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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.

The Lost Generation

A new cohort between 21 and 30 is becoming a lost generation — and with good reason. They don’t seem to be working full-time or have good jobs with secure futures. Instead, from construction to teaching, there are far fewer sustainable careers for young people. But given family ties, they can live at home, postpone marriage, find part-time work, and rely on essentials like rent and food from the old embryo, while using what little is made for discretionary spending — allowing the veneer of middle class opulence to continue.

That is, for a deep recession, there seems to be a lot of young people out on weekdays at about 10 AM at stores, with good clothes and appurtenances, and apparently no substantial incomes. Is this sustainable, this ability to have discretionary spending, while outsourcing housing and food to one’s parents?

Reversion

There are areas of rural California that are “reverting.” By that I mean old statutes no longer apply. On one stretch of road nearby there are suddenly three new “restaurants.” By this, I mean so-called mobile hot kitchen vans serving Mexican food have anchored, plopped down roots in driveways, and added awnings, some benches and lights.  Presto, the owners seem to have avoided all the once feared California regulations concerning proper restroom facilities, sanitation, building codes, and reported taxes. I infer all that since these permanent establishments suddenly disappear and reappear rooted to new locations, apparently if cited or investigated.

As a rough estimate from this week’s travel, I would guess that there are thousands of illegal aliens living in garages in rural California, or in beached inoperative trailers. Almost one of two rural farmhouses has some sort of Winnebago-like vehicle hooked up to electrical service. In Selma and Caruthers, there are lots of garages that seemed to have morphed into rentals. In other words, in one of the most highly regulated, highly taxed regions in America, noncompliance at every level seems the norm.

Reader, help me here: one of two things seems to be going on. The more a state sets down rules, the more they are simply ignored, to such a degree that basic and necessary zoning and health statutes become more laxly enforced than in red-state, small government cultures.

Or is it that the state regulators feel enforcement of  myriad of rules would be unfair to, or impossible with, the illegal alien Hispanic community? I rode by one compound, counted five extraneous homesteads of sorts behind the main frame house, a dozen dogs, and all sorts of illegal wiring schemes — a regulator’s dream? My hunch is that the bureaucrat regulator would rather spend time in the Sierra hassling a compliant cabin owner I know for putting on a new metal roof that was without the properly approved tint.

Middle-Class Veneer

The combinations of cheap Chinese goods, easy access to credit cards, and generous entitlements — such as Section 8 housing, unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid health care, disability payments — that cover essentials and free up money for discretionary spending, have combined to give the proverbial lower middle class access to consumer purchases undreamed of twenty years ago.  As a graduate student in 1975-80, I bought a used 19-inch black and white TV for $40 and saved for weeks to purchase it. Today, 52-inch plasma televisions seem no longer the birthrights of the oligarchy.  We have created a new sort of impoverished.

In one way, dozens who shop at Home Depot and Costco and Save Mart are poor in the sense that they cannot go to Europe, or even to the aquarium in Monterey or Disneyland. But in terms of cell phones, DVD players, plasma TVs, or radios, there is no difference from the upper echelons in this recession.

In the old days a poor house in rural Selma would have poor plumbing and no insulation; today’s apartment, in terms of hot water heater, oven, cook top, or air conditioner, is not much different than those found in the estates above Stanford.

I can’t quite see how imported granite countertops in a 8,000 square foot estate translate into better food preparation than does cheap tile counters in a $500 a month apartment in Selma.

Note well that no politician ever gives the U.S. credit for extending the veneer of American consumer comfort to nearly all its 300 million residents. I say nearly all, since if someone can cross the border from Oaxaca, enter Selma, and have an iPhone that connects to the world wide internet, instant weather reports, and a GPS, then poverty as we knew is not really old-fashioned want — despite the John Edwards’ two nations rhetoric.

Where Does it All End?

I confess this week to have listened in on many conversations in Palo Alto and at Stanford, read local newspapers, and simply watched people. So I am as worried about the elite upscale yuppie as the poor illegal alien. The former have lost almost all connection with physical labor, the physical world, or the ordeal that civilization endures to elevate us from the savagery of nature.

While many were fit, and seem to work out, bike, ski, and hike, none understood the mechanics that lie beneath the veneer of the good life — the chain-sawing, hammering, drain-unplugging, tractor-driving, irrigating, and welding that allows a pleasant afternoon Greek salad and cappuccino on University Avenue — the disconnect between those Pennsylvania “clingers” and Obama’s arugula-eating crowd.

So much hinges on impressions. I listened to two young attractive women bemoan housing prices in Menlo Park — $1,000,000 for a modest 2 bath-3 bedroom older cottage in a “good” neighborhood. For that amount, each would be royalty in Fresno, perched on the bluffs over the San Joaquin River in a massive 5,000 sq. foot estate, with a half-acre yard.

A strange elite I suppose likes and pays for the ambience — that is, living among people like themselves — of upscale university centered communities. Why? I have a theory. It allows them to be liberal and progressive in the abstract, without having to live the logical consequences of their utopianism, or deal with the underbelly of American life. Take the most sophisticated Palo Alto dweller, and a week outside of Laton on a farm would make her, well, “seasoned” so to speak, and challenge much of her assumptions about wealth and poverty.

As I watch this teeming recession-era energy — thousands leaving squalor in Mexico for the life raft of the U.S., thousands in the middle buying as birthright what a few decades ago would be considered the playthings of the aristocracy, and thousands living in a progressive bubble disconnected from the grime and mess that fuels it — I hope there are still enough around to keep all this going. I say that because a new Microsoft program, a better search engine, another recent arrival from Chiapas, and someone out of work and still at Best Buy simply are not going to get us out of this recession, find the energy to keep the country fueled, and create the money to pay off a soon-to-be $ 20 trillion debt. In short, from this week’s observations, I think our so-called poor need to read a bit more, and our assumed elite to read a bit less.

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