April 26, 2013

Barbara Garson started her latest project with a good idea: Go beyond the big-picture hand-wringing and explore the impact that the Great Recession has had on middle-class Americans.

Probably best known as the author of the 1967 satirical play“MacBird!,” a takedown of Lyndon B. Johnson in Shakespearean verse, she has focused more recently on economics. Her books include “All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work” (1975), “The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factory of the Past” (1988) and “Money Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy” (2001).

For that last volume, Garson deposited her book advance in a bank and followed its path around the world. There is, at times, a similarly winning quirkiness to her current enterprise. The jobless Wiccans, superannuated blue-collar workers, unrepentant bankers and poor little rich women she interviews do linger, at least briefly, in the imagination. And her idiosyncratic narration — personally revealing, sympathetic and unashamedly liberal — has its charms, as well as its irritations.

Unfortunately, “Down the Up Escalator” appears too late to bring us news and too early to say anything definitive about the recession’s longer-term effects. The problem is not just that the recession officially ended more than three years ago, in 2009. Certainly its economic fallout, including high unemployment and underemployment and millions of underwater mortgages, persists. But housing prices are rising again, and the stock market has reached record peaks. Garson’s title, catchy though it is, should have been tweaked to signal the passage of time. The escalator has stalled; we’re stuck in the jobless recovery now.

A bigger problem is the familiarity of the stories she tells. For years now, Americans bewailing lost jobs, foreclosed homes and sinking investments have been staples of television news. The plight of the embattled middle class was the dominant rhetorical trope of the 2012 presidential campaign. And it has been grist for other, better books, including Don Peck’s “Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It” (2011) and Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s “The Betrayal of the American Dream” (2012).


’Down The Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession’ by Barbara Garson (Random House)

Garson begins with the tale of Duane, a Vietnam veteran whom she knew over the years. In the 1970s, he was working at an auto assembly plant, well-paid but monotonous work. By the 1980s, he’d become a higher-skilled machinist. In 2008, Garson learned that he had died — and his only legacy, a house in Arizona, had crashed in value, leaving his family owing the bank $200,000 more than its likely sale price.

Duane’s life story effectively “predicted the Great Recession,” Garson claims. If a smart, skilled worker could not gain economic ground over a lifetime, what hope was there for the rest of us? Productivity, she notes, rose 25 times more than wages between 1971 and 2007, a crushing blow to a consumer economy. “If the majority of Americans was earning less and producing more, who was going to buy all the stuff?” she writes.

At the same time, she finds her economic victims largely cushioned from true poverty. Thanks to unemployment insurance and the two-income household, “ ‘poor’ Americans,” she asserts, “are surprisingly rich.” Since she concentrated her reporting on those who were middle-class to begin with, she discovered that “most people who are out of work not only eat, they stop for take-out coffee.”

Garson’s narrative technique is to meander through verbatim conversations with her subjects and from one interviewee to the next, following a winding trail that leads her finally to various economic pronouncements. She spends considerable time, for example, with members of “The Pink Slip Club,” four unemployed, formerly middle-income New Yorkers whom she compares to “Seinfeld” characters. (She shields her subjects’ identities.) These laid-off white-collar workers have some savings and family support, so their situation isn’t desperate. All four happen to be Wiccans, members of a coven, and they invite Garson to dance around a maypole with them, a joyous event. But as the months wear on, none of them finds a full-time job.

We also hear from a dreadlocked Deadhead who works in a call center, a commissioned saleswoman whose job is being phased out, an unemployed loan officer and an MBA who helped create mortgage-backed securities. “There was no sense asking him about social value,” Garson writes sternly. “You can’t undo a masters in business administration in one afternoon.”

In a section on home insecurity, Garson introduces us to a sympathetic judge; homeowners strategizing about loan modifications, forbearances, short sales and other survival strategies; and a former loan officer who once peddled sub-prime mortgages in California and now lives in a Las Vegas trailer park. Finally, Garson talks to Richard Bey, a radio and television talk show host who sunk all his money into a fund that froze its investors’ assets. To survive, he has had to sell his comic books, run up credit card debt and prevail on the generosity of friends.

“I believe that hard work, dedication, talent, perseverance, all of those things should be rewarded,” a frustrated Bey tells Garson. “But what we have now is the law of the jungle. The lion eats everyone because he can.” His remarks serve as a pithy underlining of Garson’s own views in a book that is mostly far too long-winded.

bookworld@washpost.com

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

DOWN THE UP ESCALATOR

How the 99 Percent Live
in the Great Recession

By Barbara Garson

Doubleday. 272 pp. $26.95