Victor Davis Hanson has a must-read article: A tour through recession America. I cannot do it justice by selective quoting: go read it all. A couple of teasers:
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. [...]
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? [...]
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 I-phone 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 supposed 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. [...]
As I watched 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 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, 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 deficit. 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.