Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Great Adjustment
One way to frame the current national discontent is as a near-universal concern that our old ways of doing the public's business are at sharp and increasing odds with current and projected needs. There are parallel disconnects between our means (revenues) and ends (expenditures), and between our processes (broken) and outcomes (unsatisfactory and/or non-existent).

In today's Times, Tom Friedman refers to the current American moment as the dawn of "the lean years." This characterization is understandable but, I think, largely erroneous: for a plurality to majority of Americans (and probably a large majority of voting Americans), the present and future look as good as or better than the recent past.

To understand what I mean, check out this recent report from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University: the very dry title ("Labor Underutilization Problems of U.S. Workers Across Household Incomes at the End of the Great Recession") buries the lede right before the subtitle ("A Truly Great Depression Among the Nation's Low Income Workers Amidst Full Employment Among the Most Affluent") digs it back up. The point of Andrew Sum and his colleagues is that we don't really have "one economy" any more, if we ever really did; those who are rich stay employed even in bad times, while those who'd earned lower incomes when they were working are now far, far less likely to remain on the job.

This may sound circular, but it's not. The last major report I worked on for the Center for an Urban Future, released last month, took on this same question from a very slightly different angle (and took a local rather than a national view, though I think the same dynamics are entirely at play; an unstated premise of the report is that New York City's economy is "like America's, only more so"): we published a table of unemployment rates in the throes of the downturn by educational attainment, a measure strongly correlated with earnings. Here it is:

Another table in the report shows the difference in average annual compensation between a high school graduate and a bachelors degree holder: almost $20,000 a year in New York City. So you're twice as likely to have a job in a down economy, and that much richer. See why those two individuals might not view themselves as sharing an economic experience?

Notwithstanding his failure to differentiate between what the economy looks like for the fortunate educated/comfortable/employed and for their opposites--a harrowing window into which is offered by this Times story also in today's paper--Friedman makes a couple very important points:

[T]o lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.
President Obama’s bad luck was that he showed up just as we moved from the fat years to the lean years. His calling is to lead The Regeneration. He clearly understands that in his head, but he has yet to give full voice to it. Actually, the thing that most baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can’t come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics — when it is so obvious.
Alas, though, instead of making nation-building in America his overarching narrative and then fitting health care, energy, educational reform, infrastructure, competitiveness and deficit reduction under that rubric, the president has pursued each separately. This made each initiative appear to be just some stand-alone liberal obsession to pay off a Democratic constituency — not an essential ingredient of a nation-building strategy — and, therefore, they have proved to be easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists.
To be sure, taking over the presidency at the dawn of the lean years is no easy task. The president needs to persuade the country to invest in the future and pay for the past — past profligacy — all at the same time. We have to pay for more new schools and infrastructure than ever, while accepting more entitlement cuts than ever, when public trust in government is lower than ever.

This strikes me as the less apocalyptic version of what James Howard Kunstler has been saying for awhile now (though JHK likely would sooner submit to unmedicated colonoscopy than accept a comparison to Thomas L. Friedman): we need to start reversing our habits of sprawl, wasteful expenditure and pointless consumption and figure out how to revise communities at much more intimate scale. I much prefer Friedman's version, which strongly implies that the drift is reversible; Kunstler basically (and somewhat gleefully) believes we're fucked, as he sets out in well-written detail in The Long Emergency.

I'm not at all convinced of that, but I think the fix--getting a firm grasp on our collective means and ends, reforming our broken processes to better solve our seemingly intractable problems (the worst of which haven't remotely begun to hit yet), and making the simultaneous investments and cuts Friedman rightly suggests we need--might represent a political challenge about equal in magnitude to the material challenges of World War II or the Cold War. If Obama can meet it, he'll have fulfilled the promise so many of us saw in him during the campaign and accomplished something comparable to what Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did. But there's a reason those leaders stand so tall in our history; very, very few can measure up.

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