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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2001 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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You can't help the
economy without a job -- IN the midst of all the anguish, confusion and anger following the attacks on the United States, it seems permissible, at this point, for Americans to ask a question:

When will the wartime economy be kicking in?

War has historically brought with it some of mankind's most grievous moments. But, for all the death, personal sacrifice and national upheavals that accompany warfare, there has often been a paradoxical side effect: Economies can prosper during a time of war.

This is nothing to feel particularly good about; the very act of gearing up for war can, for the most somber of reasons, stimulate nations' economic bases. Historians may differ about the exact end point of the Great Depression, but there is little question that after America was thrust into World War II, its massive efforts to provide the planes, weapons and other equipment for the troops in Europe and the Pacific played a large role in reversing the economy. It would seem to be the worst possible impetus for growth -- war as a business stimulant -- but in the past it has happened.

And now? We are at war, or so we have been told -- a new kind of war.

So perhaps the time is right to ask ourselves if this new kind of war may be the kind in which the economy gets no lift at all.

In recent days we have been told that a recession is almost certainly upon us. The president has said with unconcealed frustration and urgency that Congress must act quickly to jolt the economy. The unemployment statistics are numbing. And the question, for those of us who are not economic experts is: Where will the hopeful news come from?

It does not seem to be coming from the traditional bastions of fiscal health. Last week, as the Ford Motor Co. replaced its chief executive amid turmoil, the new chairman conceded that "the cacophony of noise and pressure" on the company had "reached almost the paralysis point." As strong as his language was, it didn't come close to what the CEO of United Airlines' parent company had warned when he told his employees that the airline might "perish" next year. He was replaced after he said it -- but the message was clear, and the damage was done. Ford, United Airlines -- those are the kinds of names that Americans for generations have assumed were always going to be there, steady and dependable. The baseline names of a confident country. So if they seem shaky, where do Americans turn for signs of economic optimism?

We were told, during much of the decade just past, that we were entering a "new kind of economy" (which presumably is different from a "new kind of war"). But the much-touted Internet economy turned out to be troublesome, at best; the dot-coms, in retrospect, seem like a practical joke. As for the "information economy," which was supposed to be the solution for a waning manufacturing base: Just ask television and radio broadcasters, and newspaper and magazine publishers, how their revenues are faring, with advertising drying up.

This column, admittedly, is not one that usually deals with intricate economic matters -- this is not the place to come for sage expertise in such things. So the questions raised here today are those of a concerned citizen, not of an erudite business analyst.

Still -- in the near-panic after Sept. 11, where are the jobs going to come from? With all the quick layoffs, how is the country supposed to get back on its feet? There are jobs that seem to be plentiful right now -- dragging concrete barriers into place in front of high-rise buildings; looking into bags at airport security points; standing sentry in front of doorways; clerking at busy unemployment offices.

Somehow this does not feel like the solution; these kinds of jobs represent the problem. Christmas is coming, the season American business traditionally looks to for a boost -- but how are all the people newly out of work going to be able to spend money they don't have on holiday gifts they can't afford?

These are questions, not answers. But they are questions that are on millions of minds. Meanwhile, bombs are dropping out of U.S. planes overseas, and poisoned mail is arriving at U.S. addresses at home. It is November. Darkness comes before dinnertime.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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