Pinched, or the Descent into Meaninglessness

I have, in the past several months, read more deeply and broadly than I have since college, and perhaps ever. A few weeks back, in my mini-review of Brideshead Revisted, I mentioned that I was reading a new book for work, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. I finished it today, and it is a sobering comparison between our current recession, and previous deep downturns at end of the 19th century, in the 1930s, and in the 1970s. The book takes a close look at both the similarities and the differences in order to get a clearer picture of where we are in terms of a recovery (short answer: not very far along) and what we might work to address the short-term, and especially the long-term, effects.

The important issues raised by this book are too numerous to detail, and while I don’t agree with the author on everything, a few insights struck me as particularly compelling, especially on the heels of reading Brideshead and C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.

First, I have never been one to begrudge the wealthy the fruits of their honest effort; however, Pinched shines a bright and terrible light on the fact that not only are America’s most wealthy and privileged few becoming more so, they are also becoming increasingly detached from the problems and concerns of the rest. Many would rather help the poor on the other side of the world than the struggling here at home, because the visibility and ROI (return on investment) is better.

Second, the book shows clearly that in America, as in the Middle East, men with time on their hands are a major problem. Men are feeling the strain of the recession more keenly than women, and this leads to a wide range of economic, social, and psychological problems that are difficult to remedy. Interestingly, the book even touches on traditional gender roles, indicating that, even in instances in which unemployed men take on more responsibility for household chores and childrearing while their wives work — and indeed, even when their wives say they are satisfied with the level of support their husbands are providing on the home front — nevertheless, satisfaction in the relationship and perception of the male’s worth deteriorates, as I understood it, for both parties.

John W. Gardner once said, “America’s greatness has been the greatness of a free people who shared certain moral commitments. Freedom without moral commitment is aimless and promptly self-destructive.” Don Peck, the journalist who compiled and wrote this book, includes among his recommendations for addressing the fallout of the current recession, a section called “One Culture,” in which he insists that our social fabric is fraying and that cultural solutions are needed, as well as economic ones. He writes:

“The information age — individualistic, experimental, boundary-breaking — has eroded other once-common virtues, ones that we not associate as strongly with a distinctly American character, but that are nonetheless essential to a cohesive, successful society: from family commitment rooted in marriage, to civic responsibility. The Great Recession has merely cast light on the extent of that erosion. The past is not a hallowed place, and we would not want to return to it even if we could. But we do need to sow those virtues again as we move forward — through education and through our own private actions and expectations.”

The book — and this quote in particular — sparked in me an idea for a non-fiction book of my own, exploring the idea that as we debunk age-old beliefs and fail to replace them with new values of equal weight, we devolve into meaninglessness. Relativism, globalism, scientism, the collapse of religion and ritual that help us understand our place in the world (a la Joseph Conrad’s The Power of Myth), and the redefinition of “value” more and more exclusively in economic terms, have actually made the world less understandable — because it no longer jives with what see with our eyes and know with our hearts.

7 thoughts on “Pinched, or the Descent into Meaninglessness

  1. As my Dad used to tell me, Figures never lie and liars always figure. I wouldn't just completely trust those figures. I would want to see some other means of this example in the picture. You can make statistics read about any way you want, to prove a point. I think there are those out there who want us to fight amongst ourselves, in any way they can, as they make more money by us doing so, or the are gaining power by our being divided. Divide and conquer, comes to mind. I could use that graph as an example to young people to go out and work harder so as to make it to the top.

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  2. Yes, JB — the old saw “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” And to be clear, the chart above is not from the book, but from a different source altogether.

    Again, I don't have a problem with the wealthy getting wealthier, or with the concept of working hard to lift yourself up. What's compelling to me is that the people on both sides of the political aisle — the people with money and power who are moving the economic and policy levers — have thus far managed to do very little to generate jobs or economic growth (their stated goals), but have in fact managed to increase productivity and profits for themselves — which has to make you wonder if we're getting their best efforts and thinking on the subject…

    In previous eras, the wealthy and powerful were sometimes selfish and dishonest, too, but they seemed to believe in America and worked (in their way) to preserve it. The book makes a decent case that that's no longer true — that the the wealthy today feel more connected to the wealthy in China than to their own employees in the States. That's their prerogative, of course, but it's also unfortunate, especially if we continue to vote them into office and cede more and more power to them…

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  3. Ok Great Go big buisness go American Spirit. All I know is the Warren Buffett's of the world seem to think that the problems of Americans are not thier problems. They might be right but only for now. If we fall the world falls.

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  4. When the left learns and remembers that only business can make employment by hiring workers and paying them with the profits they make, then we might change some things. No we should not exploit people, but the left has pushed the business community to just that thing by imposing such stupendous regulations that they have forced many business to go elsewhere, for workers who will work for less and in environments that will let them do certain practices to enhance their bottom line. Call it pollution or whatever, but it's odd to me we still have a world left if you believe all the things they say will kill us that were acceptable some years back. The EPA has got a stranglehold on business and if they can go to countries who will allow them some moderation in how they produce, who is to blame the business? We all tend to go where we are treated better. The US has not been treating business very good for a long time, compared to other places. And what good does it do to stop “pollution” in this country, just to send it to another country?

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  5. I feel like we've lost all sense of perspective and all priority. Everything's a crisis. 24/7 media coverage and analysis of every little hiccup in the economy, in foreign affairs, or whatever, makes it seem like nothing's working and we need an intervention to save us. Everyone's issue is the MOST important issue, everyone's opinion matters, everyone deserves to win — and anything less isn't fair…

    The problem with this mentality is that greatness can only be measured against something less that great. Nobody wins if nobody ever loses. Like you said, JB, we shouldn't exploit people — but people should be rewarded for success and should learn from their failures.

    My bigger concern is the tendency to pretend that all businesses and all partisans are the same. For example, why are Republicans and conservatives painted as pro-Big-Business, but not pro-small and mid-size business? Why do Democrats and liberals get away with labeling conservatives this way, despite the money they also take from Big Business interests and left-leaning billionaires? And why are many of the titans of industry in this country supportive of laws and policies that will create profit in America (and, we hope, jobs and economic growth), but more inclined to invest their own money to solve problems overseas rather than here at home? If they want a great and thriving America, shouldn't they invest in America? A better business climate will create jobs only because it makes economic sense (and because it's good PR), not because the people at the top have any particular love of country — I don't think it used to be that way… They should be able to do what they want with their money — but why don't they want to do good here? Leader in China and Russia aspire to greatness — why don't our leaders, anymore? Is in not PC to be pro-America? Is it not fair?

    It's this detachment that scares me. I don't care that the rich are rich, and that the powerful are powerful — but when when the people running the country want to build a better world at America's expense, it's a concern…that's what I was trying to express.

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