Sunday, October 12, 2008

It's the end of the world! (I hope.)

Or, more exactly, it is the end of the world as we've known it; as both a financial and social era.

I may be one of only a very few Americans to, despite the losses to my retirement account, the new caution of my customers, and the flat-lining of my home's value caused by our current financial crisis, feel inspired to hope and optimism, but I am. (Harold Bloom, discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “idealistic glee” in response to the Panic of 1837 in today’s New York Times, appears to be another one.)

I think that's because I grew up in the 50s as a boomer construction worker’s daughter. I never had a view of that era (or any that followed) as one of stability and security. I saw firsthand that it was a period of immense, dynamic change and often painful dislocation (I personally went to 42 schools in 34 states). As a result, I've never viewed the American economy as being able to provide security. In fact, I was taught that security was the one thing our capitalist economy could never provide.

Capitalism can and often does provide vast opportunities, new beginnings and great rewards – but we tend to forget that the only thing it dependably provides is change. Sometimes very painful change -- but also, change imbued with idealistic possibilities.

Today, we all agree that capitalism requires workers and business owners to be flexible, adaptable and good at what they do, and, always working to improve and update their skills and knowledge. But we have forgotten over the years that such personal virtue alone isn't enough -- that risk, which capitalism demands, IS RISKY and, no matter how virtuous you are, doesn't lead automatically (by magic hand or otherwise) to reward. Born into a prosperity we didn’t create, sustained by magical thinking and one bubble after another, we’ve lazily relinquished our personal and collective responsibility, and our commonly shared economic fate, to “the market,” papered over the loss of jobs, industries and decent wages with too much and too easy credit, and the devolved the “American Dream” into little more than a Lotto fantasy. All conditions that this crisis, I hope, will make harder to sustain. I’m not dismissive of the hard times ahead. But I am hopeful that they will enable us to, at long last, see the unsustainable risk and confront hard times suffered by the bottom 50% for decades now.

My father was a skilled craftsman who worked in the energy industry, across the globe and the country, during this country's amazing post-war expansion. His attitude toward the job market was always entrepreneurial -- yet, at the same time, his most valuable possession was his union "traveling card." He knew that the nature and quality of his skills, along with favorable market conditions, were the only things that could guarantee him work. But he also knew that a willingness to stand up for his interests and for others, in his case through a union that gave him a voice in the nation's political conversation as well as at the negotiating table, was necessary to win respect, fair compensation and decent working conditions. His first and most important loyalty was always to the quality of his work, the one thing that made him valuable in the marketplace. But his other important loyalty was, through his union (the best mechanism he had for making that marketplace more just) to his fellow workers. He believed that selfish devotion to the money, personal prestige or status (rather than to skill, knowledge and justice) were economically short-sighted. And that the expectation of secure reward for loyalty to a company or a boss was naïve; not because the individuals or systems involved were evil but because the ever-changing and dynamic nature of capitalism could never guarantee such a reward.

My father, like others who came of age during the Great Depression, knew that social stability, in the face of capitalist instability, requires accountability (through laws and regulations), compromise among interests, and a social safety net beyond what can or will be provided by the private economy: A safety net that we all, as citizens together, have a responsibility to create and maintain.

If these times wake people up to these realities again -- if they realize that working hard and playing by the rules isn't enough; you have to be willing to stand up for, and if necessary fight for, your economic interest and the common interest -- then we will get through this and come out better on the other side. I believe that, although it has been muted in recent decades, there is a great spirit of creativity, longing for justice, desire for not just personal betterment but for the betterment of all, that resides in the heart of most Americans.

If this crisis forces us to tap into that spirit again, we'll be fine. Perhaps no longer "the greatest most powerful nation on earth" as our politicians have been fond of saying -- but fine enough to put our house in order, meet our responsibilities to each other, and live up to our highest ideals.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home