What a Country

Two new efforts to make sense of America’s struggles

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.

The waning of American manufacturing, the loss of well-paid union jobs, and the advance of information technology requiring new skills are all old news. But Peck goes further, arguing that the recession’s tangible aftershocks will affect everything from marriage rates and gender roles to lifetime earnings:

Nearly four years after it began, the Great Recession is still reshaping the character and future prospects of a generation of young adults—and those of the children behind them as well. It is leaving an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men—and on blue-collar culture. It is changing the nature of modern marriage, and, in some communities, crippling marriage as an institution. It is plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades.

These are far-reaching claims, and the most interesting, about the “crippling” of marriage as an institution, seems a tad overwrought. From a feminist perspective, a realignment of marriage, based on a redefinition of traditional roles, might not be entirely a bad thing. Why not let the men stay home and care for their children, while their presumably more employable wives become the primary providers?

Admittedly, there are a few problems with this scenario. Women, as Peck notes, still earn less money than men “partly because of lingering discrimination.” (They also tend to flock to jobs that men have abandoned; the rising number of women in journalism schools is as sure a sign as any of the profession’s declining status and pay.) Second, many families need two incomes to survive, or at least to prosper. And, finally, depressed, unemployed men—in addition to being more prone to domestic violence, as Peck points out—aren’t likely to make stellar partners or child-care providers. When it comes right down to it, most women prefer a man with a job.

Peck seems on target when he writes about the chronically underemployed, job-switching members of “Generation R,” a term he attributes to New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse. Many in their twenties still live with their parents, or rely on them for financial help. Peck describes their plight this way: “With each passing year of economic weakness, more and more of them find themselves swimming in a seemingly endless adolescence, whose taste has long since grown brackish, and from they cannot fully emerge.”

Peck also discusses the “housebound,” unable to sell their homes in declining neighborhoods; the stressed urban underclass; and the dimming prospects of the “nonprofessional middle class.” He points to the geographic cleaving of American society, with wealth and education increasingly concentrated on the coasts and in a few major cities.

There are some omissions. He doesn’t treat in any detail the sometimes-heartbreaking plight of older workers, whose periods of unemployment tend to last longer than the average. Nor does he delve into structural changes in work itself, as increasing numbers of professionals are obliged to accept freelance, consulting, or part-time positions without job security, health insurance, or other benefits. This has long been the trend in academia; over the last decade, a parallel development has transformed the journalism job market, as media companies cut costs, full-time positions become casual or part-time, and displaced staffers struggle to survive.

Peck’s solutions comprise a political smorgasbord, apt to anger both liberals and conservatives. “In the short run,” he writes, “austerity, not deficit spending, would be irresponsible.” So he supports targeted spending on infrastructure. He also favors tax reform, including increasing marginal rates.

Once the economy improves, though, Peck wants “binding measures that will close the budget gap and stabilize the national debt in the near future.” More troubling, he endorses a version of Congressman Paul Ryan’s controversial plan to privatize Medicare. “We should … consider converting Medicare into a system of vouchers with which seniors can buy health insurance,” Peck writes, “with the growth in annual voucher payments strictly limited to a rate below that at which medical costs have historically grown.” In other words, he wants to throw seniors on the tender mercies of insurance companies. How he expects the non-wealthy and the ailing to fare in the individual insurance market, he doesn’t say.

And there is more, much of it ripped from the old neoliberal playbook: support for career academies, wage insurance, investment in research and innovation, the loosening of city zoning requirements, campaign finance reform. Even foreclosures could turn out to be a boon, Peck suggests, if they encourage suddenly homeless job seekers to relocate to more prosperous areas. “Reviving that nomadic spirit,” he writes, “is essential to restoring economic health today.”

Colby buzzell possesses that nomadic spirit, all right, and Lost in America is his tribute to Jack Kerouac’s 1957 autobiographical novel, On the Road. Buzzell’s trip is punctuated by the death of his Korean-born mother and informed by the postwar blues. “The last time my life made any sense at all was when I was in the military,” he writes.

Now in his thirties, Buzzell meanders across the country, looking for work (and occasionally finding it), while trying to keep his beloved 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente from expiring. But Buzzell and his memoir don’t really hit their stride until he reaches the Motor City.

In Detroit, Buzzell stumbles on an almost surrealistic vision of blight and decay. But an odd thing happens: he falls in love—with the battered landscape, the warmly run residential hotel he has made his home, and the surprisingly friendly people he meets foraging the wrecked city. Here he describes his visit to the deserted Packard auto plant:

At one time, we actually made things within these walls; people made a good living and worked in teams and shipped items off our assembly lines. Now the Packard plant and the ruins of Detroit are large open coffins where artists and vagrants pay their respects, or gravediggers come in to pick a corpse of its copper bones. . . .

Peck gives us a sociological sketch of the recession. Buzzell, at his most eloquent, supplies the poetry.

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Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.