Economy Yields Too Few Prophets

A number of colleagues have challenged my focus on the continued and seemingly bottomless taxpayer bailout of too-big-to-fail financial institutions as obsessive, even cranky. The criticisms fall into three categories: (1) they know what they’re doing-you’re not an expert; (2) why would you care how they revive the economy, as long as they get things moving again?; and (3) Shhhh-it’s Obama: don’t give ammunition to his enemies.

Here’s my answer. There is no such thing as “the economy”: there are multiple economies, multiple interests, in play. But to Washington, and to the pack journalists who feed us our daily economic news, the only economy that really matters is the Dow, the NASDQ, and the S&P 500. If you follow the business press, as I do, the only question is whether some “green shoots” in these markets are real or whether there’s more bad news to come for investors in the form of credit card defaults or corporate bad debt that has been carefully hidden from view. In the case of credit cards, it’s almost as though the fate of the card holders is a sideshow: it’s the fate of the lenders we should care about.

Our bottom line, in other words, is whether our stock portfolios and retirement accounts and home equity stakes are reviving. That’s what the journalists who feed us this stuff care about; that’s what the politicians care about; and so that is what we should care about, too.

To me, this is a way of saying to regular working people: “it’s an upper-middle-class thing: you wouldn’t understand.”

The other part of this tale of moral blindness and self-deception has to do with the fairy tales we tell ourselves about the “new economy.” Take the Waxman-Markey energy bill, which the president hails as being packed with new job creation potential. I have no doubt that significant new job opportunities will flow—eventually—from this legislation, and from the stimulus package, and from other good things the administration is doing. But the disconnect between the oh-happy-day rhetoric and the reality facing US workers now could not be more stark.

Among mainstream journalists, only Bob Herbert has been unsparing in giving us the real news of a still-collapsing job market. As Herbert reported last Saturday (“No Recovery in Sight”) we now have more than five unemployed workers for every new job opening. And as of last month the actual number of workers in crisis is not the 14 million who are officially unemployed (as if that number were acceptable), but more like 29 million people, if you count people no longer looking or working at sharply reduced hours or taking big pay and benefit cuts. That is 18 percent of the total workforce and still rising. What’s more, three-fourths of those losing work over the past year were permanently displaced, not temporarily laid off. Many had worked in construction and manufacturing: fields in which the chances of coming back are very shaky. Young workers—under age 30—have taken half the job losses since November 2007, and men account for fully 80 percent of those taking the hit.

As Herbert writes,

Young males, especially, are being clobbered at an age when, typically, they would be thinking about getting married, setting up new households, and starting families. Moreover, work habits and experience developed in one’s 20s often establish the foundation for decades of employment and earnings.

Compared to this huge tear in the social fabric, compared to this massive insult to a vital part of our national household, all the common-ground chatter in DC about strengthening American families by encouraging responsible personal behavior is really quite silly and (yes) self-indulgent. When I look around, I see significant and well-funded religious coalitions for immigration reform, for labor rights (Employee Free Choice Act), for abortion reduction, and for universal health coverage of some kind. All of that is well and good. All of these coalitions operate with the blessing and encouragement of the Obama administration.

But where is the religious coalition that looks at the big picture and confronts the administration and Congress on the core issue of growing joblessness, job downsizing, shattered dreams and no real relief from crushing personal debt still owed to tax-subsidized banks? (In this latter connection, read Peter S. Goodman’s devastating June 29 Times piece on the utter failure of Obama’s four-month-old plan to help distressed homeowners avoid foreclosure. Goodman describes the supplicants’ paperwork mysteriously disappearing, their calls to banks and mortgage servicers put on hold for hours, then dropped-basically a big “f**k you” to desperate hardworking people who were assured by Obama that they, too, would get some relief.)

Where is the religious coalition that says to the politicians, “You spent trillions in public money to prop up the zombie banks, and you are about to hand God-knows-how-much to the insurers and pharmaceutical companies feeding at the trough of health care ‘reform.’ You still give blank checks to the Pentagon and CIA for war without end in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What about the everyday people with big debts and no paychecks-what are you doing for them?”

I’ve said it before: what passes these days for a progressive religious voice is far too domesticated. In biblical terms, our religious establishment plays the same role as the court prophets of the later kings of Judah. I include myself in this criticism.

Yes, that’s harsh. But it’s not nearly as harsh as being young, out of work, and having to go begging to your family and friends for a place to stay and for food on the table.

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