May 21, 2012
The View From Planet Beltway

The unemployment rate here in California is ďdownĒ to 10.9 percent. Break out the bubbly, gang, itís time to celebrate. Iíll bring the Gilbeyís vodka, you bring the Donald Duck orange juice. We can squat in my old neighborís house. Heís 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, ďNo Pressure, No Problems.Ē

Then, perusing the Internets, I see a bright young pundit, his cheeks aglow with the radiant health and prosperity that comes from living on Planet Beltway, instructing us that the US isnít really in decline. Those of us who say so donít know what weíre talking about:

Whenever someone tells me that the U.S. is in decline, I donít have any idea what theyíre 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?

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

My hunch is thatís 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: Bettyís pregnant again, Fred. My unemployment benefits are running out, and weíre losing the house next month. We canít afford to send Bam Bam to college, and the growth in my testicles is getting bigger but I donít have health insurance. I just donít know what to do.Ē

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 didnít go that far in school.

BARNEY: Gee, Fred, I never thought about it that way. I guess I donít know what Iím talking about.

FRED and BARNEY, in unison: Thanks, Ezra!

Many Americans can see their standard of living perceptibly deteriorating, and not just ďrelative to other nationsĒ but in real terms. Things are manifestly bad and getting worse, and thatís what leads to all these dark mutterings about decline. It is not the baseless, naive doomsaying of people who just donít get the sublime complexities of the GDP and other such wonkish delights; itís the rational conclusion of many sane observers whose view is not limited to statistics. The standard of living in China and Brazil doesnít enter into it, save that Americans know thatís 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 weíre reaching third world levels of economic inequality. We have a large military and a large prison system and thatís 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 ainít 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 doesnít mean prophets of doom are always wrong. Sometimes the sky is falling.

But these unsightly problems donít penetrate Planet Beltway, where responsible centrism prevails and a rising punditís conclusions must always be congenial to the People Who Matter.


Posted by OHollern at May 21, 2012 10:47 PM
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I see you've joined the ranks of the millions who are awaiting Ezra Klein's permanent unemployment.

As we sink lower and lower, the Kleins will be joining us.

Oh happy day.


Posted by: Suzan on May 21, 2012 11:32 PM

Oh, come on ... there are people in Haiti living under bedsheet tents and drinking cholera-infested water. You know, actual poor people. Unless you are AT LEAST that bad off, you have nothing to bitch about and should be grateful that you live in America.

Posted by: Tim on May 22, 2012 1:34 PM

Joe Bageant and I had a sort of on and off friendship, Joe was one of the most depressed human beings I've ever met and yet there was a certain spark in him, the touch of real humanity that made him genuine and real, although I disagreed with him quite a bit on a few sore subjects. Joe couldn't take humorous analogies well, sometimes they'd either be beneath him or over his head, he did have a certain chip on his shoulder that could make him blind. But he definitely saw what you saw. All one has to do to see it is to travel through the heartland of America and you will find the despair, the hopelessness, the gloomy outlook about the future. It's there on full display and the causes are definitely real. Of course, if you're lucky enough to be in a good job with plenty of dough rolling in, then it's easy to look down on others and we all do it. Joe was such hypersensitive to it because of his background. I could go on and on about Joe although we probably spent no more than 48 hours total talking and getting to know each other. But I sent Joe a song once, and he wrote me back gushing with emotion. He said it made him cry. He said he sent it immediately to a friend and his wife and I can't remember if he said she cried or not. But anyway, here it is. You can see why it hit Joe so hard. I'll post the one I sent Joe first and then the promo one that says in pictures what the words are trying to say. It's Kuuuntry, as they say in the south. On the other hand it was th final song in the tony yuppie television show Northern Exposure that did have a certain panache to it despite its appeal to the yuppy crowd. Nevertheless have a good cry over this one. If not for what the song represents, for good old kind hearted and brilliant yet truly human Joe Bageant. I'm proud to have known him for the short amount of time I did.

You know, there's something I have to add. Joe and I would just marvel over the terrible mistakes that our forebears made. The Civil War for instance. We both had a taste for the historical. And I just look at old videos at how hard people had to fight for a better life in this country. The strikes of the early part of this century could be so violent. People were really upset over years of mistreatment. And our generation just let what they fought for and won just slip away. I don't blame just the rich. I blame us. Yes, we were deceived. People who told us they were going to "cut taxes" were voted in. Our pocketbooks rules. Not all of us but a majority of us did. And what those politicians did was what they promised. They cut taxes. Just not for working people. In 1942 for every dollar the people of this nation paid in taxes, corporations paid one dollar and half. Today for every dollar the people pay in taxes, the corporations pay twenty five cents. The politicians did play some folsk for fools but I can't help but think many of them were fools themselves.

Who let that happen. Well, we all can say "it wasn't me". But you know, it really was us. We didn't fight hard enough when there would not have been terribly rough fights. But I look back at those old strike videos and think that this may be what we've endowed to the young people coming up today. And I wouldn't wish that past on anybody. A lot of people still haven't figured it out. But it's all there in the movie reels if you look for it. For example look at this one. The people that fought those fights were all working people, on both sides. The rich weren't doing the real fighting in those videos. But they caused it. And now it's probably going to have to happen again. I hate that for the future of our young people. We didn't do right by them. We really didn't.

Posted by: Buck on May 22, 2012 1:59 PM

Tim we know about the mud shacks of the Haitian poor. We realize that is a problem and we don't mind giving up things to help those folks get a better life. However, I would point you to a particular blog post from a number of years ago that a friend of Joe Bageant's used to write regularly but is now doing a two hour commute one way twice each day and had to cease blogging. But his famous "Our Harvest Being Gotten In" post is still up and I regularly go read it to remind myself about how we got where we are. We remember how we got here and we don't think it had to happen.

Posted by: Buck on May 22, 2012 3:17 PM

Fine Post!
Tim has his head up his well-off ass - the same place far too many liberal Democrat talking heads have theirs. During the run up to one of the most important elections that will impact the future of democracy in the entire history of the United States, the DNC has yet to support in any substantial way the recall of Scott Walker.
Given the time, I, like most any aware American could post a long list of issues that show the U.S. is going downhill.

Posted by: John Gall on May 22, 2012 3:40 PM

@ Buck: Thanks for the link; I looked at that post and it was very interesting, entertaining in its sad, sardonic way if also sickening. I guess there's a reason it's called the GROSS Domestic Product.

As for my comment above: I guess I did not include enough of the usual snark markers, or perhaps your snark detector was set too low -- doesn't matter which; no offense meant or taken. It was supposed to be a sarcastic comment on a common conservative meme. I have actually heard people say, unironically, that there really are no actual poor people in America because even most of the poor here have more than people who are REALLY poor. Then they will come up with an example. I could just as easily said "living in a desert refuge camp in Chad," etc. A variation is when some survey, the Census or whatnot, comes out with a finding that X percentage of the people/households below poverty level have a cellphone, or a car (or two cars!) or a microwave or some such.

Anyway, it was meant as ironic mockery of said conservative meme. Obviously, if I had to explain it this much, it wasn't any good.


Posted by: Tim on May 22, 2012 3:48 PM

No Tim, Words get lost in translation on the internet. As hard as we might try to find the right words, there are people out there who are going to take them wrong. That's the nature of the internet. The English language can't provide enough words to make sure what we mean as sardonic or not caustic to be sure we get across our points to everyone. If there is fault, it's mine for not reading what you were thinking. Next time I'll try to do better, but in the meantime I guess expressing how great his post was might get a little more traction. All you have to remember is "our harvest being gotten in". Google links it right up there with the oft forgotten Puritan and his famous journal.

Posted by: Buck on May 22, 2012 6:04 PM
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