People have gotten meaner because they have no vested interest in worrying about their fellow human beings. That’s the conclusion of Tom Clark (with Anthony Heath) in Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump¸ a recent book that sifts through a slew of recent research and impressionistic interviews related to the effect of the Great Recession on the economy and the fabric of society in the United States and Great Britain.
Clark makes his argument through a series of assertions, each of which he proves with research and illustrates with a handful of conversations with people who suffered during the recession that ended a few years ago if you belonged to the upper 1% in income/wealth, but continues for everyone else:
1. This last “great recession” essentially affected a small part of the population, although everyone outside the 1% has suffered from stagnant wages over the past 30 years.
2. Those who suffered from the recession the most have tended not to recover.
3. Unlike other recessions, it was easy to predict who would and would not be affected and not recover from the Great Recession: the poor, the underemployed, the undereducated, primarily minorities and the young.
4. Compared to previous recessions since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Anglo-Saxon governments did much less for those who suffered the worst effects of the Great Recession.
5. The attitudes of the wealthy, middle class and working poor towards victims of the Great Recession were much less generous to victims of previous recessions. A blame-it-on-the-victim mentality replaced the former generosity displayed in surveys in former recessions about whether people liked government support of victims of economic dislocation.
Clark establishes these facts and then uses them to develop a grand synthesis which he thinks explains what he sees as a hard turn right in both the United States and Great Britain over the past 10 years: In former recessions, the impact was widespread and serendipitous, so people supported government intervention and support of victims out of self-interest: maybe they would need the help. But we could predict who the long-term and permanent victims of the Great Recession would be. The result: even though—or perhaps because—most everyone else has been struggling, they did not think they would need the government benefits and so did not support expansion of benefits. Additionally, more of the middle class and working poor grew to believe that large portions of those receiving benefits were “undeserving.” In a sense, 30 years of static wages and a slow erosion of buying power made everyone hunker down and get more selfish.
Clark’s argument resonates to a careful student of the history of healthcare reform. In Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar Struggle over Health Care Reform, Paul Starr points out that because most Americans already had health insurance through their employers, Medicare or Medicaid, they had no vested interest in seeing the healthcare law now called Obamacare pass, and in fact recognized that it would mean that they would pay more without getting more to help fund those getting coverage under the proposed new law. Republican Scott Brown, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for what baseball people used to call “a cup of coffee,” expressed this attitude best when he said he liked the recently enacted healthcare law in Massachusetts but did not want the citizens he represented to pay for extending the Massachusetts model to the rest of the country, which Obamacare essentially did.
But although Clark makes a compelling case, I think he discounts the impact of the constant barrage of propaganda we have endured since the rise of Reaganism. We’ve had more than 30 years of the right using code words to demonize the poor and downtrodden, such as “welfare queens, “those people,” “the 47% who think they’re victims” and “urban culture problems.” We’ve had more than 30 years of the glorification of the free market and the nonsense that government always produces inferior solutions. For more than 30 years, we’ve been told that the ultra-rich worked hard for their money and deserve what they get, whereas those who fail have only themselves to blame. More than 30 years of media bashing of unions, teachers and public school workers. More than 30 years of hearing and reading the lie that giving food stamps, medical care and other aid to the poor makes them dependent on handouts and saps their self-reliance so that they prefer to sit on their duffs and do nothing all day. We’ve been told the lie that the only thing that hurts the economy more than giving money to poor people, who will spend it all and thereby create jobs, is to cut taxes on the wealthy. The news media has drummed into our minds that we have to pay down the debt, even if it means gutting social welfare benefits.
In short, some 30 years of brain-washing has made Americans—and evidently Brits, too—inured to the suffering of their fellow neighbors and has atomized our communities into millions of selfish individuals.
I am reluctant to recommend Hard Times as a read, because it’s written in an irritating combination of styles, taking the worst from both a jargon-laden academic style and the slang-and-case-history approach of pop sociology. What’s worse, it’s not even U.S. slang, but that of the foreign tongue known as British. The ideas are certainly worth assimilating and the book is relatively short, but still, if you’re a stickler for good writing, its style will infuriate even as its ideas captivate.