The definition of pain

We were talking in a newsroom meeting yesterday — briefly — about the differences between the Great Depression and the still-unnamed-current-economic-meltdown. Back in the day, people sold apples on the street corner. Clearly there’s some pain now, but many have kept the wolf at the door at bay while silently worrying that the cable TV tier would have to be halved.

The morning read of the New York Times story on a California town where most houses now have more debt than value started off well enough for me today, but it didn’t take long before the definition of “pain” became clear.

From one couple:

No more family bowling night. No more dinners at Chili’s or Applebee’s. No more going to the movies.

Another homeowner, a data security specialist, is really feeling the pain:

He has cut his DVD buying from 50 a month to perhaps one, and is waiting until the Christmas sales to buy a high-definition television. He does not indulge much anymore in his hobbies of scuba diving and flying. “Best to wait for a better price, or do without,” Mr. Rogers, 52, said.

And a third….

“My house is underwater, so I’m not doing too much impulse shopping or any renovation. But I’m not cutting back on this,” said Ray Lopez, a database administrator, as he placed a $24 petite sirah on the counter. “Life’s too short.”

It’s a veritable Dust Bowl out there.

Here’s the Times’ interactive map of places where home values are less than the amount of the mortgage. In Minnesota, that amounts to about 12 percent of the homes.

  • Carolynn

    Contrary to the listed quotes, there are people who are actually hurting out there who for some unknown reason are totally invisable to people like the ones illustrated in your post. It seems we hear about the kind you wrote about as well as the deadbeat or ignorant (gee, is that what I signed when I bought my house I still can’t afford?) but no mention is made of the folks who have added another job, or are praying that their car doesn’t break down, or who are putting gas and groceries on their credit card and hoping that their job doesn’t go away. They don’t go out, buy anything new or plan for any “holiday shopping”. Yes, they exist.

  • When you look at things in that sense, we really aren’t too bad off as a nation. It’s not like there has been a huge migration of people in search of some promised land of jobs but for most this is about as bad as they have seen in their lifetime. A sort of not-so-great depression for the baby boomers meet retirement generation.

  • The Times’ story offered some bizarre examples of Americans’ perceptions of hardship. But such stories, and there are always such stories, trivialize the true pain of many. That fact is often left to a paranthetical comment.

    I don’t give money to panhandlers, but it is not because I saw a [fill-in-the-blank news show] episode on the extravagent take a professional huckster makes. I’ve volunteered in a homeless shelter. Most of the people on the street are desperate.

    Yes, our country is a long way away from the crushing poverty, unemployment and desperation of the Great Depression. Now we know even wealthier families’ lifestyles are changing, albeit in a minor way.

  • John

    Let’s get real. There is a lot of pain and fear out there. There is one thing that they had in the depression that we don’t have today, SOLIDARITY. While people internalized the pain and fear, they also knew that they were victims of unseen forces. The song, “Buddy can you spare a dime” caught it exactly.

    Sure a lot of people made mistakes, bought more than was prudent, Does that mean they should have a life sentance of poverty. They didn;’t make their jobs go away. They lived in a dream, “The American Dream.”

    The people who managed this sytem and put everyone in the whole have taken very good care of themselves, bonus, golden parachutes, etc.

    Before we start forclsoing on people or blaming the victims, let use the government resources to provide everyone with a job at a living wage.

    The debat is over, it is clear Socialism is the answer, the only question is: It is Socialism for only the rich and well connected, or is it Socialism for everyone.

  • Paul


    The reason people aren’t selling apples on the street is because we have a social safety net now that we didn’t have then. They didn’t have unemployment insurance, or social security, food stamps etc. If your going to compare economies you need to keep things like that in mind. You people just don’t seem to be able to resist the urge to try to minimize this crises. This isn’t as bad as the great depression… yet. 11% real unemployment isn’t as bad as 20% for instance, but it’s bad and getting worse. I’m not saying everyone should be hysterical, but people need to get real and resist the urge to stick their heads in the sand.

  • Laurie

    I find John’s commentary more disturbing than the current economic downturn! Let’s look at the history of countries that espoused socialism. You have the regimes of those like Stalin, Mouselini and Hitler. They thought they had a better way and that it was for the “good” of the people. If you want to see only the rich excel then socialism is the way to do it. The black market and behind the scenes free enterprise will flourish and the rich get richer.

    Do real people suffer in the current situation? Absolutely. But to those who have considered the loss of cable TV to be the epitome of suffering, they should look around and see the difference between a want and a need.

    Should the government step in and take from the well-to-do and redistribute it to the less fortunate? Absolutely not! Then what incentive do the less fortunate have to do for themselves?? If they do well, doesn’t that mean that what hard work they put in only will be taken and given to someone else? Why not stay “on the dole” and have their needs met that way?

    Are there legitimatly desperate people that need help? Of course. And should we help them. Yes. How and how much is the question. Children will only rise to the level of expectation put upon them. The same is true of all people. If you expect nothing of them, they will do nothing. It would be more productive to provide better incentive for those who offer help and those who are helped. Help those in need, but put realistic limits on that help to prevent complacency. Work together with entities and organizations with proven success and not get in the business of bailing businesses and individuals out perpetually.

  • John

    This country has always had Socialism for the rich, all the way from the time the first land was stolen from Native Americans, through the Erie Canal, to the land subsidies to the railraods, to airport subsidies for the airlines, to NASA subsidies for high tech and on and on.

    I am not calling for giving to people, I am saying the government has to gaureentee everyone a job at a living wage.

    By the way Stalin, Hitler and Mouselini weren’t socialists, even if they used the term. They were fascists. When fascism comes to America it will come with a slogan of individual responsibility, wraped in the flag, carrying a cross.

  • Bob Collins

    Nobody is arguing that there isn’t pain, but if you define it by having to cut down from renting 50 DVDs a week, I think it’s a message that’s going to get stuck in the telling.

    I’m always interested in how people are *personally* feeling the pain. I can’t say I recall very much about it from the assembled group. So help me out.

    I get rid of my bottled water delivery and cellphone. I have it pretty good. That’s not the same as saying everyone has it pretty good, mind you.

  • Bob Collins

    //It seems we hear about the kind you wrote about as well as the deadbeat or ignorant (gee, is that what I signed when I bought my house I still can’t afford?) but no mention is made of the folks who have added another job, or are praying that their car doesn’t break down,

    I’m interested in why people feel those stories don’t get covered?

    Some of them are tucked in here. And there was one on just this morning.

    If people have a story to tell, I’m all ears and am willing to tell it. What’s missing that you’re closely familiar with?

  • Mark Gisleson

    Bob, is this story saying that there are NO poor? Or is this story looking at the formerly affluent, now just getting by crowd? Why did YOU think this was a story about poverty?

    Why don’t the stories of the real (non-homeless) poor get told more often? Maybe because we’ve all been sold a bill of goods about our national prosperity for so long that those who are hurting are ashamed to come forward.

    No, we’re not selling apples on street corners. But how many bright kids aren’t going to college because the income isn’t there? How many Americans are learning (all over again) that being late on utility bills incurs disproportionately large penalties? How many ulcers are forming because retirements long planned for are being delayed due to the wholesale looting of pension funds during the stock market meltdown?

    Bob, in all honesty you seem to have a contrarian streak in you that always seems to see the glass as half full. I think that blinds you to life for those whose gas tanks are always hovering near empty, whose utility bills get paid on the day specified by the disconnection notice, and who haven’t eaten out at a non-fast food restaurant in this century. But yeah, they might have more house than they can afford, so they’re not poor — isn’t that the meme?

    There’s pain out here, but more than that, there is a lot of shame. The Republicans never stopped pushing the meme that everyone who wanted to bad enough was prospering. That was never true. Income and hard work have become two radically disconnected things in our country today. Long hours do not equal hard work, any more than calluses equal income. Let’s stop pretending everything is OK and start adding up everything that’s NOT OK.

  • Bob Collins

    //Or is this story looking at the formerly affluent, now just getting by crowd?

    I would say the story looked at the formerly affluent who are still affluent who think they’re just getting by.

    //Bob, in all honesty you seem to have a contrarian streak in you that always seems to see the glass as half full.

    Great. Now I have to hope that for the rest of the day, the people I work with don’t read this particular comment, which will no doubt be met with hoots of laughter.

    The contrarian streak in me actually is the one that likes to consider that there are more grays in the world than there are blacks and whites, and doesn’t buy into the fact that if you recognize the grays, it doesn’t mean the same thing as saying “there are no blacks and white.”

    A more clinical reading of the original post will reveal that I never said there wasn’t real pain and that the folks in Mountain Valley who define the pain they feel, are not particularly representative of anything except for people who don’t know their roots.

    Nothing more. Nothing less. I simply choose not to go through life hoping to make a difference by writing about how bad things are while praying for the sweet release of death. That’s not going to fix anything.

    As I said at a public meeting this morning, I’d like to get all the News Cut people together and go build a Habitat for Humanity house. Volunteer, stuff bags at a food pantry, buy some extra grocery, do something, make a difference in those areas where things are bad.

    What’s the plan besides voting for someone’s candidate and then folding our arms thinking we’ve done all we can do?

  • Mark Gisleson

    If you build a house, I’ll help get it painted, inside and out.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m totally serious about this. I’m pursuing.

  • JohnnyZoom

    It strikes me that Mark has missed the point of the original post.

    First, as we all know, there is pain, and lots of it, some places. People are losing their homes, and more will follow. People are losing their jobs, and more will follow. A little lower on the pain scale, but something I would not wish on my enemy, people planning on retirement are having to postpone it for several years.

    But it was pretty clear Bob’s post was about confirmation bias. People think “things are bad”, but then somehow apply that to their own situation when in reality, they don’t really have it that bad (yet?). His “dust bowl” sarcasm made that obvious (I would think).

    As a scientist, it never ceases to amaze me how economics so often assumes people act rationally. The two strongest economic forces are fear and greed. Add lust and hunger to this list and you get a Who’s Who of irrationality.

  • Elizabeth T.

    Just be cause one can Dream the American Dream doesn’t mean one is entitled to get it – we’re entitled to dream it. And then pursue it.

    There are many stories which get told about the poor and those in desperate straits. I honestly hadn’t read anything so stupendously stupid until I read this.

    I have had a good paying job, and then married someone with an even better paying job. Financially unfortunately, I’m in grad school and am not only not bringing in the dough, I’m a total drain on the family budget.

    I got through my undergraduate years (many years ago) on a shoe-string budget. It has been very difficult (and not quite achieved) to go back to living like that.

    I’m wondering how many stay-at-home parents struggle with the psychological guilt of “not earning”. I do. Even staying home to take care of the kids left me felling guilty – being a student again with the kids in daycare just makes it worse.

  • Elizabeth T.

    I just realized how totally sad-sack my post sounds. I don’t mean this as a whine … we chose this, and I’m happy about the great opportunity I have … which doesn’t eliminate financial guilt. sorry, I’m not looking for pity, just trying to explain irrationality. (gotta agree w/ JohnnyZoom about the economics of fear)

  • Candi

    I didn’t think this was all that controversial a post. Bob just pointed out the silliness of people who cut down on their DVD watching (which, if that guy is really buying 50 movies a month, he needs to get a life) and call that making sacrifices. I look at my newly retired step-father, who is literally making himself sick wondering if he should just pull all of his money out of the markets and tuck it in his walls, exclaiming how easy it is for the younger generation to tell him not to panic. This man owned a blue collar business and worked hard for 50+ years. He got nailed in 2001 and now again. I can’t imagine working that many years only to watch the savings slip away and feeling so helpless.

    Americans have short memories. Bob, you should do a post on all of people who, when interviewed by the local news stations while filling their gas tanks, talk about how excited they are to start driving more again since gas prices are so low. I guess they’ve already forgotten why it’s come down