Wednesday, August 15, 2012

We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back to Normal

I couldn’t count the number of headlines in the last five years that have promised the return of normal economic times. Hundreds, at least. Ten times, the U.S. real estate market “bottomed,” that is, experts said that prices had reached their lowest point and started upward again. Supposedly this was a turning point: “Now real estate can get back to normal, the construction business can get going again, and then the whole economy will get back into the swing of things.” If only it were true. Five times, the report of a real estate bottom was just a mistake. The other five times, prices really did inch upward for a season, only to fall still lower in the next season. It was the same story in jobs, energy, budgets, food, the euro zone, or anything else you might look at. If you were desperate to believe that things would soon return to normal, there was always a positive report you could latch on to, but the promises never turned into anything real.

Imagine you’re someone who had always believed the twentieth-century wisdom that a period of economic trouble could never last for more than a couple of years before things got back to normal. The current situation would be positively traumatic. “It can’t be this bad,” you would say. And almost every week, there would be news to convince you that things couldn’t really be as bad as they look. Except that, on most other days, there would be news to persuade you that things really are at least as bad as they look. “When will I wake up from this economic nightmare?” you ask.

Eventually, you have to say, “Enough! I don’t believe things are ever going to go back to normal!”

Or, wait. The way to phrase this, if you really want to say it with conviction, is, “We are never ever ever getting back to normal. Like, ever.”

Uh, well, okay, you caught me. That’s the chorus of the new Taylor Swift single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” and I have changed just two words to make it sound like it could be talking about the economy.

But I did it because it fits. Like, if you think things should go back to the way they used to be, what are you really trying to go back to? Were the good times really as healthy, as functional, as you remember?

Does “back to normal” mean going back to 2005? The last “good” year of an anxious deficit-fueled acid trip, when the federal government had spent its way literally to the edge of bankruptcy?

Or maybe the 1990s? It is easy to feel romantic about the 1990s when you look at where we are now, but the fact is, the first four years of that decade were a wretched process of dragging our way out of the doldrums, and the last two years were a caffeine-fueled “New Economy” dot-com dream that was hard to believe in even before we saw it come crashing down.

That means there were really only four good years in the “boom” economy of the 1990s. And looking back, those four years were a transitional period, in which the expansion of wealth was abrupt enough that it managed to find its way out to ordinary people before all the hired geniuses on Wall Street figured out new ways to walk off with a larger share.

The 1980s? The era of “downsizing,” when the layoffs were bigger than anything before or since?

No, there is no “normal” to go back to. And even if there were, it is gone now. Five years have gone by since 2007, the last year the job market showed any semblance of normalcy. It has been a crazy five years. The world has changed. You have changed. We have come too far to try to go back.

There is no reason to think we can go back to the past. There is no reason to look back. We have to carry on from here, and find out what we can do based on who we are.

Nor is the current situation the “new normal” that some pundits will try to persuade us it is. There is nothing “normal” about it, it certainly won’t last, and you can’t rely on it working. Some of the most basic things in your daily life, from communications to food distribution, are virtually guaranteed to break down without warning at least once a year. This year, more than half of the counties in the United States are officially disaster areas because of extreme weather events. Some of the largest retailers, hospitals, banks, even auto manufacturers are one bad month away from a financial collapse. It would be a mistake to think of any of this as normal.

In 20 years we will look back on this period not as any kind of “normal,” but as a turbulent and unpredictable transition period. It will not seem so awkward from that point of view because we will know where things were heading. That is something we can’t possibly guess from where we are now.

There is a reason why “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which has been heard only since midnight Monday night, is one of the biggest first-day single releases in history. It is a song that picks up on the spirit of the times. How many people just keep trying to patch together and carry on with something that has obviously failed, whether it is a bad job, an underwater mortgage, a horrifically expensive cell phone contract — or a drama-heavy romantic relationship? In difficult times, you have to try to keep things working — but only up to a point. How many people are ready, or wish they were ready, to draw a line under at least one of the failures of the past and start fresh from here?

Yes, you caught me again. I am, quite possibly, talking about you. Because, let’s face it — it was so bad that when you try to describe how it worked, it sounds positively funny. You can’t talk about it with a straight face anymore. And you’ve decided: you are not going to try to make it work again. Never ever ever ever.