No, the economic crisis is not good for America
When even Time hopes the downturn will teach ‘childish, irresponsible, fat’ Americans a lesson, it’s clear recession porn has gone mainstream.
Popular discussion of the economic crisis in the US pins the blame mainly on the greed of bankers. Many people, we are told, are outraged about the bonuses paid to executives at the bailed-out insurance company AIG. (Although this ‘outrage’ has not led to the pitchfork-wielding protesters taking to the streets that we have been warned about, and Washington, after frothing at the mouth for a week over AIG greed, now doesn’t seem to be all that bothered about it).
There are many reasons why blaming bankers is misguided. One is that it reduces a recent and specific economic event to a timeless, moral character flaw: greed. Another is that such a line of attack can quite easily carry over to blaming the greed and ambition of all of us, including working-class Americans.
That is exactly what seems to be happening now. Time magazine’s current cover story is headlined ‘The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?’, and its author, the novelist and commentator Kurt Andersen, answers in the affirmative (1). There have been some rumblings before Andersen’s piece that faulted the masses. Last month CNBC’s Rick Santelli ranted about President Obama’s mortgage refinancing programme being a subsidy for ‘losers’. But Andersen’s article is probably the most high-profile expression yet of the ‘we have only ourselves to blame’ argument.
Andersen writes that the period since the 1980s has been characterised by ‘an unfettered zeal for individual getting and spending’. Americans ‘started gambling (and winning!) and thinking magically’ – around house-buying, the stock market and in casinos. It was one big party: ‘It’s as if we decided that Mardi Gras and Christmas are so much fun, we ought to make them a year-round way of life.’
It seems that Andersen, a liberal critic, believes as strongly as any supporter of capitalism that we have experienced mass prosperity these past decades. But I doubt that your average American – whose real household income has declined since the end of the nineties – would say it’s been a party.
Time’s front cover, 6 April
Andersen blames people for taking on excessive mortgage and consumer debt; in other words, for living beyond their means. In doing so, he ignores systemic factors, such as government promotion of home ownership, the Federal Reserve’s lowering of interest rates, and the general expansion of credit facilities. Moreover, it is not a sin for people to want to take a bet on their own future success (especially when offered credit at very low interest rates): it is a personal financial judgment call. People should have the freedom to make their own decisions, including those that prove to be unwise ones.
But Andersen is not content to state that Americans took on too much personal debt; he has to add insults. He dredges up the stereotype of the fat American (‘we started living large literally as well as figuratively’), and he says we all acted like stupid, naive children (‘we all clapped our hands and believed in fairies’). We were warned by popular culture, but did not listen: ‘For 20 years we’ve had Homer Simpson’s spot-on caricature of the quintessential American: childish, irresponsible, wilfully oblivious, fat and happy. And more recently we winced at the ultra-Homerized former earthlings of Wall-E.’ It is here that Andersen reveals his bigoted prejudices against working-class Americans, and where I have to fight to control my urge to swear.
Andersen goes on. He believes that the Great Recession is a good thing, because ‘we will be chastened and begin behaving more wisely’. We will rediscover the ‘common good’. But to do so, we must go through ‘addiction recovery’, because ‘we are like substance abusers coming off a long bender’. He fully embraces the therapeutic outlook, but being a knowing, hip guy, he presents ‘a streamlined, secularised Three-Step Program for America’:
- ‘Admit that we are powerless over addiction to easy money and cheap fossil fuel and living large; [and] that our lives had become unmanageable’;
- ‘Believe that we can, individually and collectively, restore ourselves to sanity and normal living’;
- ‘Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and be entirely ready to remove our defects of character.’
So, after complaining that Americans are ‘childish’, Andersen treats us like children. His calls for us to reform are sickeningly patronising. He goes to great lengths to stress that he is ‘secular’ and ‘reality-based’, but he is as sanctimonious as any preacher telling us to repent.
In 1978, Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor, in which she criticised the notion that one’s character causes disease. Today, people like Andersen blame character for the economic crisis, a kind of Recession as Moral Fable. In Andersen’s world, there are no larger economic forces in play, no credit derivatives, no state intervention. Just immoral individuals who are getting what they deserve, and who need to reform.
Life cannot go on in the same way, says Andersen. ‘During the perma-80s, way too many of us were operating, consciously or not, a dreamy gold-rush vision of getting rich the day after tomorrow.’ We now have to adjust ‘our individual senses of lifestyle entitlement… now that our age of self-enchantment has ended’. He says ‘we don’t need to turn ourselves into tedious, zero-body-fat, zero-carbon footprint ascetics’, but, like the people who survived the 1930s, we will become frugal. Andersen is really calling on us to lower our horizons, be more humble and less ambitious. Ultimately, he wants working-class people to get comfortable with austerity conditions, but he doesn’t have the nerve to come right out and use that word (at least the hardcore greens are more honest).
Yes, some people are upset about the AIG bonuses, but what gets me really angry are commentators in secure, well-paid media positions lecturing working-class people who are struggling to get by today. His so-called ‘reality check’, his argument that the crisis is actually good for us, could only come from someone who lives in a fantasy world, detached from the hardship people are experiencing. On the same day that Andersen’s article was published, the New York Times reported on ‘tent cities’ of the homeless, the ‘Hoovervilles of 2009’, emerging in California and elsewhere (2). I urge Andersen to go and tell those folks in person about his Three-Step Programme, and I hope he gets the reaction he deserves.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
Brendan O’Neill argued against austerity. Neil Davenport reviewed a book which showed that when austerity last ruled Britain, it increased hunger, ill-health and authoritarianism. Daniel Ben-Ami explained why people hate fat Americans, asserted that there is no ‘paradox of prosperity’, and urged us to ignore the critics of economic growth. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.
(1) The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?, by Kurt Andersen, Time Magazine, 26 March 2009
(2) Tent Cities Arise and Spread in Recession’s Grip, New York Times, 26 March 2009
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