Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Picture, A Thousand Words

Interesting graphic of the changing state-by-state unemployment levels since the Carter Administration.

While we think of unemployment in national terms when talking about policy - "the unemployment rate is at 6.7%" - the fact is, unemployment is both an intensely personal experience and a communal experience.

When you see certain areas hit hard by unemployment, you are seeing the emotional devastation that accompanies each and every job loss written and rewritten over an entire community.  It is psychologically hard to loss a job and go on benefits for the vast majority of people.

While it is true that you can create a culture of dependency if a community experiences long term unemployment, it's important to note that it's the community aspect of this that creates social norms around dependency.  The guy who lives down the street and watches reality TV all day while he collects checks can only be "comfortable" (if that's the right word) if he's either unusually blind to public opinion or part of a community where that's the norm.

Or to put it another way: recessions turn everyone into poor African Americans.  Long recessions and depressions create whole communities of people who give up hope.  And in giving up hope, they abdicate their responsibilities towards social norms - or rather the social norms around them change.

What's striking about American politics ever since 1680, is that while a recession may turn a working class white person into the economic equivalent of an African American - who is used to being first fired, last hired - there is no corresponding empathy that is created among working class whites.

Tom Watson tried - during the First Gilded Age - to unite black and white farmers in the southern wing of the Populist party.  It proved impossible, and he adopted racial demagoguery from that point onward.  Even today, the machinist who lost his job can't see that the anger and helplessness he feels are effectively what African Americans and other minorities feel even during many "good" times.

The Dow is over 17,000.  The Lords of Finance are doing just fine, as they use the Fed's low interest rates to create another market bubble.

But the mass of the people aren't doing great.  Because the House of Representatives refuses to acknowledge basic macroeconomics (or acknowledges it, but prefers voters to be miserable and more likely to vote for them) we are stuck in a sluggish economy.  It's growing but not enough.  The promise that we feel entitled to as Americans is harder to realize.

But sadly, we are not seeing the creation of a "Labor" party to change this.  The closest we have is Elizabeth Warren, whose economic populism is leavened by a sense of social justice.

And this gets to the heart of my reticence about Hillary Clinton.  I think she would be a fine president.  But the moment calls for someone who can unite the millions of Americans who have been screwed over by an economy that is rigged for the 1%.  And I'm not sure that's her.

Eventually, the US economy will grow faster again.  But this could be a moment when we get working class whites to see that their economic situation is not protected by the color of their skin.  That their economic interests are only slightly different from the African American and Hispanic underclass that they have been trained to hate.

I worry that we've missed that moment already.

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