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).
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.