I was lying in bed here a few minutes ago, and there was darkness on my radio.
The latest unemployment report is due out today. It is expected to be very grim, and the news reader said that employers need to see exactly how bad it is before deciding whether to cut more jobs.
Think about that one for a moment.
Meanwhile, as we and the entire world head right over the brink into a dark and nasty hole, the very same Republicans who voted over and over again to fund a misguided war or two — including my own congressman — are suddenly getting the heebie-jeebies over the notion of spending on our own roads and bridges.
Think about that, too.
Yesterday, all the networks dropped everything for Barack Obama’s speech on his economic recovery plan, promising us that he was about to spell out exactly what he is going to do that will turn everything around in time for Valentine’s Day.
Like they always do, the TV commentators approached this address as if they were judging an Olympic pole vault, the bar in this case being whether Barack Obama could convincingly sell the American people on the idea of sacrifice at 11:15 on a Thursday morning. If he could, we would be saved — possibly later the same afternoon.
Here is how Mr. Obama’s speech began:
Throughout America’s history, there have been some years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare. Then there are the years that come along once in a generation — the kind that mark a clean break from a troubled past, and set a new course for our nation.
This is one of those years.
It is our special luck — yours and mine — to be living through one of those moments that call for Great Moments in Presidential Speeches. David Letterman has known this for some time, and he has used this dark fact to underline some of the more ridiculous utterances of the current occupant.
Let us look, however, to some of the classic examples from previous presidents — like John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
Applying this to our current crisis would seem to suggest that we should not wait for some magic pole vault, or for something to happen by Valentine’s Day or President’s Day, but that we should be doing something ourselves.
Here is the great moment from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugual address:
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
We hear a lot of fear about fear these days, like those employers this morning fearing that bad unemployment figures might mean they should cut their payrolls. The shorthand expression for this kind of insane tail-chasing is “downward spiral.” Economic experts are afraid we could be heading into a downward spiral.
Well, they should stop being afraid, because we are in one — and there is something enlivening about making that mental shift from fear and the unknown into fact and reality. We see all the time how people confronted by very difficult circumstances somehow manage to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.
In fact, there was one of those stories just now on NPR’s Morning Edition.
In a moment of financial crisis, George Bailey reveals a cosmic economic truth:
No, but you … you … you’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house … right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.
An economy works thanks to the magic of money changing hands — from you, to the savings and loan, to your neighbor, to the real estate agent — the faster, the better. This is literally known as the velocity of money.
Right now, money is stuck — frozen, rusted like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
Some lubrication is called for. President-elect Obama is hoping to save the economy before it’s too late by enacting a massive stimulus plan. The idea is that the government (really just us, since it’s a government “of the people”) will squirt a good shot of our money (just like oil) into the economy to get it unstuck. Since we don’t have the money right now, we’ll have to borrow, just like we did for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — except that this money will be injected here in the USA. Experts warn that there is not a moment to waste.
So that’s something the country (which is really us) can do for us. Like any maneuver by a big government or a big business or a big ship, it may take some time to accomplish.
But what George Bailey was getting at was something much more immediate and nearby. He was trying to make people understand that their personal life savings was in turn being used to finance their neighbors’ homes. He was hinting at a certain transcendent interconnectedness between them all, as expressed in dollars.
There is an ancient concept called the “ethic of reciprocity,” more commonly known as “The Golden Rule,” which has been expressed clumsily and often by George W. Bush as “the universal call to love a neighbor just like they’d like to be loved themselves.”
Jesus Christ, describing the Last Judgment, put it in more startling terms:
And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40, NJB)
Eric Bazilian, who wrote the 1995 Joan Osborne hit “One of Us,” set the same idea on the streets where you work and live:
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home
Thinking of all this, with the economy stuck the way it is, what you can do for your country becomes pretty clear: Grease it!
Pick a restaurant that you love, have a dinner there and tip your server.
Is there a quality product that you need, but have been holding off buying? Get it.
Don’t spend frivolously, and don’t go into debt doing it. We’ve had way too much of that. But do spend your money wisely on things that are worthwhile.
Reward quality. Reward whatever enhances your life. Go to a show. Buy a book for yourself or a game for your kids. Whatever it is that you don’t want to do without, put your money there.
Hire someone for a few hours or a few days to do that job you need done anyway. Spend locally, if you like — or buy American — but the world is round, as we’re finding out. Foreign car companies create jobs here too, and local retailers sell goods from Asia.
If you’re an employer, consider for a moment that not laying someone off is what you can do for the unemployment rate, and that your own business is only going to improve as everything else begins to pick up. If you have something to sell, consider spending a little extra money on advertising to grease the process.
Grease is the word. Pass it on. Pay it forward.
Earlier this year, when our Bush stimulus money arrived, we hired a local contractor to rebuild the chimney on our house, and had the Home Depot install a new front storm door. This was around the same time that a bunch of Home Depot stores were being closed around the country. Our Racine location is still open. Are we responsible for this? Yes — a little, tiny bit.
I understand very well the temptation to cut back. I have since lost my own job, and I keep talking about canceling cable TV, but so far I have not.
Any Wisconsin driver in the snow today will tell you that slamming on the brakes only makes the skid worse.
Don’t be like Andy Rooney. Here is a guy who has been under contract forever to one of the most successful shows on television — a man who attends every home game of his NFL team — and yet he’s scrimping on coffee, wearing his shirts for three days, and pocketing rolls from restaurants. If anybody should be cutting three bucks loose to a shoe-shiner, it’s Andy Rooney, for God’s sake. He should be greasing the economy, not his clothing.
So much of this whole mess is psychological. It seems like a paradox, but if each one of us could loosen our frightened grip on our remaining cash just a little, we could cumulatively improve the economic outlook for everyone — and therefore ourselves.
Maybe do it this weekend: Be a hero. Go out there and spread a little grease in some good places.