The media keep talking about Obama’s “New Deal” and/or “stimulus package” with lots of vague references to the past, and often even vaguer explanations of what those labels refer to in practical terms. So far, it looks like we’re in for a lot of tax-tinkering and a little infrastructure-building, wrapped up in a lot of hype and self-historification, employing references to all those past struggles and historical figures that America has decided to see in its new leader. All the talk of “job creation” seems to be wishful thinking, based on the logic of “stimulus.”
As someone working in an industry, retail, where the closings and layoffs are already in full swing, and having already lost my own business and most of my economic flexibility in the early phases of the current transformation/crisis/correction/whatever, my interest in whatever large-scale tinkering is about to take place is more than academic. I suffered through the campaign years listening to all the candidates talk as if the people in America most in jeopardy were those who had bought too much house on risky terms. I’m still not certain that anyone in Washington is aware, in any useful way, that there are poor people in America, or how many of us are working barely part-time jobs that are likely become even less adequate, or simply to disappear. The figures telling us how many jobs there are out there have told us very little about the kinds of jobs they are, the way that it takes 7-day availability to get 15 hours of work a week, the lack, or prohibitive cost of benefits, etc. And I’m waiting for someone in high places to suggest that the ongoing collapses and crises in the retail sector,–all the problems of Main Street, the “food deserts” in so many cities and small towns, gentrification and business displacement, the failing performance of even the largest, best-established brick and mortar operations in some trades (such as books), etc,–are part of a real problem, and one directly connected to our housing crisis, or banking and investment crises, etc.
It seems clear to me that we are in a bad place. It seems clear to me that big-box retail has bumped up against some very serious limitations in its own model, after having done such a job (with so much governmental help) on other retail models. It seems clear to me that “urban renewal” is, and will likely continue to be used as a means of transferring private wealth, displacing populations, etc. It seems undeniable that food deserts are real, and point to the very basic ways in which our current market model supplies the needs of the people only when it suits the profit models of an increasingly monocultural business world. And all of this seems clearly opposed in spirit to the Spirit of Change that is supposedly sweeping America. But spirits are notoriously hard to come to grips with. In that, they are rather like “stimulus,” I suppose.
At present, it looks like all of the New Deal hype is going to amount to just that. When there are complaints that the government isn’t allocating enough even to make high-profile bridge repairs, then we’re probably not going to see a new TVA. Our Rural Electrification initiative will come in the form of the extension of existing tax incentives for alternative energy (itself an unfortunate mix of solidly scientific advances and ethanol-style boondoggles.) Etc. This is probably just a matter of the Change crew facing facts, as an awful lot of the government agencies that would be required for a new WPA, CCC or NRA are pretty beat-up and disfunctional at this stage of the game, and the government has proven overseas and in recent disaster relief efforts that neither it nor its contractors can be counted on to administer relief.
It will be a relief if the solution to the problems of the unemployed will not be workfare brigades, building infrastructure under Blackwater management. But the bar is low: it will be a relief if the solution to state budget deficits doesn’t involve selling off roads and parks in crony-privatization.
But I guess, even for me, it will be a disappointment if all this New Deal hype results in nothing but the sort of tax-code monkeying we’ve seen right along, and a little trickle-down job creation through big, contractor-centered public works projects. Linking the contemporary myth of Change through public participation with the rich mythology of the New Deal seems such a powerful, if potentially dangerous, fusion. At a time when our reigning cultural myths and icons are so frequently negative or dismissive, it seems like there ought to be something good that could come of this weird, thin optimism, before our well-honed cynicism entirely swallows it up.
[to be continued…]