December 5th, 2008


So what is going to happen?

I guess I should feel lucky -- I work for the state of Iowa, in a grant-funded position (mostly the NIMH, which if you know me in real life is hugely ironic), and my grants are secure for the foreseeable future. My wife has a store that sells used clothes, whose sales stay steady or go up during economic hard times. I live, in effect, in a company town for the State of Iowa.

But I really don't understand what is going to happen with the economy, and more important, what people will do. Unemployment is high, people are losing their homes. There's no foreseeable end in sight for the economic bad news, because if we get the financial system on an even keel, we may see the auto industry in the US go up in smoke.

I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing that a lot of Americans -- even the ones who are relatively secure, are living more modestly. Anyone like me who goes to a lot of garage sales and thrift stores knows that most people waste half their income on things that end up -- at best -- in their driveways with a masking tape price tag a few years later. There are very few things they sell at the malls that anyone needs. And yet, if the malls shut down what will the people that work there do for a living? Every time a business fails it has a spreading web of suck -- suppliers, the people who make the fixtures, the guy who writes the point of sale software, the people that make that crappy berber carpet on the floor -- everyone loses.

When a friend of mine returned from a Peace Corps stint in Tanzania, an 'underdeveloped nation' he said that by contrast, the United States is an overdeveloped country. The health of our economy is based on people buying crap they don't really need on credit, and when economic bad times come they actually start choosing their purchases mindfully, and everything falls apart.

I don't think people in Europe are any smarter and nobler than Americans, but if you travel there, you wonder if they don't have their priorities ordered better than we do. They live in homes that are much more modest than ours, and they prioritize things like high quality food, health care, and their shared public culture over accumulating belongings. If you asked the average family in Holland to put together a garage sale, it would be a pretty lame affair -- they just don't own a bunch of stuff that's surplus. They don't have room for it. I'm sure that there are people in Europe who are as profligate and consumerist as Americans, but they don't base their entire national economies around them.

Is there a sustainable new mode for the US economy and society? Will the US stop making automobiles? Will people step up and help provide for their friends and families when they're unemployed and homeless? I would really like to know.