According to Kurt Andersen’s slim new book Reset, the economic collapse is a magical second chance for America—an opportunity for a nation of greedy vulgarians and fat slobs to find new purpose in our post-binge society.
Homes can become humble, sustainable dwellings. We could start walking, maybe, and not putting everything from flat-screens to Pizza Hut takeout on credit cards. Our elite kids at the Ivy League schools might begin pursuing careers in science and arts again, instead of just running to Wall Street to make six-figure salaries juggling other people’s debt.
And in domestic and international politics, we can now move to a post-partisan, grown-up, center-left realm of pragmatic policies to deal with health care, global warming, immigration, terrorism and whatever else is wrong with us.
“We can rediscover common sense and the better angels of our nature,” Andersen writes at the end of this very short, very vague yet enjoyable book. “We possess the ability to rejigger and renovate our lives and our country as necessary.”
It is a neat, optimistic set of goals. Only in flipping back to find a few succinct bits to quote does it become clear how little Andersen actually says. He mentions 12-step programs and Zen Buddhism, the infantilism of today’s upper-middle-class adults and the anger of the poor white working class with nobody left to turn to but some weeping giant-baby wingnut like Glenn Beck, the Gold Rush and the housing crash, even the Apollo program and the “Greatest Generation.” (Tom Brokaw actually writes the introduction.)
- Kurt Andersen
- Random House, $15.
- Amazon: Reset
But nothing about this collapse—and the stock market recovery so far—suggests America hit any kind of reset button. The crisis just hasn’t been big or bloody enough to change the basic business of America, where 100 million people are poor and the very rich hold an even bigger share of U.S. wealth than they did in the 1920s, and a kind of national dumbness keeps the shrinking pool of active voters forever enraged about one distraction or another that never really affects their angry little lives.
What Andersen gets right in his hard-bound pep talk is the weird fever-dream American Era that began with Reagan’s election and (supposedly) ended with Barack Obama’s election and the 2008-09 economic nightmare. During this three-decade boom-bust cycle of downsizing, working Americans have steadily seen their incomes drop and their personal debt rise, while they became sadder and fatter and ever more addicted to a gambling lifestyle—lottos in most states, Indian casinos everywhere, endless “reality” TV shows about hitting the big time and a dingbat Joe the Plumber mentality that makes people struggling to support kids on $25,000 per year somehow believe they’ll soon be making $250,000 and will need to protect their assets (an upside-down mortgage and truck payment) from the “Death Tax.”
During the few days I spent reading and thinking about Andersen’s alleged American Reset, I was otherwise busy with a very post-crash desert occupation: fixing up a rural repo I bought on the cheap as a family home, a relatively safe distance from the dying sprawl-cities of the West. And that meant a two-hour round-trip drive to Home Depot and Lowe’s and other such suppliers to the home-ownership industry as I tried to cover up the fury and sorrow of the people who lost this house but took almost everything they could yank out or unscrew on their way out.
Once you get to one of these warehouse stores, all eerily empty and quiet whether it’s 9 a.m. on a workday or late at night, you’re also close to another three or five Lowe’ses and Home Depots in identical new stucco shopping strips. And you need to go to those, because that’s where the faucet or closet door or whatever thing you need is hidden away. These superstores are often the only businesses open in massive big-box developments covering a square mile or two, scores of empty commercial spaces, each one built with the intention of employing dozens of workers and selling stuff to thousands of families who were supposed to be living in those new empty Taco Bell houses.
Hundreds of acres of newly paved parking lots are empty, along miles of freshly paved six-lane divided boulevards to nowhere. The billboards on these exurban highways are covered in free PSAs—Help the Blind, Donate Blood, Make a Difference, Do It Now!—and pawn-shop ads.
There’s nobody to shop in these places, which provide the only revenue most new Southwest “cities” earn, along with the dried-up property-tax racket. Consumer-credit spending and massive stucco developments spilling out across the desert aren’t just our regional shame—that was the idiot fuel of the entire financial boom. And books about good intentions and lessons learned cannot erase our awful, ugly national infrastructure. This is the America we made.
Andersen, who has skewered and celebrated the rich and famous of New York as a magazine editor and public radio host, lives in Brooklyn, one of the most pleasant urban environments in the country. He is not the person to tell us what to do with the rest of this godforsaken abandoned strip mall. But somebody needs to step up with the perfect jobs/schools/government/business/art/nature solution for our retail/residential wasteland. In the meantime, I’ll be hiding out in the Joshua Tree mountains and taking my urban holidays in Paris.
Ken Layne is managing editor of Wonkette.com. His walking history book of California, The Left Coast, will be published in 2010.