So much information about the economy spins, circulates, swirls, and alarms. In today's NYTimes, news of Exxon's record-high 2008 profits of over $45 billion. Reports, too, of banking industry bigwigs who gave themselves $20 billion in bonuses as Congress authorized the infamous $700 billion bailout. President Obama, to his credit, called those bonuses "shameful." On the national level, a budget deficit. A crisis.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Mayor Cockrel (a fan of Gang of Four and Joy Division) proposes city employees take ten-percent salary cuts so Detroit can avoid laying off 1,000 workers. City workers ask, what will we do? Others--callers to our local NPR station this a.m.--ask, what would you do? If you had the power to make the call, would you take the cut or impose the layoffs on others? The mood in the city and the region rivals the most dystopic, instrumental moments from Joy Division's catalogue and the most radical lyrical moments from Gang of Four's catalogue ("to hell with poverty/we'll get drunk on cheap wine").
And what of Arizona State University and its mandatory unpaid furloughs for virtually all employees? Take off a week or two and deal with the lost wages. Better than layoffs? Better than paycuts? Better than even larger tuition increases? Better for whom? Again, if you had the power to make that call, what would you do?
Such questions (one-hundred salary cuts or one-thousand layoffs?) reduce complex issues to a zero-sum game. Still, we are in crisis mode. What to do. President Obama uses the rhetoric of sacrifice very effectively. His calls for individual sacrifice (skip Starbucks, skip that vacation, accept that unpaid furlough, take that paycut) provide counterpoints to "buy more stuff," Bush's post-9/11 mantra. At what point does personal sacrifice begin to obscure systemic problems? Like, say, those shameful bonuses?
I love the idea of shared problem-solving. Not just the WWII nostalgia (remember when everybody grew victory gardens and only bought butter once a month?), but the genuine, in the moment, potential for collective civic action. Easy for me to say...I don't have kids and work in a sector that's less affected by market down-turns. I want to advocate for that kind of civic action on the part of everybody in a way that doesn't place the burden on the working- and middle-classes and off of the elite. I think President Obama does too. I hope so.