Friday, September 11, 2009

Old Man Gloom

Last night they burned Zozobra -- Old Man Gloom -- in Santa Fe as they've done every year since 1924 (or '25) when Santa Fe artist and bon vivant Will Shuster came up with the notion of buring a giant papier-mâché boogy-man to chase the cares away. It's impossible to separate Santa Fe's artistic history from that of Will Shuster and Los Cinco Pintores.

But despite the many tens of thousands who attend this long-time "burning man" event each year, the Burning of Zozobra is far less well known than the much newer eponymous Nevada Playa make-fest.

Of course this year, Old Man Gloom was carrying an enormous burden of economic woe in the smoke of his demise. Even in New Mexico the economy has turned to shit, and I say that knowing full well that the economic catastrophe has been devastating to much of the state, particularly in rural areas. But compared to many other places, New Mexico is sitting pretty and its people are living high on the hog. Bad as things are. The unemployment rate is "manageable" and stimulus projects are are actually having a measurable effect.

Part of it is the smaller population of New Mexico -- there's only one city of any size, Albuquerque, and the rest of the state is so sparsely settled that people flying over have a hard time spotting any signs of Civilization. Row-mates on airliners have become alarmed at the apparent lack of people!

Part of it is the fact that New Mexicans are not only used to boom and bust economies, their history has many periods of lean times, going back well before the arrival of Coronado, Oñate, de Vargas and the rest. People make do and make the best of things.

And they sometimes break out of the dull routine by burning papier-mâché monsters.

It's the culture.

I intended to offer up a Labor Day piece glooming about the hideous unemployment figures, but I saw that many others had that base covered, finally, and I thought I would have very little new to add. Besides, I've covered the issue repeatedly, from way back. It's nice to know that some folks are playing catch-up.

But one thing I have noticed is that in all the now-fashionable sturm und drang over the increasing "problem" of lack of jobs, few have connected the situation with deliberate policy decisions, such as the absence of any significant jobs programs, and even fewer seem to recognize the policy upshot of driving down wages and benefits for those who manage to remain employed.

Back in the days when unions were strong, these connections would be almost axiomatic, and the Obama administration wouldn't be compared to FDR's, it would be compared to Hoover's, because the Obama administration is basically repeating Hoover's mistakes by applying nearly all the government "relief" to the top of the economic pyramid. That's what Hoover did. How did that work out?

Of course the case can be made that all kinds of social and economic programs to relieve the situations of the lower orders were put in place during the Depression and afterwards, and many of them are still functioning, so it is not entirely true that the government is doing nothing for the poor and middle class and for the unemployed.

Are there not prisons? Are there not workhouses?

And the Big Health Care Overhaul we keep hearing about is supposed to be an add-on to the FDR and LBJ social/domestic programs that will make everyone better off and more secure.

So why the Gloom?

Actually, I'm trying to get out of my Gloom Period. Not necessarily successfully, but still...

The economic catastrophe that none dare call a Depression is forcing massive economic restructuring, top to bottom and world wide, and some of it is potentially very good.

We need to ask questions about why every household has to have at least two gainfully employed members in order to afford relative comfort. Why are personal automobiles still necessary? How come alternative energy and fuels and modes of transportation are still so expensive and/or inconvenient?

Why does health care reform still raise so many hackles?

Economic restructuring doesn't have to be bad for the working and middle classes, but that's the only way restructuring has been played for decades. And most Americans have been passive observers, unwilling to risk any of their declining security and comfort to change the direction of restructuring.

But perhaps the summer-long howling by those who say they are "scared" has had a subliminal effect on the passive majority and those who are convinced that ritualized "action" such as phoning your congressmember or sending out a furious email make a difference.

We can change the direction of the restructuring that's going on, we can force attention to be paid to the needs of the working and middle classes but only if we demand it and refuse to budge when the Ruling Class says "No!"

We're not there yet.

But no need for Gloom.

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