Fishbowl5 With The Atlantic’s Don Peck

Donald Peck is deputy managing editor of The Atlantic, whose March 2010 cover story on the Great Recession led to his first book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.”  He will speak at Politics & Prose tonight. The current issue of The Atlantic, now on newsstands, features an essay adapted from his book. Read that here.

How does the recession affect you personally?

My wife and I bought a row house in 2007 (we’d waited for several years because we thought the market was overvalued, but we finally said to each other, ‘we can’t keep putting our lives on hold’).  So it’s been a little tough to see the value of that fall, along with the value of our savings.  But overall, we’ve been very lucky: we kept our jobs, and so did almost all of our friends; housing values have held up much better in DC than in most of the country; and of course the stock market has come back pretty strongly, the past week or so notwithstanding.

That’s one of the more noteworthy aspects of this recession, I think — it’s been very uneven geographically.  In the professional communities of DC and New York and San Francisco, the recession was lighter, and the recovery has been stronger, than in middle-class meccas like Tampa or Phoenix or Las Vegas.  And I fear that this makes it easy for established professionals and members of the media in these former cities to underestimate just how much pain this recession has caused — and continues to cause — in most of the country.

How worried do we need to be?

Very worried.  Unless economic growth and job growth accelerate dramatically, we’re still years away from a more normal, healthy jobs environment.  And the longer a society stews in periods like this one, the more its character changes.  Comparable periods — the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1970s — show us that politics grow steadily meaner as people lose the sense that they can get ahead in life; anti-immigrant sentiments swell, support for the poor diminishes, and bold action of any type becomes harder because the atmosphere becomes more poisonous.  And beyond politics, long periods of elevated unemployment leave bad scars on people, their families, and their communities; some never recover.

What is the gist of your book and what do you want readers to get out of it?

“Pinched” contains three main messages.  The first is that the social changes resulting from periods like this one are wider, more complex, and much longer lasting than they first appear; the Great Recession has already changed the places we live, the work we do, our family lives, and in some cases even who we are.  But all of those changes are likely to become much more pronounced in the coming years, and to endure long after recovery.  The greatest impact of the Great Recession is yet to come.

The second is that this recession has temporarily accelerated several deep economic trends that were already underway: the hollowing of the middle class, the downward mobility of men without a college degree, the dissolution of blue-collar families, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.  In this sense, the recession has given us a preview of where American society is headed in the next couple of decades — and who it’s leaving behind.

The third — and most important — is that we can recover faster, and that we can mitigate the forces that are eroding the prospects of many middle-class Americans.  But it will take a wide array of public actions to do that — some time honored and some novel.  I describe those in detail in “Pinched.”