Sunday, September 4, 2011

If This is a Depression Where are the Bread Lines?—A Sermon by Patrick Murfin

Times are tough.  You’ve probably noticed.  But economists, who study figures and trends and who evidently never leave the precincts of the universities, government agencies, and banks that employ them, tell us that the “sharp recession” following the gigantic train wreck of the mortgage driven collapse four years ago ended more than two years ago.  Since then we have officially been in a “weak recovery.”

Now they worry that because of the artificial “debt” crisis and the stalemate between Congress and the President which destroyed confidence in the “full faith and credit” of the Federal Government and led to a down grade of the national credit rating, that we may be in danger of a “double dip” recession.  Or maybe not.  They’re not sure.

What we do know is that the Stock Market is so jittery that those graphs in the business press of stock prices resemble the jagged pen strokes on a seismograph during an earth quake.  And, by the way, real earth quakes, hurricanes, floods, and droughts are harassing us making things even worse.

But here in Woodstock, in big cities, suburbs and countryside across the country it doesn’t feel like a recovery, even one in danger.  If our government and press were more honest they would pull out a shunned, feared word from the past that best describes what is happening to real people—Depression.  That’s what it is when official unemployment hovers around 9.1%—much higher in rust belt cities, perpetual pockets of rural poverty, and in minority communities.  That is only the people who are receiving jobless aid and are “actively looking for work.”   It does not include those who need full time employment but can only find part time work or those who are so “discouraged” that they have given up looking.

The long term unemployed have become a new kind of pariah.  When companies do hire many actually stipulate “no unemployed” in their ads and many more have it as an unstated policy.  It is assumed that they will have become lazy on “the dole,” bitter and unreliable on the job, and out of touch with changes in technology and the demands of the new “high productivity” work place where one worker is expected to do the work of two or three and be glad of it.

Those who find work typically find it at wages vastly beneath what they earned before.  Many carry crushing debt loads acquired when they were confident in those old wages and in an investment in “inevitably rising home values.”  The result is ruin and bankruptcy.  But even bankruptcy now often does not offer the relief that it once did.  On the very eve of the collapse and at the insistence of banks and credit card companies, bankruptcy laws were tightened to make it more difficult to erase “obligations.”

High schools, colleges, and technical schools disgorge new workers into market place every year.  Some will be snapped up as a cheap alternative to expensive older workers.  But there is not enough room for all.  Many simply fail to launch the careers for which they have trained for which they have often gone deeply in debt and settle into patched together jobs in low paying service and retail positions.  The basements of a stressed out parental generation are filled with their children unable to live their lives.

That’s if those parents still have basements.  After four years evictions are on the rise again as un and under employment take a toll on even those who did not take out those notorious risky mortgages.  Whole neighborhoods become virtual ghost towns.  And with a glut of boarded up houses on the market, the value of homes has plummeted wiping out the major repository of wealth for the middle class.

So if thing are so bad, some folks say, why don’t we see those bread and soup lines or the last Great Depression, old ladies in rags peddling apples on the street, armies of jobless men roving the country by rail and highway, the Hovervilles?  Two reasons:  There was a “social safety net” in place to provide some cushion—unemployment insurance, food stamps, a web of public and private charity services and assistance.  That kept people hitting bottom and hitting the streets right away.  Second, you aren’t looking.

Now that safety net is not only fraying, it is under open attack.  The long term unemployed are losing their unemployment benefits.  Each extension of emergency coverage became more and more contentious in Congress.  At least twice partisan bickering allowed the extensions to expire leaving hundreds of thousands each time suddenly without resources.  Now with the Republican majority in the house ever more assertive, there is little likelihood any more extensions will be forthcoming.  Meanwhile many states, particularly those in the hands of rabid ideological Republican governors and legislatures, are cutting back even minimum benefits.

Meanwhile in those same states, and others in dire financial distress due to collapsing tax revenues, the whole social services network is under attack.  Budgets of state and private agencies are slashed or even zeroed out.  In Illinois the state does not even bother to pay budgeted obligations.  Taking advantage of what might be their only opportunity, assistance of all sorts is slashed in the name of “shrinking government”, fiscal emergency, and improving the morals of the lazy and shiftless.  As a result there is about to is an explosion of the not just impoverished but the beggared.  And many of these will not be the poor that “ye shall always have with ye,” but be folks were hard working and solidly middle class just a blink of an eye ago.

As for those who have lost their homes.  Some found rental, but with stagnating wages, debt and continued unemployment as well as a stain on available rental units, that option is becoming tougher for many.  Children, even whole families have moved back in with parents.  Parents on hard times come to their children.  Siblings and extended families are called into play.  But nerves fray and tensions arise.  People double up two or three families in a unit.  This used to be the hallmark of emigrant families and the bugaboo of municipalities around McHenry County.  Now it includes many of the formerly middle class.  Younger folks have learned to couch surf, live rootless lives on the charity of friends, relations, and even strangers.

Still more and more are becoming actually homeless.  You may not see the Hoovervilles, but tent cities are spring-up around the nation.  In McHenry county right now there are half a dozen rag tag camp sites hidden out of the way in snatches of remnant woods.  There have always been some during the months when PADS is closed, mostly inhabited by the hard core drinkers and substance abusers.  Now there are “respectable” folks and even families.  But you have to look because just like in the old days, the cops will shag the camps out if they get complaints, sometimes confiscating tents, sleeping bags, and possessions.  In some places squatters are moving into the empty homes left rotting after foreclosure.  And look for out of the way parking spaces for the armies of folks living in their cars.

In the last Great Depression government responded in hundreds of ways to the emergency.  Some things worked, some didn’t.  But massive public works programs and employment programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration provided jobs and hope for millions. 

 Conservatives claim that these programs, along with regulation of banking and the stock market, did not end the Depression. But in fact fueled by such assistance recovery was fairly robust until 1936 when Congressional Republicans pushed for “fiscal responsibility” and got the administration to agree to slash spending.  That resulted in a second recession that didn’t end until defense spending exploded on the eve of the American entry into World War II.

This time except for one modest “stimulus package” which did boost employment on infrastructure projects, no attempt has been made by the government to get people to work.  On the contrary, government on all levels is itself contracting throwing thousands upon thousands on the unemployment rolls.  This year layoffs of state, municipal and other local government workers have outpaced job losses in every other categories.  Instead of being an “employer of last result” government is adding to the emergency.

Even those who remain employed face wage freezes and often deep slashes accompanied by givebacks on benefits like insurance.  They are told they are lucky to have a job.   The same people are working longer hours, much of it uncompensated, and are pressured to forgo vacations or sick days so they can do the work of laid off fellow workers.

The result is a rapidly declining standard of living across the board.  Even the aloof intellectuals in their ivory towers have begun to notice the “disappearance of the middle class.”  Actually this is just an acceleration of a trend that has been going on for more than 20 years.  Americans have been the proverbial frog in the pot, not noticing as the water is heated slowly to a boil.

This has led to the most massive transfer of wealth in the country’s history, mostly from the formerly middle class the very top sliver of society.  You have probably read the statistics on the growing share of the wealth by the top 10, 5, or 1% of society.  The super wealthy get away with it by boldly buying influence in both political parties and be relying on the hapless Tea Party for a patina of populist support.  The Tea Party is made up mostly of folks who think that their interests are the same as the top plutocrats, but are often the unwitting victims of their rapacious greed.

I could go on and on but you get the picture.  The big question is why, by in large, all this is happening without, until recently, much resistance.  There are a lot of theories, including the “bread and circuses” notion that we have been anesthetized by mesmerizing popular culture.  Another is that generations of growing cynicism about government has led to a sense of hopelessness.  Why bother, folks say, it’s always been this way, we can’t change it.  The result has been what was called the cocooning of America—a withdrawal to a closed home and family.  But now those homes are at risk and pressures are fraying families.

Of course there is also the ocean of money being spent by the ultra wealthy—the Kotch brothers being the current poster boys--and a powerful bought-and-paid-for media symbolized by Fox News and Rupert Murdoch to influence popular opinion, stifle opposition voices, and even to prevent the poor, minorities, and students—all suspected Democrats—from voting at all.

Whatever the cause, it has worked.  In Europe and much of the rest of the world austerity measures have been met by explosive popular protest in Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and Ireland among other places.  Even the recent riots in Britain, portrayed in the media as simple hooliganism run amok, was rooted in social alienation and a sense of hopelessness among the young even if it was less politically explicit as other protests.

Until Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stirred up the hornets’ nest by threatening to call out the National Guard to crush opposition to his draconian “emergency budget” by teachers and other public employees, a wave of assaults on working and poor people nationwide went unchallenged except for polite and toothless descent by the usual suspects.  But the popular resistance in Wisconsin, including weeks of occupation of the state capital, massive demonstrations, and the political action of a recall movement, has set an example that needs to spread

Folks, it really is time for the barricades.  I know such talk makes a lot of liberals nervous.  We are, after all “peace people” and adverse to noisy and rowdy confrontation.  We are glad to take a moment to sign an internet petition, write a letter to the editor or to a Congress person, hold a sign at a dignified vigil, and certainly to vote.  But that is not enough.  The emergency is too dire.

It’s not that I object to those tactics—I use them all.  And I don’t advocate abandoning conventional politics—which just leaves the field in the hands of the crazy and rapacious.  Nor do I believe looking for ideological purity and forming a new party, doomed to minority status and failure, is a good idea.  The Democrats might be “weak sisters” and on the take from some of the same oligarchs that fund the Tea Party and right wings Astroturf groups,  but at least they are willing to apply the brakes to the worst trepidations and give us breathing room to demand more.

But it will take a vast popular movement to stop the assault on the working and middle classes and demand a truly new deal.  I don’t mean an armed insurrection—that would be crushed more ruthlessly and effectively in this country than by any third world dictator.  Not only to the oligarchs have all the guns, they know how to command those who know how to use them.

I do mean filling the streets, not just for a one day March on Washington, but day after day on Wall Street, in Washington, in state capitals, at the very doorsteps of the rich and powerful.  We must become a force that cannot be ignored.

It does not take everyone.  Research has shown that when as many as 10% of a population becomes deeply and passionately committed to a new idea or cause, it is well on the way to becoming mainstream within a surprisingly short time.  The right wing think tanks figured that out.  The triumph of the Tea Party in elections two years ago is a prime example.  But people frustrated by the economy mostly did not know what the Tea Party—and more importantly their masters—really were up to.  Most people just voted for change, any change.  It is our moment to win them back.  But we can only do that by being visible and vocal.

I promised to say how getting mad and getting off our butts to confront our—and I unapologetically use the term—class enemies is a spiritual practice.  I refer you to that widely admired Jewish preacher of a couple of millennia ago—the guy we call Jesus.

He often spoke of the poor and of our responsibility to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner.  In fact the New Testament contains so much of this attributed to Jesus that the Religious Right, playing a supporting role to the oligarchs and Tea Party, recognizes that this undercuts their flirtation Ayn Rand every-one-for-themselves sociopathic narcissism.  One group recently announced plans to issue an edited Bible expurgating the offending passages or bowdlerizing them so that believers “won’t get the wrong idea about Christ.”

Many liberals embrace those sayings by Jesus but imagine that his admonition to “love your enemy” means not confronting them.  But there was another side to the gentle Jesus—the one who showed up at the Temple one morning:

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves…” –Mathew  21:12, King James Version.

Some folks think of this a just a religious protest against the Pharisees.  But it was more than that.  It was an attack on the power system, both Roman and Jewish, which oppressed the people.  An obscure itinerant preacher would never have roused the fear and ire of both enough to be crucified. 

Carl Sandburg said it best in his poem, To a Contemporary Bunk Shooter, a blistering attack on evangelist Bill Sunday.  The poem ends

You tell poor people they don't need any more money
     on pay day and even if it's fierce to be out of a job,
     Jesus'll fix that up all right, all right--all they gotta
     do is take Jesus the way you say.

I'm telling you Jesus wouldn't stand for the stuff you're
     handing out. Jesus played it different. The bankers
     and lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers and
     murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus
     wouldn't play their game. He didn't sit in with
     the big thieves.
I don't want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.

I won't take my religion from any man who never works
     except with his mouth and never cherishes any memory
     except the face of the woman on the American
     silver dollar.

I ask you to come through and show me where you're
     pouring out the blood of your life.

I've been to this suburb of Jerusalem they call Golgotha,
     where they nailed Him, and I know if the story is
     straight it was real blood ran from His hands and
     the nail-holes, and it was real blood spurted in red
     drops where the spear of the Roman soldier rammed
     in between the ribs of this Jesus of Nazareth.

So here is my spiritual advice for the day:  Fellow Worker Jesus, Live like him.  Let it be so.


  1. You're so right, Patrick - it really is not enough simply to tell each other what is wrong

  2. Yes there a bread lines, but if you arrest people for distributing bread they go away, and if you want them shorter, just limit a kitchen to 50 meals a day.

    And it wouldn't be fair to make a company pay unemployment after they fire you for having too high a salary, if you have to take retirement to pay your mortgage.