Waiting (forever) to exhale
As someone who’s been watching life unfold for damn near six decades now, I’m encouraged by the Biden Administration’s economic, social and environmental policies so far. I’m starting to feel like the long, lucid nightmare that began in November 2016 just might be over.
And I happen to be writing this on what seems an auspicious day: March 10, 2021, when the Dow hit an all-time high and the House passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package in response to COVID-19.
Like many Americans, I’ve been stressed, holding my breath, for some time. Am I finally ready to breathe a giant sigh of relief? Oh hell no. I’m still waiting to exhale. Actually, I’m not sure I will ever exhale.
It’s not that I’m a pessimist. It’s just that I’ve been around a while. Right now, this is reality as I see it:
➤ After rising steadily for decades following the Great Depression, the wages of America’s workers (adjusting for inflation) have now been virtually stagnant since 1978. For the vast majority of Americans, this sucks.
➤ Over those same four decades, the costs of housing, higher education and health care have increased dramatically, while the wealth of average Americans has fallen. This also sucks for the vast majority of us.
➤ According to the 1940s-1960s definition, the American "middle class" has virtually disappeared. Meanwhile, the wealth of the very richest Americans has blasted into the stratosphere. (Who needs a space program when the One Percenters can fly so high?)
➤ Again and again (looking through a broad lens), we see liberal economic policies leading to economic growth in the US and conservative economic policies reversing that trajectory. While our three biggest economic crashes so far (1929, 2008, 2020) were each caused by a different set of factors, they all happened to occur under Republican administrations. (This almost seems like a pattern.)
➤ America’s most prosperous era (the 1940s-1950s, mentioned above) was an anomaly. Sorry, but it’s true. These golden years resulted from a concurrence of geopolitical, technological and social events, good and bad, that simply won’t recur. And no amount of patriotism, prayer or Protestant work ethic will bring it back. (MAGAs, I’m looking at you.)
➤ EVEN BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, the stock market was overdue for an "adjustment" (or reckoning).
➤ EVEN BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, American society was facing drastic economic change. Factors included a growing population of elderly and disabled; the increasing threat of worker displacement due to automation; massive amounts of household and government debt; decades of cuts to the social safety net; and more.
➤ AND NOW, WE’RE IN A PANDEMIC. Hello.
These are the lessons I think we should be learning right now:
✦ No matter how hard you’ve worked and how responsible you’ve been, you can still suffer personal and financial devastation because of events outside your control.
✦ Linking healthcare with work is problematic. Actually, linking one’s entire survival to a 40-hour job and investments in the stock and housing markets is problematic.
✦ The US is not a separate planet. Americans will always be impacted by the rest of the world and vice-versa.
✦ Likewise, the lives and fortunes of individual Americans are inexorably connected, no matter how proudly independent we think we are. Choices that benefit individuals may not benefit society at all, and what happens in society impacts all of us as individuals.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a simple example: Suppose you pledge to purchase zero widgets from now on in order to save money. If everyone did that, everyone would be better off financially, right? Well, no. The widget-makers will be screwed.
(Speaking of widgets: Need cheering up? Here’s “Round and Round,” a delightful dramatization of how widgets make the market economy work, produced by Jim Handy in 1939 for General Motors.)
✦ For many reasons, it seems, a solely consumer-based economy may never be viable again. We don’t know how many occupations may never bounce back after the pandemic, or how many COVID19 survivors will remain disabled, or what new pandemics or climatic disasters await us in the next few decades — or even the next few weeks.
Folks: The world has changed more dramatically than we can possibly imagine. But at this moment, we’re simply too close to see — like watching a movie in an IMAX theater with your nose three inches from the screen.
Dammit, I shouldn’t have to say this; isn’t it blatantly obvious? But I have a funny feeling we haven’t learned any of these lessons at all.
I’ve known for a long time that the Jetsons Future my generation looked forward to as kids is NOT the future we’ll actually have. (I miss that future.) The question is, though, will the future actually be a dystopia? And if so, what sort of dystopia will it be? Will it be “12 Monkeys" dystopic? “Gattica" dystopic? “Logan’s Run” dystopic? "Blade Runner" dystopic? “The Day After Tomorrow” dystopic? Or G-d forbid, just “The Day After” dystopic?
It doesn’t have to be dystopic, you know. But whether the future is dystopic or not depends on what we (humanity) does in the next handful of years.
I’m not an economist, historian, or policy analyst. I’m not dogmatically attached to any specific political or economic system; I just want Whatever Works. I’m an average American and a displaced journalist who Did All The Things I was supposed to do, but wound up with my own personal and economic collapse anyway. It happened a decade ago, and I’ve been struggling to recover ever since.
I’m also a member of Generation Jones. What’s that mean? Briefly:
Author and social commentator Jonathan Pontell coined the term "Generation Jones" in 1999 to describe the cohort of people born from 1954 to 1965 — the "trailing" Baby Boomers and first-wave Generation Xers — because he saw us as demographically distinct, socially and economically. In particular, mostly because of bad timing, we Jonesers have experienced more economic instability than the Boomers just a few years older than us.
Being born in 1964 during the Baby Boom makes me, technically, a BoomER. But my memories and life experiences are more about Watergate and Reaganomics than about Woodstock and Vietnam. Those iconic events belong to the older Boomers (which I call the Woodstock Generation). We have our own.
Though Generation Jones isn’t a political concept, I’ve been a political animal all my life so I tend to see everything through that lens; today, life is politics, after all. (My parents named me after William Jennings Bryan; maybe I had no choice!)
In general, "Trailing Boomers" lean Conservative. But my own Progressive leanings are some of the reasons "Generation Jones" appeals to me and many of my peers. One big reason: the negative impact of Reaganomics and social program cuts on our lives and our futures. (Also, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are Jonesers, so yay!)
For several years now, I’ve been at work on a Generation Jones brand/project, Jonesing For Prosperity™. I had to put it on hold while the former guy was in office, but now I’m back on task. This spring I’ll be going live with a multimedia website, a one-stop shop for nostalgia and fun as well as commentary about the past, present and future (and the ways in which I hope we can make it less dystopic).
PS. I’m also The Baby Humanist.