The national cold spell goes beyond the weather report.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
It’s been one of those rare cultural and political moments when seemingly unrelated events come together to capture a cultural mood.
The release of the movie Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as a corporate consultant who flies around the country blithely firing people for a living, seems to epitomize the era of downsizing we’ve been experiencing for the past few years.
The most recent news – that 85,000 people lost their jobs in December, raising the unemployment rate to 10 percent, not counting an additional 17 percent who have given up looking or are settling for part-time jobs – only underscores the dire economic predicament in the country, and in Monterey County. The news over the holidays that the so-called “Christmas Day bomber’’ (something of a misnomer since the bomb never went off) had easily booked passage from Amsterdam to Detroit was a frightening throwback to the post-9/11 days, as well as to unwelcome fearmongering from Dick Cheney and the Fox News crowd.
The series of airport delays, caused by everything from bone-chilling weather to renewed homeland security precautions, did nothing to calm matters, either for passengers hoping to enjoy the holidays or for airlines hoping to stay in business.
President Obama’s halting series of responses didn’t help matters much, although when he did re-emerge, his remarks demonstrated his customary intelligence and sense of proportion, asserting both a resolve to prevent such future incidents and a refusal to let our country dissolve into the state of ongoing panic that marked the Bush administration.
The federal health care reform proposal remains in play, as the competing House and Senate versions play out, but there’s no question it represents political tough love. Democrats, who have been put in the position of being its sole proponents, must weigh the relative benefits of insuring an additional 30 million people against potential tax hikes to health plans opposed by organized labor. (The administration argues fixing health care will ultimately result in higher wages.)
GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER’S BUDGET PROPOSAL WAS, AS EXPECTED, AN EXERCISE IN POLITICAL THEATER.
Here in California, Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal was, as expected, an exercise in political theater, from the well-meaning – cutting money for prisons, not higher education – to the Dickensian – a huge reduction in services to the poorest Californians, unless a giant federal bailout miraculously materializes.
So, where does that leave you, me and the people on the street in Seaside and Salinas as we head further into the New Year?
One of the most celebrated, but least true-to-life, segments of Up in the Air was a semi-documentary section showing real people who’d been laid off telling their bosses off when they get the news. The reality, as anyone who’s been through these corporate adventures knows, is that most employees in this position are too shell-shocked to respond, even if they’d been warned it might be coming.
The onlyboon the economic downturn has produced is for consultants like Clooney’s character and his young, even more ruthless counterpart, played by Twilight’s Anna Kendrick, who engage in psycho-babble about the benefits of “turning the page’’ – along with busy work for Orwellian-named Human Resources departments and attorneys raking in hourly fees to diminish the risks of employment litigation.
There seems to be no end in sight, unfortunately.
Obama’s job stimulus package includes incentives for 17,000 new “green jobs,’’ along with other sweeteners, but it will take a lot more to get us out of this mess. He has to decide whether to take the political heat of backing an even more expensive stimulus package, deepening the debt and emboldening his far-right opponents, or bet on a recovery that thus far seems to exist chiefly in the minds of his economic team.
Amid the justifiable outcry about the new wave of executive bonuses on Wall Street, it would be nice to see additional calls for taxes on Internet entrepreneurs, who have thus far gotten a free ride on their sales while proclaiming the virtues of the free market. They may be hip capitalists, but they need to join the social contract as well, helping to pay the bills for a caring society.
Despite the absurdity of how he made his case, Schwarzenegger has a point: The states, particularly California, need help. If the downward spiral continues, cities across the county that have already imposed Christmas furloughs will likely be looking at even more painful budget cuts. We await answers, from Sacramento to Washington. And from ourselves. For now, we remain up in the air.