The upside of the downturn

The upside of the downturn

If you’re like me, you’ve spent the last six months in the glow of computer screens that shine slumping graphs onto your bewildered face, mumbling the day’s TED spread in your sleep and generally trying not to freak out as we ride out our sputtering economy as Amelia Earhart surely rode out her Lockheed Electra.

The national unemployment rate hit 6.5 percent in October, while retail sales fell 2.8 percent. Even UVA, that last bastion of steady-handed investment in these shaky times, saw its endowment drop $600 million.

Let’s face it. Worrying is not going to fix this economic mess. Truth is, we don’t know how to fix it. This thing may not be fixable.

The finance people who broke our economy don’t even know exactly how they did it. The details of this crash seem almost magical, even to the detail people. It’s a little like letting a Wall Street guy borrow your car, except that he comes back not only without your car but also without a firm grasp on the concept of cars.

In short: We’re screwed.

Slumps beget downturns beget recessions, on and on, until we find ourselves much like our grandparents, waking up to a daggone Great Depression. But not the ’30s-style, fedora-wearing Depression that we’ve seen in WPA photographs. Oh no. This will be a new Great Depression.

But like our grandparents, who scraped out of their hardship with ramrod backbones and enough steely-eyed determination to fill the burlap sack that they unfortunately ended up wearing a week later, we will overcome. In fact, the coming Great Depression has the potential to be The Greatest Depression Ever™.

If there’s one thing this country has left, it’s optimism…because, really, with no auto or steel industries left, optimism’s the one thing we got going for us. Yup, blind, religious-like optimism.

It’s this optimism that allows us to see the upsides of the economic downturn. And not just the obvious ones. Sure, the price of oil is dropping, allowing us to drive a block to buy a bottle of water again, and house prices are now affordable—sort of. And yes, soon we’ll probably see another stimulus check which will go straight to MasterCard.
But there is a positive underbelly to this slug of an economy. I’m talking far-reaching, life-changing upsides. Take that MasterCard bill. Maybe by the time it comes due, we’ll all

be out from underneath the boot of credit card companies.

Maybe, just maybe, The Greatest Depression Ever will see us, as a people, grow more healthy, more educated, working fulfilling jobs and listening to better music. Maybe this downturn is just the thing we need to move forward as a nation, to grow some grit and steady our nerves.

We the people might even emerge from this as a stronger, wiser generation, the kind our grandparents became.
There is a chance, by God, that this is our crucible, our moment of definition, and from it will come a better world filled with a richer populous, in both body and soul.
 
Optimism! Yes! We will follow its light through this dark, worst time because, let’s face it, rationalism is just too dang scary at this point. Vowing this, here are 13 upsides to the downturn.

No more credit card debt.

Remember the movie Fight Club, where Brad Pitt and his co-stars—Brad Pitt’s Gleaming Eyes and Brad Pitt’s Rippling Abdominals—try to blow up the headquarters of every credit card company and thereby free consumers around the world from a lifetime trapped in the samsara of $2.14 coffee purchases carrying 27 percent interest?

No? Well, it’s the movie in which he bleeds a lot.

Something similar might be brewing, albeit without vintage shirts and nitroglycerin. Credit card companies have been quietly packaging credit card debt into securities, then selling those securities to investors.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s called securitization, the practice that got the mortgage industry into so much trouble. Everything was (supposedly) fine in Mortgage Land until housing prices finally dropped and people started going delinquent and defaulting on their loans. Defaults then caused a wave of foreclosures that—not to put too fine a point on it—put not only the mortgage industry but high finance in the crapper.

According to USA Today, credit card delinquencies are at their highest point in six years, with default rising rapidly. Enough defaults, and suddenly you’ve got even more toxic securities floating around, wreaking havoc and potentially doing what even Mr. Cheekbones himself couldn’t—bringing down credit card companies.

In a perfect world, all companies would collapse, leaving us with no more debt and several handy windshield scrapers. Must likely, though, we’ll have to settle for the schedenfreude that comes from watching the Feds lend money to Visa, only to jack up interest rates without reason or warning and provide shitty customer service over the phone.

Better public health.

Ever see those photographs from the original Great Depression? People looked good, huh? Standing in long lines, resting on porches after 18-hour days of sharecropping that put them even further in the hole, those folks were just working the look.

They were slim, trim, lounging about like they had discovered the secret to the perfect body. They had—Poverty!
Some researchers have found that as the economy tanks, our collective health improves. Why? Well, we could throw a lot of fancy numbers at you, with variables, control groups and cosigns, but let’s put it simply: When we don’t have any money, we can no longer afford to buy the everyday shit that is slowly killing us.

The L.A. Times reported that Christopher J. Ruhm, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, found that deaths decrease as unemployment goes up. Most people drink less, smoke less and cut down on eating out, instead opting for cheaper, more healthful food. They also drive less, which translates to fewer traffic-related deaths. And people get more exercise—no more sitting at a desk for nine or 10 hours, surrounded by packaged balls of polysyllabic chemicals that pass for food. No sir, the unemployed get some goddamn exercise, what with the pounding the pavement, the frantic searching for a job beneath your dignity and the constant worrying.

An hour of worrying burns 278 calories! It’s true!

And don’t forget the fresh air. The Downtown Mall will be the new ACAC when our whole stupid economy sounds its death rattle and collapses into a Milton Friedman-induced black economic hole. With no jobs or gym memberships, we’ll have nothing to do but sweat out laps on the bricks.

Bonus for rich people.

The treadmills, rowing machines, and Stairmasters will now be clear of hoi polloi who have lost their “jobs” that allowed them to pay for membership, leaving the select few to pursue their gerbil-like exercises without waiting for a machine.

Easier coffee orders.

With disposable income, much like health insurance, rapidly become a thing of our prosperous past, no longer will we have to stand in line at Mudhouse behind business-

suited nitwits and professional mothers, their charges in SUV strollers, while each orders “coffee drinks,” stringing together no fewer than 18 words for over a minute and a half while we, the hard-working people—the backbone of the economy, dammit!—stand behind them, waiting to order a simple cup of coffee, black if you please.

We don’t want to overstate the importance of this. But this may be the single greatest benefit of our economic downturn: the melting of the $4, iced mocha-halfcaff-skinny-soy-doubleshot-lightwhip-latte at the headwaters of coffee lines around the town—nay, around the world!

Even more Horatio Alger stories.

You can’t go from rags to riches if you don’t have some rags. And a 6.5 percent unemployment rate will get you some goddamn rags.

Banks pay you more.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that banks large and small are trying to lure more customers with increased interest rates on deposits. Of course, deposits require money, which none of us will have, but we can take solace in knowing that if we had some cash, we’d be getting paid handsomely for not spending it, right?

A better-educated workforce.

It’s a dynamic that is as sure as tomorrow’s slumping market numbers: When the economy tanks, enrollment for community colleges increase. The job market gets leaner, wages stagnate, and people see an opportunity to pump up their resumes and make themselves more marketable. Folks around these parts are no different.

Piedmont Virginia Community College has seen enrollment increase 17 percent since fall 2005. Anita Showers, manager of marketing and relations at PVCC, says that the economic downturn is “one of the dynamics” driving the bounce in enrollment.

If it takes a total collapse of the economy to get a better-educated workforce, so be it. Eggs and omelets and all of that, right?

Of course, this is presuming that there will be jobs for all of us well-skilled, whip-smart workers. It also assumes we don’t all turn into English majors, we suppose. But don’t worry about job creation, because …

Our new Corporate Masters will emerge.

What do Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and HP have in common? Other than having their advertising campaigns skillfully burned into our collective hypothalamus, each was founded during the beary-ist of bear markets.

So which new Corporate Giants will emerge from these Hard Times? Is there a Spicy Bear IPO in the near future?

The New WPA.

When the original Great Depression hit, New Deal economists seized on the loony idea of putting unemployed people to work on the Fed’s dime by having them do jobs essential to the nation’s well-being. Instead of, you know, pumping billion after billion directly into the industries that precipitated the entire crisis by using the wrong Excel spreadsheet to assess risk.

The creation of the Works Progress Administration turned us all into socialists, of course. But nobody seemed to care because redistribution of wealth isn’t that big a deal when there are no more bankers, on account of them all jumping out of windows, this fact according to our most reliable historic cartoons. So we fixed bridges and built roads and documented our society, a society that was quickly, it surely must have seemed, going none-too-gently into that good night.

As the The Greatest Depression begins to take hold, socialism will inevitably make a comeback, due to us recently electing one of those socialist guys. And this could mean big things for not only the nation, but for Charlottesville as well.

We may finally be able to fix all those bridges and sewer mainlines and the crumbling Interstate system, those things that are too boring to pay attention to when we’re all rich and throwing around multiple credit cards at fancy bars and then sweating out day-old whiskey stink on gold-plated treadmills.

But now…. We will know what work is.

Perhaps cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia and—who knows?—even Charlottesville can complete what has been, up until the housing market dissolved and the credit markets gave us the finger, our three-year boondoggle of bringing broadband Internet to every corner of this great land. So we can all, in one great patriotic push, ruthlessly scour Craigslist for a job.  And then decades later, we will explain to our clueless young children, with a touch of by-the-bootstraps pride, how we used to have to schlep actual “laptops” to “coffee shops” for the Internet.

In Charlottesville, under the Brand New Deal™, buskers will surely be paid a living wage by the government under the new and improved WPA, since none of us will have a dollar to spare to hear that one really cool Radiohead song yet again. Ditto graffiti artists, electronic musicians, and any other person whose art holds the promise of obscure poverty, if not full-on starvation.

This will not apply to area poets whose names include the words “Charles,” “Wright,” “Rita,” or “Dove.” Sorry suckers—you’re on your own.

Better music.

Look. We like 23-year-olds in snap-button flannel singing Depression-era songs as much as the next Charlottesville resident, really. But sometimes enough is enough. As the markets crash and bread lines form, the New Greatest Depression will hopefully usher in our own Depression-era music. A music that is formed out of our rough times, not our grandparents’. The New Greatest Depression will ring of our stories, told by our best musicians, and hopefully not another teenager who downloaded “Tom Joad” lyrics to his iPhone.

Don’t get it twisted, the Great Depression gave us the Carter Family, which gave us “No Depression” which gave us Uncle Tupelo, which gave us Jeff Tweedy, who gives my girlfriend the hots, from which I reap benefits. But now is our time to birth a new kind of blues and quit riding coattails, albeit heavily patched and dirty ones.

It is a sad fact that the best music comes from the worst times. The Great Depression gave us Woody. Reaganomics gave us Public Enemy. The Cold War, Metallica. And who came out of those heady, Internet Boom days? The biting genius of the Backstreet Boys, LeAnn Rimes and post-Biggie Puff Daddy doing that silly dance during the breakdown of seemingly every song on the damn radio.

These new days will belong to innovators and poets. In short, long live the Beetnix.

The demise of Linens ‘n Things.

Enough said on this, really. Thanks to this depot of uselessness filing for bankruptcy, there will be far fewer grown men having temper tantrums in the home decor sections of our nation. A quiet national dignity will assuredly return.

No more flip-flops.

As jobs become fewer and ever more precious, sartorial consideration will become increasingly important.

No more rolling into the office—assuming you still have an office—looking like the poster boy for Gamma Delta Papasmoney. And no more goddamn grown men wearing flip-flops.

Take a look at those photos from the original Great Depression. Even the unemployed had style. And not a single flip nor flop among them.

Furloughs.

After the 10- and 12-hour workdays brought by a booming economy, who doesn’t need a break? Well, employees at large companies like HP are about to get one, without pay, of course. As big-name businesses and government agencies grow more desperate in their fight against red ink, they will increasingly turn to a time-honored tactic of saving money—not giving their employees any. HP and Micro, two tech heavy hitters, recently announced holiday furloughs. And Fairfax County has also furloughed employees for at least a day.

Which leave workers plenty of time to relax, watch what little savings they have dwindle, and generally enjoy life as it ever so gently flutters to a collapse around them.

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