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Five Things You Need to Know: Our Microwaveable Depression

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Our modern depression is obscured by microwaves and circuses.

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1. Our Microwaveable Depression

Night after night they stood alone, invisibly, in their solitary food lines, and pressed the assigned code into the machines. Three minutes on high for some. Five minutes on low for others. A minute and a half on defrost and then three minutes on medium just for complexity's sake. This code, commands really, sometimes varied in pattern but nonetheless managed to convey a certain level of assuredness with their simplicity. Poke holes in plastic to allow steam to escape. Do not reheat. Pull back film before heating. Do not add water. Keep frozen until ready to use. The results were blandly inevitable yet somehow conjured up the hint of a miracle, as if someone in a great laboratory had developed a secret formula to turn a single fish into a meal for millions. A poet scientist no doubt, a Jesus of genetics who was probably paid a percentage, perhaps as many as 25 or 30 basis points some conjectured, for each of the frozen derivatives he was able to slice and dice from a single whitefish, which most people assumed was cod but which was actually Alaskan or walleye pollack because it was cheaper and not yet considered endangered. Night after night they stood alone, invisibly, and pressed their assigned code into the machines.

It wasn't always so. History said the Great Depression roared in amidst a mammoth cloud of dust and lingered for months as a murderous dry and waterless haze that killed crops all the way from Kentucky to California, as far north as the Dakotas and all the way down to Texas. That was the beginning of the thing, history said. And when the dust finally lifted everyone stood up, took a deep breath and exhaled in relief, glad for all that to be over with. Many years later, hardened by the decades that had since passed, someone would look back coldly and admit, "Just when we thought it was over, it was really only beginning."

But this our current state, our modern depression, arrived unannounced and so it remains unnamed. It's scattered, decentralized, obscured by a string of loose affiliations, freelance assignments and unenforceable contracts. There are no food lines for people to point to in grim recognition of our plight. There are only the machines, invisible in their ubiquity. No one even really knows when it began. Was it in the rollover from 1999 to 2000 when we feared our machines would fail, sad victims of a single missing digit, a deserving exclamation point to our human fallibility? Or did it begin when our dot-com dreams crashed? We were going to change the world, compress it, bring impossible distances together through virtual travel at unimaginable speed. And we did. But it wasn't enough.

"A Depression doesn't run hot and fierce like some crazed meth burner. A Depression is methodical, purposeful, patient. It will build a shelter out of tree branches and newspaper, light a small, well-contained campfire and wait you out, brother. While you feed on the empty calories of denial and popcorn, it will quietly gather shards of broken dreams and fashion them into a terrible weapon of blunt force reality."

The reality is that once it settles in, it matters little when it arrived. It's been coming for so long. For the men in America, our wages have been eroding since the early 1970s. We compensated by transitioning from single, head-of-household-employed families to multi-employed families, adding an extra income to mask our declining wages. According to Bloomberg-BusinessWeek, the number of men holding a job, any job, full-time, part-time, any job, is at its lowest level since the end of World War II. Between 1969 and 2009, and adjusted for inflation, the median wages for men in their prime earning years (30-50) fell by nearly a third. After decades, this finally matters.

In the 1930s, starved for work, starved for money, starved for food, families disintegrated. Men wandered aimlessly looking for their lost jobs. They looked for them around corners, they anticipated finding them just over the next hill, maybe in the next town over. And when that failed they searched back alleys and underneath great piles of trash. And when that failed they searched the bottom of bottles and glassware, or in little plastic baggies passed by secret handshake in unkempt public parks or on street corners. Increasingly, they do so now. Again.

A woman somewhere in Arizona stands alone in her solitary food line and with a forefinger turned upward just enough to show flesh but not nail presses her assigned code into the machine. Three. Colon. Zero. Zero. High. Enter. The machine dutifully lights up with a high white charge and spins round its contents with a satisfying roar. How many millions of times each night this same process is repeated across the country no one really can say, for truth be told no one really wants to know. After all, they have a machine. They're the fortunate ones.


2. Life Without a Machine?

Who would have thought having a food machine would become so important to our way of life? While nearly invisible in their ubiquity, nearly 90% of American households have a microwave, according to the Heritage Foundation, a think tank founded by people who actually thought Richard Nixon was too liberal and which today likes to bandy about words such as poverty using ironic quotation marks: "Each year for the past two decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in 'poverty.'"

A Heritage Foundation backgrounder from earlier this summer on Poverty & Inequality simultaneously asked and answered this question in the headline: Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today? Apart from using the word poverty surrounded by ironic quotation marks more than a dozen times, the piece noted this helpful comparison from political scientist James Q. Wilson: "The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago." Well, there you go. Congratulations poor people.

Of course, politics aside, we all know and understand deep down that the mere presence of a microwave machine in a household is hardly an indicator of poverty. There is of course a distinction to be made between deprivation and poverty, it's just not the distinction that many seem to want to make; a chicken in every pot and an Xbox on every TV stand. Recent data from the USDA indicates one in every six Americans struggled to buy food in 2010, nearly 49 million people, about 14 percent of the population... that in a country that thought nothing of funneling money to banks and financial companies in the trillions at a ratio of more than 7-1 bank to individual-related stimulus programs. Yes, we must stop these baseless entitlement programs that are draining our great nation of its wealth!
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