Monday, May 21, 2012

The View From Planet Beltway

The unemployment rate here in California is “down” to 10.9 percent. Break out the bubbly, gang, it’s time to celebrate. I’ll bring the Gilbey’s vodka, you bring the Donald Duck orange juice. We can squat in my old neighbor’s house. He’s been gone since his wife left him for another women and he couldn’t afford to make the payments anymore. His truck can now be seen parked outside of a dingy weekly motel, which has a sign that says, “No Pressure, No Problems.”

Meanwhile, perusing the Internets, I see a bright young pundit, his cheeks aglow with the radiant good health and prosperity that comes from living on Planet Beltway, instructing us that the US isn’t really in decline. Those of us who say so don’t know what we’re talking about:

Whenever someone tells me that the U.S. is in decline, I don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. And neither, I tend to think, do they.

The claim is maddeningly vague. What does it mean for the U.S. to be in decline? Are we talking about our geopolitical influence relative to other world powers? Our standard of living relative to other nations? Our current standard of living compared with some assumption about its appropriate rate of improvement?

Let’s flip the question: What does it mean for the U.S. to be on the rise? If it’s growing at a perfectly respectable 3.5 percent a year while China is growing at 8.5 percent a year, enabling China’s economy to surpass the U.S. in a decade or so, does that mean the U.S. is in decline?

My hunch is that’s how most Americans define decline.

My hunch is that Americans most decidedly do not define decline this way. They don’t sit around the bar comparing national GDPs. This is the kind of myopic analysis that can only come from a cloistered Washington insider, even one who is reputedly left of center. It is maddeningly narrow and disconnected. It bears no relevance to the concrete realities of daily life in this country. Judging our national health primarily in terms of GDP would lead to the following absurdities:

BARNEY: Betty’s pregnant again, Fred. My unemployment benefits are running out, and we’re losing the house next month. We can’t afford to send Bam Bam to college, and the lump in my testicles is getting bigger but I don’t have health insurance. I just don’t know what to do.”

FRED: Cheer up, Barney. GDP is growing at a perfectly reasonable 3.5 percent per year. The idea that things are in decline is a mirage. Besides, you’re just comparing your current standard of living to an assumption about its appropriate rate of growth. You should know this, but I always forget you didn’t go that far in school.

BARNEY: Gee, Fred, I never thought about it that way. I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about.

FRED and BARNEY, in unison: Thanks, Ezra!

Many Americans can see their standard of living perceptibly deteriorating, and not just “relative to other nations” but in real terms. Things are manifestly bad and getting worse, and that’s what leads to all these dark mutterings about decline. It is not the baseless, naive doomsaying of people who just don’t get the sublime complexities of the GDP and other such wonkish delights; it’s the rational conclusion of many sane observers whose view is not limited to statistics. The standard of living in China and Brazil doesn’t enter into it, save that Americans know that’s where their jobs have been shipped.

In almost every category you care to name America is visibly declining: health care, public education, social mobility. High unemployment and stagnant wages are blithely referred to as the new normal, and we’re reaching third world levels of economic inequality. We have a large military and a large prison system and that’s about it. Congress, which is hopelessly corrupt and sclerotic, is a slavish servant to corporations, Wall Street banks and the Pentagon. Dick Durbin admitted on the floor of the Senate that bankers “frankly own the place.” It is completely incapable of steering us in the direction of genuine reform. The cavalry ain’t coming. Can we be blamed for thinking things seem a bit darker than normal? Are we wrong to suspect we might be in serious decline?

Everyone thinks they live in an age of decay, but that doesn’t mean prophets of doom are always wrong. Sometimes the sky is falling.

But these unsightly problems don’t penetrate Planet Beltway, where responsible centrism prevails and a rising pundit’s conclusions must always be congenial to the People Who Matter.

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