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A Certain Unease
Few people are pretending it’s just a recession

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
wemagazine.org
January 12, 2009

It's one thing to talk to friends and neighbors in my neck of the woods and hear them express concerns and even fears about the economy. After all, the Mount Shasta area is mostly a tourist based economy, which is another way of saying it doesn't have much of an economy at all. Nobody gets very rich trying to see to the needs of retired coupon-clippers in RVs.

But the past few days I've been in one of the wealthiest parts of Southern California, and I'm hearing the same fears there. The paper had a list of thirty-five local restaurants that had closed down in the past couple of months. One person told me of dozens of upscale retail stores that hadn't even made it to the make-or-break Xmas shopping season and had died in October, months behind in their rents and barely able to meet payroll. A city that almost heedlessly spent ten billion on a self-beautification project in the 1990s is now considering slashing public services to the bone in hopes of just getting by.

Like a lot of wealthy resort towns, there essentially is no middle class, save for a dwindling population of retirees who already own their homes (often protected by Prop 13, which froze tax assessments at 1982 levels) and who are worried that a Depression could wipe out their pensions and even their Social Security. (It's telling that these former Reaganites who believed "government was the problem" and that the private sector could always do things better all are much more worried about the pensions they get from the companies they retired from than they are about Social Security. Some of them even favored privatizing Social Security a few years back when Putsch proposed it, but the idea seems to have fallen from favor in the years since).

For the working people, it's a pretty grim existence. Rents are sky high, even as land values plunge, and the options are limited. They can either live six to a room in apartments out on the outskirts of town, or in slightly less cramped conditions in less fashionable towns that are over an hour's commute away, or, if they have a decent-looking vehicle, they can coop in the city parking lots, which have been set aside for that phenomenon once unthinkable in America: the middle-class homeless.

While visiting, I encountered a summertime phenomenon: the fog monster. That's a dull low cloud that drifts in off the Pacific, and is caused by a thermal high over the Pacific. This high, which also serves as the "storm gate" and shunts weather systems north into the PNW and BC, also pushes the moist "marine layer" onshore as it approaches. It's common after early April up until mid November. Then it vanishes for four months, which is why people in that region look forward to "rainy season" and the subsequent increase in the amount of sunshine they get.

If the thermal high is powerful enough, it can cause winds to sweep over the interior west and emerge over the Southern California region, a phenomenon known as "Santa Anas." They do sometimes occur in the winter, and normally result in pleasant, if windy conditions, with highs in the 70s and 80s. Normally, the region has had recent rain, and so the threat of fire is diminished.

Not this uneasy winter. It has been dry, and I found myself under a red flag alert for extreme fire danger my last day in the Southland. I lived many years down there, and don't remember ever seeing a red flag warning in January.

That hasn't affected the economy in Southern California much, but in the Mount Shasta area, it means two feet of snow on the ground at the ski resort, with highs in the 50s. If the ski resort closes now, that will effectively wipe out a quarter of what's left of Mount Shasta's economy. So folks there have gone from concerned to flat-out scared.

Paul Krugman, perhaps the most respected voice among all American economists, wrote this week, "Let's not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression." Boy howdy! Yeah, Professor Krugman, we have been kinda cogitating along those lines out here in the hinterlands.

I was listening to some right wing radio host, a Mike McConnell, who differed from most of his ilk in that he wasn't trying to blame Obama for the economic situation and scoffed at the lunatic-fringe "Obama isn't an American" conspiracy theory that clings to life at Free Republic and Newsmax. In fact, he was actually downplaying the economic malaise, which suggested that he knew exactly which party's policies had led to the downturn. He demanded to know if any reputable economist was predicting the collapse of the American economy.

None are, of course. Even the Great Depression is not in the same league as a total collapse of the economy. About the only way it could happen would be if a war destroyed nearly all of America's economic output, or if the dollar utterly collapsed. Granted, there is a possibility of the second occurring if the government elects to control the mountain of debt being racked up through runaway inflation ($20 trillion in debt doesn't sound so bad if it takes $100 to buy a candy bar and millionaires qualify for welfare). But even in a scenario as horrific as that, developed countries do eventually recover. They aren't necessarily wiser Germany had a currency collapse and a few years later, put Hitler in power, and he damned near destroyed Europe. But then, Europe with American help recovered even from THAT.

But for now, the economy keeps sinking. Few people have any doubt that even the official unemployment figures will hit 10% by early spring (and the grim reality will be twice as bad), and that a lot of state and county governments will either be relying totally on federal funding, or be shut down. There will be lots of disruptions and, unless Obama and the Congress strongly and rapidly intervene, there won't be help available for the people who will need it the most the millions of unemployed, homeless, and those unable to get to work because they can't afford a car and the buses have stopped running.

People are uneasy, even frightened, and they are cutting back on spending, which makes the situation that much worse. Arrogant, stupid and greedy, bankers are not loosening credit despite the billions given to them so they could do that, so even if anyone felt bold enough to expand their business right now, the bank wouldn't allow it.

It could actually be worse. Just imagine if the country had lost its mind once again, and if, instead of Obama to offer hope, we had McCain and the Republicans to tell us that if we just kept on doing all the ruinous things we've been doing since Reagan was elected, we would all be doing fine. At that point, we probably would find out if it was possible for an entire nation to slit its wrists.

Nine days to go, and we're rid of the Republicans. At least we've taken the first step toward recovery, even though it might not be evident for a while yet.

Posted: January 12, 2009

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