Is the Recession Making You a Nicer Person?

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More charitable giving! Fewer designer handbags! Free hugs everywhere! Welcome to the post-recession America. Or so says the cover story from New York magazine, a buoyant ode to the bright side of NYC's financial doom. Green shoots of human compassion abound, it seems, from booming volunteerism, increased enrollments in divinity school, and plunging crime stats (murders are down 21% in New York). So should we all stop worrying and learn to love a world with much less money?


The article begins with a bit of behavior theory. Research has shown that when people start reflecting on money they've lost, they become "more sensitive to physical pain - and social rejection." In other words, their hard exterior is stripped away, and all that's left is a softer underbelly. Writ large, that's what's happening to NYC, and Jennifer Senior weaves an impressive thread of statistics to make the point that New York's Wall Street-dominated culture was toxic to the city's sense of community. But now, as if through a PPIP, that toxic asset has been stripped from the city, and today New York is set to accelerate toward a brave new world of nice waiters, affordable rent and safer streets.

Now look, I'm a natural optimist. And I frankly have no idea why NYC's crime statistics are plummeting. But unless Lehman Brothers was running a secret crime operation out of the Bronx, it seems unlikely that we should attribute it to the Wall St.

And about this newer nicer New York: I'm not so convinced by the article's suggestion that the recession will create lasting changes and permanently cut the rot of money culture off the Big Apple, because of observations like this: "People seem to be looking for things to do, rather than things to buy." That's not the face of altruism. It sounds more like the result of unemployment. You look for ways to fill empty time and you don't have money to buy stuff.

To be sure, there are upsides to a new culture where a war of escalation over designer handbags ends and gives way to a more vulnerable sense of city community, but there's little reason to think the change will last past the recession. Andrew Oswald, a University of Warwick economist, mentions the economic term "scarring" -- when an economic calamity depresses your earnings long after the economy is back on its feet. He worries that the jobless today could see the effect of the recession for years to come.

The real question is: Will the recession create positive scarring? That is, will the nicer New York disappear when the economy roars back and our big hearts are once again caked by the grimey influence of higher pay checks? I'm not so sure. Bad times might stoke nicer people for now, but, as the author quotes: "Ours is not a culture that cultivates long memories."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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