Is “contraction” the right word for what we’re in today? I’m still agog over the quarter-century expansion we’ve just lived through.
Anyone who came of age in the 1970s, as I did, grew up pretty thoroughly contracted. When I graduated from college back in 1980, we didn’t have large expectations. There was no career counseling office at my school. Nobody recruiting on campus, except maybe the ROTC. No dizzying hope of making scads of money. Even rich people weren’t making scads of money. Michael Moore’s new film notes that in the 60s and 70s, with income tax rates up to 90%, the rich used to pay—a lot. “And they still lived just great,” Moore says. But they didn’t live like royalty. Then, suddenly, came the Reagan Revolution. The rich kept their money and went on a spree—one of those explosions of wealth that change the basic scale of things and alter expectations forever.
How to assess the effect of two-plus decades of conspicuous consumption straight out of Veblen? Lets just say that the American sense of normalcy proved highly…elastic. Consider what came to be routine. The $500,000 tear-down. The 22-year-old kid, fresh out of Harvard, making $90,000 a year as an “analyst” at Goldman Sachs. The Rolling Stones tickets going for $200 a pop. Money flooded everywhere: a boom in “upscale” specialty shops, a frantic trade in collectibles of every kind, Sotheby auctions where $40K might be paid, say, for a kitchen potholder Marilyn Monroe once used. There was a boom in human accessories, too: nannies and household managers; social secretaries and personal trainers and fashion consultants. There was so much money around, even the people who lived off the rich were getting rich.
It was laughable, the in-your-face extravagance of it all: like the seat someone reserved on the Concorde for a wedding cake flown in from Paris; or the cat hotel featuring “feline suites” complete with TV and water view. But when investment bankers are hauling off Christmas bonuses equal to your entire life’s income, and homes bigger than yours are being literally sold for scrap, it’s hard to laugh. Everywhere you turned was some reminder of how much more everyone was making than you. The New York Times morphed into a riotous chronicle of getting and spending. If you weren’t careful, if you weren’t armored against it, the Real Estate section of the Times could ruin your Sunday. Indeed, almost any section could; it sometimes seemed as if the Money & Business had taken over the entire paper. Sports now meant breathless coverage of the latest astronomical salary and of CBS ponying up $6 billion for college basketball; Arts reported half-million dollar advances paid out to first-time novelists; Travel profiled new hotels in the Rockies where you’d pay a thousand dollars a night and up. Someone had raised a curtain, and suddenly all things were revealed as just one thing, the one and only thing; and if you believed otherwise, the joke was on you.
So the joke was on me. As a writer I lived frugally—by necessity. In fact, throughout my adult life, my sense of what constitutes good money has hardly budged from a 1979 framework. Obviously there’s something self-protective in a man’s continuing to view $50,000 as a nice fat salary. I armored myself—and most Sundays I was able to read the Times and emerged untraumatized. As the spree raged on, I acted as if making art, arranging language on the page, would bring me the rewards that really mattered; and for the most part I believed it. OK, a few sleepless nights of doubt and despair along the way, a few ego-crunching episodes of feeling like the world’s biggest idiot. But more often than that, an abiding recognition of privilege in my attempt to make art. Which jazz musician was it who, asked by a journalist whether he wished he’d had a more lucrative career, laughed, gesturing with his saxophone around the jazz club, then asked in response, What, all this and you want to be rich, too?
Having never had a real job to begin with, I’ve felt less pain and angst than those who’ve lost theirs in the current “downturn.” My sister, a journalist of two-decades-plus standing, ran into a perfect storm of ageism, a global recession, and an imploding newspaper industry; she lost her job and is still trying to get her footing back. But I have parceled out my perfect storm into a lifetime of economic drizzle. Downward mobility wasn’t exactly my goal, but here I am. I live in a smaller house than the one I grew up in, in a “worse” neighborhood, and make much less money than my father did. My wife works, and it’s not an option. That wouldn’t have cut it in my parents’ world.
Sure, we’re scrimping a bit. My freelance income is down. Until it evaporated last winter, I had the best part-time writing gig in America, as a food-and-travel writer for Bon Appétit. I traveled like a prince. Island-hopping in the Greek Islands. A 2000 sq-ft duplex suite at a Vegas hotel, complete with monogrammed bathrobe and my own personal butler. Three nights in a luxus tree fort at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific, with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem inhabiting the next tree. The job let me spy on how the other half lived. The other half? Hah! The other one percent!
Here in the Lower 99, meanwhile, things continue more or less as they always have. You mow your own lawn, get Chinese take-out from the corner, and savor a miser’s delight at the prospect of keeping your PT Cruiser until it has 300,000 miles on it and disintegrates in the driveway. And you work work work. I work on weekends, on holidays; call me on the 4th of July and you’ll catch me right here at the keyboard. I’m not proud of this, not really. I’m just doing it. An insidious logic afflicts us in this country—when the economy contracts, you have to expand. This is another way, a very American way, of saying: it’s your problem, solve it.
Of course, nobody wants 1979 redux, with mortgage rates at 18%, Manhattan a stinking, twenty-square-mile garbage can, and tin-pot nations routinely kicking our butt abroad. But I’m not sorry to see our spree come to an end. Good riddance to an era when, to paraphrase Shakespeare, nature was out of joint. Good riddance to weekly newsmagazines hailing the newest dot.com billionaire, and to TV ads where punked-out computer geeks strut like crazed turkeys while tutoring their feckless fathers in day trading. For the moment at least, we’re back to straitened circumstances. And is it American blasphemy to say that it feels like a return to normalcy?