American Culture

No country for the middle class: Scenes from an economic disaster


By Martin Bosworth

I recently had the pleasure of seeing “No Country For Old Men,” the Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of a drug deal gone bad and how one man’s decision to take a case of stolen money leads to a meditation on fate, circumstance, and destiny. Of particular note was Javier Bardem’s portrayal of murderous hitman Anton Chigurh not only as the embodiment of pure evil, but as an avatar of capricious, merciless fate, striking down people left and right, with no regard for their circumstances.

I was thinking about this when reviewing some recent news about America’s economic downturn–how so much of what people had been indoctrinated and reminded to expect had fallen apart due to forces completely beyond their comprehension. There’s a Chigurh-like specter roaming the country, wrecking lives, destroying futures, and leaving shattered dreams in its wake. Consider:

* A controversial video appeared on the BBC documenting the rise of new “shantytowns” in L.A., where the homeless and mentally ill are now joined by people who have lost their homes to foreclosure or voluntarily walked away without being able to rent or buy new property. The fact that so many people ardently refuse to accept that this could be happening in their hometown–and the media isn’t talking about it–tells you as much as the video itself.

* Record-high oil prices are not only causing citizens pain at the pump in their own right, but are contributing to massive jumps in food prices, forcing families already on the brink to pare down discretionary spending even further in order to provide sustenance for themselves and their families. Of course, given how consumer spending is virtually all that is propping our economy up, the loss of any additional spending is going to hit retailers hard in the coming months, causing more financial slumps, cost-cutting, price increases, and job cuts.

* Of course, this isn’t stopping retailers from using aggressive tactics to court shoppers into spending their rebate tax money, as opposed to saving it or using it to pay down debt. Some of them are even taking the step of becoming check-cashing centers, ensuring that fools and wise men alike are parted from their money as quickly as possible.

* Most depressing of all, regions that have been hard-hit by the economic downturn are finding new life by playing host to debt collection centers. (Registration required.) Buffalo, New York’s economy is almost solely propped up by the growth industry in debt collection, a vicious circle of what a colleague of mine called “poor people going after poor people.” Like so many other transformations in our post-industrial economy, the death of the manufacturing sector in Buffalo has taken people with useful skillsets, who had good pay and the promise of promotion, and replaced it with dead-end service sector jobs with no hope of advancement, where your daily aim is to ensure that other people lose money to you.

I look at these stories and think about the end of “No Country for Old Men,” where Chigurh, having left a trail of dead bodies and blood, wanders off into an uncertain future, himself battered and bruised–but not bowed–by his bloody work. The ambiguous, open-ended conclusion to the film is as frustrating as the uncertainty our country faces as we continue our slide into recession, depression, and utter disaster. America truly is no country for the middle class, the working class–for anyone, really, but the idle rich at the very top of the heap. And even they cannot rest easy, knowing that the roll of the dice or the flip of the coin could someday claim their wealth, their lifestyle, their social standing, and their careers. Just ask the current and former CEOs of Bear Stearns. Oh, wait:

Back in February — while his company was in the midst of imploding — James Cayne spent $27.4 million on two adjacent apartments at New York City’s Plaza.

Something is badly wrong with corporate governance/executive compensation when a guy can sit by — or in Cayne’s case, play bridge and smoke doobies — while one of the financial world’s most revered institutions collapses under his watch — and still have enough left to spend $27 million on two condos.

Meanwhile, Mr. Schwartz had pulled his $4.5 million property off the market and is renting it out.

I guess for some people, the flip of a coin is much more certain, eh, friend-o?

2 replies »

  1. This will continue until the very rich are lynched by everyone else and hung in front of their million dollar condos