Obama Will Get No Warning When The People's Response to This Crisis Comes
On Friday, the day Congress passed the stimulus bill, more than 250 people arrived at the Holiday Inn in Somerset for a careers fair. There are scenes like this all over the country. In San Francisco last week, queues for a similar fair went out of the door and around the block. In Miami last month, a thousand people waited in line, some overnight, for just 35 firefighter jobs.
But New Jersey has not quite suffered like the rest of the country, and in Somerset the line of hopefuls is long but moves reasonably fast. For the most part, they came in sober suits dressed as though - if someone made an offer - they could start work today. Most clutched résumés and stared off into the middle distance, trying not to catch anyone's eye. And in a county broadly reflective of the nation demographically, white men over the age of 40 were considerably overrepresented.
The fact that there is a queue at all in Somerset county is significant. According to the census, Somerset has a median income that is almost twice the national average and a poverty rate below 25%. If there's a line here, then there are lines everywhere.
Larry, 48, used to organise meetings within the pharmaceutical industry but was laid off in July. When he started at the firm two years ago there were 75 employees - now there are just over 20. "We've become a bloated society and we need to readjust to a much simpler lifestyle," he says. "Because these are tough times and things will probably get worse before they get better."
Everyone waiting has their own story, but two threads keeps emerging. Almost all were laid off in the last nine months. And had you asked them a year ago, none of them would have believed they would be in the position they are today. If there is one thing more staggering than the scale of this economic crisis, it is its pace.
The vertiginous decline in house prices, portfolios, government budgets, payrolls and balance sheets has forced a reckoning with the world as we thought we knew it.
On the same day that they waited in Somerset, four banks failed. The banks were small and spanned the country from Oregon to Florida. Beyond their locales they will not be missed. And yet together their demise makes you wonder how many canaries you can fit in a mine. In 2007 there were three bank failures in the whole year. Last year there were 25. Now we are up to four in one day, making 13 already since the year started.
These were small enough to fail. According to some economists, if the larger banks were forced to struggle on alone they would have suffered a similar fate long ago. "At this moment, the liabilities they have far exceed their assets," Adam Posen, of the Peterson Institute, told the New York Times, referring to the banking sector. "They are insolvent."
In less than a year we have gone from George Bush claiming "I don't think we're headed to a recession" to a Newsweek cover declaring "We're all socialists now". Nobody knows who to believe.
As banks crash, jobs vanish and pensions disappear, the anxiety becomes endemic. In the last three months alone, the percentage of those for whom jobs are their principal worry has almost doubled. Something has to give. As the line in Somerset suggests, the crisis has now reached those least likely to take to the streets but most likely to go to the polls.
"As the financial crisis has deepened, affluent Americans, in particular, have grown increasingly sceptical that the economy will come back in the coming year," concluded a Pew research poll last week. This time last year it was mainly the low-paid and poorly educated who feared for their livelihoods. Now, graduates and the wealthy are similarly gloomy. How long they will endure such reduced circumstances, who they will blame, and what they will do about it remains to be seen.
America may have neither the class consciousness nor organisation to spark the kind of protests we have seen in France, eastern Europe and elsewhere in recent weeks. But it has the levels of class division that could produce both. Political cultures are as volatile as markets. When a popular American response emerges to this crisis, we will probably have no more warning than we did of the crisis itself. What is becoming increasingly clear is that it will not find a home in mainstream politics.
President Barack Obama is popular for now. But his programme for reinvigorating the economy is not. Indeed, it is a sign of the dislocation between politics and everyday life that while the $787bn stimulus package that Obama is expected to sign today is being hailed as a great victory, nobody truly believes it will work. The Republicans are only relevant in terms of what they can prevent happening as opposed to what they can make happen. Meanwhile, as his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, outlines his plans for saving capitalism, capital flees.
For now, people are relying on their own resourcefulness. Back in Somerset they are cutting out the fat. Susan Saez, a lively woman who used to sell high-end jewellery, jokes about how she has trimmed her budget. "I save on makeup because I don't go out," she says. "I've grown my bangs long so I don't have to have the eye surgery I was going to have done. And we gave up wine. If I wasn't, married I'd be living with my mother."
When the woman behind her says she got her hair cut for the fair, Saez nods her approval. "That's smart. You should get it cut short, that way you don't have to get it cut so often."
But it is only so long before they are down to the bone. The woman standing behind Saez, who refused to give her name, says she was laid off from a doctor's surgery, and whispers about friends who are going to the food banks. "I thought medicine was supposed to be safe," she says. "I'm not going to the food bank ... not yet, but that is not something I never thought I would see in my lifetime."
Outside, the fair's organiser, Bob Hillman, stands like a ringmaster, with a tie full of American flags, seducing the line with possibilities that might lie inside if they make an effort. "Your part is about more than just showing up today," he says. "You can't just go in and come out after five minutes. The more people you talk to the better chance there is that you'll have much better opportunities than if you don't."
He tells the story of a man in Salt Lake City who got a job and ended up back at the fair a few years later as a recruiter. And of a computer technician who had no idea that there were jobs for his sector in the sheriff's department.
Inside, most of the stalls are for people to set themselves up as independent contractors for companies like Avon or as self-managed satellite TV installers. The longest line, where I met Larry, was to get someone to critique your résumé. At the construction stand they offer free frisbees honouring military veterans.
Five minutes after she went in, Saez walks out again. "I showed my face, I shook a hand, I got a pen," she says. "I don't want to sell makeup. And besides, there's no one to sell it to."
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited 2009