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A Tour Through Recession America

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?


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.