From Unknowns Comes a Cry of Fear : Coping: Policy-makers need to cast gaze down at the average American, who is confused and frightened about our economic mess.

Howard Karlitz is a free-lance writer who lives in San Diego

I'm afraid. However, I don't necessarily attribute my anxiety to internal factors. At times I feel the economic forces that shape my life are growing beyond my ability to control them.

I walk along and see the homeless. It seems like the homeless have always been there, having become a heartbreaking thread in America's social fabric. Yet there are so many more of them now, and they look desperate. Can I become homeless, I ask myself. Is this rational?

I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to financial commentators, public figures and so-called "experts" debate the seriousness of this economic downturn. Is it merely a recession or is it worse? Many older people I talk to say we're beyond recession, that we're precariously close to a depression. At times I think they're right. I mean they, of all people, should know. They've been through it. How many of these experts have?

Observation has always been important to me. Some years ago I completed a degree in public administration. My dissertation thesis was anthropological in design. Anthropologists routinely observe average individuals interacting with each other, and then speculate on how society as a whole operates based upon recorded behaviors. In doing my own research on how public institutions operated, I observed and interviewed people at the bottom of the organizational spectrum, those employees in "the trenches." I wasn't particularly interested in what top management had to say. I always found it somewhat self-serving and sugar coated. As a result of that perspective, government reports never did mean much to me. These days, they mean even less. I'd rather just talk to people, average people. And, as I do so, with a writer's curiosity, I'm finding that a great many of them are scared.

Some of the most telling conversations I've had were with people who work in banks, entry-level employees like tellers and customer service representatives who interact with the public. If you get them to open up, to let that corporate guard down a bit, they'll give you a clearer indication of how much people are hurting than you can ever hope to glean from a Commerce or Treasury Department report.

Foreclosures are commonplace. Credit lines have become exhausted. Personal bankruptcies are routine. There's virtually no stigma attached to it. Long-term unemployment is now chronic--7.1% in San Diego last May, the latest reported period. We've all read about these problems, but hearing about them from those who have to deal with their effects daily is just so much more compelling.

People who work retail are also observant. They talk about how shopping seems to have become a "painful process" for many people, how more and more customers spend an inordinate amount of time selecting items, and then putting them back and leaving without buying anything. Whether it's because they can't afford them or they're simply afraid to spend money is inconsequential. The end result is the same--that much less money in circulation.

I get a sense that people now assume they're not being told the entire truth in regard to the state of the economy. Economic reports appear rosy one month and gloomy the next. A previous month's figures are revised upward or downward, based on reworked data. There's talk about a double-or even triple-dip recession. Did we ever really come out of the first one? This uncertainty does nothing more than to generate anxiety.

It seems like this fear is spreading, feeding on itself, gaining momentum. My father, who lived through the Great Depression, tells me that momentum is critical. He feels we waited too long, and that, as a result, it's going to be very tough to turn things around. What evolves from mass fear, I ask myself. Panic? Then what?

The other day I got a phone call from an old friend. We hadn't seen or spoken to each other for several years. We talked for a while, mostly about family, when all of a sudden his voice cracked. "What's wrong, Paul?" I asked. There was silence on the other end of the line. Then he started to cry. "I lost my job over 10 months ago," he said. There was shame in his words. "My unemployment's going to run out, and we've used up our savings. I've contacted everyone I know, but there's nothing out there for people my age. Right now I'm trying to get a full-time cashier's position at the supermarket so at least there'll be medical coverage for me and the kids. I'm scared. Really scared." Paul was an officer in the mortgage department of a major California bank for the past 15 years.

I'm not sure about a solution. I'm not an economist. Nor am I a politician. But, from my narrow perspective, I guess it has to begin with the sound and comforting premise that the fear of fear itself is natural, and that one is not alone. However, unlike the '30s, there is no strong public figure who is addressing him--or herself--to fear.

I guess there are those who would question whether someone like myself, a lay person, even has the right to comment on economic conditions on the societal level. I mean, from my vantage point, do I really know anything about the "Big Picture?" One might even go so far as to say that words such as these can only make things worse, and that if confidence is the issue, one should be predisposed to put a positive "spin" on things. But I've always believed that confidence is grounded in honesty and openness, and that Americans are more than tough enough to handle the truth, as unpleasant as it may be. If real fear comes from not knowing what the truth is, then real solutions will begin to materialize only when the problems are clearly and forthrightly identified.

So, like the anthropologist, I'll continue observing and talking to other people like myself, average people. And, although some of us are a bit confused and anxious, strains of harmony can be heard emerging now and then. Perhaps it's time for the decision makers to turn their gaze downward, and begin listening.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World