Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dystopian Economics

This week my History of Art & Design II lecture is about "art between the wars"--the impact of Cubism and politics on art in the early third of the twentieth century. After holding forth on Constructivism, Surrealism, and Art Deco, I showed the "Streamlines and Breadlines" episode of Robert Hughes's paean to this country's art history, American Visions. The parallels between then and now, pointed out frequently these days in the papers (which my students generally do not read), became clearly apparent as Hughes proceeded from the Chrysler Building to the WPA.

I recommended that these kids watch Tim Robbins's wonderful 1999 film, The Cradle Will Rock, to soak up the ambiance of the period, and to further attune themselves (sorry for the pun--there's music) to the similarities.

But what really disturbs me about the current economic situation is not the fear of a return to the Depression. Rather, it's the total picture: Because of the banking crisis, people can't get credit to buy stuff--houses, cars, useless crap, whatever--they can't afford.

Now, I'll admit to having spent beyond my immediate means, and have been willing to pay for it in interest, but I've never spent beyond my total means to repay the loan. And I guess I would be in a bit of a pickle were my husband and I to lose our jobs (which is, of course, a significant part of the immediate problem). But there also seems to be an enormous number of individuals and institutions that have spent willy nilly without regard to consequences, giving out loans to folks with little promise of being able to repay them or taking out loans they can't possibly make good on.

And now I'm going to be spending my tax money--which should go to helping maintain infrastructure and provide a safety net for the truly destitute--to help shore up an economy that makes no bloody sense to me at all.

It's not that I'm without sympathy for people who were duped into borrowing from companies who painted a rosy future and obscured the bitter facts behind adjustable rate mortgages. But as a nation of spenders, we've been seduced by fantasies: The American Dream, American Power, American Wealth, American Can-Do. Buy a bigger house than you need; buy a bigger, fancier car; show off your success with expensive clothes and jewelry; buy the latest, greatest techno-gizmo! Spend your stimulus-incentive tax rebate, don't save it!

Never mind about saving for a rainy day (let alone a stormy one). Funny how the Big Economics boys didn't realize that a number of people had gotten wind (maybe through the vicissitudes of the oil bidness) that things might not be coming up roses, and thus banked their rebate checks rather than cashing them in for a new big-screen TV.

Whatever happened to plain old common thrift?

Of course, being thrifty (like being frugal) requires a long view: a notion of making it through to some future point. It doesn't fit in with our instant-gratification way of existing in the moment. Carpe diem! Forget about manana! Get it now, with easy credit, on a convenient installment plan! Forget about educating one's desire; whether you need it or not, buy it. Now.

A while back we started paying down credit cards and resisting the urge to buy anything we couldn't pay cash for, and it's amazing how quickly one can decrease indebtedness that way. As the principal is reduced, the amount of interest declines, and the loan melts away. As one debt is repaid, that money can go into paying off another more quickly. And so on.

I've also realized that I'm probably driving the last car I'll ever own. By the time my Civic (currently nudging 100,000 miles) runs out of gas, I'll probably have done so as well. So as soon as the Element is paid off in another year or two, we'll have that money to live on. I think of it as my retirement fund, since what little there was in my Fidelity account now probably won't be there by the time I retire--if I can ever retire.

Unless, of course, all of the trillions that are going into bailing out CEOs and short-sighted automakers actually do something to stimulate the economy and return us, hell-bent, to our free-spending, unthinking, blind obedience to the gods of greed-based corporate capitalism.

It's a good thing Adam Smith is already dead. Otherwise, today's headlines alone would surely kill him.

Image Note: When I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, I went to Wikimedia Commons and searched under "shopping," which led me to an arcade and immediately reminded me of everybody's favorite dystopia: the city of Los Angeles as Ridley Scott imagined it in Bladerunner. A further search on Wikipedia for the film provided me with this terrific shot of Hong Kong taken by Diliff--and it was the emerging metropolis of Hong Kong that apparently inspired Scott. A recent bit on NPR about the proliferation of LED billboards in LA made this seem all the more more prophetic.

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