Friday, February 12, 2010

You also go into the vineyard (Sunday Reflections for February 14, 2010)

He went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”' He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” (Matthew 20)

I’m old enough to have lived through a few recessions. I’m also old enough to have parents who lived through the Great Depression. The current economic downturn is being viewed as somewhere in between these categories, hence its designation as the “Great Recession.”

The cover story of the current issue of The Atlantic is a disturbing report on the long-term effects of this recession’s worst consequence: our persistently high unemployment. The article summarizes the extensive body of research on the experience of unemployment. This includes unemployment’s consequences years after the experience, for individuals, communities and society.

We all recognize the emotional stress of being out of work. Research shows, however, that it is probably more devastating than we imagine.

Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, in the U.K., and a pioneer in the field of happiness studies, says no other circumstance produces a larger decline in mental health and well-being than being involuntarily out of work for six months or more. It is the worst thing that can happen, he says, equivalent to the death of a spouse, and “a kind of bereavement” in its own right. Only a small fraction of the decline can be tied directly to losing a paycheck, Oswald says; most of it appears to be the result of a tarnished identity and a loss of self-worth. Unemployment leaves psychological scars that remain even after work is found again, and, because the happiness of husbands and the happiness of wives are usually closely related, the misery spreads throughout the home.

Persons unemployed early in their adult lives are more prone to heavy drinking and depression years later. The lifetime earnings levels of young people who enter the work force during times of recession are permanently reduced compared to those who begin working in economically healthy time. And the significantly higher unemployment rate of men versus women is disruptive to both families and communities.

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008. Male-dominated industries (construction, finance, manufacturing) have been particularly hard-hit, while sectors that disproportionately employ women (education, health care) have held up relatively well…. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within the next few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country’s jobs.

Higher unemployment rates for men contribute significantly to violence, crime and drug abuse. Neighborhoods and communities that had seen real progress in these areas are now watching this progress reversed. Domestic violence rates are increasing. Out-of-wedlock births are increasing while marriage rates are declining.

Compounding the effects of this recession is that for most people it is exacerbating downward economic trends underway for at least a decade.

In a Pew survey in the spring of 2008, more than half of all respondents said that over the past five years, they either hadn’t moved forward in life or had actually fallen backward, the most downbeat assessment that either Pew or Gallup has ever recorded…. Median household income in 2008 was the lowest since 1997, adjusting for inflation.

The article’s author concludes that, while still mostly unseen at this point, the length and severity of this recession is causing serious disruption to personal lives and communities across the country. These consequences will be broad and deep.

We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could stain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come. We have a civic—and indeed a moral—responsibility to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.

There is wide acceptance that this recession is “different.” We are not just experiencing a hiccup in the business cycle but a serious breakdown in our economic engine. The recovery will likely be long, slow and uneven. Many communities and industries simply will not come back to their previous conditions.

This Great Recession is also raising questions about some of our economic realities and assumptions. The devastated construction and finance industries grew—with government collusion—to compensate for stagnating incomes and the loss of previously well-paying manufacturing jobs. Rather than face these problems directly, there is yet strong temptation to re-inflate these essentially nonproductive “bubbles.” In another case of economic denial and fantasy, government at all levels have been running ever-increasing deficits and accumulating enormous unfunded employee benefit obligations. None of this is going to be fixed quickly or easily.

But there are even more fundamental questions being asked. Why are so many communities in near-permanent states of depression? Why are economic inequalities growing? Why are we unable to have economic prosperity that doesn’t endanger the ecological health of the planet? Why are so many businesses focused on quarterly profits rather than long-term growth and development? Why can we not provide affordable health care to all our citizens? Why are there such enormous disparities in education? Why is our political process paralyzed when it comes to dealing with these problems?

The last question may be the most telling. The answer to it is that dramatic changes in our culture and indeed the world have resulted in new challenges for which there are no easy answers or consensus. Globalization is improving the standard of living for millions of previously impoverished people. At the same time, however, it is lowering that standard for millions of previously well-off people, as well as replicating much of the social chaos and ecological damage previously experienced in the developed world.

But the real challenge is even more fundamental. Technological innovation is creating such high levels of efficiency that in many areas of the economy, human labor is nearly superfluous. Bluntly, we are running out of things for people to do. This may be more recognized in Great Britain where what we call being “laid-off,” they call being “made redundant.” Yet surely it is now an accepted human right that no one can be considered “redundant.”

The challenge for us as a society is to reimagine what constitutes valuable work. There is no end to useful things people could be doing. For those things to constitute gainful employment, however, the benefits of economic efficiency have to be redistributed. Rather than making a relatively few investors fabulously wealthy, rather than constantly building and shrinking enormous corporate and government bureaucracies, rather than building ever-more houses and shopping malls, rather than manufacturing and marketing evermore pointless toys and gadgets—perhaps we need to be asking some really basic questions: What makes us happy? What makes for a good society? What do we want our world to look like?

For the truth is (but which we are too startled to realize) the human race is on the verge of making those questions, about which ancient people only dreamed, ones we can actually answer and do something about. In other words, as a species we are rapidly entering a whole new world which is asking of us a very different question than we faced before: Now that we don’t have to work to stay alive, what do we want to do that make us happy? Our problem, as so often happens, is that having finally gotten what we dreamed of for so long, we aren’t sure now what to do with it. Somehow, though, I think that’s a good problem to have and in solving will make us better people.

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