Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Lives in the Great Recession
Unemployed office workers who gather in Central Park to pray to a pagan god of wealth and prosperity. Homeowners who walk away from their mortgages. Older workers threatened with losing their pensions. Bankers desperately looking for businesses to loan their money to. In her latest book, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, Barbara Garson journeys through the lives of people struggling against the economic riptides of the early 21st Century. More than telling a good story, though, Garson makes a larger point about the times we live in.
JOHN TARLETON: What inspired you to write this book? What did you want to bring to the conversation?
BARBARA GARSON: I hoped to show through the lives of the people I interviewed that when the 1% have all the wealth, it’s not just that it’s mean or it’s unfair, but that capitalism stops itself when all the money gets in fewer and fewer hands. We can’t go on lending money to people to buy what they produce. It’s obviously a Ponzi scheme. It can’t go on forever.
JT: Yet, people in this country tend to blame the individual, not the system.
BG: That’s true. People my age see their kids end up in a financial mess and they think they aren’t saving, aren’t making the right choices. In fact, these young people did what they were told — invest in their education, buy a starter home, etc. — and the deck is totally stacked against them. Someone I sent the book to said, “Oh, I’ve been too hard on my kids. I didn’t realize how much worse things have become.” Hopefully, this book will open more people’s eyes like that.
JT: How do things look in the rest of the country outside New York City?
BG: Considerably worse. The first industry to recover was finance, which is the cornerstone of New York’s economy. In other parts of the country, the housing bubble burst much harder. And, unemployment rates are higher and people remain out of work for longer periods of time.
What’s coming to New York are temp jobs that take the place of real jobs. They are moving up the economic ladder and a lot of white collar jobs such as computer programming, bookkeeping, editing and graphics are becoming temp work. The insecurity is as great here, but the unemployment certainly is not as desperate.
JT: Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. the focus remains on deficit reduction and budget cuts even though the federal government can borrow money at practically 0% interest.
BG: I can’t believe it! Since the 1930s it’s been understood that the way to get out of a recession is to make up for the shortage in private spending with increased government spending — that you have to put spending power back in ordinary people’s hands. I shouldn’t have to waste my time explaining what used to be a middle-of-the road position. As a socialist, I should be saying, “Now that we’ve redistributed a little wealth, let’s take democratic control of it.”
JT: One of the central characters in your book is someone you first met as a young activist more than 40 years ago and then lost track of.
BG: I first met Duane in 1970 when I was working at a GI coffee house in Tacoma, Washington. He was back from Vietnam where his company had joked about refusing to follow orders. He was great with his hands and became a mechanic. He worked hard and upgraded his skills to keep up with the demands of the job market and still experienced a 40-year stagnation and decline in wages before he died in 2007 just before the recession. His adult children are struggling even more to keep their heads above water as they raise their own children.
JT: What lies ahead for the 99% in the coming years if nothing is done to address wealth inequality?
BG: We will be a poorer, more ragged population with much more frequent recessions because people won’t have enough to buy what they produce. There was a time when it always seemed to be the left saying, “America is going downhill, the empire is over.” And now it’s as if the capitalist class is saying, “Oh, this country is finished. I’m investing abroad, I’m hiring abroad, I’m selling abroad.” They don’t even think, ‘Well we can build back up again.’ They’re pulling out and they don’t care if we just go down and down.
JT: What can and should be done? Be as radical as you like.
BG: At the very least, redistribute that money. Get us back to the point we were in the years after World War II where working people were getting a larger share of the wealth created by increases in productivity. At the very most, change from capitalism to socialism so people can collectively run industries and pay themselves more.
JT: What were your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street when it erupted a couple of miles from where you live?
BG: I loved the spirit of it. I felt just like I felt in the ‘60s. But I saw us making the same mistakes we made in the ‘60s when we feared being co-opted or having strong leaders. The ‘60s was a lot bigger than Occupy and we didn’t even leave a daily, weekly or monthly newspaper or an organized student union. It’s very difficult to strike the balance between building something that could speak for us collectively and not becoming a traditional organization that could be co-opted.
JT: The financial freedom you experienced as a young radical in the ‘60s underscores how much things have changed for the 99% in the decades since.
BG: I went to the University of California when there was free tuition and fees were under $125 a semester. I didn’t have any student debt. Anytime you wanted a job, you could get it. If you wanted a teaching job, that was no problem. If you just wanted to do movement stuff, be in a collective, you could always earn enough money to rent a place.
I didn’t realize how easy it was, that I was living in an unusual time. I always felt that things would get better and better.
In the first books I wrote in the ‘60s, we were all talking about whether we should shorten hours or do more craft work as if we had command of the economy. The autoworkers who went on strike in 1972 at the Lordstown, Ohio GM plant spoke of humanizing their work and how to personalize the cars they built on the assembly line. Nowadays people don’t talk about humanizing work, they talk about finding work.
JT: Do you still have hope?
BG: It’s worth playing a long shot when it’s your only chance. These guys will bring down the whole planet if it makes them a profit. They’ll do anything. It would be an actual crime against shareholders for an executive to say, “I’m not going to maximize profit and increase shareholder value because I’m concerned about the planet.” So that system has to go.
Barbara Garson will discuss Down the Up Escalator at the Brecht Forum on April 17 at 7:30pm.