The hard-luck stories in Barbara Garson’s “Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession” fall into two sections: people who have lost their jobs and people who have lost their homes.
Somehow, though, it’s not a gloomy book (at least not on the surface). Garson writes less about the terrible things that have happened to Americans since the crash than about the resigned/resourceful ways they’re coping.
Take Michael, a young Indiana Deadhead who has settled with such easygoing hopelessness into the new economy that he’s given up even looking for a job he might advance in.
His father works a miserable 50-to-60-hour week as a supervisor at the distribution center of a big-box retailer that, after 35 years, is trying to force him out so it can hire a younger, cheaper replacement.
“I’m not going to live that way,” Michael tells Garson. It makes her think about acquaintances from her own generation who made the choice to drop out.
“Michael and his friends seem to have arrived at the hippie ethic from another direction,” she observes. “They don’t have the option of well-paying, steady jobs. But they do have the option of not feeling bad about that.”
Turning to the foreclosure crisis, Garson interviews a wide range of home losers, from victims of shady financial-services companies to speculators whose bets went bad.
What she’s most struck by is the change that’s come over mortgage holders who believed -- or started off believing -- that repaying their loans was a matter of conscience and duty even when they found themselves owing more than their property was worth. Some of them came to realize that the corporate banks they were dealing with operated under a different set of ethics than their own.
The subject of a chapter titled (and not ironically) “An Upright Man” describes the tormenting process of applying for a loan modification -- the repeated demands for documents already submitted and similar “baroquely embellished procedures” seemingly designed to “give people just enough hope to keep them paying on the mortgage as long as humanly possible.”
When -- finally -- their application was denied, he and his wife stopped paying. “After having tried to work with the bank for a year and a half,” he says, “I know that we were not irresponsible. I know we’re not deadbeats.”
Part of Garson wants to applaud holders of underwater mortgages who have worked up the nerve to stop making payments to a system that’s suckering them. Another part isn’t so sure.
“This crisis,” she worries, “is fraying our national ethic about debt. I wonder if it applies only to bank debt, and I wonder if the lawlessness will be lasting.”
After moving jobs overseas, she notes, U.S. corporations are now abandoning the domestic market for foreign sales. “The companies that wrote us off as workers now write us off as consumers. If you’re not a worker, not a consumer and you don’t earn significant income from investments, then you don’t have much of a place in capitalist society,” she says.
Garson uses her engaging stories of plucky individuals to open the floor to a deeply unnerving question: Have the crash and other changes to the economy that keep widening the gap between rich and poor created an America in which most Americans no longer have a place?
“Down the Up Escalator” is published by Doubleday (276 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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