The political class would have us believe that things are getting better, and that they have improved over time. However, increasingly, people intuitively know that this is not the case. Yes, by the measure of things they own, from air conditioners to televisions, people have more because these things are cheap. But are they really better off? Experience tells us otherwise.
In the 1950s it was possible for a policeman or fireman in New York City to not only own a home, but to have a summer house as well. He could support three children comfortably, and his wife could stay home. (Most women work today not because they necessarily want to, but because they have to, to make ends meet). Needless to say none of this would be possible today. Never mind optional things, just getting by is much more of a struggle than it was in the past. Now it could be argued that was an exceptional time, an anomaly in the scope of history, because America did not experience the widespread destruction that much of the developed world did and emerged from WWII in a singularly strong position. The argument goes that this could not last.
The problem is that the expectations of many have been based upon this period- that things would be at least as good, or better in the future. Whether everyone lived as well is not the point; even if they didn’t, they believed wholeheartedly that they could and would. Some, mostly on the left, would argue that things weren’t all that good, and that somehow it wasn’t “real,” but simply stated it was a time when almost everyone was happy, except for the liberals. The last time there was even an echo of that sentiment was in the 1980s. Today a majority believe that the “American dream” is dead.
But we don’t have to go back to the 50s to see what has happened. We can look back at a relatively dismal period, the 1970s, and see a significant difference. Since 1970 the earnings of men with a high school diploma have fallen 47% in constant dollars. Even men with college degrees are earning 12% less. We’ve gone from being the greatest creditor country in the world to being the largest debtor. Back then unemployment was 3.9%, or half of what it is today. The economy is going nowhere fast and this is unlikely to change for millions of quite employable people, for whom things have not only not improved, but have gotten considerably worse.
Sometimes we hear the argument that America is just going to have to wait until the rest of the world catches up. But the notion that an American worker be considered the same as a Chinese peasant is just unacceptable. The only way the promise of this country is fulfilled is if we continue to lead the way and maintain the best living standard in the world. This has not happened due to objective conditions alone, but mismanagement, by the government for sure, but also by the private sector. Selfish, short-sighted behavior based on quarterly earnings is the norm these days, rather than the long term good. The focus is on immediate profits rather than quality products or the goods and services that are actually being produced. Across the board in all institutions, not just business, but nonprofits, universities, governments, etc. top management is more focused on how they can maximize their benefits, rather than the substance of what the institution is about.
i’m not going to get into all the other indicators of social decline, from morality to statistics like divorce rates to bad behavior and attitude, which are symptoms of more fundamental problems. What can be done to get back on the right track? There are no easy answers, but we can begin with enlightened leadership that has the right priorities. Then we desperately need policies that will spur economic growth and job creation as well as debt reduction. Unfortunately there is currently no inspired leadership from Washington, the administration is economically inept, and current tax and spending policies not only don’t encourage growth, they discourage investment. In the absence of that there is just no way millions of unemployed people are going to be put back to work, that graduates will find jobs, or that those who are working won’t live in constant fear of losing their jobs. We do not have to be resigned to this. We need to be uplifted and inspired again. I do not want to go to my grave with the sad realization that our best years were during my childhood in the 1950s. From what was given to us we owe it to subsequent generations to provide something better.