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We're All Economists Now

Annals of the New Poverty

· Culture Shock,Poverty,America,Inequality,Blog

When I was in college, economics was a major for uninspired boys from good families who planned to transfer their drug dealing skills to Wall Street.

But we’re all economists now, whether we like it or not.

I recently got a facial – OK, you can scoff, but I’d waited months to make the appointment, until a much-anticipated chunk’o’cash came my way. I could have used a full-tilt vacation, but instead I went to see Lisa, a cool, rock-climbing esthetician.

I hadn’t seen Lisa in several years. She always struck me as tough-minded, but this time she seemed subdued. She’s gone back to school to study to be a pharmacy tech, because as a self-employed woman over fifty (still drop dead gorgeous, of course) she can no longer afford to pay for health insurance. As we chatted after the treatment, she talked about a friend who has backed off, and Lisa thinks it’s because of the “marginal” lives she and her boyfriend lead.

Marginal? Lisa has owned her own home for years, and her boyfriend just graduated from a master’s program in landscape architecture.

The gap between the rich and the rest of us is an abstract concept but the small, shaming moments it creates are real and concrete. I feel them, too. As a working writer, I’ve always had financial ups and downs. But now, because of the rising cost of living, tight credit, and flat pay, there are many things that I cannot do: buy a house, for instance, even though I’ve owned several. Travel to New York – unless, maybe, I can crash on a friend’s couch. Live in San Francisco. Feel hopeful about the future.

We constantly see people with enviable lives, so why aren’t we among them? Lisa’s job keeps her in contact with the 1 percent of wealthy people in the U.S., and, as economist Robert Frank has told us, feeling rich or poor depends on your social context. But the reality is that the lives of Lisa, and me, and many other people, have become circumscribed – and, quite frankly, frightening. The legacy of our era may be the shame many of us feel as we drop precipitously from the middle class to genuine poverty. Where will all that shame and fear lead us? Political instability? Violence? Paul Krugman, our Nobel Prize-winning economist rock star, has suggested as much.

No wonder so many students are majoring in economics. The number has been going up since the early 90s. The most dramatic increase came after the economy nosedived: since 2007, the proportion of economics majors rose 18 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

We’re trying to figure out what hit us. But is it naive to hope that, even in crass, materialistic America, we might return to a time when we can think about things other than money? Maybe just a little? Must I spend quite so many of my waking hours doing arithmetic in my head?

Welfare queen, I mutter to myself under my breath. I’m putting off getting a crown and fixing my car, but I get a cheap thrill from spending $40 on Touche Eclat to cover the dark circles under my eyes from waking up in the middle of the night worrying that I’ll get cancer and my sketchy health insurance won’t cover my treatment. Good quality makeup and recalling the reckless panache of Yves St. Laurent lets me feel, for a few seconds, the rush of unearned power and invulnerability that come with knowing that you are one of them. The rich.

I ran across a quote from Bruce Chatwin explaining why he could no longer bear to sell art at Sotheby’s. Why do such laudable sentiments seem dated, even to me? I long to escape from my time, and sometimes, my own sensibility, which seems too firmly attached to the present circumstances.


But the art business had come to disgust him. Later he would remember with a shudder “the nervous anxiety of the bidder’s face as he or she waits to see if she can afford to take some desirable thing home to play with. Like old men in nightclubs deciding whether they can really afford to pay that much for a whore.”

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