I recall an experience my wife and I had last November, when we had to get uptown in a hurry in our little Chevy Malibu, during rush hour, normally an impossible feat. We hit the FDR Drive which circles Manhattan, and that highway was practically empty, at noon! Then we cut into surface streets and continued up Madison Avenue. By rights we should have been stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours. Instead, we reached our destination in less than half an hour. My wife pointed to all the gated stores which used to be the city’s pride and flourish. So many glitzy businesses were gone from Manhattan’s ritziest avenue, it was a little scary. On the other hand, we made it on time and found parking!
1. FREE AT LAST
I started thinking about this angle on the news last night, when I saw this item by Jack Leonard and Ruben Vives in Saturday’s LA Times:
One sector that benefits from a bad economy: jail inmates
When times are flush, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has the money to keep jails open and staffed, and the vast majority of sentenced inmates serve most of their time behind bars. But when times get tough and tax revenues shrink, the department has repeatedly looked to its jail operations to make cuts, freeing thousands of inmates who've served only a fraction of their sentences.
The length of jail stays has ebbed and flowed in tune with LA County's budget for more than two decades, leaving the county during financial crunches with some of the weakest jail sentences in the nation. Now the county is shifting back into those lean times. Faced with fresh budget woes, Sheriff Lee Baca announced this week that he has stepped up the early release of inmates, a move that could continue for weeks or months.
Except it turns out the LA Sheriff is heavily biased in favor of women prisoners. Until this week, according to the LAT, all male inmates served at least 80% of their jail time, while most women serve only 20%.
It occurred to me that this apparent absence of hard and fast rules regarding incarceration could bring about even better things than just letting a whole lot of inmates go home before their time. Perhaps this would be a good time to try alternative sentencing, especially to non-violent inmates, or older, less threatening inmates. If the county is running out of jail space it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the ability to negotiate with its inmates. What if they charged inmates a fee, based on the time they shave off their sentence? If you can afford it, why not shell out, say, $10 a day ($20, maybe? Do I hear fifty?). They could use the money to compensate the inmate’s victim, and keep some for general upkeep.
As to destitute inmates, I’m sure there are many ways in which these folks could prove useful to the citizens of Los Angeles. I realize it could mean an additional headache to the Sheriff’s Department, but if it works, it could be a step in the direction of not having to jail any criminal at all.
You know what else has happened as a result of the Great Recession? People aren’t so quick to seek medical help any longer. Not because they’ve all become magically cured from whatever had ailed them, but because they’ve become aware of the costs of their medical care. If you ask me, that’s a step in the right direction.
Hospitals are reporting a downturn in elective procedures that tend to be paid for in full by the patient or his or her insurer, which means that some ORs are standing empty, waiting for the economy to rebound. This is particularly serious, as these most-profitable procedures are tailing off while hospitals are simultaneously serving a higher number of uninsured patients, with procedures that tend to lack the favorable margins hospitals need. At the same time, hospitals are realizing losses in their investment portfolios.
Even patients who have health insurance are dealing with higher deductibles, which means that they’re assessing their healthcare spending based on price as well as need. Without a doubt, this is a change for an industry in which the insured consumer didn’t always have to contemplate a high contribution for their own care. And, with the future of governmental involvement in healthcare uncertain, it appears that this industry, which was once a safe harbor in an economic storm, has been hit with the same tumult as other sectors. (At What Cost? The recession’s impact on OR nurses, by Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MD Publishing)
If you ask me, we could save billions of dollars in a manner that satisfied both Republicans and Democrats, at least the sane ones in both parties, if we divided medical care in this country into two groups: catastrophic care, which the government covers, no questions asked, it’s on us, no American loses his home or savings because of a catastrophe; and elective medicine, which is all a la cart. If you can afford it, buy it for yourself, otherwise, that boil stays on your nose, here’s a Band-Aid.
So if thanks to the Great Recession the public at large is starting to behave rationally, like adults, about medical care, that’s a good thing!
3. FRUGAL GOLFERS
Bonicky told David Weinberg of Press of Atlantic City, that golfers who are struggling with their finances "can't justify buying a sleeve of Pro V1," lamenting that "There are larger things in life that have to be taken care of first. People that used to have that disposable dollar are now buying a gallon of milk instead of playing nine holes or buying a new putter."
According to the National Golf Foundation, golf’s depression is not unique to southern New Jersey. The NGF’s 2009 participation study revealed that there were 28.6 million golfers ages 6 and above in 2008 compared to 30 million in 2005. There were 489.1 million rounds of golf played in the U.S. in 2008 compared to 518.4 million in 2000 and 499.6 million in 2005. (Recession's effect on southern New Jersey links: More bargain hunting, fewer golfers on the course)
How can that not be good news? A consumer society that decides to morph in less materialistic directions has to be improving, morally and spiritually. I wonder if this trend shows itself in less esoteric places than the South Jersey gold courses…
4. TOGETHER FOREVER
The National Marriage Project (NMP) is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and interdisciplinary initiative located at the University of Virginia. Their most recent report on the "State of Our Unions," published last December, found that divorce fell during the first full year of the Great Recession, "evidence that the challenges of job losses, foreclosures and depleted retirement accounts may be driving some couples to stick together." The divorce rate fell from 17.0 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2007 to 16.9 in 2008 (and from a rate of 17.3 in 2005).
If trends observed during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s are once again at work, some of the decline is due to economic factors that lead couples merely to temporarily delay divorce, but there is also another dynamic at work: Tough times foster real family solidarity and encourage many couples to stick together, said U.Va. sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. Many couples are rediscovering the longstanding sociological truth that marriage is one of society's best social insurance plans, he said.
What can I say, except welcome signs of adulthood and maturity wherever I can find them? Of course, one could argue that being stuck in a loveless marriage because of lousy economics is not such a hot deal, but in my opinion it usually beats being stuck in lousy economics all alone is even worse. Marriage is not a Hollywood movie, it’s a contract between two grownups wishing to conduct their lives together. Walking out on too many contracts is just bad behavior, which I’m glad is too rich for most of us these days.
5. RESPONSIBLE POLITICIANS, HALLELUJAH!
As the State of New Jersey has elected a Republican governor last fall, it sat well with the announcement that property taxes went up by an average of 3.3. percent last year, the smallest increase in a decade of rapid growth. Common sense hailed it as evidence that a 3-year-old law capping annual increases at 4 percent had finally taken hold.
But according to a Star-Ledger review, Nearly a third of the state’s 566 municipalities raised property taxes above the cap with the state’s permission last year, many because they were able to show they were facing virtual civic dysfunction. Through hundreds of pages of applications asking to exceed the cap, school and town officials spared no adjectives when describing what would happen without relief: The police force would be cut. Special education aides would be fired. Fire hydrants would not be installed.
Of 76 towns that asked to exceed the cap last year, 62 were approved, according to state records. Of 33 school districts, 25 were approved — though many at a far smaller dollar amount than they asked for. The state granted $12.3 million of the requested $35.4 million in waivers for schools — down from $33.2 million of a requested $58.6 million in 2008. Towns that were approved asked for more than $47 million in exceptions. (N.J. municipalities raise taxes despite state cap, by David Giambusso, The Star-Ledger)
The 4 percent limit was imposed in 2007 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine and the Legislature, which allowed temporary exemptions for scheduled pension payments and pay raises in existing contracts. What will come next is a confrontation between local municipalities and the new governor, Chris Christie, who promised to push some of the deepest budget cuts the state has ever seen.
The same Star-Ledger review found towns and schools said high employee costs were squeezing their budgets, as Gov. Christie attacks the price tag for public employee salaries, pensions and benefits. Austerity in government is normally something Democrats do, usually as their final act of office. It should be interesting to watch a Republican attempting to balance the state budget while keeping the lid on local budget increases.
I have no doubt that every single item I celebrated here has its torturous, dark side. After all, this is supposed to be a brave ride into the night in search of goodness where mostly evil seems to reign. Violent prisoners are unleashed on society, people die because they didn’t choose surgery when it could save their lives, domestic violence goes through the roof as couples are stuck in marriages that should have ended with divorce. Still, the fact that apparently millions of Americans, and many other citizens of the planet, are using the Great Recession as an opportunity to grow up, live within their means, and act more responsibly, is heart warming.