Sorry, Tyler Cowen, We’re Not Taking Any More Lumps

I have a message for Tyler Cowen, the occasional New York Times columnist and George Mason University professor who was quoted this morning in a Times story on the effects of the upcoming federal spending sequester: We’re done taking our lumps.

“It may be time to take some lumps,” Cowen says in his blithe dismissal of the pain of austerity that will begin to unfold Friday if conservatives in Congress don’t come to their senses.

It’s an easy thing to say, I suppose, to a New York Times reporter from the comfort of Fairfax, Va., where George Mason is located. It has the second-highest median income in the country; only nearby Loudoun County is higher. It is one of only three counties — all in northern Virginia – where median incomes exceed $100,000.

I dare Cowen to say the same thing in my neighborhood.

I live in Ward 5, in the northeast section of Washington. Unemployment in my ward has been hovering near 12 percent for the past few months. Granted, that’s an improvement from where the ward was a year ago, when the unemployment rate was 13.7 percent (and better than Ward 8, where it is over 20 percent). But it’s still 50 percent higher than the national average, and a long way from the 3.6 percent unemployment rate in Fairfax County.

Needless to say, there are very few six-figure salaries in my neighborhood, even though it is not uncommon for a house in Brookland, my neighborhood, to sell for a half-million dollars or more.

What is true of my neighborhood is that it is largely made up of the kind of middle-class families that have taken lumps from this economy for decades. They have seen their median income go down, they lost a huge chunk of their retirement savings, and when they fall off the economic ladder, they often find the whole ladder has been snatched from them.

It’s one reason why when I walk down Brookland’s main commercial strip on 12th Street NE, there are four vacant retail spaces in one block. The neighborhood couldn’t even support a small dollar-store outlet, which closed in the past few weeks.

True, there are new housing units being built in the neighborhood. But those units were built in anticipation of a growing economy. But now conservatives in Congress think that now that neighborhoods like mine are beginning to pull themselves up, it’s time for us to “take some lumps” with job-killing austerity.

When I read that Cowen wants us to “take some lumps,” I immediately thought of a close friend who used to be a Washington-area journalist. In a better economy, she might be interviewing Cowen herself for stories on the sequester. Instead, she’s working part-time at a food outlet; it’s the best she can do as an older woman in a hostile economy. Before she could bring herself to move in with a relative, I had to give her money to keep her from being evicted from her apartment while she fruitlessly sent out resume after resume in desperate search for a job.

There is a fundamental immorality in the idea that the people who are struggling in today’s economy need to struggle more in the service of an illusion that their suffering will be rewarded in the great trickle-down bye and bye. Meanwhile, in the real world, more and more of the nation’s wealth coagulates at the top, where it is fiercely guarded by the congressional conservatives bankrolled by the plutocrats for that very purpose.

“Take some lumps”? Give me a break.

I’m thinking about those government workers that conservatives falsely assert are overpaid and who they seem almost gleeful are being furloughed. But many of the federal workers in my community are GS-5s or GS-6s — they are making between $35,000 and $50,000 a year. And their pay has been frozen since 2010 – already an effective pay cut. And now, thanks to Republican-induced gridlock, they are going to lose anywhere from a week’s pay to more than a month’s pay.

“Take some lumps”? Are you crazy?

Yes, Mr. Cowen, you are, if you think this is something we should do to bring forth some mythical economic nirvana. You should know better, because all you have to do is look at Europe’s experience with slashed government spending, and the resulting slow growth and higher unemployment, to know this is a foolhardy and dangerous course.

Or you could simply ask yourself how on earth does lowering income for workers, choking the dollars flowing into local economies and driving up unemployment lead to a better economy? It’s almost as if Cowen believes that the beginnings of a middle-class recovery is like snake venom, some sort of toxin that needs to be sucked out of the economy before it spreads.

Truth be told, those of us who don’t get to live or work in places like Fairfax, Va., are pretty sick and tired of taking lumps while the top 1 percent make off with all of the income gains of the past three years and then some. It’s time to stop the sequester madness, put government resources to work growing the economy, and ask the corporations and the wealthy who have gained a disproportionate share of the benefits of economic growth to pay their fair share so that the rest of America can get on its feet and begin to prosper again.

Mr. Cowen, where I live, we’ve taken all the lumps we can take.


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