Staying Home

Staying home
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Feb. 22, 2009

The power of old ideas to endure was on display this past week. Despite the widespread recognition that we are living in an unprecedented moment, old thinking still dominates our perception of problems and our search for solutions.

Most notable was the plan to stimulate the economy presented by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Geithner’s “new” plan came with a lot of fanfare. In his first press conference the night before Geithner’s presentation, President Obama said that he didn’t want to steal Geithner’s “thunder.” As it turned out, Geithner’s “thunder” offered almost no new ideas. It wasn’t even a little boom.

Instead it sounds very much like what we would expect from a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. While providing much needed money to states, education, infrastructure and health and unemployment benefits, Geithner clearly shares fundamental perspectives on the economy with the policy makers of the Bush administration. Like them Geithner targets Wall Street as the leaders to reinvent the economy.

We are now looking at nearly $1.5 trillion dollars being directed to people who have no idea what to do with this money except line their own pockets. Thus far, Geithner’s most successful argument, that we should not impose serious restrictions on executive compensation or tight demands on the use of these funds, has done nothing but allow Merrill Lynch to pay $1 million dollar bonuses to 696 employees.

As the stimulus package moved through the House and Senate, the Republicans treated us to an amazing show of old thinking. Having helped create this crisis by a policy of continual tax cuts and unlimited war spending, they shamelessly repeated the same formula.

The Democrats did little better. While providing programs to deal with the worst effects of the crisis on our most vulnerable, they offer little in the way of new ideas. Although they provided some support for green jobs, new technologies and power sources, the final bill is all too familiar in its direction and tone.

In the midst of all the high drama of the stimulus package, another sign of old thinking came from economic analysts at Moody’s and Wachovia, both respected sources for current policy makers. They are troubled by the fact that for the first time mobility in the U.S. has slowed dramatically. As new job loss figures were compiled, it seems that every state and 95 percent of every metropolitan area will end 2009 with fewer jobs than at the beginning of the year, with only education, health and government expected to add workers.

Because of the pervasiveness of the economic collapse, involving every community and every part of the country, economists are now worried that people cannot move to find work. Moody’s chief economist, Mark Zandi, warned, “There is really no place to hide in this economy. If you lose your job, it’s not clear where you should move to find one or even what training or education you need to retool yourself.”

The lack of jobs is compounded by the housing crisis. Even if they had somewhere to move, people are unable to sell their homes,

In the old ways of thinking, the ability to move has long been seen as critical to economic growth and to shortening economic downturns.

But if we are trying to think in new ways about reinventing productive life at the community level, this lack of mobility is a welcome sign. For far too long we have been a nation able to evade the hard choices of how to live by simply moving away. Today we have run out of places to hide. It’s time to face ourselves and reconnect with our neighbors.


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