The Campaign Spot

Want to See the Faces Behind the Bad Economic Numbers?

Today’s Morning Jolt looks at a New Hampshire primary and a late addition to the list of little-known Rick Perry Facts, but focuses mostly on what’s driving the “We Are the 99 Percent” folks — who may not completely overlap with the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

So I went through the photos of the “We Are the 99 Percent” crowd, in which they take pictures of themselves looking forlorn and hold up notebooks describing the life circumstances that make them so angry. Sometimes you get some laughable cases, like the guy who wants a bailout for his art school student loans. But as you go through them, there are some genuinely heartbreaking tales of woe. A point that hasn’t come through in much of the protests in the park in New York City is how often people say, “I consider myself lucky, I still have a place to live and my loved ones” or some other expression of gratitude.

In a lot of cases, they describe working part time, often more than one part time job, and struggling to get by. These are actually the faces to the monthly figure we get from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, BLS calculated that 9.3 million Americans were working part time because they couldn’t find the full-time work they desired; in September, an additional 444,000 Americans entered this category. Part-time work is better than no work, but it often doesn’t include benefits and one inevitably gets the stress and challenge of two separate work schedules, added with whatever other responsibilities one has (family, etc.).

The world has always had young people who majored in studies that don’t easily lend themselves to entry-level jobs. What it also often had was enough entry-level jobs for them to make a living doing something else that pays the bills while they figure out how to turn that sociology or classical studies or drama or whatever degree into an actual career. Since 2008, the American economy has had fewer and fewer options, and more and more folks looking for those jobs. And while we’ve certainly had recessions before, we haven’t had multiple years of unemployment at 9 percent or so, at least not since the Great Depression.

I think two big factors are driving this — the first is the realization that electing Obama, the Munificent Sun-God, didn’t actually do much to fix many of the problems young people were upset about in 2008. The job market still stinks, wage growth is a distant memory, the drop in housing prices hurts current homeowners and not enough young earners have the resources to take advantage of lower home prices and oh, by the way, gas is $4 per gallon instead of $3 per gallon.

The second big factor is TARP; the common cry from a lot of these folks is a whiny, “where’s my bailout?” The other night, HBO replayed Too Big to Fail, their star-studded depiction of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s actions during the 2008 financial meltdown. It was good for what it was, watching Hollywood stars reenact semi-public figures in annotated versions of their meetings during events of not too long ago. (Paul Giamatti made a strangely plausible Ben Bernanke; Billy Crudup plays as a suspiciously noble and well-reasoning, if fidgety, Tim Geithner. I kept yelling, “He’s the mole! He’s the mole! Somebody stop him!” but then I remembered I was thinking of Mission Impossible 3. Or was I?) Whether you think TARP was necessary or not — the movie clearly makes TARP opponents in the House GOP out to be reckless villains, but the closing text portrays the program as failing most of its fundamental goals — I think TARP and the Three Four Years’ Recession have taken a one-two punch to the average Americans’ sense of how the world works. To see the Feds giving hundreds of billions of dollars to immensely powerful banks with few strings attached is baffling and incongruous; to see such a fortune spent to save banks from the consequences of their bad decisions, while so many ordinary Americans suffer worse — i.e., mass layoffs that have little to do with the work quality of those laid off — persuades a lot of folks that the whole system is rigged and that the American Dream is a con. I don’t think that’s true, but as we inch into our fourth year of hard times, I can’t begrudge someone who’s burned through their savings from feeling that hard work and making the right decisions doesn’t really pay off in modern America anymore. Few economists expect much of an improvement in the year to come; I wonder how many Americans will feel even angrier, and even more eager to lash out at a scapegoat, a year from now.