This is the summer of discontent and division in America. We’re fractured by class, race, gender, age, and politics.
As U.S. stock markets set new records, people who don’t own stocks are being squeezed and crushed. Recession may be over, technically, but only now are Americans feeling the wrenching pain from the economic dislocation of the past decade.
When the U.S. government lost its golden credit rating, we hardly shivered.
Last week, Detroit declared bankruptcy. The city can’t deliver the bare minimum of services for urban civilization.
Other cities avert their eyes. Couldn’t happen here.
But think: What’s to stop the contagion from spreading? It would be like a run on the banks. Uneasiness turns to fear and fear turns to panic.
Any number of developments could spark fear and panic. Will the federal credit rating take another hit? Will more cities turn belly up? Will the screws be tightened on the poor? The government has been forced to abandon the words “Food Stamps.” Now they call it SNAP, but they’re not fooling anybody. Lots of voters hate the idea of giving away food, it turns out. Plenty of politicians are listening. Some would shut off all food assistance. A concise summary of the problem on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is here.
The View From Maryland
Let me localize it to my state, Maryland. Detroit is not the only city in trouble. Baltimore has similar problems on a smaller scale. And what of the complacent, recession-proof suburbs around Washington, D.C.? Montgomery County, MD, for instance, cannot be compared to Detroit in most respects. But make no mistake about it, Montgomery County is as much a one-industry town as Detroit. It’s entirely dependent on the salaries of government employees and government contractors.
Sequestration is taking hold in the D.C. region. The decades of the expanding federal payroll are over. If the entire federal workforce were to be furloughed one day a week (just to pluck a bad idea out of thin air), Montgomery County and Maryland would be in trouble. Not as bad as Detroit, of course.
Take it down to main street. It’s an open secret in Ocean City, MD, that the short summer business season of 2013 is going to be as mediocre as in recent years. Only worse. Traffic isn’t congested anymore, except on weekends. You don’t see lines at restaurants. Hundreds of hotel rooms stand vacant Monday through Thursday. I don’t want to think about the empty condos.
The newspaper says the summer isn’t over. The dry, hot, July weather is just what a beach town needs. There’s still time for business to pick up, the newspaper says. I say time is growing short.
What’s the problem? One businessman says,
“Nobody has any money.”
That’s as good an explanation as any. For sure, the supply of discretionary spending has dried up. A vacation, or even a weekend at the beach, is not a necessity. To the extent that people have money, they’re using it for everyday needs and to pay down credit card debt.
Of course, big corporations have piles of cash — they don’t know what to do with it — and people with stock portfolios are in the green this summer. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting screwed.
Government Strained To The Max
When the economy turns sour, governing becomes difficult at all levels. Locally, animosity between Ocean City political interests has been an embarrassment for at least three years. Vocal critics in this resort town are looking for scapegoats. I trace the hostility and frustration to falling business profits and falling tax revenues.
In Washington, Congress is in a locked-down stalemate, and the president appears less and less able to make government work without cooperation from Capitol Hill. The blue-red partisan mood is bitter.
Economic hard times, divisions in society, and failures of government are not benign, and we cannot assume they are temporary. You can have a dangerous downward spiral. An every-family-for-itself ethic can take hold, and a small but vocal mob imagines that anarchy is better than government and taxes.
Finally, it would be impossible to talk about political and economic divisions without reference to America’s most long-standing injustice, racism and racial discrimination. The shooting of Travon Martin by George Zimmerman — and TV coverage of the trial and the verdict — brought America’s racial divide back to the forefront. It reminded us that racial injustice continues every day in America.
Summer is the season of inflamed emotions. America is hot and angry. It’s good to have heated discussions about racial injustice and economic injustice. As long as we can keep it civilized. We need to mind our manners.
Soon we may need a cooling-off period, to see if we’ve learned anything.
— John Hayden
- Detroit, tip of a vast pensions liability iceberg | Heidi Moore (guardian.co.uk)
- The Destruction of Detroit in Heartbreaking Before & After Photographs (gizmodo.com)
- Bankrupt Detroit: What Will Happen Next? (detroit.cbslocal.com)
- Why didn’t the auto bailout save Detroit? (tv.msnbc.com)
- Autos Troubles, Race At Root Of Detroit Collapse (npr.org)
- Get Your Shop On In Maryland (coupons.answers.com)