Wall St., Main St., Religion, and the Bailout

Of all the rhetorical tropes deployed in the current frenzy of reflection and debate about the current proposals for economic recovery, none is more shopworn than the distinction “between Wall Street and Main Street.” Yet the phrase’s very overuse, especially by President Obama’s Economic Team, underlines an important and distressing reality. Wall Street is being bailed out in a way that Main Street is not.

There are various reasons for this, the first and foremost being the obvious fact that we are hard-pressed to know how to reach Main Street in the same way that federal programs can reasonably hope to reach large banks and corporations. The most immediate relief for Main Streeters is for those who have certain types of jobs, and it just kicked in: these people will see reductions in their federal withholding taxes already in this end-of-month’s paycheck. But that only helps Main Streeters who have jobs, and more specifically, jobs with paychecks. Waiters and waitresses and bar staff are not assisted in this way; indeed, such service industries will continue to be among those hardest hit by lay-offs and worse.

There is a deeper problem here, and it concerns the composition of the President’s economic team. While President Obama ran on a platform of dramatic change, the two arenas in which he has been unwilling to mess with the status quo are our wars and our economy. He has assembled a mightily traditional team of advisors in both of these areas. Thus one cannot escape the sense that this economic team, very much like the Bush team that first had a crack at the crisis, tends to focus on the classes from which they came: bankers, investors, corporate executives and industrialists. It is genuinely possible that their current proposals and dramatic interventions will have no lasting effect, not because the deficits they entail are so staggering, but rather because of the failure of imagination within this assembled fiscal brain trust.

What—apart from printing more money and promising it to almost all at-risk mega-corporations—have they really proposed?

It is in this sense that Main Streeters are actually left out; they do not seem to appear on the horizon of the imagined community of the economic elite, currently managing a crisis of their own creation.

We have seen a new twist on this problem of late. Media outlets have begun to put a human face on the crisis, offering us a compelling array of human interest stories designed to remind us of what is actually happening on Main Street, while Wall Streeters fiddle and Rome burns.

Here, then, is my small contribution to that sad-making but significant new genre.

The story begins in a small south Georgia township with the ill-fortuned name of “Quitman.” It lies on GA Route 84, in between Valdosta and Thomasville, not more than twenty miles from the Florida border as the hawk flies. When the speed limit is reduced to city limits, the state highway becomes Quitman’s Main Street, and provides an interesting glimpse into the current state of our economic affairs.

At first glance, Main Street in Quitman looks like those in a hundred other small southern townships, ones that withered on the vine when cotton was no longer king and the textile industries moved overseas. There are some gorgeous old homes in the area, mute testimony to the township’s economic prowess in another time, but there are many more trailers parked in a state of semi-permanence here now. The outskirts of town suggest grinding poverty: Fred’s Bargain Center, a Dollar Store, the ruins of West End Mill. Yet there is a truly stunning County Courthouse in the very center of the town, replete with a Confederate Memorial, suggesting once again a bygone and faded glory, as well as the moral ambivalence of every human achievement in time.

Main Street in Quitman, Georgquaint Georgian brick facades, some newer glass window-fronts, a couple of side-streets that trickle off into dirt roads and residential greenery. It is a difficult place to read.

Approaching from the west, the first storefront I came upon on the south side of the avenue was “McCard & Company,” an Antiques and Interior store. They were advertizing an “Attic Sale,” one in which “everything [of course] must go.” Next came an African-American stylist’s shop, then “Lady Bugs,” a children’s store, then “Chrissy’s Closet,” another young person’s gift shop. A 1950s-style Ice Cream Fountain announced that it would be “Opening Soon,” located adjacent to the empty husk of a Verizon Store, now available for rent. Then came “Citi Trends,” a cheap clothing store, followed by “Romine Furniture,” whose long front facing windows announced that “after 95 years [they were] quitting business,” and that “[their] loss is [our] gain.” Next to them was a pretty two-story brick building on the corner, housing an “Excavation and Demolition” facility on the ground floor, and the “Brickhouse Bar & Grill” upstairs. On the second shorter street I saw “La Poblanita #2,” a Mexican all-purpose store, then a real estate office, then a law office, then “Twisted Sister,” a furniture and accessories store advertizing yet another store-wide sale at 50%, followed by a pretty photography studio called “Knot Just Weddings,” then a State Farm Insurance office, and finally a Chiropraxy and Health Center at the end of the row.

The north side of the street was similarly eclectic. “Hi Spice” café was closed, though “Betty’s Beauty Salon” was still open. “Cain’s Antiques and Collectibles” was selling everything at 20-50% discounts. “Royal’s Café” was also closed, but the Corner Drug store seemed alive and well. On the next block came the Brooks County Development Center, a Masonic Lodge, another barber shop, a small unnamed shop that was also boarded up, then “Oyoacan Mexican Restaurant,” a generic Loans Office, Lynn’s Place (the windows were dark and I couldn’t tell what was inside), an H&R Block office… then finally, poetically,“Backward Glance Antiques.”

This all makes for a mightily confusing story about Main Street, USA. On the down side, there were four boarded up storefronts, and three others in the process of winding down or going out of business. On the up side, this community was well-heeled enough to support three beauty salons and (maybe) four eateries. There seemed to be thriving Mexican-American and African-American communities, and enough young people to support several stores aimed at children’s clothing and school supplies. So this is a community that is still engaged in that most hopeful of all human activities—raising the next generation—and feels confident that it can do so right here in Quitman.

Yet there were a perplexing number of Antique and Gift Shops, the sorts of thing that normally require a significant tourist industry or leisure class to support. That kind of shopping takes place on the weekends, yet all but one store on Main Street in Quitman was closed this Sunday. I was especially taken by the two largest of them, both of them going out of business.

Romine’s Furniture especially caught my eye, even before I noticed that it was open, so I had a look around. Things were not cheap and did not seem especially priced to move. The store was full of expensive new furniture and bedding, most of it made locally, and while everything was being sold at half price, the costs still seemed prohibitive, especially without layaway options and long-term credit.

As I checked out with my blown glass planter and barbeque tongs (both made in China), I commented to the gentleman who’d assisted me that I was sorry they were forced to close their doors.

“Oh no, it’s a good thing,” he chuckled. “The owner is more than ready to retire.” Curious, I pressed the question, “Oh, so this isn’t part of the current downturn, then?” “Not at all,” he reassured me. “He’s still on the board of two local banks and he’s ready to start working less.”

Banks, I wondered. Risking a failure of politesse,  I decided to ask. “Are the banks doing all right around here?” “The banks around here are pretty conservative,” he smiled. “They never went in for those bundles they bought up in New York.” Apparently there was still capital flowing in the streets and shops of Quitman. Some people even feel comfortable retiring. It turned out that many of the boarded Main Street facades here were signs of remodeling, not foreclosures. It actually began to seem as if economic spirits were relatively high. But that was only one store, the only one that was open—for now. It’ll be a different story in a day or two.

So what does a Main Street like Quitman’s tell us about how we’re doing? Clearly things are not normal here; there is a great deal of flux and change. But these businesses, like their owners, are not necessarily in the midst of a crisis, just a change. I don’t know how to tell this story, because I do not understand what is happening on this Main Street, and I have no idea what is going to happen here, or elsewhere, in the next six months. Neither, one senses, do they. In that sense, it’s a good time to retire from the furniture and banking business, if you can.

The other problem is that the story of Wall Street is so very easy to tell. It is a story of stupid and shameless greed, absent any clear sense of the future. As Paul Krugman put it recently, “we need to stop referring to ‘toxic assets’ and start referring to ‘toxic banks’.” That’s a story I can wrap my mind around.

A final point about Main Street in Quitman; there was not a single church there, just a Mason’s Lodge. Indeed, there was no sign of religion at all, save for the Sunday closures. That seems like an increasingly important aspect of the stories we are trying to tell.

“There’s no religion on Wall Street”; that I know. But there’s less and less religion on the Main Streets that concern us all.

I have noted the paradoxical presence of religious language in our economic discourse before. Faith and trust, thrift and fidelity, company and community—this is the vaguely religious nomenclature that exists in some strange relation to the bodily and vitalist language of the Market to which I’ve alluded before.

But as the crisis deepens, the language of psychology trumps the language of faith, even on Main Street. It is increasingly difficult to wrap my mind around the psychology of this Market.

But I cannot quite wrap my mind around what is happening on the main streets of towns like Quitman, Georgia. And I’m not confident that these streets are within the realm of imagining of Geithner and Summers, Inc.