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Reasons to be Cheerful
NEW YORK - It's the end of the world as we know it and, while I can't say I exactly feel fine, it's all too easy to dwell on the downward spiral of our job prospects and 401(k)s. Even in the midst of economic collapse (possibly presaging political disintegration and ultimately social chaos), there's cause for optimism. And so, in the same spirit of contrarianism that drove me to declare the boom economy of the late 1990s a sham we'd all live to regret, here are nine good reasons not to kill yourself over the economic meltdown:
1. Bushies Will Pay. President Obama is inclined to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards" when it comes to investigating Bush and his minions for torture, war crimes and spying on Americans. Fortunately, one of Obama's first acts as president ensures the bastards will probably get what they deserve.
Obama has ordered government agencies to revitalize the Freedom of Information Act, which requires that declassified government records be released to the public. Under Bush, the flow of documents slowed to a trickle. New FOIA requests will enjoy "a clear presumption" that "in the face of doubt, openness prevails." Investigative journalists will now be able to use FOIA to uncover Bush Administration officials' nefarious deeds, forcing Obama's Justice Department to prosecute.
Should they waterboard Rumsfeld? Only if it's on pay-per-view.
2. Conservatives Are Discredited. Your fat chain-smoking doctor may give you good advice, but will you heed it? So it is with Republicans. They're right about Obama's fiscal stimulus plan: it won't do much to help the economy and will drive the deficit even higher. But no one's listening. "Most of the people who are complaining about Obama's fiscal irresponsibility today uttered not a peep of complaint about Bush," writes John Chait in The New Republic. America needs a loyal opposition.
But the Republicans aren't cut out for that role. The collapse of free-market capitalism calls for a dramatic realignment. This new political landscape should place Obama's ideas on the right, with new parties emerging to his left. The Republican Party, obsessed with gay marriage and flag burning and school prayer, was always an irrelevant distraction. Now everyone knows.
3. Heck of a Job, Barry. After three insanely wasteful false starts, Obama is finally on the right track vis-à-vis the mortgage crisis. His economic team still doesn't get that what we need is "trickle up"--bailing out homeowners means banks get paid and toxic assets get revalued--but they're getting there.
Thank God, it's finally possible for squeezed homeowners to refinance their mortgages before getting foreclosed upon or, as was required previously, messing up their credit by missing two payments. "If you can illustrate that your income is no longer enough to meet your mortgage payment--because your paycheck shrunk, your expenses rose or your mortgage is about to reset to a higher payment--you may qualify," reports The New York Times. About time.
4. Retail is dead. Long live retail. Big retail outlets like Circuit City and Virgin Megastore are going out of business, leaving tens of millions of square feet of commercial space vacant and tens of thousands of workers unemployed. Granted, the reasons for some of these closures are kind of dumb. Virgin's store in New York's Times Square, the highest-volume music outlet in the nation, earned $6 million a year in profit. But because Virgin only paid $54 a square foot at a location where the going rate was $700, they were kicked out in favor of a women's clothier, Forever 21, that analysts say probably won't last either. Stupid.
Nevertheless, this nascent Depression will no doubt repeat the historical formula that favors smaller stores over big ones. Those of us who mourned the loss of mom-and-pop hardware stores and their individualized service and community ties may live to see them again.
5. Small Big-City Newspapers. When there's talk of losing an iconic powerhouse like The San Francisco Chronicle, you know the model of the traditional big-city paper, employing hundreds of union-represented reporters working out of a big hulk smack in the middle of downtown, is in trouble. But there's still a future in print. Why? Because that's still where the money--subscribers willing to pay for news and advertisers eager to reach them--are. And because people need reliable originally-reported info (yes, I'm talking about you, bloggers).
Look for new, lean and mean dailies to spring from the ashes, mixing the stripped-down content of free commuter dailies like The Washington Examiner with the low-budget staffing of alternative weeklies. Hire 30 or 40 people (most of whom type their stories at home), buy a lot of syndicated and wire service content, rent a tiny editorial office in the slums, and voila! The rebirth of print.
6. Culture Gets Cool Again. American fiction peaked in the 1930s, rock music while riding the economic rollercoaster of the 1970s. The roaring 1990s weren't so awesome. Historians say there's an inverse relationship between the vitality of popular culture--movies, music, literature--and the economy. (So the Bush years were fiscally sound. Hm.) Rising unemployment, furloughs and decreased business activity give people more time to be creative. Where stability ossifies, uncertainty inspires. Even contemporary art, competing with the fashion industry for the title of most vacuous, could conceivably stage a comeback.
7. Tough Times Are Interesting. My mom grew up in Nazi-occupied France. As you'd expect, it sucked--a fact that she constantly reminded me of via incessant hair-raising stories over the years. Recently, however, she had an epiphany. "It was hard," she said, "but they were exciting times." If you survive the meltdown, you'll dine out on your tales of fear and deprivation for the rest of your life.
8. Rich People Still Have Money. Where would you invest your money if you were rich? Savings accounts are a joke. The stock market has lost over 50 percent of its mid-2008 value. Foreign markets are worse off than ours. Real estate? Don't even start. If you had money, there'd be only one logical place to park it: in a new business. Venture capital will plant the seeds for the next wave of employers.
9. Everything Could Go To Hell. If all else fails and numbers one through eight fail to materialize, Rush Limbaugh could get his way. Obama could fail. The United States could collapse. Our economy could evaporate. Which would be OK, too. Because if everything goes to hell, we will enjoy a rare opportunity to transform our society and economic system from one that works for a few to one that benefits everyone.