty defined by an antiquated metric that does not reflect the actual cost of living in the 21st century.

That is why I am calling the economic climate in March 2011 a depression, and not the “great recession” as it has been termed. I may not be an economist, but there are some that agree with me. Columnist Jeff Cox quotes economist David Rosenberg in a 2010 article “Positive gross domestic product readings and other mildly hopeful signs are masking an ugly truth: The US economy is in a 1930s-style Depression, Gluskin Sheff economist David Rosenberg said Tuesday.” And he is not the only one to say so. The fact that any economist is using the term depression, given the emotional charge of the word and the deeply conservative nature of that profession, should give credence to the feeling that is already shared by millions of Americans.

http://realestateinvestordaily.com/foreclosures/us-foreclosure-rate-and-mortgage-delinquency-rate-continues-to-rise/

http://www.gallup.com/poll/145922/gallup-finds-unemployment-slightly-january.aspx

http://www.mybanktracker.com/bank-news/2011/01/05/personal-bankruptcy-filings-reached-5year-high-2010/

http://www.cnbc.com/id/38831550/Economy_Caught_in_Depression_Not_Recession_Rosenberg