Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The recession.

My apartment now has a few squatters of the Mus muscularis sort. I wouldn't mind were it not for the noise and that they don't use the toilet; a live-catch trap is set to try to get rid of them, and the entrance holes have been duct-taped. Mice and people have different ideas of space which makes living together difficult. (Perhaps the difference between reasonable folk and many socialists or global warming denialists is equally intractable; perhaps their brains are simply different. The prospect that some people are incapable of "getting it", of distinguishing truth from falsehood and good argument from bad, in the same way mice can't be brought to not chew the walls and defecate in strange places, is very interesting...)

In earlier times, a live-catch trap would have been though of as ridiculous; the problem with mice back then was not so much that they crapped on the counter and rattled inside the cabinets but that they ate one's stores of food. The mouse and the weevil were a serious threat to health and survival--look up how much grain is still lost to weevils; while one couldn't do much about weevils, killing mice, or keeping allergy-aggravating cats around to do so, was in order. Today mice are a mere inconvenience. Given a choice between the very small inconvenience associated with live catch and turning the mice loose a few blocks away or easier neck-breaking traps and suffering and death for mice, I go with the former. (Shades of Nozick's musings on animal rights, right?)

Over the past few years I've saved aluminum--mostly cans--to take in for recycling, storing it in a trash can outside my apartment. It'd be easier to just throw it in the blue bin, but the money adds up to something not insignificant to someone drawing a grad student salary. On Saturday I was to take it in, along with a few bags from inside my apartment, to pay for gas for a car-shopping trip to Phoenix, but when I went outside, the trash can was empty. The cans in there were mostly in plastic bags, conveniently wrapped up for any scavenger. I took the few bags from my apartment to the recyclers, but arrived a minute late (by their reckoning).

On to the gas station, to fill up before heading to Phoenix. At the pump a shifty-looking, shabbily dressed old man in a pickup was eyeballing me and had the courtesy to wait until I was done pumping before spanging. From his appearance and twitchy manner I though him a tweaker--it isn't uncommon in that part of town for people to somehow have money for amphetamines but not for gas and laundry--so I asked where he was headed. The reply: The metal place down at 22nd and Euclid, to take in scrap.

Instantly it hit me, that his was the truck I saw pulling in to Can-It just before I did. Also a minute late by their reckoning. He explained further that he needed the money to buy pain medicine for his back; he just got out of the hospital for treatment of a crushed vertebra. Ouch! No wonder he was so twitchy.

I gave him the few quarters in my pocket--certainly enough for gas to get to 22nd and Euclid from Miracle Mile-- plus the ten pounds of aluminum from my trunk. Never have I seen anyone so happy to get (what by then was) another man's inconvenient junk.

This economic recession doesn't feel so painful. My in-laws' business is hurting, but they were well-off, and that's most of what I've been hearing: "business is lousy". Jobs statistics reveal something different. Surely as usual they mean many people get laid off and then find employment elsewhere--there's turnover. But for the really marginal cases, recessions can mean having to spange for gas money to sell scrap to buy cheap opiates to take the pain out of a back injury.

In the John Ford film version of The Grapes of Wrath--and unlike Steinbeck, John Ford was no Red--Oklahoma townsfolk try to figure out who should be shot or hung for bringing bank-related trouble down on farmers. There's ultimately no answer, just as there's nobody to blame for last year's finance-sector collapse. (That didn't stop many from seeking someone to blame, be it economists who had nothing to do with the problem, bankers, or someone else. Such talk always sounded brutish to me, but see the note about mice and global warming denialists above.) We can say that the system used to hedge against certain sorts of risk was broken, and we can't say that there's anything wrong with hedging against risk. If we choose to look deeper, we find that the government forbade more transparent ways of hedging against risk.

Contra Rawls, I do not think it necessary or even desirable to do everything that will produce some gain at the "bottom", regardless of its effect on everyone else. His theory also is clumsy in its failure to account for progress over time, its 100% discounting of the future. Nevertheless there are reasons, both moral and practical, for everyone from the "bottom" to the "top" to have a stake in the political and legal order. Reactionary policy from Washington--"X Y and Z need to be 'more regulated' (whatever that means"--still appears likely, but if we had any sense we'd sit back and ask "what will make us better off?" That must take into account not only the welfare of those who use derivatives to hedge against risk but also of those for whom the systemic risk problem means having to spange for gas money to sell scrap.

If this means that things are made slightly less convenient for those at the "top"--and I'm not confident that it does mean this--then so be it. I'd like to think that people deserve at least as much consideration as my apartment mice.

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