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Works and Days

A Tour Through Recession America

April 11th, 2010 - 7:26 pm

The last seven days I tried to jot down what I saw in some slices of America in recession — and much of its seems at odds with our general government narrative.

Let me explain my unscientific methodology of seeking to catch a glimpse of the lower, middle, and upper classes of all races and ethnicities.

I rode a bike about 100 miles on the roads of rural California, in quite poor areas surrounding towns like Selma, Caruthers, and Laton. Then to taste an antithesis, I spent four days at work at tony Palo Alto. I rode a bike there too, as well as walking through the downtown area in a 10-block swath. Finally, for something in the middle, I have been browsing the shopping centers in Fresno — places like Target, Best Buy, Save Mart, and Home Depot.

Are We Parasites?

This week I drove on I-5, the 99, and 101. Except for a few stretches through San Jose to Palo Alto, most of the freeways were unchanged in the last 40 years. The California Water Project of the 1960s hasn’t been improved — indeed, it has been curtailed. My local high school looks about the same as it did in 1971. The roads in rural California are in worse condition than forty years ago.

Private houses are, of course, larger and more opulent. But the state seems not to be investing in infrastructure as before, but more in consumption and redistribution. For all the mega-deficits out here, we are not going broke building upon and improving the material world we inherited. The drive from Selma to Palo Alto is identical to the one I made in 1975 — no quicker, not really safer. The comfort and increased safety come from improved cars (seat belts, air bags, better structures), not from government’s efforts to make super freeways and new routes.

Not Quite the Great Depression

Here  follows some other unscientific observations. This is a funny recession. My grandfather’s stories of the Great Depression — 27 relatives in my current farmhouse and barn — were elemental: trying to find enough food to survive, and saving gasoline by shifting to neutral and gliding to stops or on the downhill.

The problem I saw this week was rampant obesity, across all age and class lines. If anything, the wealthier in Palo Alto/Stanford eat less (yes, I know the liberal critique that they have capital and education to shop for expensive healthier fruits and vegetables while the poor and neglected must turn to fast food, coke, and pop tarts). No matter — a lot of Americans are eating too much and moving too infrequently — and no one, at least if girth matters, is starving.

There is a new beggar. I see him on the intersections now on major urban boulevards. They are never illegal aliens, rarely African-Americans, but almost all white males, and of two sorts. One is someone who looks homeless, not crippled but in a walker or wheelchair (yet he gets up occasionally). He has a sign on cardboard with a wrenching narrative (fill in the blanks: veteran, of course; disabled; will work (not) for food, etc.). Choice corners become almost enclaves, as two or three cluster on islands and stoplights, as if certain franchises are choice and more lucrative than others.

A newer second sort is younger, more upscale. One fellow looked like a fraternity brat with a sign that said “Mom has cancer. No health insurance. Please help!” Another burly lad, well fed and toned, had a placard, “Need gas money. Broke down.” Yet a third waved a card, “Sudden wedding, need money.”

My illiberal side suggests that if we were to investigate, both types have not inconsiderable cash in their pockets. They certainly feel there is no shame in begging. All that is changed from antiquity is that we have eliminated the vocabulary not the act: beggars don’t exist; “homeless” and the “needy” do.

For a recession, there are lots of Mercedes, BMWs, Lexuses, and Volvos around — and in places like Fresno too. Maybe these are just leases (renters who prefer to lease a big car than buy houses), but for depression-era times, our contemporary versions of the Packard or Pierce-Arrow are pretty ubiquitous. (Note: I still can’t see how a Mercedes or Lexus warrants the far higher price over, say, a Camry or Accord that seem as comfortable and reliable). Thirty years ago one saw an upscale car on the Stanford campus; today you see them on an American high school campus.

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