I want to wish you Godspeed on your Cascadia Tour. You certainly picked an interesting time for your presentations. I was hoping to share some thoughts on what that time will mean.
by Brian Merchant
The three year mark for this recession will be a turning point.
November 30 is the scheduled end of the federal extensions for unemployment insurance. It’s unlikely that there will be sufficient political will to keep the UI extensions going after that. And it’s unlikely that there will be any evidence of serious expansion of job opportunities by then. In May, nationally, there were 11.8 million more unemployed workers than there were job openings. In June, Vice President Joe Biden said, “there’s no possibility to restore 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession.” In July, Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson observed that, among the 175 companies in the S&P 500 that had reported second quarter earnings, revenue rose by 6.9% while profits rose 42.3%. Meyerson concluded, “Corporations have figured out a way to make money without resuming hiring. Their model is premised on not resuming hiring.”
After the clamor of the midterm elections, there will be lines forming at every state capitol in the country. Budget projections for states, counties, cities, and municipalities will fall somewhere between sad and catastrophic. What is left of the social service safety net will be blatantly inadequate to meet the level of need. Nevertheless, elected officials will be spending most of their time deciding what to cut next. Nobody in those capitol buildings will have any clue how to create jobs.
By Christmas, it will be obvious that the cavalry isn’t coming.
I work as a vocational counselor for the Dislocated Worker program, the Department of Labor program designed to help laid-off workers get back to work. My work is made easier if there are jobs. Minnesota’s job vacancy survey for fourth quarter 2009 showed there were 8.2 unemployed workers for each job vacancy statewide. The Economic Policy Institute has pointed out that, during the last recession, the ratio of unemployed per job opening never went above 2.8 unemployed persons per job opening.
In our work, my fellow Dislocated Worker counselors and I are witnessing a slow motion form of traumatic stress. With that stress comes an insidious form of incapacitation as the chain of experience is broken in two important ways. First, there is an imposed isolation. Job seekers are held at a distance as they apply for jobs online. Since job seekers seldom receive acknowledgment of their applications and calls for interviews are rare, there is very little human contact in the process. With the current state of public funding, it is increasingly difficult to engineer even a face-to-face conversation with a Dislocated Worker counselor.
Next there is a diminished sense of efficacy. On a professional level, workers fear that they’re forgetting how to do things, they’re not keeping up, and they’re losing their edge. On a personal level, they’re experiencing a persistent economic erosion: lack of employment, lack of income, inability to pay bills, inability to provide for children or retirement, repossession, utility shutoff, eviction or foreclosure. People in these circumstances can seem existentially stuck, neither self-aware nor aware of their surroundings, not fully engaged – inside or out. It’s like a personal form of checkmate.
It is very difficult for folks in this situation to fully accept the notion that their former life is over and it’s time to create a new one. And it’s very difficult for them to reach out to people around them to discover resources and opportunities, forge alliances and communities, and embark on a process of generating a new way of life.
The microcosm is simply a reflection of the macrocosm. As a society we face struggle but we haven’t been honest enough to admit it. It is no longer possible to live in the manner to which we have become accustomed. Normal is gone and it’s not coming back.
The struggle we face is born of reaching a wide array of limits – both resource limits and operational limits – all at the same time. The list of resource limits includes arable land, water, rare earth metals, phosphorus, fossil fuels, and safe places to put carbon dioxide. The list of operational limits includes complex, expensive technological enterprises, finance, infrastructure, and governance.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the ten previous postwar recessions averaged about 10 ½ months. At 36 months, we would expect to see some breakaway thinking, some creative departures from the standard fare – at least some recognition that the word “recession” doesn’t describe what is really going on. From here on, a lot depends on our creativity, on our breaking away from the standard fare.
Our struggle represents a stage in the cycle of life, a stage in the adaptive cycle of complex systems ranging from forests to societies, from ecosystems to economies. The ancients were quite familiar with the cycle of life. We, however, seem to have forgotten. And we missed the latest updates from ecological science.
In the cycle, the growth phase takes advantage of an abundance of resources and is marked by predictable, incremental change. As the system matures, resources become “locked up” as energy is increasingly monopolized by efforts to maintain existing structures. Maturation leads to rigidity, vulnerability, and failure to address changing circumstances. This is followed by a collapse phase releasing holds on energy and resources along with creative destruction of what had previously existed. This phase is marked by abrupt change and uncertainty of outcome as surviving entities seek to restructure and reorganize. But it is also the phase of tremendous creativity – creativity leading to a renewed cycle of adaptation.
Accepting the 2008 Volvo Environmental Prize, ecologist C.S. Holling said:
Change that is important is not gradual but is sudden and transformative. There is a common base cycle of change in individuals, in ecosystems, in business, in society. Increasing rigidity halts a long, slow period of growth and increasing efficiency. That begins a period of creative destruction and a fast period where uncertainty is great, where novelty emerges, and where new foundations are formed for a new cycle to begin. This is where we are now heading internationally.
The list of questions without answers and problems without solutions is about to get exponentially long. Answers and solutions won’t be coming from inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, Wall Street, or the nearest state capitol.
It’s a shame we’ve forgotten our history. The Seattle Unemployed Citizens League, formed in 1931, proved to be a model for the country – a model for self-help barter economies. By 1932, the Reverend George Mecklenburg had formed The Organized Unemployed, Inc. in Minneapolis. The Organized Unemployed picked and canned produce, operated a cafeteria and stores, provided housing and employment, all paid with scrip money printed by the organization. [I see there is a Union of Unemployed – U Cubed group in Seattle, UDub Neighbors, carrying on in the spirit of Seattle’s old Unemployed Citizens League.]
It’s a shame we can’t seem to make effective use of the tools we have on hand. Right now, the most accessible, universal tool for communicating housing alternatives is the Housing category on Craig’s List with sections called “rooms & shares” and “sublets & temporary.”
As John O’Donohue characterized it, we are entering the “Interim Time”:
The path that brought us here has been washed away.
The path ahead remains concealed.
The old has not yet died away.
The new is still too young to be born.
O’Donohue advised us:
Do not allow your confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.
Wendell Berry wrote:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.
St. Paul, Minnesota