A Nation in Crisis?

Pundits and scholars suggest that our nation is in crisis. Abroad, we are challenged by China, Russia, North Korea. We are threatened at our borders by immigration. We have an economy that doesn’t produce satisfactory jobs for many underemployed people and where career paths are uncertain for people even of the upper classes. The country is rife with regionalism and a cultural war between the people who live on the coasts and those who live inland. Race relations are still lousy or, worse than that, retrograde, what with police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the urban underclass ever more racially segregated. There is a rampage of mass shootings. We are desperately in need of infrastructure improvements and bringing about a decline in air pollution. And, of course, we have separated into two political tribes which can not communicate with one another and an electoral system which two times in the last twenty years has given us a President who did not win the popular vote. How can this not be considered a crisis? Well, it is not, and that is made clear by applying even a wee bit of historical perspective. In fact, we are living in perhaps the most benign of times since the Era of Good Feeling that followed the War of 1812 and lasted, let us say, until the tariff crisis of 1824 that ushered in the Pre-Civil War Era which was a thirty-five year period in which any number of things were done to try to prevent a civil war.

Take the easy issue of foreign affairs first. We are not anywhere in a major war. We lose a few troops a month in Afghanistan, which is not a great price for keeping that area free of terrorist control, and we may even withdraw our last remaining troops from there if the Taliban give some guarantees about not readmitting terrorist organizations into what will be their country. Our war of words with North Korea is mere posturing, our greatest assurance that North Korea will not launch nuclear missiles against us being the fact that it will result in the nuclear annihilation of their country, and mutually assured destruction has proven to be a solid basis for international relations, it having worked with the Soviet Union and would have worked with the Iranians even if they had developed a nuclear bomb. Russia has become a minor power ever more dependant on its ever lower priced oil, and Putin exerts his influence only through cyberspace and so is an antagonist which we can greet with countermeasures if the American Administration in power were inclined to. Europe and Asia are otherwise stable, though the possibility that Great Britain might vote itself into extinction is at the moment possible, though I think the British people are unlikely to do that, given the good sense that has made them a formidable people for a thousand years.

As far as domestic issues are concerned, it is necessary to be a bit more discerning to see that the nation is not in all that bad shape. The obvious facts already point in that direction. The nation has had an expanding economy for ten years now, ever since Obama’s stimulus package. Unemployment is low. People complain, however, that the career ladder for those just starting out has been compromised, young people unable to get a leg up to well paying jobs but must instead settle for underpaid or part time jobs with no future and that even Ivy League graduates who get work at start-ups have no assurance that these jobs can become lifelong careers. People will just move from one nowhere-to-go job to another. And so this generation, for the first time in history, will be the first one that makes out less well than its parents did. 

But that prediction was made of the Baby Boom Generation when the great number of job seekers it would put forth would be too many for the economy to handle and so average income would go down. That was wrong, as was the same prediction of falling income for successive generations after that. The truth of the matter is that every generation enters into an occupational system that is different from the one its parents entered into and must find a way to cope and generally do. Farmers in the Twenties and before had to cope with the introduction of farm machinery and so became mechanics as well as farmers. Farmers in the Sixties had to start planting soybeans and Belgian endives. Farmers in the Eighties had to start thinking about international markets just as farmers in the late part of the Nineteenth Century had to start thinking of national markets.  Industrial workers in the Thirties unionized so as to make a good living in a manufacturing economy and workers in the Eighties had to adjust to declining manufacturing by securing pension and health benefits and having their children move into different lines of work. The children of late Twentieth Century professionals found work in artisan bakeries and breweries as well as in finance. 

Where will the next generation of jobs come from? Current projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are that the job categories that will show the greatest increases in the next ten years are social panel installation (a 63% increase) and the wind turbine industry (a 56% increase) and that these jobs will pay a middle class wage ($42,000 and $54,000, respectively). These are good jobs for people who might otherwise go into manufacturing and mining or who have only high school diplomas. The next two categories are home health aides (a 36% increase) and personal care aides (also a 36% increase), both of which are relatively unskilled work and can provide work for people who otherwise might be unemployed or stocking shelves in a supermarket. Other health sector jobs, such as physician assistants (a 31% increase in jobs which pay over $100,000), are just a little lower on the list, and are quite well paying, and so the health field will be able to employ people with all levels of education, and so that puts an end to the idea that very well paying jobs will only be available to the children of the rich who find a way onto Wall Street.

The social agenda for politicians has narrowed rather than broadened because so many of the social objectives of previous generations have been achieved. Health care remains the number one issue in the popular mind because Obamacare was so successful that the only thing people want is to expand it rather than change it. Getting rid of mass incarceration is just an extension of the Liberal idea of rehabilitating prisoners, though this time without worrying too much about whether you can fix broken souls, just about whether they can be managed without extended prison time and the damage that itself does to the convicts. The working conditions at Amazon and WalMart can be improved if we alter NLRB rules that make it difficult for unions to organize. Gun control of the sort provided by the Brady Bill will reduce mass shootings because it did so for the ten years the Brady Bill was in force. So it is no wonder people prefer climate change to be their pet political issue. It is something which you can moan about to your heart’s content without anything ever being done that would be enough to combat the problem or that might truly inconvenience you. Not that there are not social problems which remain unaddressed. Rural and inner city poverty remain incalcitrant, even if Donald Trump only recognizes people of color as being poor. We also don’t know what to do about the student loan crisis, which is just the tip of the iceberg of the social problem of education, where we don’t know how to give poor kids a fair chance at an education or, at the other end of the spectrum, how to allocate college spaces fairly. Those issues will take a long time to resolve.

Parsing what is wrong with the political system will last only as long as Donald Trump is around. Then we will find issues of regionalism and “silo” politics, which have been around since the beginning of the republic, less salient. On the whole, without Donald Trump for the media to kick around, there would not be much to cover other than the spectacle of all those earnest and not so earnest people opening or not opening their hearts, but certainly opening their personalities, to the scrutiny of voters in exchange for the off shot chance that sometime late in their political careers, after a lifetime of trading favors, they might for a moment have a chance to do something significant in the national interest, though by that time they are so inured to the nature of politics that they might not recognize the moment when they are called on to be statesmanlike rather than calculating. For the nonce, noone, not even Moscow Mitch, has to be statesmanlike.

I don’t know for how long these post-political times will last, where people are able to enjoy their political tribalism because it has so little impact on their lives otherwise than in the cultural affinities it spawns with other people who see themselves either as the outsiders against the Establishment, or those who think, on the whole, that the Establishment of whatever party is, on the whole, capable of responsible government, able to manage the country well enough until some real danger appears, which is when we will need decisive and wise leadership, such a problem not even on the horizon, in that China is less interested in military expansion than in trade expansion, and the Arab oil states will have ever less of a market for their oil.

So people imagine the Internet or Artificial Intelligence or social media as an existential threat to the continued existence of our mental faculties or even our human nature in anything even resembling its present form because, it seems, we always need a bogeyman to scare us, to spur us into apocalyptic thinking, which is a failure of mind I choose to blame on Christianity, given its wedding of doom and gloom about the End of Days with a sense of the inherent corruptness of the human soul. If you get rid of those two things, then you are left with the liberal imagination, which finds fulfilling the acquaintance with other souls that is found in literature and politics, and with the wonders of the natural and social worlds. Why isn’t that enough?