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
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.