John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column:
In 2009, I wrote a column that used a fictional story to explain how the Great Recession started. The column concluded with a warning that “unless we make fundamental changes, the next time it could be even worse.”
Fundamentally, very little has changed in the last three years. Now, I will script in advance, how THE BIG ONE may play itself out.
The opening scene is the interior of a luxurious home. The entire wall facing the audience is a giant computer screen. On the screen is what might be a futuristic Facebook page. Within the page are images representing content providers
The bright light coming through the skylight gives the impression that it is not some dystopian future of science fiction. A man, appearing to be in his forties, is facing the screen while running on a treadmill.
There is no dialog. Occasionally the man issues commands in a staccato voice to activate news reports on the screen. Images expand and fade, with and without voiceovers. As the man controls his environment, we learn what conditions are like in the United States of the not too distant future.
Outside, in the real world, the future is dystopian for most. Things are bad and getting worse. People originally called it the third Great Recession. Conditions worsened to the point that former Federal Reserve Chairman Geithner labeled it Great Depression 2.0. Now everyone just calls it THE BIG ONE (always in upper case).
Economic growth has been negative for 13 quarters in a row. Output has plummeted. Most people cannot afford to buy anything but necessities. Many cannot afford even that. The luxury goods that still sell well are mostly manufactured overseas.
The official unemployment rate is 18.97 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics now counts military personnel as employed. People who have been out of work for more than a year are no longer counted as unemployed.
A cheerful woman reports that price and wage controls are very effective and people should not be concerned by a recent uptick in inflation to 2.1 percent. Adults vividly recall the second Great Recession of 2016 when the Federal Reserve responded aggressively to inflation briefly creeping above 3 percent.
The U.S. dollar continues to lose value against the common Asian currency – the Yuan. China no longer feels compelled to devalue the Yuan as they now export more than the United States and what is left of the European Union combined.
Financial companies are initiating foreclosure proceedings at a record-shattering pace. People are refusing to vacate their homes. The police are too busy with security details and emergency response to evict anyone.
Protest groups and armed militias are forming on-line in virtual communities. People are organizing in the “comfort” of their own home.
Broad stock market averages continue to challenge the lows of 2009. However, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is holding up well, as firms in the firearms, security, and prisons industry and the “agecare” industry dominate the index.
The demographics of the United States have changed noticeably. Only about half of census respondents check the box saying they are white. One out of five is age 65 or over. Less than forty percent earn enough to quality as middle and upper income.
The politics of the country have changed significantly. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a majority in either house of Congress. Both parties are widely viewed as representing corporate America. The term demagogue is no longer demeaning. The term populist is very popular. Recent candidates have echoed the campaigns of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Strom Thurmond, and even Adolph Hitler.
There are sporadic power outages on the public grid. Worse yet are the daily brownouts on the Class II and Class III Internets.
Outbreaks of violence are spreading to the suburbs. There is a report of a police helicopter being shot down while escorting a food drop. Military planes are airdropping supplies into gated communities.
Topping the Disney-Apple-Google list of books being viewed on their cloud is The Snow Chronicles — the prequel to Hunger Games. It tells the story of how an event called THE BIG ONE led to the post-apocalyptic world of the popular trilogy. The works of Charles Dickens are all the rage.
Act I closes with the man on the treadmill issuing a command to enter evening mode. The light “coming in” through the skylight gradually fades. The curtain closes.
The Recent Past
The setting is a frenzied newsroom in October 2007. A group is meeting at a large conference table. There is a sense of agitation and urgency in the air.
A newspaper is trying to respond to being scooped. The week before, The Onion reported that economists had observed the first proof that former President Reagan’s trickle down policies actually worked. They tracked down a former air traffic controller, now working as a car wash attendant, who received a share of a $10 tip. The windfall was traced all the way back to a defense contractor CEO who benefited from the massive buildup of military spending in 1983.
The editor, sitting at the head of the table, is asking his staff what stories they are working on. As they go around the room, he becomes increasingly frustrated as he cannot find a story to top ‘The Onion’.
The City Desk Manager is writing a human-interest story based on data from the Register of Deeds. The numbers show a significant increase in foreclosure activity. The disinterested editor responds by asking what happened to the piece someone was doing on something about inequality. The manager explains the columnist working on that was let go and now writes for a popular blog.
A reporter is preparing a piece predicting a banner year in holiday-season spending. Despite a big increase in credit-card debt, shoppers are buoyed by a strong stock market and rising home equity. Despite stagnant wages, front-line workers are expecting to benefit eventually from excellent bottom-line corporate profits.
The business editor is working on a story about how big Wall Street firms are pushing, and in essence writing, legislation to further deregulate the securities industry. He promises not to talk about credit default swaps or other arcane concepts.
The political reporter is talking to members of Congress to get a response to President Bush’s latest call to make his tax cuts permanent and to abolish the estate tax. She also wants to run a sidebar that shows how much wealthy Congressmen benefit from the tax breaks.
The society page editor is working on a special supplement for the Sunday paper. It will explore homeowners finding innovative new ways to differentiate their properties in exclusive gated communities to increase their resale value.
A business reporter interrupts to announce he is working on an exciting profile of a Harvard dropout who started his own company in the emerging field of social networking. The editor says they will lead with it.
The editor closes the meeting by declaring he will be writing an editorial. It will contrast the optimistic news that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is about to go over 14,000 with the negativity of those who are trying to start class warfare.
Books on the New York Times bestseller list in 2007 include The Age of Turbulence (by Alan Greenspan), The Reagan Diaries, and State of Denial (Bob Woodward).
Act II closes as everyone files out except for the editor and the business manager. They stay behind, trying to figure out why the paper’s circulation is falling so rapidly.
Sometime between now and THE BIG ONE
Act III is set in a very plush office. A male, who appears to be in his sixties, is sitting at a computer with a large monitor. He is talking with people he refers to as friends. Some of his friends appear on the monitor. For others there is an animated image of an avatar. With video drones being ubiquitous and smart phones with face recognition apps, some people are very careful to protect personal identifying information.
As the dialog ensues, we hear from and learn about the following characters.
Jeannie was a 4th grade math teacher until a private charter school outsourced her position. The school is trying to replace her with technology, yet she embraces technology by posting charts and graphs on the www.inequality.org web site. Her data shows that inequality now exceeds even the extreme levels of 1928 and 2007.
Anya is a very animated and athletic looking woman. She used to be active in the Occupy Wall Street movement that is now considered a failure. After modest changes in 2009, no serious financial reform legislation has passed. Anya’s newest focus is Occupy Silicon Valley protests. However, as she puts it, most people are more worried about putting bread on their table than fighting against wealthy oppressors.
Gordon’s Wall Street employer fired him for trading in stocks without insider information.
Joe is just back from a tour of duty but will not say which war he fought in. He joined the military under a new GI bill passed as part of a fiscal stimulus package. In return for a seven-year commitment, recruits get relief from student loans. Congress is debating extending the program to able-bodied men and woman facing foreclosure or excessive credit card debt.
Susan was forced to shut down the financial planning business she ran out of a small storefront. The entire block is being redeveloped under a tax incentive program designed to create jobs in the financial services sector.
Annie had a series of service jobs at local restaurants, theaters, and convenience stores. Then she thought she finally found a career at a destination casino. Then the casino closed because on-line has become the preferred gambling destination.
Clark, a former journalist, admits he used to criticize people for abdicating personal responsibility by filing for bankruptcy. Now he is struggling to recover from bankruptcy. He lost his job at a newspaper and missed a couple of mortgage payments. The company that owned the mortgage refused to renegotiate or allow a short sale. He ended up having his house foreclosed on.
Bill admits he used to complain about the Affordable Care Act calling it “socialism.” Now he can at least afford minimal coverage with a healthcare connector. He lost his full-time job when the company lost a government contract. None of his three part-time jobs offer government subsidized employer-sponsored insurance.
Curt is a very opinionated former baseball player. He now works for the ESPN video-game channel. Curt complains about social welfare programs and the government’s failure to assist struggling companies.
Will, the man sitting at the computer, used to be in marketing. He now works third shift as a janitor in the headquarters of a thriving social networking company. He sneaks into the CEO’s office to get faster Internet service. He and most of his other friends only have access to the much slower Class II and Class III Internets.
The top electronic book readers are downloading from iTunes is The Age of the Reagan Denial. It explores how increases in inequality started to erode social cohesion and why experts ignored the signs for so long. Also popular is The Best of richardhowe.com — a collection of essays, poems, and photographs.
The session ends abruptly when Will announces he hears Mark the CEO coming. His friends sign off one at a time saying they should “get together” again soon or to watch out for “big brother.”
Act III ends as the monitor goes blank and Will picks up his push broom.
Back to the Future
A return to the scene in Act I. The same man is running on the treadmill in front of the wall-sized screen. Images on the screen come and go in rapid-fire succession.
Then there is a loud crash and the wall-sized screen disintegrates into small pieces. Behind where the screen used to be, we now see a woman in athletic gear. She has just thrown a sledgehammer through the screen.
Will, now appearing older, enters stage left, sweeping up the mess with his push broom.
The curtain falls.