Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Long slow slide -- then you hit the ground

Few Americans remember the Great Depression. For my grandparents, it was an essential formative experience, but for people of my parents' age, it's a childhood memory, with little impact on their understanding of the world. Since World War II, Americans grew accustomed to a steadily rising material standard of living and eventually came to take it for granted that the average person would always be wealthier than people of a decade before. However their own dreams had fallen short, people invested not merely optimism, but faith, in the greater well-being and achievements of their children.

But now workers' real incomes have been stagnant for the better part of 20 years. Greater labor force participation by women kept the boats rising for a while, but that spring ran dry a while ago. People turned to borrowing against their home equity, but now they're tapped out. Economic growth means greater and greater enrichment for the very few, but little or none of it flows to ordinary people, who are running and place and increasingly vulnerable to an illness, a job loss, an insurance company that won't pay off for a fire or a flood.

Right now we see people beginning to respond to political appeals for greater economic justice. The Democrats' push to expand S-CHIP is very popular, and the Occupant's rhetoric about socialized medicine is not resonating. Talk about raising taxes on the wealthy no longer scares people, because they no longer imagine that they will be wealthy one day.

But what will happen when stagnation turns to deterioration? I don't have the crystal ball that tells me whether the U.S. economy will enter a period of overall contraction soon, but the possibility of a real short-term catastrophe from the confluence of rising oil prices and financial collapse is certainly non-trivial. What I do know, however, is that there is no real possibility that the decline of the American middle class will suddenly be reversed under the Hillary Clinton administration. We have profound, long-term structural problems that nobody -- and that includes John Edwards and Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich -- is talking about.

We have done absolutely nothing to prepare for peak oil or global climate change or the catastrophic water shortages that will soon plague the fastest growing parts of the country; upward pressure on food prices; relentless increases in health care costs; the relentless decay of the 1950s era national infrastructure. We are still a very wealthy country and we can save our collective asses with a crash program of investment, but we aren't going to do that because we're spending half a trillion dollars a year desperately trying to maintain global military domination -- to what end, no-one can tell us.

I haven't heard a single Democratic candidate for president even hint at the true choices which face us. But what will happen to our political culture when frustration with stagnation turns into desperation as ordinary Americans can't afford to heat their houses, send their kids to college, or pay for health care? As more and more of them have trouble buying clothing and groceries and keeping their cars running? Are we finally going to confront reality and enter an era of honest political discourse, or are we going to have a demagogue rise up by promising to conquer our way out of our difficulties?

Stay tuned.

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