In Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession, journalist and playwright Barbara Garson (All the Livelong Day) explores America’s economic woes through the travails of ordinary people.
You start out by following four unemployed New Yorkers. What is their plight?
When blue-collar work was disappearing, we were told, “This is the postindustrial economy—those with skills will rise.” Well, these are very skilled people—insurance adjusters, editors—and [they are] well able to learn new skills. They formed a pink-slip club; they were in and out of each other’s homes like the kids on Seinfeld. I thought it would end quickly, because they’re hardworking, decent people. But the months passed and three years later none of them have found jobs.
Did you find that the jobs people have aren’t working well for them?
I talked to an Indiana man with 20 years as a warehouse manager for a big-box store. He’s working for the same pay he got 15 years ago, only now he’s doing 10-hour days. He has no resentment, but he can’t do what he thought middle-class people do—put his children through college.
What set the stage for our economic bind?
My book really starts 40 years ago. Productivity has almost doubled since then, while pay for workers stagnated; people just aren’t paid enough anymore to buy what they produce. As money accumulates in fewer hands, bankers have to do something with it, so loans get crazier. If we’re producing more but don’t pay people enough to buy it, then we have to start lending them the money and it becomes a Ponzi scheme that only a central banker could miss. To get the economy going, we have to redistribute wealth to American workers—to me! You!
Did you talk to Wall Streeters?
Yes, including a young man who did the math to construct mortgage-backed bonds; if you’re looking for a villain, he’s dead center. He wasn’t complaining about losing his job. He thought that was only right because he wasn’t creating value. It’s the banality of evil: he’s just some kid who’s good at arithmetic. I tried to see things systemically rather than as a morality play.
Did you feel overwhelmed by the problems you heard about?
I was overwhelmed. One woman didn’t know where she would live the next day because she was losing her house. I met her in court as she was asking the judge, “When will this happen? When will they come for me?” She thanked me for writing about her, but her situation was so hopeless that I started crying. I said, “My books never do anybody any good.” She’s a home-care nurse, and she said, “Oh, I understand what you mean; all my patients die.”