It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, February 2, 2009

Admit that the Waters Around You Have Grown

Things don't seem all that abnormal in Texas. Real estate is moving slowly, but the shopping centers are packed. I couldn't find a place to park at a midsized shopping center where I stopped for a quick lunch last Friday. We need to remind ourselves that we're in a bubble of relative stability. Here's a report from Westchester:
The long time family seafood restaurant on Main Street is gone - sign down, place empty. The old RV dealership on the edge of the village is gone too. Surprised at that - they were the only one downcounty. Used to buy Propane there. Looks like some waste collection place is there now. The old electronics company that moved out 5 years ago is now a self-storgage place and the old lumberyard (had been a coal company before that) finally had a new building put up after being sold a decade ago. Another storage place - not the condos that had been rumored. Not much of a neighborhood for housing IMO - light industrial - but such was the housing boom for a while. ANY site was worth building. Up the hill the car dealership of my youth that had been a Verizon garage was being leveled. Walgreen. How many drug stores can you have in a square mile? Seems absurd.

LOTS of empty storefronts in local stores as I drove around. The Florsheim Shoe place further up in the upscale shopping center is now gone. When did that happen? Another restaurant gone. The small strip mall put up 2 years ago across from the Diner remains empty. The steakhouse it replaced was damn good. I miss it. One of the old bars I knew well in college is now gone..... that place was an institution. What happened? The camera store is now a hole in the wall - a shell of its former self when it had the whole building. The Food Emporium is decidedly grungier than it used to be. What happened there? Yuck.

Now these are not the 'worst' places in Westchester - they're pretty average - or on the higher end......

Back on Central Ave there were more vacancies than expected. Lots of long tenure stores gone. Downtown White Plains had taken decades to recover from the urban renewal bulldozing but had finally come back.

But the Galleria - the original mall - is now hurting pretty bad....
Tales of woe like this aren't that uncommon. Presumably previous economic setbacks were similar. What is unusual is how people are thinking about it. Of course, the parties in power are desperately hoping it is a 'recession'; hence it will go away and everything will be back to 'normal' and maybe they can even get some credit for it.

You are also seeing people saying that this is a turning point, not a recession. Here is someone arguing for a communitarian conservatism; linking social conservatism with community cohesion, and having the UK Tories abandon and renounce theior old connection with corporate capitalism. In this view, the decline of society is shared by the statism of the left and the corporatism of the right, a position which is different from any I have taken but which seems to have some force to it. (I think the problem is a shared delusion on left and right about the nature of "normal" economic activity based on a period of extraordinary access to natural resources.)

Anyway check it out, an article by Phillip Blond in Prospect; h/t "Bruno":
Conservatives appear to be proposing a repeat of Thatcherite austerity in the face of economic catastrophe. But this crisis is more than an ordinary recession. It represents a disintegration of the idea of the "market state" and makes obsolete the political consensus of the last 30 years. A fresh analysis of the ruling ideological orthodoxy is required. Certainly, this new thinking isn't going to come from the left. New Labour is intellectually dead, while Gordon Brown promises an indebted return to a now-defunct status quo. But, in truth, Brown's reconversion from post-socialist free marketeer to state interventionist is only plausible because the Conservatives have failed to develop an alternative political economy that explains the crisis, and charts a different future free of the now bankrupt orthodoxies. Until this is achieved, Brown's claim that the Conservatives are the "do nothing" party has real traction, and makes the result of the next election far from assured.

On a deeper level, the present moment is a challenge to conservatism itself. The Conservatives are still viewed as the party of the free market, an idea that has collapsed into monopoly finance, big business and deregulated global capitalism.
It's frankly hard to imagine a similar article from an American Republican. (It's hard to imagine many Republicans having the attention span and open mind to plow through it, frankly.) Seriously, it's long struck me and others how the socially conservative rural backbone of the Republican party have been consistently voting against their own interests in favor of the mega-corporate view of society. The idea of social conservatism opposed to corporate gigantism is unfamiliar, but it's perfectly consistent. In fact, it's more consistent than the alliance that we currently call the "right" or "conservative" position. I've often remarked that growth-addicted mega-capital as the organizing principle of society is anything but "conservative" in any etymologically reasonable sense of the word.

Anti-corporate social conservatism is not without its history. Alas, in America and elsewhere, (recently embodied in Ron Paul's campaign for president) its history is tinged with xenophobia, classism and racism, which is why many of us find the prospect terrifying. As someone who has lived a somewhat damaged life partially as a direct consequence of the direct impact of Nazism on my parents and grandparents, the picture painted of "socially conservative communitarianism" isn't emotionally appealing to me even though I find it conceptually sound. I have a rational basis, not being part of any local tradition anywhere, to expect to be excluded, and perhaps even persecuted.

But the appeal of the local and of tradition night be reconstituted without being exclusionary and without disrespecting the constraints of global sustainability and equity. If that happens, I will support it enthusiastically. Whether it calls itself "liberal" or "conservative" is a matter of complete indifference to me.

If this isn't just a "recession", our present models of "left" and "right" are going to disintegrate. Let's hope we collectively manage to be wise in the challenging times ahead.

2 comments:

Steve Bloom said...

"It's frankly hard to imagine a similar article from an American Republican."

There's Kevin Philips, although I'm not entirely sure he's still a Republican.

Anonymous said...

A nice piece, Michael.

You said:

[If this isn't just a "recession", our present models of "left" and "right" are going to disintegrate.]

As the days become weeks to months to years of increasing global unemployment increases and less trade, personal wealth may accrue, in most developed countries, but the damage to capitalism will have been severe and possibly terminal. People will become rabbid savers and lifestyles will change to accommodate smaller global product and then, coming at you, will be the diminished and then the lost 'cheap energy'.

Government spending to kick start and prop up sagging economies will be difficult to turn off because people will need those stimulus job dollars to keep flowing. The corporate world will not easily step in to take over the throttle because it has lost favor with small investors and the investment banking industry is fast becoming an archive.

If our present models of "left" and "right" are going to disintegrate (I agree), then it can be speculated, at this moment in the drama, that developed world capitalism and 'creeping' socialism will trade places.

John McCormick