Sunday, November 19, 2017

Two Sides of the Same Coin

December 7, 2011 by Jane Ross  
Filed under Blog, Writing Practice

parsnips

I’ve been watching with growing dismay as the headlines about the euro crisis grow steadily more dire. The economics blogs I follow are predicting years of stagnation in Europe as a best case scenario for the resolution of the crisis. Their worst case scenarios include widespread economic depression and misery, blood in the streets, and even the rise of right-wing nationalism.

As I clicked through to the blogs this morning, I found myself wondering, what is it that has drawn me away from my love of personal story — stories of the real everyday lives of ordinary people — to this impersonal story dominated by political maneuverings, shaky bank balance sheets and  apocalyptic headlines? The answer of course is that the economic realities of our time are the backdrop to everything that happens in our lives. And at the same time, it is the day to day decisions we each make that when added together create the economy we live in. The economy and the stories we tell are two sides of the same coin.

Economist Steve Keen, interviewed on the BBC in November reminded us that it was in the midst of the economic blight in Germany at the end of WWI that Hitler came to power. Germany was bankrupted and humiliated by the war reparations it was forced to pay after the war and the German people were suffering. A forceful leader came forward promising relief from the hardship and a restoration of national pride. The economic situation was the backdrop to the story of Hitler’s rise, which became in turn the backdrop to millions of individual stories of personal horrors — of families destroyed, loved ones murdered, forced labor, exile, cities devastated, livelihoods lost — until the end of WWII.

In our own time, powerful players in Europe are making decisions about  whether or not to buy the bonds of struggling countries and their bankrupt banks. They are forcing the politicians of the smaller weaker countries to abandon their social safety nets and leave the poor to fend for themselves. They are turning a blind eye while youth unemployment reaches 50% in Spain and riots and protests threaten to squash what little life is left in the economies of the Mediterranean countries. People in Greece are living off the last of their savings, wondering what will happen when that’s gone while German politicians gripe about lazy Greeks and demand ever greater austerity. With this economic devastation and political divisiveness as a backdrop, who can tell what kind of ideological perversities will emerge?

Ordinary people buying homes, starting families, choosing where and how to spend their money, running businesses, sending their kids to school — the small stories of all these decisions, large and small, feed into the kind of economy we have. Economic policy makers, imagining that economics is hard science, take just the data from all those decisions, transactions and contracts and use them to tweak monetary policy or adjust taxes. The details of real people’s lives are messy and, when you’re only concerned with national numbers, they seem irrelevant. So economists of the Federal Reserve and in the legislative branch may pull a curtain down over the misery of the unemployed and the heartache of those who are losing a home to foreclosure and focus only on the numbers. They propose an interest rate drop here or some quantitative easing there, a tax cut or extra stimulus. But their solutions cannot make the economy work for ordinary people as long as they close their ears to the real-life stories of these people.

While editing a collection of food stories and related recipes* in 2007, one of my favorite stories was “No More Parsnips.” Back in the Depression years of the 1930s, the author’s mother Betty had sent her new husband George out food shopping with the last $2 of the young couple’s savings and he’d come home with nothing but a bushel of parsnips. The story of how they lived for weeks on a diet of parsnips—baked, boiled, roasted, and stewed—became a family legend.

For those of us who are comfortably off, there is a sweet nostalgia to the story, above all because we know that Betty and her children survived their ordeal and have chosen to focus on the humor of an otherwise dreadful situation.

Right this minute, there are millions of families living out a similar scene of desperation and food insecurity. Some may eventually find the humor in their ordeal. Others will be crushed by it. Some will lose everything, including loved ones and their own lives to sickness brought on by an inadequate diet or to homelessness or mental illness. These are the stories that are being pointed to on wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. These are the stories behind the economists’ data.

So yes, I read the economics blogs. But I have not forgotten that behind every dot on a graph or percentage point in a table are real people living real lives.

* Kitchen Table Stories, Ed. M Jane Ross, published by Story Circle Network.

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