In the midst of a cross-country pilgrimage, Iraq war veteran Colby Buzzell finds himself transfixed by an “old dusty American flag” in the hallway of a shabby residential hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “As I approached, it kind of woke me up,” he writes in Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey, “reminding me again what it is like to be an American: no health care, long hours of hard work, shit pay, and nothing to show for it while you make other people in air-conditioned offices richer and richer.”
Buzzell’s voice—tough, jaded, sardonic—surfaced in the soldier’s blog that became his first book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005). Now, as he drifts east from California, he speaks for a generation unmoored by economic stagnation and diminishing opportunity. Buzzell, who chose war over college, has his own issues: grieving the mother he lost to cancer, he has temporarily abandoned his (second) wife and infant son to make this road trip. He travels in a wreck of a car and lives near the derelict edge in cities such as Cheyenne, Des Moines, and Detroit. When he isn’t working low-paid jobs or taking photographs of urban decay, he haunts dive bars and drinks himself into a stupor.
Yet he remains better off than most of the marginally employed workers he encounters; his book project and advance set him apart, rendering his journey at least intermittently purposeful. Still, it is not a huge stretch to imagine Buzzell as a character in Don Peck’s Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, a rather more sober (in all senses) examination of the contemporary economic landscape. Buzzell fits well into two of Peck’s categories of economic losers: he’s part of both “Generation R,” whose early adulthood has been stunted by recession, and of the non-degreed, nonprofessional middle class, in danger of slipping into the even-more-hopeless urban underclass.
In official terms, the great recession began before most of us noticed it, in December 2007, and ended even more inauspiciously in June 2009. This ivory-tower accounting, based on the economy’s overall growth, has its obvious limits: for the jobless and the underemployed, mortgage-strapped homeowners, and indeed much of America, the recession has persisted well into 2011 with no end in sight. From the once-booming Sun Belt to the inner cities, long-term unemployment, housing foreclosures, and other financial woes have undermined families and communities.
Meanwhile, the political system has turned away from the neediest. Instead of more stimulus programs, the debate in Washington this summer focused on deficit reduction and cuts to entitlement programs. Never has John Edwards’s evocation of “two Americas,” one rich and one poor, seemed more apt.
Peck appropriates this paradigm in Pinched, an expansion of his attention-getting March 2010 cover story in The Atlantic, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” Peck calls the United States “a two-speed society, with opportunities for some,” and says that the recession has hastened “the ever-more-distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing of the middle class.”
Publishers have taken note. Pinched and Lost in America are among a series of books that trace the impact of the recession, securing its place in cultural memory. We already have memoirs of complaint, such as Caitlin Kelly’s Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail and Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, and anecdotal histories such as Dale Maharidge and Michael S. Williamson’s Someplace Like America: Tales From the New Great Depression (see page 34).
In Pinched, written in a matter of months, Peck presents neither a sustained work of narrative journalism nor significant original research. Instead, the book is an audacious attempt to synthesize fragmentary existing data and anecdotal reportage into a systematic overview of the social, economic, and cultural fallout of the recession—as well as to prescribe potential remedies.
Like previous recessions, Peck writes, this one has mostly accelerated changes already under way:
Declining industries and companies fail, spurring workers and capital toward rising sectors; declining cities and regions shrink faster, leaving blight; workers whose roles have been partly usurped by technology are pushed out en masse and never asked to return.