Hard times are fatal times.

By Robert Leo Heilman of Myrtle Creek, Oregon. Robert is a former logger and sawmill worker, who is now a critically-acclaimed essayist and author. He is the author of Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country. Previously, he contributed "Poverty in the Umpqua."

I was talking to a woodcutter the other day, a grizzled Viet Nam veteran who lives far from his town up a creek where he feels isolated from society enough to be comfortable with it. He was sitting in his thirty-year-old pick-up with an eighty-dollar mixed load of seasoned madrone and fir firewood, parked in a supermarket parking lot waiting for someone to offer him some cash.

“Times are tough,” he told me, “everybody wants to barter. What am I supposed to do? I’ve got two ounces of pot this guy left me for a debt when he packed-up and split and I don’t even smoke the shit; I don’t sell it; I don’t know what I’m going to do with it but it was either take it or get nothing at all--so, I took it. Then just the other day this woman offered me sex for a load. I turned her down--hell, I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t need the cash. Man, I tell you, people are really hurting around these parts.”

Talking to him in a parking lot in a county with a 12.8% (and rising) unemployment rate, located in the third hungriest state in the union, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that the hard times are back. Still, it was disheartening to think of the suffering. I recalled the early Reagan years when the working families in this valley crumbled like dirt clods under the weight of poverty. I thought of the untimely deaths, the divorces, the foreclosures and the criminal convictions that I’d witnessed back when unemployment reached 9.5% nationally and 18% in our county and 40% of our local workforce fled during an eighteen-month period.

“You know,” I told the woodcutter, “it looks like this recession’s gonna kill more folks than Al Queda ever did.”


It’s difficult to say just how many Americans will meet untimely deaths due to this one. That it will is attested to by many epidemiological studies, conducted here in the USA, Canada and various European nations. Common sense and common observation both confirm this. What does the economic collapse bring to our health? Increased rates of suicide, murder, drug overdoses, drunken driving accidents, domestic violence, health care neglect, and stress-related diseases. Hard times are hard on us--very hard.

Back in 1976 one researcher offered to Congress his estimate which came to about 6,000 recession-induced deaths nationally per 1% increase in the unemployment rate. He was promptly criticized by his fellow scientists as having come up with a figure that was too high. He admitted his error but gave no revised estimate and no one since has ventured an educated guess.

My own uneducated guess is that 4,000 deaths per percentage point is probably a reasonably conservative estimate, given the 48% increase in the nation’s workforce size over the past 32 years. That is, should the national rate rise from the 4.6% or so rate that it was running at a year ago and above the current 7.2% rate on up to the 10% rate that is predicted to occur by the end of this year, we’re talking about some 20,000 (or more?) untimely demises nationally. This number, of course, is only the deaths and so it doesn’t include the “walking wounded” those with debilitating illnesses, physical or mental, brought on by these “periods of negative economic growth.”

The World Trade Center bombings look like small potatoes in comparison. We’ve spent the last seven years fearing Islamic extremism but I suspect that we should have been fearing our own home-grown greed and incompetence more.

Comments

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    Now the Republicans are trying to say that FDR did nothing for the country in the great Depression and they want to go back to the policies of Hoover. Give the people in Douglas County a job. Another round of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy aren't going to do a thing for this country. The W.P.A. created a reservoir of public infrastructure in this country and it gave the unemployed some hope.

  • (Show?)

    Nice. Thoughtful. I agree.

  • Ten Bears (unverified)
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    Very nicely done, though this Old Logger finds remiss the lacking admonishment that no-one bailed out the Timber Industry.

  • Dave (unverified)
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    Sad, very sad (but beautifully written)

  • Elaine (unverified)
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    Now, if those rural folks would stop voting against their best interests.

    Awhile back, in a rural part of Oregon (I'm "native"), I recall being at a gathering wherein there the urban folk were greatly outnumbered by the rural. (I'll never forget the little gal who was so upset that I was talking politics with her husband and not hanging on my husband's arm as he socialized. Geez.) It was astonishing, The prejudice against the Portlanders at this event, who were actually more community-oriented and, perhaps, better socialized.

    Given the tremendous poverty outside the metro area, I wish we could consider ourselves Oregonians first, working toward a better life for us all.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Now, if those rural folks would stop voting against their best interests.

    I hate to sound like John Stossel or some other callous libertarian, but there is a certain truth in many, perhaps most, cases that people in trouble or suffering misfortune must often share some responsibility for their situation. It is also in their own interests to recognize their own culpability if they are to avoid repeating their errors. However, the preceding doesn't excuse others (lumber corporations and hired politicians, for instance) from their greater complicity as Stossel and his ilk would have us believe.

    I would like to join in the compliments paid to the lead author. He has contributed an essay that rises above the usual mundane articles that tend to prevail on BO.

  • Ron Hager (unverified)
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    I agree with Bill Bodden. People create their own problems. For example; all the homeless veterans got themselves into their situation when they signed up to serve their country. Damn fools! Oh, and don't forget those careless stupid Americans that chose to become painters, carpenters and electricians, rather than bankers and stock brokers. Yup, they never should have never made such stupid and personally harmful choices. More damn fools in this country right now than ever before; right Bill?

  • ValkRaider (unverified)
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    20,000? Automobiles kills more than 40,000 Americans annualy. How much of this stimulus is dedicated to the the car?

  • jerald (unverified)
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    Yes its sad that when entire counties are so affected by these things. Through no fault of their own they have to suffer for the "No regulations" "No oversight" republicans.

    Now is the time that these counties take a firm hand in the future. Now is the time that Government get into the Business of Business. Roseburg is a great place for Solar and Wind power. Power that can be sold on the grid and the county could profit from. Its time to diversify. Time that Government start working for the People not the people working for the Government.

  • Idler (unverified)
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    Yes its sad that when entire counties are so affected by these things. Through no fault of their own they have to suffer for the "No regulations" "No oversight" republicans.

    Remind me again which party called for greater oversight and regulation over the GSEs, citing the trillion dollar business' "systemic risk" year after year. And which party resisted that oversight year after year.

  • Jiang (unverified)
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    My father is a baby boomer. For 25 years he looked 25. His friends have been progressive thinkers from childhood and they were looking at very long lives.

    After the cynicism of the 1970s led to Mourning in Amerika and Ronald Raygun, many never "got over that 60s mentality". They have largely refused to make the value judgments necessary to thrive in post Reagan Amerika. Many rode the computer revolution until Y2K led to everyone's buying new hardware. Coupled with the .com bust, that meant they had to move into longer term jobs, more career oriented. That's when the "not getting over the 60s mentatlity" really started to bite hard, and most of his friends have seen declining standard of living for the last 10 years.

    Entering their 50s now, they have begun dieing. My father, that everyone would have predicted was the surest individual to live well past 100, has told us he doesn't expect to reach 50 this December. He's serious, and has made all the arrangements. During the last 3 years, 4 of the dozen of his closest friends have died. None were clinically ill. All just cared less and less and then, one day, simply didn't wake up. At the last guy's funeral, most everyone present thought they would be next, going the same way. The deal is that they do not have one grain of hope for anything or anyone.

    I think this is a conscious strategy. The Reagan Revolution is still going on and its goal is the cultural eradication of anyone that isn't gung-ho about participating in all the levels of fraud that is the daily business of this country. Conservatives don't even know how bad it has become, at their hands. They hate America? Many did, now they hate their lives. The anger has turned inward. It is a hard-wired response that primates have to social ostracization. Rather than go form a new troupe, you're supposed to get depressed and die. That fatalism becomes reflected in your physiology, and it is killing the boomers that are worth anything.

    Ten years from now, I think this will seem a very odd thread in the archives. I expect that by then, people like my father will all be gone and it will be up to us value challenged gen xers to run what's left of the business. We seem to be very enthusiastic about it and willing to accept most things as probably for the best. Frankly, I'm jealous of the ones that won't be here.

  • Jiang (unverified)
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    all the homeless veterans got themselves into their situation when they signed up to serve their country. Damn fools!

    Damn straight!

  • Elaine (unverified)
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    I hate to sound like John Stossel or some other callous libertarian, but there is a certain truth in many, perhaps most, cases that people in trouble or suffering misfortune must often share some responsibility for their situation.

    I am sad for those who can't see through corporate agendas -- not blaming the victims. (Posts just don't allow for much expression.) The slicing and dicing of our population, setting us at odds with each other can only happen with our, perhaps unwitting, consent. My point was that, for whatever reason, we seemed to be unable to communicate our shared concerns and address them informally without this "us" and "them" posturing.

    My kudos to Mr. Heilman for this column. Nicely done.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    I agree with Bill Bodden. People create their own problems.

    I didn't say that people create their own problems. I said that many must share responsibility for their problems with the greater responsibility going to others such as corporations and politicians.

    How many now in trouble were Democrats for Reagan who boosted a culture of greed being good and helped the rich get richer and the poor poorer? How many were silent when Congress and the Clinton White House scrapped the Glass-Steagall Act and let Wall Street loose to bring about the current mess with bank deregulation and no oversight at the SEC? How many were silent when Joe Biden and others wrote the Bankruptcy Act for the benefit of banks and credit card companies at the expense of ordinary people? How many supported this disastrous War on Iraq that has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars (not to mention hundreds of thousands of lives? How many voted to re-elect the politicians who gave us this war? How many ignored simple arithmetic and took on debt they couldn't afford? How many ignored the lessons of history, including the one about all bubbles eventually burst? How many didn't recognize they were lied to by the variety of people who helped get them in their current mess? And how many voted to re-elect Bush/Cheney despite the evidence of their blunders and for McCain and Palin who would have made matters much worse? How many are silent about Obama choosing for his economic team the same people who promoted bank deregulation that helped bring about this economic crisis? How many are silent when Obama is thinking about getting us deeper into Afghanistan and Pakistan despite warnings this could be worse than Iraq?

    The point is, we don't get it right in the future if we don't recognize how we got it wrong - or allowed it to get wrong - in the past. And "we" includes all of us to one degree or another.

  • Lee Donnell (unverified)
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    I’ve got two ounces of pot this guy left me for a debt when he packed-up and split and I don’t even smoke the shit; I don’t sell it; I don’t know what I’m going to do with it but it was either take it or get nothing at all--so, I took it. Then just the other day this woman offered me sex for a load.

    So, how much wood is an $80 mixed load, exactly?

  • (Show?)

    The guy wasn't Dave Traylor, was he? If not, there's a carbon copy in Grant County...underemployed Vietnam vet...

  • Hazel (unverified)
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    "My own uneducated guess is that 4,000 deaths per percentage point is probably a reasonably conservative estimate"

    Do you really think you're going to get anyone who doesn't agree with you to agree with you based on numbers you made up? And then you compare your made up numbers with an event to which that many Americans have a really emotional reaction in order to make your point.

    No wonder if one hasn't already drunk the kool-aid one will think folks in your camp are idiot children with no real compassion for those who don't already unquestioningly agree with them.

    <h2>I sort of agree with your point, but you're doing more damage to the cause with silly rhetoric. Get some real numbers on the suicides brought about by depression as it relates to unemployment. Get some real numbers about the drop in life expectancy for folks who lose their health insurance. Think about your audience and arm them with concrete information rather than histrionics.</h2>
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