What do you want me to do?

Back when I used to be an editor, my favorite question was a simple one: “Who cares?” It was the way I tried to separate those stories that have some meaning from those stories that are done simply because we’ve always done them. If a press release comes into a newsroom tomorrow announcing 10 layoffs at the Layoffs ‘r Us store, it’ll get a fair amount of attention because we need to tell you just how bad the economy is. As if you didn’t already know.

At what point does the news do you no good if all it does is tell you what you already knew?

These days, I ask myself a new question: “What do you want me to do about it?” It’s one of the reasons behind the News Cut on Campus effort. Documenting what some people are doing about it, shows that people are…doing…something… about…. it.

From what I can tell from all of the economic stimulus package coverage last week, lots of money is heading our way, but only a few pennies are coming to us directly. The state has its hands out. The cities have their hands out. The counties have their hands out, and all of them are in no mood to do any more than they’re already doing and, in many cases, less than that.

So it’s unclear what I’m supposed to do now as a member of the U.S. economy.

The front page of the Star Tribune tells me today that nurses, recently in short supply in Minnesota, are now being laid off because the state is cutting reimbursements to hospitals (again), and people are putting off elective surgery. It’s enough to make me feel I’m not pulling my weight because I feel fine today. It’s a terrible thing — nurses being laid off and all — but what can I do about it?

MPR tells me that Duluth is bracing for local government aids cuts, but I already figured that because there’ve been stories for three weeks that local government aid was going to be cut under Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan. Most cities that get LGA are cutting back. What am I supposed to do? I’m not the governor, I’m not a legislator, I’m not a mayor. It’s the reality that leads people to throw shoes.

“You know what you people can do?” a man said to me as he picked up chairs last week at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. “You can stop telling me how bad things are: It’s just making it worse.”

It’s an opinion that is gaining some traction and it doesn’t mean people want the news media to pretend everything is great. It means people want people like me to stop telling you how bad things are, and start telling people what they can do about it?

Nobody is telling me what that is.

Susan Brown of St. Paul had a suggestion in her letter to the Star Tribune today:

Here’s a request to all those whose jobs are secure: Don’t pretend to be hurting if you’re not, or hold back on spending because it seems like you ought to. It doesn’t have to be lavish or extravagant, but go out for lunch, shop at Target, check out the skyways, go to the mall, go to a play or concert, consider a spring break vacation, throw a dinner party and maintain your charitable giving. It’s the right thing to do!

Is she right?

  • Carolynn

    She is totally right.

    Also, I think that stories that bury the “good” news under a banner of “bad” news, are borderline evil. I’m not saying we can or should pretend our situation away, but how about giving us glimpses of what is going right. The 3M story comes to mind.

    And, regarding stories under the “who cares” banner – today’s news that they are moving the plane that went into the Hudson.

    There’s NOTHING else going on today????

  • I think she’s right. That’s been in the back of my head, even though I’m laid off: the notion to continue spending. Sure, my dime will go to high-percent alcohol and groceries (especially on Super Bowl Sunday), but I have friends who have chosen “not to participate in the economy.” Hopefully that’s becoming a popular notion.

  • BJ

    @Carolynn –

    How does one know their job is safe? I like to think I have a safe job, but the truth is things outside of most of our personal control will make our job safe or not. So the advice that many finincial planners have been giving since the beining of time, Save, seems to be hitting home.

    If we let the economy get back in balance, that is with us saving more, the jobs will start to come back. Right now people are saving (or paying debt off to be more correct) at a very large rate, this will decline in time. Spending will not be at the same rates as 2-3 years ago, but at a much higher rate than today. When that occurs we will have a better economy.

  • Minn Whaler

    Spent the night with some friends in Red Wing last week. In the morning I heard laughter coming from the couple’s bedroom, mom in the kitchen, son in the shower, so what’s so funny. The spouse comes out of the bedroom and announces witha grin: “Hey, guess what, the economy is in the tank and we’ve been in a recession for nearly a year! Tell me something I didn’t know!” So many are just not reading the news or listening, because it does seem to cast a shadow on a day, especially when you are employed. I am beginning to feel guilty for having a job. I am definitely spending more conservatively and paying off all debt, but not at the expense of enjoying a lunch out, or seeing a movie, etc.

  • And I’d say she’s exactly 100% 180° wrong. Bad consumerism got us into this mess. An economy that needs us to buy junk from China is an economy that should be put to sleep.

    How many Americans have jobs that actually improve the world in even the tiniest way? How do we grow as a people when our job opportunities revolve around “make work” employment?

    When you go to the mall to buy anything you’re supporting:

    1) The death of small merchants

    2) A retail system that devalues human labor

    3) A manufacturing system that’s been shipped overseas

    4) A distribution system that relies on cheap oil to ship goods

    5) A perverse form of capitalism that strips workers of their pay so executives and shareholders can be overpaid

    6) A tax system that encourages mindless consumption over savings and conservation

    7) Herd mentality consumerism (buying something so you can look like everyone else is unAmerican)

    As a nation I pray that Obama guides us back to sanity. We need to emphasize durable goods, not throwaway products that contaminate landfills. We need micro-founderies and other local manufacturing to get us through this period of expensive energy. We need to end the insanely wasteful belief that Minnesotans need cheap strawberries in January. We need to honor and promote family farms, and we need to tax corporate farming out of existence.

    Everything that’s passed for common sense or the way things are these past thirty years needs to be viewed with great suspicion. The rules were gamed over a long period of time, but reform can’t come any too quickly.

    We’ll shop our way out of this mess about the same time we “win” in Iraq.

  • Joanna

    As a citizen, I have some choices about what I can “do about it” but in order to make those choices, I need to be informed and educated. so the first thing I want to do is to learn more. As journalists, I’d like you all to make that task possible, not just by telling me how many people Target has laid off, but by asking the hard questions: were those layoffs necessary because if Target doesn’t make them they will go out of business? or were they made to make sure the stockholders continue to get the returns they expect? those are two different motivations. Were they made to get rid of employees who are older? are we seeing a collective effort to drive wages down by corporate america? Sure, some of these layoffs may be necessary for the survival of some companies, but I suspect that many of them are preemptive. Drive up the unemployment numbers, justify wage and benefit cuts, turn full-time jobs into temp jobs. So if the (local) press is not asking the bigger questions about our local political/economic ecology, how am I, as a citizen, supposed to make the informed political choices about where to put my civic efforts (beyond volunteering or writing a letter to someone?)

    That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. I’ve long ago turned to alternative sources for my big picture. That is why I like your series about the college campuses so much. It gets to what is behind the immediate headlines.

    Thanks for asking the question.

  • Steve Backoff

    I may feel ‘safe’ in my job right now, but I also work for a large financial company in the middle of a merger. Who knows how safe I am, or how long I will remain that way.

    Sure, people can continue to spend money. Just tone it down a bit. Stop paying for services you’re not using (I’m canceling the cable I never watch, and switching to a cheaper Internet provider). Find out about your great local retailers when you are going to spend money. Support businesses that you value, and that you want to be around when things turn around. Most of all, just take a moment to think before handing over the plastic. You may still decide to buy that item, but at least you’ve thought about its value to you.

    We’ve been living too long off of money we don’t have. Most importantly, borrowing equity on artificially inflated home values, and satisfying every want today on credit. Few people save for what they want anymore until they have the cash in hand.

    Finally, did anybody not see this coming, when working people could no longer afford to buy homes? Did people really think their houses were going to increase in value by 20, 30% per year forever?

  • NLG

    I think she is right, people who can need to spend normally, not put themselves deeper in debt but spend what they have in a responsible manner. The alternative is to completely cripple the economy. Slowly we need to start moving forward. Hopefully things will not ever go back to the wild spending, lending, and debt that we had but a more realistic version of a stable responsible economic system.

  • Lily

    How to deal with it? I try to find out how others around me are doing, spend a little money every day, and look for opportunities to give in small ways. I am grateful that my area has a community food shelf and hope to start donating regularly again. I am glad that I have a job at this point. I feel like this economic crask may be what it takes for us baby boomers to finally grow up.

    I also went to church today for the first time in a long while, though found it odd that the economy was never mentioned, but we heard all about the Lutherans bishops trip to the mideast. That seemed out of touch with what is happening right in our own communities, not to discount the mideast!

  • Lucie Amundsen

    I’m not sure if Carolynn is right or not, but I do think that if one does have a job life can be pretty good with deflation.

    And that’s a great place to segway into my wholehearted agreement with the gentleman at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College. Honestly, the wall-to-wall bad news isn’t helping anyone.

    I work from home and always thought of public radio as my entertaining companion. Now it’s like a whining girlfriend who never has anything positive to say – or the old man at the library who has to repeatedly tell me all about his goiter.

    Sprinkling in some of the quirky stories that makes public radio what it is would be greatly appreciated.

  • Al

    Carolynn – What 3M story?

  • Linda Reed


    Like you, I think many of us are getting more spiritual at this time. The Lutheran Bishops, all 44 of them and their spouses, went to the Gaza strip to be in communion with the people there and show their support. We have a relative who was among them. While we do have our troubles here we need to remember those overseas, too.

  • Jess W. Eacann

    We can remember those overseas without spending thousands of dollars to go there simply to say, we feel for you, let us pray.

    Last time I heard, you can pray from here. I know the Lutherans want to eliminate poverty and homelessness by 2020, but I don’t see how flying overseas with 44 bishops and families will get us there????

  • BJ Bonin

    Mark Gisleson nailed it. After all, the President told the US to go shopping right after 9-11 and that got us where?

    Job security is keeping me from spending on nearly anything beyond survival. When I know my income is not to fall or stop, THEN my family will start spending again.

    2 points: 1) if you save money, it goes to the banks, recapitalizing them. 2) buy local from mom & pop vendors. It benefits all of us.

  • Doug

    I agree with Mark and BJ. If the savings rate gets out of the negative, something good will have come from this mess. If our habits evolve a bit as Mark suggested, we’ll be stronger in the long run.

  • momkat

    Dadkat and I are aware of the current economic situation but have always been pretty non-conspicuous consumers. We don’t have an ipod, a media room, more than one TV, a lot of things we see around us that we don’t have and don’t want. But we are pretty comfortable in our apparently simple life and have relatives and friends in the same position. We also have friends/rellies that have EVERYTHING and buy non-stop.

    At times I feel torn–should we head out and spend $$ in the name of supporting the local economy or should we try to recycle even more? It feels good to compost and shop for used items. It also feels good to buy that flat screen TV and hire someone to paint the kitchen.

    Damn you, Bob Collins–I’m so confused!

  • bsimon

    It sure would be great if everyone went out and spent money. The problem is, many of us don’t know how secure our jobs are. I think mine’s secure, but my wife upped her hours in order to qualify for benefits – just in case something happens to my job, we’ll have an affordable option for health care, rather than COBRA.

    If people have disposable income – i.e. income that is not required to meet basic needs like a mortgage, food, health insurance, etc. and for folks that already contribute adequately to personal savings – i.e. retirement plans, a rainy day fund, etc. Yes, please do go out and spend. Perhaps hire someone to paint your kitchen as momkat says. For the rest of us, we’ll all be better off if we get into the habit of saving first, and only spending excess income. There will surely be short term pain as the economy adjusts to this newfound rationality, but we can take the pain now or keep putting it off, which will likely make it worse.

  • Paul

    Susan is wrong. This recession was not triggered by a sudden wave of “savings” and it won’t we ended by a new wave of debt acquisition on a personal level. (debt spending by the government is a different thing, the difference between macro and micro economies) People are doing what they have to now, they’re spending based on their income rather than their credit, this is a rational response to a recession. No ones job is secure in an economy like this and we dismantled the safety net back in the 90s, so you better have something in reserve if your laid off or your hours or pay are cut for some reason.

    So to answer Bob’s question, act rationally and take care of yourself and your family. Make decisions based on that, if you’re comfortable going out to eat great. But if you think it’s an unnecessary expense stay home. The idea that you’ll fix the economy by buying coffee at Starbucks is silly. The economy was irrationally overextended in many areas and we just have to adjust to that. We’ll create sustainable jobs, and we’ll boost income, that’s how we’ll get out of this, in the meantime as always, you act in your own best interest. This doesn’t mean be selfish, we can and should help each other in many ways, but when comes to your finances only you know what your bank account looks like, and you need to make your own decisions about what’s good for you.

  • tiredboomer

    To Bob’s original question about telling people what they can do about it, perhaps we need to go beyond the spending/not spending and saving/not spending discussion.

    I’d like to see the press hold some feet to the fire, the feet of our political leaders, the feet of our corporate leaders and the feet of the average American. In this day and age of boutique news coverage, I know it’s unlikely, but I’d like to have journalists ask tough questions that make us uncomfortable.

    Our political leaders are having the same old discussions about tax cuts, job creation and bailing out industry. Rather than just presenting the plans with the same old arguments, journalists could ask some tough questions about just what we are buying, and at what cost, when we spend in these ways. Is bailing out the financial industry solving a problem, or just moving down the road a few years?

    Our corporate leaders are bankrupting whole industries, and the nation, and paying themselves millions in bonuses for a job well done. Journalists could camp out on the doorsteps of members of boards of directors and ask for statements of justification. Some of these board members get paid a quarter of a million a year for a job that requires them to show up once a quarter and serve on a subcommittee or two … ask them about their contributions.

    Then there is us. “We have met the enemy, and he is us”. When was the last time any of us (including me) did anything beyond complain? Find others that are making a difference and tell their stories. Tell me what I can do to be heard by my representative and senator over the noise of the well financed interest (Does letter writing work? Does anything else work?). And if it’s true, tell me that as a member of the public I’m not contributing to a solution.

  • GregS

    We all knew this was coming.

    We have been rushing toward a brick wall for 20 years and all we had to do was read the graffiti.

    We had to know something is seriously wrong when there is a show on the cable’s HGTV titled “Flip That House” and the average house on our block has climbed in value $100K in two decades.

    Sure, we can blame corporate America. We can blame Wall Street and Washington.

    But after we have blamed everyone else, it is time to accept responsiblity.