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Garson follows the 99% 'Down the Up Escalator'

People walk up and down an out of

People walk up and down an out of service escalator that leads from and to the lower level at Grand Central terminal. (Feb. 1, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

DOWN THE UP ESCALATOR: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, by Barbara Garson. Doubleday, 276 pp., $26.95.

The hard-luck stories in Barbara Garson's "Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession" fall into two sections: people who have lost their jobs and people who have lost their homes.

Garson, though, writes less about the terrible things that have happened to Americans since the crash than about the resigned/resourceful ways they're coping.

Take Michael, a young Indiana Deadhead who has settled with such easygoing hopelessness into the new economy that he's given up even looking for a job he might advance in.

His father works a miserable 50- to 60-hour week as a supervisor at the distribution center of a big-box retailer that, after 35 years, is trying to force him out so it can hire a younger, cheaper replacement.

"I'm not going to live that way," Michael tells Garson. It makes her think about acquaintances from her own generation who made the choice to drop out.

"Michael and his friends," Garson observes, "seem to have arrived at the hippie ethic from another direction. They don't have the option of well-paying, steady jobs. But they do have the option of not feeling bad about that.

Turning to the foreclosure crisis, Garson is struck by the change that's come over mortgage holders who once believed that repaying their loans was a matter of conscience and duty, even when they found themselves owing more than their property was worth.

The subject of a chapter titled (and not ironically) "An Upright Man" describes the tormenting process of applying for a loan modification -- the repeated demands for documents already submitted and similar "baroquely embellished procedures" seemingly designed to "give people just enough hope to keep them paying on the mortgage as long as humanly possible."

When -- finally -- their application was denied, he and his wife stopped paying. "After having tried to work with the bank for a year and a half," he says, "I know that we were not irresponsible. I know we're not deadbeats."

After moving jobs overseas, Garson notes, U.S. corporations are now abandoning the domestic market for foreign sales. "The companies that wrote us off as workers now write us off as consumers. If you're not a worker, not a consumer and you don't earn significant income from investments, then you don't have much of a place in capitalist society," she says.

Garson's engaging stories open the floor to an unnerving question: Have the crash and other changes to the economy that widen the gap between rich and poor created an America in which most Americans no longer have a place?

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