If you're like me, you've spent the last six months generally trying not to panic as we ride out our sputtering economy as Amelia Earhart surely rode out her Lockheed Electra. The national unemployment rate hit 6.5 percent in October, while retail sales fell 2.8 percent. Let's face it: Worrying is not going to fix this economic mess. Truth is, nobody knows how to fix it. This thing may not be fixable.
The financial geniuses who broke our economy don't even know exactly how they did it. The details of this crash seem almost magical, even to the detail people. It's a little like letting a Wall Street guy borrow your car, and he comes back not only without your car but also without a firm grasp of what a car is.
In short: We're screwed.
Slumps beget downturns which beget recessions, on and on, until we find ourselves much like our grandparents, waking up to a daggone Great Depression. But this won't be that '30s-style, fedora-wearing Depression we've seen in WPA photographs. Oh no. This will be a new Great Depression.
But I believe that, like our grandparents, who scraped through their depression with enough steely-eyed determination to fill the burlap sack that they unfortunately ended up wearing a week later, we will overcome. In fact, the coming Great Depression has the potential to be the Greatest Depression Ever.
If there's one thing this country has left, it's optimism, because ... really, with no auto or steel industries left, optimism's the one thing we got going for us. It's this optimism that allows us to see the upside of the economic downturn. And not just the obvious ones. Sure, the price of oil is dropping, allowing us to drive a block to buy a bottle of water again. And house prices are now affordable — sort of. And yes, soon we may see another government stimulus check — which will go straight to Visa.
But there is a positive underbelly to this slug of an economy. I'm talking far-reaching, life-changing upsides.
Maybe, just maybe, the Greatest Depression Ever will see us grow healthier, better educated, working more fulfilling jobs, and listening to better music. Maybe this downturn is just the thing we need to move forward as a nation, to show some grit and backbone. We might even emerge from this as a stronger, wiser people. There is a chance that this is our crucible, our defining moment.
Optimism! Yes! Let's look at the bright side. Here are 13 upsides to the downturn.
1) No more credit card debt
Remember the movie Fight Club, where Brad Pitt and his co-stars — Brad Pitt's Gleaming Eyes and Brad Pitt's Rippling Abdominals — try to blow up the headquarters of every credit card company and free consumers around the world from a lifetime of $2.14 coffee purchases that carry 27 percent interest?
No? Well, it's the movie in which he bleeds a lot. Something similar might be brewing, albeit without vintage shirts and nitroglycerin. Credit card companies have been quietly packaging their debt into securities, then selling those securities to investors.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It's called securitization, the practice that got the mortgage industry into so much trouble. Everything was (supposedly) fine in Mortgage Land until housing prices finally dropped and people started defaulting on their loans, which caused a wave of foreclosures that — not to put too fine a point on it — put the mortgage industry in the crapper.
According to USA Today, credit card delinquencies are at their highest point in six years, with default rates rising rapidly. Enough defaults, and suddenly you've got a lot more toxic securities floating around, wreaking havoc and potentially doing what even Brad Pitt himself couldn't: bringing down credit card companies.
Think about it: If credit card companies collapsed, we'd be left with no more debt — and several handy windshield scrapers. Most likely, though, we'll have to settle for the schadenfreude that comes from watching the Feds lend money to Visa, so they can jack up interest rates and continue to provide shitty customer service over the phone from India.
2) Better public health
Ever see those photographs from the original Great Depression? People looked good, huh? Standing in long lines, resting on porches after 18-hour days of sharecropping, they were slim, trim, looking like they had discovered the secret to the perfect body. And they had: poverty!
Researchers have found that as the economy tanks, our collective health improves. Why? Well, we could throw a lot of fancy numbers at you, with variables and control groups, but let's put it simply: When we don't have any money, we can no longer afford to buy the everyday crap that is slowly killing us.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Christopher J. Ruhm, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, found that deaths decrease as unemployment goes up. Most people drink less, smoke less, and cut down on eating out. They also drive less, which translates to fewer traffic-related deaths. And people get more exercise — no more sitting at a desk for nine or 10 hours, surrounded by packaged balls of polysyllabic chemicals that pass for food. No, sir. The unemployed get some goddamn exercise, what with the pounding the pavement, the frantic searching for a job beneath your dignity, and the constant worrying.
An hour of worrying burns 278 calories!
And don't forget the fresh air. When our whole stupid economy sounds its death rattle and collapses into a Milton Friedman-induced black economic hole, there'll be no jobs, which means no gym memberships. The treadmills, rowing machines, and Stairmasters will now be clear of hoi polloi who have lost their "jobs" that allowed them to pay for membership, leaving a select few to pursue their gerbil-like exercises without waiting for a machine.
3) Easier coffee orders
With disposable income, much like health insurance, rapidly becoming a thing of our prosperous past, no longer will we have to stand in line at Starbucks behind business-suited nitwits and professional mothers, their charges in SUV strollers, while they string together 18-word combo concoctions for a minute and a half while we, the hard-working people — the backbone of the economy, dammit! — stand behind them, waiting to order a simple cup of coffee, black, if you please.
We don't want to overstate the importance of this, but this may be the single greatest benefit of our economic downturn: the elimination of the $4, iced mocha-half-caff-skinny-soy-doubleshot-lightwhip-latte from coffee lines around town — nay, around the world!
4) More Horatio Alger stories
You can't go from rags to riches if you don't have some rags. And a 6.5 percent unemployment rate will get you some rags.
5) Banks pay you more
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that banks large and small are trying to lure more customers with increased interest rates on deposits. Of course, deposits require money, which none of us will have, but we can take solace in knowing that if we had some cash, we'd be getting paid handsomely for saving it in a bank, right?
6) A better-educated workforce
It's a dynamic that is as sure as tomorrow's slumping market numbers: When the economy tanks, enrollment at community colleges increases. The job market gets leaner, wages stagnate, and people take an opportunity to pump up their resumes and make themselves more marketable. If it takes a total collapse of the economy to get a better-educated workforce, so be it.
Of course, this is presuming that there will be jobs for all of us soon-to-be well-skilled, whip-smart workers. It also assumes we don't all turn into English majors. But don't worry about job creation, because ...
7) Our new Corporate Masters will emerge
What do Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and HP have in common? Other than managing to skillfully burn their advertising campaigns into our collective hypothalami, each was founded during the beary-ist of bear markets.
So which new corporate giants will emerge from these hard times? Is there a new FedEx in Memphis' future?
8) The new WPA
When the original Great Depression hit, New Deal economists seized on the loony idea of putting unemployed people to work on the Fed's dime by having them do jobs essential to the nation's well-being. (Instead of, you know, pumping billions and billions of tax-payer bailout bucks directly into the industries that precipitated the crisis in the first place.)
The creation of the Works Progress Administration turned us all into socialists, of course. But nobody seemed to care, because redistribution of wealth isn't that big a deal when there are no more bankers. (According to most reliable historic cartoons, they all jumped from window ledges.) So the new socialists fixed bridges and built roads and photographed and documented our society, a society that was quickly, it must have seemed, going none-too-gently into that good night.
As the Greatest Depression Ever begins to take hold, socialism will inevitably make a comeback due to the fact that we recently elected one of those socialist guys. And this could mean big things for not only the nation but for Memphis as well.
We may finally be able to fix all those crumbling streets and sewer mainlines and rusty overpasses — things that are too boring to pay attention to when we're all rich and throwing around credit cards at fancy bars and sweating out day-old whiskey stink on gold-plated treadmills.
9) Now we will really know what work is
We can all, in one great patriotic push, ruthlessly scour Craigslist for a job. Hit the streets. Scour Monster.com. E-mail resume after resume. And then, decades from now, we will proudly explain to our clueless young children, with up-by-the-bootstraps pride, how we used to have to schlep crude "laptops" to "coffee shops" for the Internet because we couldn't afford broadband at home.
Perhaps we'll even reminisce about President Obama's Brand-New Deal, where buskers, graffiti artists, electronic musicians, and others whose art held the promise of obscure poverty were paid by the WPA.
10) We'll get new music
We're down with neo-country and two-chord post-punk and all those other Memphis music scene staples, but as the markets crash and breadlines form, the New Greatest Depression will hopefully usher in New Greatest Depression-era music to tell our stories, sung by new great musicians — not downloaded "Tom Joad" lyrics to an iPhone.
The original Great Depression gave us the Carter Family, which gave us No Depression, which gave us Uncle Tupelo, which gave us Jeff Tweedy, who gives my girlfriend the hots, from which I reap benefits. But now it's our time to birth a new kind of blues and quit riding coattails, albeit heavily patched and dirty ones.
It is a sad fact that the best music comes from the worst times. The Great Depression gave us Woody Guthrie. Reaganomics gave us Public Enemy. The Cold War gave us Metallica. And who came out of those heady, Internet Boom days? The biting genius of the Backstreet Boys, LeAnn Rimes, and post-Biggie Puff Daddy.
These new days will belong to innovators and poets.
11) The demise of Linens 'n Things
Enough said on this, really. Now that this depot of uselessness has filed for bankruptcy, there will be far fewer grown men having temper tantrums in the strip malls of our nation. A quiet national dignity will assuredly return.
12) No more flip-flops
As jobs become fewer and ever more precious, sartorial considerations will become increasingly important. No more rolling into the office — assuming you still have an office — looking like the poster boy for Gamma Delta Papasmoney. No more grown men wearing flip-flops. Take a look again at those photos from the original Great Depression. Even the unemployed had style — and hats. And not a single flip-flop among them.
After the 10- and 12-hour workdays brought on by a booming economy, who doesn't need a break? Well, employees at large companies like HP are about to get one — without pay, of course. As businesses grow more desperate in their fight against the tide of red ink, they will increasingly turn to a time-honored tactic for saving money: not giving their employees any. HP and Micro, two tech heavy-hitters, recently announced holiday furloughs. Other companies around the country are experimenting with four-day workweeks. Which leaves workers plenty of time to relax, watch what little savings they have dwindle, and generally enjoy life, as it ever so gently flutters to a collapse around them.
Scott Weaver writes and teaches in