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Barbara Garson: Going Underwater in the Long Recession

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Cover of Down The Up Escalator by Barbara Garson

Barbara Garson studies the lives of the 99% in our troubled economy.

They call it the “spring swoon.” For the third straight year, the American economy bounded out of the starting blocks, adding hundreds of thousands of jobs in January and February. And for the third year in a row, that momentum melted away in the spring like the last traces of winter snow. Employers added only 88,000 jobs this March, the Labor Department announced on Friday, the worst monthly jobs report since June. Economists predicted gains of at least twice as much, and the news fed fears that the economy’s modest recovery might be faltering. And this before we’ve even felt the real effect of the “sequester,” those $85 billion across-the-board budget cuts recently approved by Congress and President Obama.

The biggest cause for concern, however, isn’t actually that anemic monthly job-gain figure. Measuring the job market is, at best, an inexact science, and the number crunchers at the Labor Department could yet revise that number upward (or, god forbid, downward) in time for next month’s report. Here’s the real news, as U.S. corporations rake in record profits (and shift record amounts of money into offshore tax havens): nearly half a million workers “disappeared” last month. Yes, disappeared. The Labor Department tracks what it calls the “labor force participation rate” — wonk-speak for the percentage of people working or actively hunting for a job. In March, that number slumped to 63.3%, the lowest point since 1979. That means there are millions of people out there who have lost their jobs, stopped interviewing or even applying, who have packed it in, given up. The government excludes them when it calculates the main unemployment rate.  They have entered the invisible workforce.

The unemployment rate ticked down from 7.7% to 7.6% in March. Some might cheer that news. Don’t. The jobless rate didn’t dip because the economy improved; it dipped because the government simply stopped counting a half-million out-of-work people as out of work.

In her new book, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, Barbara Garson, who has long chronicled the lives of people for whom bad times began decades ago, focuses on the self-declared members of the “Pink Slip Club.” She memorably journeys across the United States to introduce us to a range of Americans just scratching by in the toughest of tough times, trying to carve out a living with — not being bankers — no government to bail them out. They, like Duane, the man she focuses on in today’s post, deserved so much better. Andy Kroll

Down Is a Dangerous Direction 
How the 40-Year “Long Recession” Led to the Great Recession 
By Barbara Garson

If you had to date the Great Recession, you might say it started in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers vaporized over a weekend and a massive mortgage-based Ponzi scheme began to go down.  By 2008, however, the majority of American workers had already endured a 40-year decline in wages, security, and hope — a Long Recession of their own.

In the 1960s, I met a young man about to be discharged from the Army and then, by happenstance, caught up with him again in each of the next two decades.  Though he died two months before the Lehman Brothers collapse, those brief encounters taught me how the Long Recession led directly to our Great Recession.

In the late 1960s, I was working at an antiwar coffee house near an army base from which soldiers shipped out to Vietnam.  One gangly young man, recently back from “the Nam,” was particularly handy and would fix our record player or make our old mimeograph machine run more smoothly.  He rarely spoke about the war, except to say that his company had stayed stoned the whole time. “Our motto,” he once told me, “was ‘let’s not and say we did.’”  Duane had no intention of becoming a professional Vietnam vet like John Kerry when discharged.  His plan was to return home to Cleveland and make up for time missed in the civilian counterculture of that era.

I often sat with him during my breaks, enjoying his warmth and his self-aware sense of humor.  But thousands of GIs passed through the coffee house and, to be honest, I didn’t really notice when he left.

In the early 1970s, General Motors set up the fastest auto assembly line in the world in Lordstown, Ohio, and staffed it with workers whose average age was 24.  GM’s management hoped that such healthy, inexperienced workers could handle 101 cars an hour without balking the way more established autoworkers might.  What GM got instead of balkiness was a series of slowdowns and snafus that management labeled systematic “sabotage” until they realized that the word hurt car sales.

I visited Lordstown the week before a strike vote was to be taken, amid national speculation about whether a generation of “hippy autoworkers” could “humanize the assembly line” and so change forever the way America worked.  On a guided tour of the plant, I was surprised to spot Duane shooting radios into cars with an air gun.  He recognized me and slipped me a note with his phone number.

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