We have, in our minds, a view of the last Depression, and an assumption that this one has to look the same. But it doesn’t. So, without negating the negative impact on our economy, let’s talk about making lemonade from lemons.
Big box stores are dropping left and right; Linens-and-Things and Circuit City may be just the beginning. Yet we have these strip malls on steroids dotting our entire country. Let’s use some Federal money to make sure that these don’t just become any more of a rotting blight than they already are. In colder and wetter climes, put people to work turning these into playgrounds. Send a bus around the local area to pick up and drop off kids and parents who have had to ditch their second (or fourth) car. These wouldn’t have to be playgrounds only for little kids. Some of these are big enough for small playing fields, rock walls, or–sweet irony–Obama bowling alleys.
They wisely shot down a big budget item for re-seeding the Mall. I like the grandeur of DC as much as anyone, but perhaps it’s good for lawmakers to look out on a strip of dirt in the heart of the nation’s capitol, as a daily reminder of what we are facing. But better yet, as my mom suggests, isn’t it time for Victory Gardens on the Mall? Allowing US citizens to grow wholesome vegetables on public land would represent at the very least a symbolic gesture toward accepting a new form of thrift. More veggies will be good for the national waistline, and as Ben Franklin suggests, good for our economic well-being.
30 Hour Work Week
The idea of forced, unpaid furloughs, as in the case of the unpaid 12-day “holiday” required of ASU faculty make sense as an extreme way of making sure you don’t put people out of work. Of course, in some cases, the economic downturn represents a ready-made excuse for shedding ineffective staff, but generally speaking, the disruption seems to be minimized when you ask everyone to take a pay cut (and work cut) instead of sending individuals out the door. It seems like–relatively speaking–a much more humane approach, particularly in the rare cases where workers can make that decision collectively, rather than having it forced on them.
After economic downturns, we often see new efficiencies, as organizations find they are able to do the same work with less people. Imagine how good it would be for the country if organizations recognized a 30-hour work week was a good idea. Now, of course, for some people (faculty fit into this group, as do professionals who bill by the hour), there will not really be a 30-hour work week, but if that becomes the standard, we can work more efficiently during that time, and give ourselves all a 20% time: for volunteering, entrepreneurial activities, arts, crafts, sports, and leisure. Heck, maybe we can spend some of that time tending to our Victory Gardens.
We are all freegans now
I was waiting outside of Gristedes a couple of weeks ago when they brought the trash to the curb. Within minutes, people descended on the trash pile. I’d make the “like flies” metaphor that seems so apt, but the truth is the sorting was more contemplative and polite. This was not an organized group–they all came singly. Some looked down on their luck, others looked like this was just a sensible way of getting food. I’m not as repulsed as some about the freegan movement–I’ve done a bit of dumpster-diving for non-food items–but it’s outside of my comfort level, to be sure. Nonetheless, I find those who do it to be admirable in some sense, extracting utility at the margins of a consumerist food culture.
Is excess “out”?
This may be a classist argument, but it seems we abandoned any sense of refinement in the widespread hyperconsumerism of the last decade. Everything had to be big, for no good reason. McMansions required people to work so hard they never saw some of the rooms they were struggling to pay the mortgage on. Hummers and other giant SUVs guzzled gas like it was subsidized or something–which it was, in some cases traded for the blood of American soldiers and civilians in many parts of the world. In my ideal world, we have at least a bit of a taste realignment, with conspicuous consumption again becoming gauche among the middle class.
And my fervent desire is that a recovery hits the middle class rather than growing the disparity of wealth even more in the US. It’s not too much to hope for–grown in much of the world has led to a thriving middle class. It’s mainly places like the US, China, and Russia that have seen an extreme income gap.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the economic downturn can be traced to the fact that our brightest minds were “trading in wind” rather than actually making stuff. There is a danger in that declaration that we will see efforts to increase our industrial sector, making steel and automobiles. There is nothing wrong with that, but if we do not build our innovation infrastructure we will never see anything approaching a recovery. Physical widgets are not the only measure of “real” productivity. Scientific and technical advancement are more important, to my mind, and I’m happy to see indications that the current administration seems to agree.