As the economy's twisting voyage down the loo accelerates, enterprising journalists are starting to find ways to exploit the catastrophe besides merely reporting the bad news. They're finding the good news!
Leading the good-news pack is the Los Angeles Times'Susan Brink. Her Aug. 25 article reports that "strange as it may seem, bad times can also be good for health." Deteriorating economic conditions may correlate with fewer industrial accidents, reduced pollution, less obesity, less drinking, less smoking, and a decrease in traffic fatalities. Echoing Brink is the Associated Press (Aug. 25), which credits $4-a-gallon gas with a lower traffic death toll.
New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope covers similar ground as Brink in her Oct. 7 piece, "Are Bad Times Healthy?" Parker-Pope reports that people tend to stuff themselves with fatty restaurant foods, avoid exercise, and skip visits to the doctor during boom times, pointing to economist Christopher J. Ruhm's paper about death rates declining sharply during the 1974 and 1982 recessions. Other studies, Parker-Pope writes, indicate that recessions give parents more time to spend with their babies. (I've always believed that the cure for wanting to spend more time with your family was spending more time with your family.)
An Oct. 10Times of London op-ed completes Brink's thought. During recessions, people enroll in "higher education, the air is cleaner, the roads are less crowded." Other noted boons: increased thrift, greater use of libraries, and discount prices.
The nature of economic news allows journalists huge leeway in how they play it. As Gregg Easterbrook wrote in a brilliant Aug. 21, 1989, New Republic piece on the topic, "almost any economic development is both good and bad." He continues:
An expanding economy reduces unemployment, but at some point risks inflation. A strong dollar makes consumer goods cheaper (reducing inflation), but makes American products less competitive. Not only does a change in one direction in any economic variable—interest rates, commodity prices, etc.—create its own pros and cons. It also creates the possibility that policy makers will throw the machine into reverse, producing exactly the opposite pros and cons.
In the current news cycle, the cons of the coming depression have taken over Page 1, are dominating the business sections, and have surfaced in sports, food, home, travel, and elsewhere. An immutable law of journalism is forcing the pros of the coming depression to rise because reporters and editors tend to bore easily. Yeah, yeah, the Dow dropped 5,000 points today. Give me something the competition hasn't got!
So in coming weeks as the economic news grows more grave, look for newspapers, Web sites, and networks to prospect for the "hidden" good news contained in our collective calamity and report that the recession (or depression) is good news for:
Public schools. Feeling the pinch, the upper-middle class is moving their children from private schools to public schools. This influx of achieving-class families, reporters will find, may improve schools from the inside (better students overall) and the outside (the result of pesky, well-connected parents hounding administrators and teachers).
Climate change. According to a government study, carbon dioxide emissions fall whenever energy consumption declines. Our freezing will be the planet's salvation.
Foreign policy. In the good old days, the United States got in lots of trouble by invading first and asking questions later. Now we couldn't afford to invade Grenada if we had to.
Economic equality. Financial sector employees received the greatest income gains in recent years. Now, the broker your broker gets, the more equal we all become.
Homegrown. Food. Music. Crafts. Education. Solar panels. Suture-yourself kits sold at pharmacies.
Children. The moral fiber of the nation's children went to rot because we gave them everything they asked for. Now that we've got nothing, they get nothing, and they've never been richer.
Churches and community organizations. Trendspotters will detect a massive return to faith and the commonweal.
Air flight. The average Joe won't be able to afford to fly much any more, but when he does, the terminals will be less crowded, the service better, and lost luggage a thing of the past.
Local business. You know, the little mom-and-pop banks that never went subprime and that know you and your family. The return of the neighborhood hardware store, the neighborhood drug store, the neighborhood bakery, the neighborhood fix-it shop, and so on.
The trade deficit. We buy almost nothing from foreigners, we sell almost nothing to them. Finally, we reach a perfect balance.
Cell phone haters. As the cell phone becomes unaffordable, people ditch them. Road rage declines as drivers learn to stay in their own lane and maintain speed because they're no longer texting. Public spaces become more pleasant as the background chatter ceases.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Vegetables. Having won the meat-is-murder debate because beef and chicken are now too expensive to market, animal rights activists move on to protect lima beans, celery, and turnips.
Staycations. More fun than August in France!
Used cars. Cheaper for one thing, and gosh, Detroit stopped making new ones!
"Cheap chic." Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters once imagined that a societal shift from high-status goods, clothing, restaurants jobs, schools, cars, and vacations to the utilitarian, flavorless, gimcrack, and rag-tag of "cheap chic" would remove anxiety and competition from modern life. That the cutthroat competition for status would only resurface in a battle for government power and result in the reinvention of gulag never occurred to Peters. Even so, journalists will fill newspapers with stories about people who regard their new poverty as ennobling.
Landfills go begging for trash because people recycle everything? Robert Putnam experiences satori after bowling leagues stage an extraordinary comeback? Send your good news story ideas for the new depression to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)