March 12, 2020
Market Drops Hit Those Who Don’t Invest
How fitting that I would see the play “Sweat” on Feb. 28 – a Friday night at the end of a week in which the stock market dropped 12 percent and the specter of recession reared its ugly head.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” – I saw the Boston revival – is about the havoc the boom-bust economy and falling financial markets wreak on working people’s employment security and their personal lives. In fact, the timeline of the play is bracketed by 2000, when the stock market crashed, and 2008, when it crashed again.
At the beginning of each scene, a voice-over broadcasts the day’s bad financial news. The stock market never crosses the lips of the characters in the play, which is set in a local bar that is the social center of the working class town of Reading, Pennsylvania. Their chief concern is the fate of their jobs at the steel tubing plant. But the unspoken stock market is an invisible character shaping their plight.
Playwright Lynn Nottage got her inspiration for “Sweat” during visits to Reading over 2½ years. Two female characters and each of their sons work at the plant – very typical of a factory town. The bartender used to work there until he injured his leg. An immigrant who is a busboy at the bar briefly gets a shot at the American dream as a scab worker when the company locks the union out of the plant. There is tension between the immigrant and the long-time residents, and between the assembly line workers and the one worker who is promoted to management. But in the end, all of their lives are tragically upended by the plant closing.
Factories began shutting down in the 1980s, in part because U.S. manufacturers learned they could hire workers at much lower wages overseas. But manufacturing’s long-term decline was perpetuated by the 2001 recession, which was triggered by a market drop, and a second recession that began with the 2008 market collapse.
Which brings us to 2020.
If the coronavirus can be contained fairly effectively, the impact may not be as severe as some economists fear.
The half of Americans, including me, who own stocks are having flashbacks to the 38 percent market plunge in 2008. But “Sweat” jolted me back to the real suffering of all those working people, including some in my family, who lost jobs in the previous two recessions. In 2001, 2 million people were thrown out of work. In 2008, 2.6 million became unemployed, and a few million people lost their homes to foreclosure in the housing market collapse.
Economists use the same language to talk about the economy’s inevitable ups and downs that public health experts are using about the coronavirus’ spread. A downturn isn’t an “if,” it’s a “when.”
Let’s hope neither one is too bad.
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