A Steady Diet of Nothing

MMM HMMNow that American finance capital has laid waste to much of the productive economy, Newsweek weighs in with the question that eventually occurs to all fretful magazine editors in the face of a crisis: What about the children? Or more precisely, what about the generation of striving Americans coming of an age when the lords of finance live in a state of plush federal retainership-and old-economy perks such as pensions, benefits and job security now seem like a sick joke?

For young people launching their tours in the workforce, explains Newsweek reporter Rana Foroohar, it’s hard to summon much in the way of free-spending pluck.

While there’s little data this early in our present calamity to track the formation of durable attitudes toward saving, spending and government intervention in the economy, the general rule of thumb is that “even one really tough year experienced in early adulthood is enough to fundamentally change people’s core values and behaviors,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. And as Foroohar goes on to explain, “there’s an entire body of research to show that recession babies not only invest more conservatively, they tend to make less money, choose safer jobs, and believe in wealth redistribution and more government intervention.”

Right-frugal brainwashed Obamabots, then? Not so, fast, our reporter cautions: “Paradoxically, they are also more cynical about public institutions and, arguably, about life, embracing the European notion that success is more about luck than effort.” Good Lord-it’s worse than we feared; the recession’s bred a generation of Europeans on our own shores! If nothing else, that explains the disturbing weakness among today’s youth for crappy club music.

But as you read on in Foroohar’s dispatch, it soon becomes plain that such dangerously alien-sounding convictions about the randomness of life outcomes in our mode of capitalist enterprise aren’t exactly an irrational continental superstition on the order of fauvism or the sublime auteurship of Jerry Lewis. The accumulation of wealth in America has long been decoupled from our stubborn social dogmas about individual merit and market reward.

Indeed, as Columbia economics Nobelist Edward Phelps tells Foroohar, we’re now making money on a business model that’s several arms’ lengths removed from productive activity all together. “We are in a very unique period, in which we’re seeing the biggest disconnection between financial capitalism and the real economy since modern economies began in the 19th century. That’s not to say that banks don’t fund some useful projects like wind farms or whatever, but increasingly they’re existing in a virtual sphere in which they are more interested in funding each other, and developing complex securities, than in funding real businesses.”

Meanwhile, intergenerational social mobility has been declining in the United States since the 1970s, Farhoohar notes, and is now lagging behind the upward churn you find in such alleged bastions of welfare-state lassitude as Britain, Denmark and Sweden.

You can certainly see how, in such conditions, young earners might not automatically bolt out of bed exclaiming, “It’s morning in America!” But a lapse in can-do attitude can create its own baleful economic side effects, Newsweek worries; a luck-based vision of success breeds rampant slackerdom, it seems.

Farhoohar theorizes that the continental-Yank divide on the luck question “may go some way toward explaining the often mysterious growth edge that ‘can-do’ Americans have long enjoyed over ‘yes, but’ Europeans, who tend to mock such Type A behavior.” It’s far from clear, though, why young U.S. workers should cling to the faith of implacable upward mobility, when so much evidence now weighs in the balance against it-and indeed, when those initiative-mocking Euro layabouts are going further, comparatively speaking, up their career ladders than their can-do counterparts in the New World. Raising a generation of blindingly productive morons would pretty much be the textbook definition of a self-defeating initiative.

In terms of the actual state of our political economy, Farhoohar’s analysis, which features plenty of suggestive reporting, nonetheless has things precisely backwards. What’s hampering the kids today isn’t an excess of cynicism-can there ever really be such a surfeit?-so much as a profound deficit of solidarity. Today’s youth, after all, came of political age in a Reaganite political consensus, which has dogmatically insisted that no good can ever come of a greater role for government, anywhere-and that tax cuts and deregulation are readymade panaceas for every imaginable social ill. Likewise, younger workers toil in workplaces where union representation and collective bargaining are all but dead letters, so it’s hardly a surprise, as Farhoohar announces, that research indicates that American job satisfaction is at a 20-year low.

Throughout Newsweek‘s breakdown of the Recessive Generation, the rhetorical foil is the archetypal, spooked survivor of the Great Depression-the cheapskate saver, who withholds his or her surplus labor value from the productive economy and gripes about the heedless, instant-gratification ethos of the younger set.

But that caricature leaves out the entire social background that forged the Depression generation’s political maturity-ie, the New Deal social contract, which roughed out the shared interests and just claims of the private sector, the government and the laboring masses. The trouble with the Depression, after all, wasn’t the flinty outlook of the average worker-a good quarter of whom could rely on unions to negotiate living wages even in hard times-so much as that of liquidationist public officials like Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and unscrupulous titans of commerce such as utilities robber baron Samuel Insull.

Today’s young workers, having never seen government act seriously in their interests, have had every reason to regard it with suspicion, even when it must serve as the only available countervailing institution to stave off a total economic meltdown. Certainly the US Senate’s dismal handling of something as basic as universal health care-another elementary social protection that those allegedly shiftless Europeans worked out, oh, four generations ago-doesn’t exactly set young civic hearts aflutter.

In other words, in order to realize significant economic gains, on an institutional scale, kids today need to combat an antigovernment ideology far more toxic than the cult of Hardingesque “normalcy” that pitched the 1920s GOP consensus into the dustbin of history it so richly deserved. But today’s anodyne newsweeklies, of course, can never register such a glaringly obvious historical point.

Instead, Farhoohar alights on a singularly feeble supposition: Perhaps, she writes, “hard times might make us nicer to each other,” since “we’ll be more wary of falling down the ladder of life, and thus more empathetic, than our predecessors were.”

Of course, one quite plain lesson of the present disaster is that the market will never give a shit about how individually “nicer to each other” its supplicants vow to be. Empathy’s a poor substitute for solidarity-just as Newsweek‘s cautious pirouetting around the psyche of young American workers is a poor substitute for understanding why they might be justified in thinking their futures have already been cashed out in the derivatives market.

Chris Lehmann is the president and CEO of his very own union.