Bobo is addressing “The Lean Years,” and says the economic response to the crisis is everywhere debated, but a desperately needed social response remains unformed. It’s classic Bobo, except for the creation of a new class of victims. ‘Nuf said. Mr. Herbert asks “What’s Wrong With Us?” He says ignoring the nation’s infrastructure problems imperils public safety, diminishes our competitiveness and results in missed opportunities to create jobs. No shit. Here’s Bobo:
Financial crises stink. In their wake, public debt explodes. Nations default. Economic growth falters. Taxes rise. Unemployment lingers.
The current financial crisis is no different. The U.S. will have to produce 10 million new jobs just to get back to the unemployment levels of 2007. There’s no sign that that is going to happen soon, so we’re looking at an extended period of above 8 percent unemployment.
The biggest impact is on men. Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men who have done so. Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).
So men have taken an especially heavy blow during this crisis. The gap between the male and female unemployment rates has reached its highest level since the government began keeping such records.
In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Don Peck reports that last November nearly a fifth of all men between 25 and 54 did not have jobs, the highest figure since the labor bureau began counting in 1948. We are either at or about to reach a historical marker: for the first time there will be more women in the work force than men.
Young people are the other group disproportionally affected by the downturn. High school and college grads are entering a miserable job market. In his Atlantic piece, Peck rounds up the academic research on what happens to people who enter the labor force in hard times.
College grads who entered the job market during the recession of 1981 earned 25 percent less than grads who entered when times were good. That earnings gap persisted for decades. Seventeen years after graduation, the recession kids were still earning 10 percent less than the boom kids. Over a lifetime, recession kids can expect to earn $100,000 less than their luckier cohorts.
It’s pretty easy to take these economic facts and draw stark cultural consequences. Long-term unemployment is one of the most devastating experiences a person can endure, equal, according to some measures, to the death of a spouse. Men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity. Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. So in areas of high unemployment, marriage rates can crumble — while childbearing rates out of wedlock do not.
Young people who enter the work force in a recession, meanwhile, are psychologically altered. They are less likely to get professional-level jobs throughout life. They are less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even in pursuit of greater opportunity. But there’s also reason not to be too despairing. The country endured stagflation and recession between 1977 and 1983, and rebounded smartly in the 1980s and ’90s.
That’s because people are not passive pawns of economic forces. Recessions test social capital. If social bonds are strong, nations can be surprisingly resilient. If they are weak, things are terrible. The U.S. endured the Great Depression reasonably well because family bonds and social trust were high. Russia, on the other hand, was decimated by the post-Soviet economic turmoil because social trust was nonexistent.
This recession has exposed America’s social weak spots. For decades, men have adapted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy. Now they are paying the price. For decades, the working-class social fabric has been fraying. Now the working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction. For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world. Now they are moving back home in droves.
The economic response to the crisis is everywhere debated, but the social response is unformed. First, we need to redefine masculinity, creating an image that encourages teenage boys to stay in school and older men to pursue service jobs. Evangelical churches have done a lot to show how manly men can still be nurturing. Obviously, more needs to be done, and schools need to be more boy-friendly.
Second, antipoverty programs have long focused their efforts on inner cities, but now there also is great vulnerability in working-class places like central Pennsylvania and rural Michigan. Many social workers are not exactly comfortable in socially conservative areas, but if the working class disintegrates, then look out.
Third, Facebook is great, but social networking sites do not by themselves create support networks when jobs disappear and poverty looms. Somebody has to provide institutions for unaffiliated 24-year-olds.
There’s no sign that government will nimbly repair these social gaps. It will probably be up to social entrepreneurs to take a midcrisis look at their priorities. Somehow there must be a way to use the country’s idle talent to address freshly exposed needs.
So Bobo has created a whole new victim class — over 50% of the population. FABULOUS! Asshole. Here’s Mr. Herbert, who’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:
Gov. Ed Rendell likes to tell a story that goes back to his days as mayor of Philadelphia.
As he recalled, the city had a long cold snap with about a month and a half of below-freezing temperatures. Then, abruptly, the mercury rose into the 60s, he said, “and 58 of our water mains broke, causing all sorts of havoc.”
The pipes were old. Some were ancient. “My water people told me that some had been laid in the 19th century,” said Mr. Rendell, “and they were laid shallow, without much protection. So with any radical changes in temperature, they were susceptible to breaking. We had a real emergency on our hands.”
Infrastructure, that least sexy of issues, is not just a significant interest of Ed Rendell’s; it’s more like a consuming passion. He can talk about it energetically and enthusiastically for hours and days at a time. He has tried to stop the hemorrhaging of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, and he travels the country explaining how crucially important it is for the United States to rebuild a national infrastructure landscape that has deteriorated so badly that it is threatening the nation’s economic viability.
Two years ago, a bridge inspector who had stopped for lunch in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood happened to glance up at a viaduct that carries Interstate 95 over the neighborhood. He noticed a 6-foot crack in a 15-foot column that was supporting the highway. His sandwich was quickly forgotten. Two miles of the highway had to be closed for three days for emergency repairs to prevent a catastrophe from occurring.
These kinds of problems are not peculiar to Pennsylvania. New Orleans was lost for want of an adequate system of levees and floodwalls. Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, tells us that 75 percent of America’s public schools have structural deficiencies. The nation’s ports, inland waterways, drinking water and wastewater systems — you name it — are hurting to one degree or another.
Ignoring these problems imperils public safety, diminishes our economic competitiveness, is penny-wise and pound-foolish, and results in tremendous missed opportunities to create new jobs on a vast scale.
Competitors are leaving us behind when it comes to infrastructure investment. China is building a network of 42 high-speed rail lines, while the U.S. has yet to build its first. Other nations are well ahead of us in the deployment of broadband service and green energy technology. We spend scandalous amounts of time sitting in traffic jams or enduring the endless horrors of airline travel. Low-cost, high-speed Internet access is a science-fiction fantasy in many parts of the United States.
What’s wrong with us?
We’re so far behind in some areas that Governor Rendell has said that getting our infrastructure act together can feel like “sledding uphill.”
“When I took over as governor,” he said, “I was told that Pennsylvania led the nation in the number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges. We had more than 5,600 of them. So I put a ton of money into bridge repair. We more than tripled the amount in the capital budget, from $200 million a year to $700 million a year. And I got a special appropriation from the Legislature to do $200 million a year extra for the next four years.”
The result? “Well, the good news is that we repaired a lot of bridges,” said Mr. Rendell. “The bad news is that by the end of my sixth year, the end of 2008, the number of deficient or structurally obsolete bridges had gone from 5,600 to more than 6,000.
“The reason is that we lead the nation in bridges 75 years or older, and the recommended lifespan for a bridge is 40 years. So every time we fixed two, three would bump onto the list.”
He said he hopes that by the end of this year the list will be pared to 4,300 bridges, which he described as “still way too high.”
It’s easy, especially in tough economic times, to push aside infrastructure initiatives, including basic maintenance and repair, in favor of issues that seem more pressing or more appealing. But this misses the point that infrastructure spending that is thoughtful and wise is an investment, a crucial investment in the nation’s future — and it’s a world-class source of high-value jobs.
The great danger right now is that we will do exactly the wrong thing, that we’ll turn away from our screaming infrastructure needs and let the deterioration continue. With infrastructure costs so high (the needs are enormous and enormously expensive) and with the eyes in Washington increasingly focused on deficit reduction, the absolutely essential modernizing of the American infrastructure may not take place. That would be worse than foolish. It would be tragic.