Downward mobility in the U.S.

A glimpse into the Byzantine concoctions of a financial sector

Downward mobility is counterintuitive to the American Dream; no wonder our neighbours to the south are having trouble adjusting to the American Nightmare. With folksy compassion, Garson crosses the country to interview ordinary Joes and Jills about their predicaments. Some (younger ones, mainly) have reset their expectations; others are doggedly trying to make the best of things until (they hope) the economy returns to normal.

These are human stories of denial and pluck, a burgeoning new class of the “rich” poor—unemployed yet still going out for coffee each day; people who were relatively well off but are now forced to choose between paying the rent and having a tooth extracted. Most will do anything to keep their jobs, including acquiescing to a company’s expectation that employees will donate free days of work while enduring the tension that comes from understaffed workplaces. There’s young dreadlocked Michael, who has arrived at the hippie ethic from another direction, and who considers his friend with a steady job at a living wage the epitome of success. One of the best stories concerns the celebrity who, having lost his millions in an investment scheme, describes how he scaled back his lifestyle.

Garson provides in lay terms a historical assessment of where it all went pear-shaped; how, in the mid-1970s, the wealth gap started widening, inflating a bubble that ballooned for more than 30 years, only to burst spectacularly, thanks to the banking sector.

While the book is better suited to an American audience, it does offer a glimpse into the Byzantine concoctions of a financial sector that practises “free enterprise” beyond the reach of the law and morality. As Garson’s subjects show, there is a quiet get-even anger percolating: Many are making strategic decisions to default on their debts and mortgages. They know it’s wrong, but it’s all about looking out for No. 1 now.