Catherine H. from Oregon: “I appreciate your optimism in spite of the recent spending bill. I personally have given up because as I’ve gotten older it seems that things don’t actually get better. My opinion is that the public are no longer represented in Washington DC, our politicians are bought by and work exclusively for Big Business — yes they throw the American public a bone, but reflective of Noam Chomsky’s ideas only enough to keep us sated and non-revolutionary. . . . The American public doesn’t really have the vote, the electoral college does; our police are more and more militarized and truly work for big business, have since the industrial revolution; unions have been decimated; banks have more rights to our tax dollars than we do; I see nothing but disaster for the public. Along with reduced funding for education, which keeps us dumbed down and cheaper to hire; reduced benefits — raping of pensions/401k’s……we, as a middle class, are going absolutely no where. I don’t really have a point other than to say there is no hope anymore. Thanks for letting me vent.”
☞ Catherine! I’d be first to agree the middle class has been ill served and our political process subverted — you know which party I mainly blame — but there is so much hope!
To begin with . . .
EVERYTHING IS AWESOME
As noted here:
Everything Is Awesome
Well, not everything. But America’s looking much better than you think.
By Michael Grunwald
Good news! The U.S. economy grew at a rollicking 5 percent rate in the third quarter. Oh, and it added 320,000 jobs in November, the best of its unprecedented 57 straight months of private-sector employment growth. Just in time for Christmas, the Dow just hit an all-time high and the uninsured rate is approaching an all-time low. Consumer confidence is soaring, inflation is low, gas prices are plunging, and the budget deficit is shrinking. You no longer hear much about the Ebola crisis that dominated the headlines in the fall, much less the border crisis that dominated the headlines over the summer. As Fox News host Andrea Tantaros proclaimed earlier this month: “The United States is awesome! We are awesome!”
OK, she was talking about the Senate torture report, not the state of the union, but things in the U.S. do look rather awesome. Mitt Romney promised to bring unemployment down to 6 percent in his first term; it’s already down to 5.8 percent, half the struggling eurozone’s rate. Newt Gingrich promised $2.50 gas; it’s down to $2.38. Crime, abortion, teen pregnancy and oil imports are also way down, while renewable power is way up and the American auto industry is booming again. You don’t have to give credit to President Barack Obama for “America’s resurgence,” as he has started calling it, but there’s overwhelming evidence the resurgence is real. The Chicken Littles who predicted a double-dip recession, runaway interest rates, Zimbabwe-style inflation, a Greece-style debt crisis, skyrocketing energy prices, health insurance “death spirals” and other horrors have been reliably wrong.
Come to think of it, the 62 percent of Americans who described the economy as “poor” in a CNN poll a week before the Republican landslide in the midterm elections were also wrong. I guess that sounds elitist. Second-guessing the wisdom of the public may be the last bastion of political correctness; if ordinary people don’t feel good about the economy, then the recovery isn’t supposed to be real. But aren’t the 11 million Americans who have landed new jobs since 2010 and the 10 million Americans who have gotten health insurance since 2013 ordinary Americans? It’s true that wage growth has remained slow, but the overall economic trends don’t jibe with the public’s lousy mood. And the public definitely does get stuff wrong. A Bloomberg poll this month found that 73 percent of Americans think the deficit is getting bigger, while 21 percent think it’s getting smaller and 6 percent aren’t sure. In fact, the deficit has dwindled from about $1.2 trillion in 2009 to less than $500 billion in 2014. My favorite part is the mere 6 percent who admitted ignorance; 73 percent are definitely sure the shrinking deficit is actually growing.
The point isn’t that the midterm election’s discontent was illegitimate. The point is that Americans should cheer up! Six years ago, the economy was contracting at an 8 percent annual rate and shedding 800,000 jobs a month. Those were Great Depression-type numbers. The government was pouring billions of dollars into busted banks, and experts like MIT’s Simon Johnson were predicting that the bailouts would cost taxpayers as much as $2 trillion. In reality, the bailouts not only quelled the worst financial panic since the Depression, they made money for taxpayers. Nevertheless, last week, after the government sold its stake in Ally Bank, its last major holding in a financial institution, Johnson complained to The New York Times about the “unfortunate and inappropriate message” being sent by people pointing out the bailouts were actually profitable. In this holiday season, can’t we be a little bit happy we didn’t have to waste the $2 trillion he thought we were going to waste?
This bah-humbug brand of moral superiority has flourished since the crisis: How dare you celebrate this or that piece of economic data when so many Americans are still hurting? It’s awkward to argue with that view, since many Americans are indeed still hurting. But the economic data keep showing that fewer Americans are hurting every month. No one is satisfied with 5.8 percent unemployment, but it’s way better than the 10 percent we had in 2010 or the 11 percent Europe has today. Declining child poverty and household debt and personal bankruptcies are also worth celebrating. Better is better than worse. Whether or not you think Obamacare had anything to do with the slowdown in medical cost growth, it’s a good thing that Medicare’s finances have improved dramatically, extending the solvency of its trust fund by an estimated 13 years. It’s a good thing that U.S. wind power has tripled and solar power has increased tenfold in five years. And while it’s true that the meteoric rise of the stock market since 2009 has produced windfalls for Wall Street, it has also replenished state pension funds and 401(k) retirement plans and labor union coffers. It definitely beats the alternative.
Let’s face it: The press has a problem reporting good news. Two Americans died of Ebola and cable TV flipped out; now we’re Ebola-free and no one seems to care. The same thing happened with the flood of migrant children across the Mexican border, which was a horrific crisis until it suddenly wasn’t. Nobody’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize for recognizing that we’re smoking less, driving less, wasting less electricity and committing less crime. Police are killing fewer civilians, and fewer police are getting killed, but understandably, after the tragedies in Ferguson and Brooklyn, nobody’s thinking about that these days. The media keep us in a perpetual state of panic about spectacular threats to our safety — Ebola, sharks, terrorism — but we’re much likelier to die in a car accident. Although, it ought to be said, much less likely than we used to be; highway fatalities are down 25 percent in a decade.
The other problem in acknowledging good news, not just for the press but for the public, is that it has come to feel partisan, like an endorsement of whoever occupies the White House. Republican leaders have exacerbated this problem by describing everything Obama has done — his 2009 stimulus package, his 2010 Wall Street reforms, his 2013 tax hikes on high earners, his various anti-pollution regulations aimed at coal-fired power plants, and most of all Obamacare — as “job-killing” catastrophes that would obliterate the economy. It’s hard to point out that the economy is humming along nicely without making those doom-and-gloom predictions sound ill-advised and over-the-top. Because they were. Liberals who predicted disaster when Obama refused to nationalize the banking system during the financial crisis and when Republicans insisted on the harsh budget cuts in the 2013 “sequester” were wrong, too. Disaster hasn’t happened.
As ideologically inconvenient as that may be for chronic complainers on the left and right — and for pundit types invested in their bad-year-for-Obama narrative — it’s wonderful for the country. You don’t have to endorse Obama’s economic philosophy to realize that it hasn’t wreaked short-term havoc, just as you don’t have to endorse the Obama or George W. Bush anti-terror philosophies to acknowledge that America hasn’t endured a rash of terror attacks since 2001. Last week, polls finally found a majority of Americans recognizing that the economy is improving, which is to say a majority of Americans are recognizing reality. It’s probably time for politicians to discover a new Ebola to scream about.
There is no shortage of candidates in this less-than-perfect union. The U.S. is still plagued by inadequate public schools, crumbling infrastructure, soaring college tuition costs, stark inequality. Many Americans want accountability for reckless bankers, torturers and fatal choke-holders. Washington is still almost as dysfunctional as everyone says it is. Congress this session really was the second least productive ever. And even though Obama is winding down the U.S. involvement in overseas wars, the world remains a scary place. There’s still plenty to worry about.
But for now be merry! And may the new year be as awesome as this year.
So there’s a start.
And there’s more.
Even with stagnant real wages, these past 25 years, I’d argue that most of us are meaningfully better off. We likely have a smart phone, which means we have immense power in our pockets not even billionaires had 25 years ago — “never lost” (GPS) and never bored (Words With Friends).
Crime is down; auto safety is up. Safer on the road, safer on the street. And now secure in the knowledge that affordable health care is available no matter what befalls us.
How do you measure all that in terms of per capita income? Yes, the middle class has gotten clobbered, relatively speaking — nearly all the gains have gone to corporate profits, up from a typical 6% or so of GDP to 10% or so, and to the “top 1%” — and there are structural problems we need to fix to swing the pendulum back into balance. (Had we just turned out to vote in November, we could have.) But in so many ways, “the 99%” have seen life improve.
And how about Google? Amazon? eBay? Uber? How do you factor in the convenience of all that? Or the availability of so many more entertainment choices?
Dentistry has become better and less painful . . . bank deposits can be made by smartphone . . . there is credit card reform and a Consumer Bill of Rights and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Oh, and by the way? Middle-class, middle-aged Americans are expected to live three or four years longer than in 1980 — with hope for yet longer, healthier lives on the way — no matter what happens with the Electoral College. (But even there, there’s hope: We’re 30.7% of the way toward the solution, with a further 6.7% actively pending. Check it out!)
There’s hope that a consensus is forming to decriminalize drug possession and reform our criminal justice sentencing and prison systems. Boy, is that ever overdue. (I again offer the American Justice Summit videos for your consideration.)
I don’t mean to be a broken record (at least for long-time readers), but Ray Kurzweil tells us the next 50 years of technological progress will be 32 times as dazzling as the last 50 years’ progress — which was already awfully darn dazzling, if you ask me. So while there’s loads of reason to worry that we’ll hurtle off the rails . . . or that our political system will become completely captured by a very wealthy few (if we don’t vote) . . . there is so much progress to hope for — and, indeed, to expect.
Here are two examples almost at random:
Striking another blow to the oil and gas industries, an American solar company has developed technology that can produce super-efficient solar power that’s cheaper than fossil fuels. Rayton Solar’s new solar panel manufacturing technology uses 50 to 100 times less silicon than other technologies, cutting out large amounts of the most costly component of solar panels. The company says its patent-pending process uses just four microns worth of silicon, leaving no waste – while boosting efficiency to 24 percent. That’s 25 percent higher than industry standard efficiency, according to the company
Can you imagine? And how about this one?
Turning saltwater into clean drinking water is usually an expensive and energy-intensive process—a new desalination plant under construction in San Diego has a price tag of $1 billion, and smaller devices can cost as much as $30,000. But a new solar-powered device could make the process affordable for the millions of people around the world who don’t have running water.. . .
I have no idea which technologies, let alone which companies, will actually succeed; but clearly, many will.
There’s no free lunch, but there’s free sunlight, at least for the next several zillion years — and we seem to be growing ever smarter about harnessing it.
And now for the schmaltz.
At the end of the day, the reason to be hopeful is that — for all our demons, sloth, and stupidity — we humans have some good qualities, too. Will they be enough to get us through this climactic next few decades, where we either learn to live together sustainably on our little spaceship — or not? No one knows. But given the ingenuity and innate goodness so many have along with their demons, sloth, and stupidity, there are ample reasons for hope.
One example (which says a bit about our social policy as well): What a Homeless Man Does With $100. (John Leeds: “Spoiler alert: It is a video about a prankster giving $100 to a homeless man and secretly following him on video, expecting the man will buy alcohol or waste the money.”)
And as if that weren’t schmaltz enough, here are not one but three awesome renditions of Auld Lang Syne (thanks, Mel).
Thanks for your readership! Don’t agonize, Catherine — organize!
Happy New Year!
Quote of the Day
I have loved. And been loved. And all the rest is background music.~Stelle Ramey
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