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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/21/09

Doing Good When the Economy is Doing Bad?

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Message Adam Bessie

"Waiting out the bad economy by giving back,"- read the teaser for the evening news tonight, as an image flashes across the TV of a broad-smiling, middle-aged white woman helping a small, African-American child do his homework.

Sounds nice? Helping while we wait for things to go "back to normal"?

At first glance, this human interest story seems a silver-lining during this dark economy: a laid-off worker using her jobless state to help others, to volunteer in the community rather than sit at home in slippers and a ratty bathrobe, scouring craigslist alongside thousands, millions of others for the scant openings.

And as soon as she can get back to that accounting job, back to the corporate world, she will have not only the good tingly feelings of serving the community, but as a report pointed out, she has just "boosted her resume," once those openings flood back.

Some reports suggest that this is not an isolated story, and that the unemployed are stepping out of the slippers and into altruism: in Georgia, one food bank found itself with more volunteers as the unemployment rate surged. (These reports may be overstated, as a recent study by the Bureau Labor Statistics found that from Sept 07 to Sept 08  "the level and rate of volunteering were essentially unchanged from the prior year,"- before things really started to slip).

Yes, it sounds nice.

My only problem?  Normal is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Normal--the steroid capitalism that drove the unfettered greed of the last at least 8 years, which Jon Stewart pointed out so eloquently in his wonderful interview with "Mad Money" Jim Cramer--is what lead to the unemployment, to an economy which is still falling apart. 

Notice that the teaser for the local news suggests that the "bad economy" is something to be "waited out,"- that this is a temporary state to be endured, and that fundamentally, things haven't changed. 

But who knows if this is a temporary state?  Who knows where the bottom actually is? Who knows where we'll end up on the other side of the mess "normal" brought us to?

More concerning to me is the values this ad appears to reveal --that "giving back" is not a regular part of our economy, but something that we do while waiting to get back to business --to living well beyond our means, and working for ourselves, rather than the good of the community.

In short: "giving back" is outside of our normal lives.

And I don't want to go back to normal.  

I hope that we aren't just in a holding pattern, as the teaser suggests, building our resumes as we wait for the economy of greed to rebuild itself.  I hope that this collapse teaches us that greed and selfishness is profoundly bad for the economy, as it has demonstrated itself today, and in the Great Depression.  Rather than an economy of hustlers, looking to make a quick buck off others' hard work --as Stewart pointed out so powerfully--I hope that we learn that "giving back," being an active, hardworking member of the community, who contributes a service of value, is profoundly good for the economy.

This is what I'm waiting for.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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