Saturday, May 03, 2014

Shell Shocked

Political observers used to say things like “It’s the economy, stupid.”  But that was a different time, a time when bad economic news scared people and good economic news lifted them up.   We’re living in a different time today.  I call it an America in shell shock.   As evaluators of the economy, we’re pretty much flat-liners.  We have no trouble accepting bad tidings, yet we can’t allow ourselves to believe good economic news.  Even if we did hear some, we’d be confident that it wouldn’t last.  As any economist can tell you, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  For if we are afraid to spend, suppliers will be afraid to produce, employers to hire, and bankers to lend.  It all starts with the consumer.  And right now, we’d rather save (if possible) than consume, for we have no trust that if we spend much today there would be anything left to live on tomorrow.

In today’s New York Times, Michael Shear chronicled the state of the American political/economic union in one sentence: “Although the unemployment rate is now at the lowest level of Mr. Obama’s presidency, his job approval rating is also near a record low for him.”  Obviously, Obama’s political standing could be the result of recent setbacks in foreign policy, but you and I both know that’s not primarily the case.  Economics is still what matters.  And when it comes to economics, Americans after the Great Recession have become a nation of Droopy Dogs.

What the hell happened?  I still remember growing up in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  We had our angst, to be sure, but there was wind behind our sails, individually and collectively.  We had declared a war on poverty and, indeed, the walls of Jim Crow were being smashed brick by brick.  Just as racism was becoming a dirty word, the same was beginning to be said about sexism, especially once Billy Jean King kicked Bobby Riggs to the curb.   Even as tens of thousands of young men died in Vietnam, we celebrated our space program -- and not just on Star Trek.   Our rock ‘n rollers were never quite as good as the blokes from Britain, so we celebrated the Brits as our own and allowed them to lead us in summers of love.  

Athletes were beloved back then as well – since nobody knew what a “PED” was, we took their accomplishments at face value.  And people could go on to reasonably good colleges without putting themselves into infinite debt.  In fact, young men and women could get into the nation’s best colleges without having to sacrifice their youth in the process.

The generation that oversaw America’s rise to affluence in the 60s and 70s was the so-called “Greatest Generation.”  This was the generation that fought Hitler and Hirohito together in World War II.  Many died.  But those who lived did a great job building interstate highways, turning public universities into national treasures, and coming up with political compromises that incentivized economic efficiency without ignoring economic equity.   As a child who grew up in those days – a so-called “Baby Boomer” -- I can safely say that the Greatest Generation nurtured us so that we could grow up thinking that the world was our oyster.

The rest, as they say, is history.  We Boomers became self-centered and spoiled.  We luxuriated ourselves, living beyond our means and neglecting the “greater good.”  The environment became something to utilize, not to care for.   Sacrificing came to be seen as un-American and unnecessary.   Government regulation came to be seen as a gateway drug to Marxism.  And rather than emulating the 60s and 70s, we tried to emulate the Roaring Twenties.  To top it all off, an entire industry of politicians and political mouthpieces showed up on the scene, fighting the Government like our ancestors once fought Prohibition.

The economy remained relatively strong, at least on the surface, until the middle of this past decade.  Then, when it all came tumbling down, the age of narcissism abruptly ended.  It was time to look at ourselves in the mirror.   And somehow, we couldn’t recognize anything remotely resembling that Greatest Generation.   Americans were no longer “winners,” let alone vanquishers of evil.  Economically, we were seen as being swept under the great tide of international mediocrity, rather than serving as the world’s vanguard.   The idea of a national consensus, which used to take us from one grand project to another, seemed like a utopian concept.  Our federal government was paralyzed, our military overtaxed, and our wars pointless.  Perhaps most tellingly, our leaders became laughingstocks – mere roadkill for the likes of late-night TV comedians.  They are but a shallow image of the iconic faces that have been depicted on our coins and on that celebrated mountain in South Dakota.  

Yes, folks, the mighty have fallen.  But we can get up, if we remember how we became great to begin with.
When I want to rekindle my love for country, I like to visit the home of one of the founding fathers.  I like to celebrate 18th and 19th century America.   But I also like to think about all the technological advances we’ve experienced in the recent past.  I’m no lover of technology, but it is awe-inspiring to consider all the information that is available at our finger tips, and the world owes so much of that to American ingenuity.

Have we seen our best days economically?   I don’t know.  What I do know is that economic prosperity tends to be cyclical, and there is no reason why we can’t find ourselves on another significant upswing – if not now, then soon.  Yes, we must have a functioning government once again.  Yes, the Rush Limbaughs of the world must go, and the Walter Cronkites must return.  But why can’t that happen?   Mostly, we must believe in ourselves, each other, and in the future. 
Why not start by watching an old video of Droopy Dog and asking yourself: is that your role model?  If not, keep the faith and get busy.  Work hard.  Play hard.  And don’t be scared to spend a little money for a worthy product.

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