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Waking Up in the 1930s

Posted on Sep 2, 2010
AP / Mark Lennihan

Job applicants snake through a rope line in New York.

By Howie Stier

In the year 2010, America once again embraced the bread line. That distant, faded, iconic black-and-white image of the Great Depression has re-emerged across the nation, waiting to be updated fully into HD color. Just as we seldom see pictures of American war dead returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we seldom see newscasts of the struggling, jobless masses lining up for handouts. But they are lining up, and the scene is not one we are inured to, that of the disheveled homeless, the permanent underclass being ladled turkey dinners by apron-clad celebrities at Skid Row kitchens at holiday time. Rather, neatly dressed, solidly middle class, once working folk fill these bread lines as they become reconciled to a stark new reality. At the same time, this generation of jobless and the underemployed has yet to embrace what is shaping up to be nothing but the 1930s redux, and their voices murmur inconsistent notes of doubt, disillusionment and hope.

They listen daily to banal statistics—consumer indices, home prices, housing starts, unemployment insurance claims—intoned by newscasters batting the cycle of adjectives for up and down, and they hope for no sound reason that these same talking heads that propelled them to invest in stocks and homes that would only appreciate will imminently announce a combination of factors that will dispel this economic morass. It’s as if those contentious, post-ironic Shepard Fairey “Hope” stickers that remain plastered across the nation continue to radiate hypnotic beams convincing the viewer that prosperity is just around the corner. And so here are some voices of that doubt, disillusion and hope, culled from a region especially hurting: the megalopolis of Los Angeles.

Sylmar, Calif., as distant geographically from downtown L.A.’s Skid Row as you can get and remain within Los Angeles County, is visually too a sea change from Skid Row’s piss-stained concrete pavement. Hard up against the Angeles National Forest, the rugged ridgeline of the San Gabriel Mountains spreads majestically from east to west along the horizon, and here on a recent summer afternoon a breeze fragrant with citrus cools a crowd of people who sit quietly beneath the shade of churchyard trees. But this is no church picnic. There is no Frisbee being tossed around, no music being played; no one has prepared his or her favorite potato salad to share. They are here to get a box full of donated food from the First Baptist Church food pantry, a situation with which many of them have only recently become familiarized, and an overwhelming sense of apprehension prevails among the crowd, some 200 strong, akin to that among displaced persons in the aftermath of a building fire. They know this is not the normal order of things and fear the future.

A horseman wearing a white straw Stetson trots past astride a palomino and waves lazily, his hat contrasting strongly with his skin, and a scene straight out of Steinbeck is complete. He is brown, a campesino like the wiry, muscled young men in work clothes speaking quietly in Spanish among themselves in the bread line. There are mothers, too, trying to keep their place while controlling kids, a thin man with a military posture in GI desert boots, and a few sullen and obese cholo types sporting shaved heads and the “M13” inked into forearms displaying allegiance to the Mexican Mafia street gang. There’s also a clean-cut man with a pink face, the clean-shaven face of a banker.

Turns out he is a banker. A hedge-funder formerly with Bear Stearns, Matt, 39, lost his last job some two years ago. He is a soft-spoken man who used to buy and sell companies, and today he has no qualms with the bread line. “There’s no stigma attached to this anymore,” explains the Navy vet, who has simply given up on the idea of getting a job anytime soon. “I’m starting my own business. I take consulting work when I can, and I’m jettisoning my house.” (“You can’t be self-employed for this Obama mortgage refinancing, so I’m screwed,” he adds.)

In the meantime, his unemployment checks stopped coming, far short of the 99 weeks that lawmakers babbled about during the recent congressional vote on extending benefits to the long-term unemployed. For the past five months, Matt has been joining his 74-year-old father, Frank, a retired L.A. Unified School District teacher who took an unexpected financial hit, for weekly trips to the church pantry.

“I feel anxious about money,” he says in a measured understatement, as the banker has an insight shared by Wall Streeters, colleagues who remain at work and are overwhelmingly pessimistic. He has also become acquainted with free days at L.A. museums and free concerts, and he drinks at the Hollywood Legion Hall, where vets get $2.50 cocktails. Like others here, Matt doesn’t appear to be starving between food giveaways. “You know how a boa constrictor eats a whole goat? ’Cause it doesn’t know when it will eat again.”

“No one complains at the necessity of feeding the horse when he’s not working,” John Steinbeck noted in “The Grapes of Wrath,” describing the madness of starving people amid the agricultural bounty of California during the Great Depression. This time around the people are being fed—for now anyway. 


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By Gloria Picchetti, September 3, 2010 at 4:32 am Link to this comment
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They wanted the Reagan & Bush tax cuts & all the other heartbreak Reagan & Bush brought. They wanted to war in Iraq to protect their pricey homes & their little, tiny, fast cars. So this is what they got.

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By marta, September 3, 2010 at 4:20 am Link to this comment
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What makes both similiar is that the build up went slowly up to the crash, and only a few wealthy walked off with the profits. One being Prescott Bush who was with the largest banks at that time. Just like this time around, slowly done, and a few walked off, and coinsidently, a Bush was around. In 1932 the American Liberty League,—[-similiar to the Tea Party]—- who Prescott followed, wanted to overthrow the Government and Oust FDR. The Tea Party wants to overthrow the government, and oust all Democrats, or any republicans who do not follow. Koch is funding them.

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By FiftyGigs, September 3, 2010 at 3:56 am Link to this comment

And of course this economic morass is due to the phenomena of conservatism, which is global in scope but especially pointed in the United States.

It is characterized by attacks on liberalism—i.e. equality and freedom, of government of the people—and is vividly portrayed by grifters mining a faux anti-liberal sentiment for personal power and financial benefit.

Data Point #1. The iconic picture of a Westboro Church evangelical standing on the United States flag during a military funeral, while pundits accuse liberals (even the President) of being anti-American.

Data Point #2. A former Vice Presidential candidate at a secessionist meeting in Alaska being taught that the way to infiltrate the government is simply to spout rhetoric about nationalism and Christianity, regardless of one’s true beliefs.

The list could go on.

When we read comparisons with other times in history, we often fail to evaluate the values prevalent then, compared to values now. Then, conservatives stood for country, for nation, and were willing to put the interests of the country ahead of their ideology.

Now, putting the interests of their ideology ahead of country is offered as the proof of their nationalism, while the most radical of conservatives desecrate the American flag, and while elected Republicans commit all level of personal sin.

Conservatives attack liberals with irrationality because they know liberals will go ballistic, and that tickles conservatives to no end. But they can only hope that people disbelieve the truth. They can’t actually hide it.

Vote them out.

In November, we can issue our liberal version of the “shot heard round the world”. What if Boehner doesn’t get his new drapes? Imagine how many pundits and politicians and talk show hosts and conservatives would be speechless!

Come on. If you don’t give a crap then, fine. At least throw your vote away by voting for Democrats, if for no other reason than the pure joy of seeing conservatives really hyperventilate for a full news cycle.

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By slumlord, September 3, 2010 at 3:23 am Link to this comment

why do people keep insisting ‘its like the 1930s’ man, its nothing like the 1930s. there arent mass protests of tens of thousands of people marching on dc for change, there arent hundreds of thousands of people striking around the country, there arent thousands of those people being shot or lynched by police for trying to have the system changed. there is nothing like this. what we have is an armchair depression. a cakewalk compared to the hell that was the 1930s. give me a break. when begins the countrywide sporadic rioting of grocery marts and mass assemblies nationwide of hundreds of thousands of people (meaning not just nyc or san francisco on a saturday) with the military shooting citizens in the face for trying to get some bread.. then you can say its like the 1930s.

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By Big B, September 3, 2010 at 3:12 am Link to this comment

I knew this economic crisis was going to be prolonged after I saw the advertisments from companies like Allstate and Chase saying that americans are once again “getting used to” the simple things life. What that means is, of course, is that we are in the shit, and we had better get used to it.

In the near future, we in the new US banana republic should get used to walking everywhere and hearing calypso music droning in the background, just without the palm trees and warm weather (oh that’s right, it will indeed get warmer)

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By Lafayette, September 3, 2010 at 2:27 am Link to this comment


Was this present Economic Mess predictable? I suggest it was. If one looks at the marginal tax rates in place before the run-up to 1929 and prior to 2009, one sees the same evident pattern of lowering marginal taxation rates. (See for yourselves here: )

The trajectory in both instances was radically downwards, thus stimulating the cupidity on both Main and Wall Streets. With effective marginal rates today around 20%, how can one not expect people to grab for the Quick-Kill Golden Ring on the Merry-go-round of Wealth Accumulation?

Worse yet, consider this: In 1931, Congress passed the Glass-Steagal Act that separated,  Commercial from Investment Banking. Meaning it put up a firewall between the two. Why? Because the business models of both are incompatible—the former is risk-averse and the latter is risk-prone.

How Robert Rubin could convince Bill Clinton to sign into law the demise of the Glass-Steagal Act is a wonder. Perhaps he was gobbling the same myopic idiocy as Greenberg at the time? (The one that goes, “Free markets are self-correcting”. Yeah, right!)

[My take on that (and mine alone since it cannot be substantiated): Bill foresaw the mountain of money it would take for Hillary’s run at the presidency. The demise of Glass-Steagal would put them in good with the money-mavens of New York’s High Finance.]

But the above is only the background to the mystery’s plot. It took Good Ole Yankee Greed to think up the sub-prime mortgage market, fraudulently sell loans by means of predatory lending and securitize the loans by selling them to Wall Street. There, Investment Bankers then package the Toxic Waste as Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs) and peddle them to a naive world of investors.

The SIVs and their derivatives (CDOs) would do the rest—these two culprits brought about the Credit Mechanism Seizure of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession of 2009, of which we have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And there is BO & Company in this sad story – whom we elected because we thought they could walk on water. This administration was presented by Dubya a parting gift—a poisoned apple, that is, the greatest economic mess since 80 years. And because BO is no Miracle Worker, he must be punished for having provoked the breadlines of this news article and the Blue Funk in which the American people presently find themselves. It has taken us decades to get into this mess, but we expect a PotUS to wave his magic wand to set all right and abra-cadabra magically bring unemployment back to 4%.

Which means what? We shoot ourselves in both feet because we have not yet realized that what has happened are the fruits of Reckless Ronnie Reagan who brought marginal tax rates down from 70 to 25% during his reign of office—thus opening Pandora’s Box of Economic Ills. This is what prompted the generalized greed.

When the Reps capture either or both houses in a few months, then all Fundamental Reform, of which this nation is in dire need, stops dead in its tracks. And we go on Paying the Piper for our own inbred political inanity for as long as the Reps can stonewall/neuter any legislation the administration presents to Congress.

Be aware, it took FDR 9 long years for the US to get over the Great Depression. George Santayana:  “A people who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

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By godistwaddle, September 3, 2010 at 1:58 am Link to this comment

In every constituency, Mrkns have the leaders THEY voted into power. They are responsible for their own misery, unless you can argue that all elections in this country are rigged.

The docile, the stupid, the ignorant get exactly what they deserve in political and cultural leadership in this country. 

How’s that capitalism going for ya?

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By bpawk, September 3, 2010 at 1:20 am Link to this comment

Americans have no one else to blame but themselves - besides not learning anything from the great depression, you stood by and said nothing when all the jobs went to China and India decades ago. You also racked up huge credit card debt, leveraged your homes/bought homes with little $$ down, took great economic risk in the stock market and refused to save your money for a rainy day. You lionized celebrity movie stars and athletes hoping some of their stardust would fall onto you by cheerleading them while everything was taken away from you by corporations and govt. You are getting everything you deserve for being silently complicit.

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By Hammond Eggs, September 2, 2010 at 11:58 pm Link to this comment

“They listen daily to banal statistics . . . “

Here’s one that’s not banal.  According to the site, the true unemployment rate in the United States is nearly 22%. I’ll believe that number before I’ll ever believe any bullshit published by the so-called United States government.

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