While most of the US has been occupied with post-election insanity, looking for Russians under every bed, and longing for some reason to have confidence in governing institutions, a curious article appeared in the February 15 issue of the influential conservative magazine, Commentary.
Authored by a deeply embedded member of the intellectual and political elite, Nicholas Eberstadt, the article, Our Miserable 21st Century, paints a dismal portrait of economic and social life in the US since the turn of the new century. On the face of it, it appears odd to find such a searing critique, such a negative portrayal of the state of the nation from a staunch defender of the capitalist system.
The tell, the clue to Eberstadt’s thinking, lies in the writer’s first sentence: “On the morning of November 9, 2016, America’s elite--its talking and deciding classes-- woke up to a country they [sic] did not know.”
Eberhardt refers, of course, to the Trump election. Trump’s victory was a shocker to “most privileged and well-educated Americans” living in urban centers. The people responsible for the election of Trump were not people who elites were “familiar with, or understood anything about.” In short, “Things out there in America are a whole lot different from what you thought.” [Eberhardt’s emphasis]
Of course, Eberhardt is not alone in pondering what went awry. After Russian Bear baiting, the sport of the season is dissecting the mind of the elusive “white working class.” Reminiscent of an earlier era when elites probed what Blacks wanted, the “talking and deciding class” is cranking out theories on the pathologies that led many white workers to vote for Trump. Best-selling author and much-in-demand lecturer JD Vance is currently the elite’s favored interpreter of working-class mores. He sells his rags-to-riches tale, his escape from dysfunction as a peep show of working-class life for the edification of the swells.
Liberals are equally, if not more, guilty of this embarrassing side show, launching angry indictments accusing virtually all white workers of being racists, misogynists, and crazed nationalists. Never mind that in key states, many Trump white working-class votes came from voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Could it be that a lot of white working-class voters were, first and foremost, looking for serious change, which both candidates promised? Could it be that simmering discontent stood behind the popularity of two unconventional candidates who promised a departure from business-as-usual?
But the Democrats are more interested in covering up their own failings in 2016 than in searching for any voter disenchantment behind their dismal electoral showing.
Eberhardt’s mission is not to provide cover for either of the two dominant parties and their leaders. Rather, he looks to expose the change in US economic life that “was almost perfectly designed to set the stage for a populist storm.” He understands only too well that, looking forward, further economic distress will only generate more discontent, more desperate actions that will threaten political stability. Eberhardt, unlike the media gasbags, seeks causes rather than obscuring smoke, explanations rather than entertainment. He understands that the readers of Commentary require deeper analysis than the theatrical antics served up to the masses.
So how do the last 17 years measure up for Eberhardt?
- “...in late 2016, per capita output was just 4% higher than in late 2007-- nine years earlier. By this reckoning, the American economy looks to have suffered something close to a lost decade.”
- “Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 2000-2016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20% higher than it is today.” [Eberhardt’s emphasis]
- “...the ‘potential growth’ rate for the US economy at full employment of factors of production has now dropped below 1.7 per cent a year, implying a sustainable long-term annual per capita rate for America today of well under 1 percent.”
- “Work rates have fallen off a cliff since the year 2000 and are at their lowest level in decades… Between early 2000 and late 2016, America’s overall work rate for Americans age 20 and older underwent a drastic decline. It plunged 5 percentage points… Unless you are a labor economist, you may not appreciate how severe a falloff in employment such numbers attest to. Postwar America never experienced anything comparable.”
- “On Wall Street and in some parts of Washington these days, one hears that America has gotten back to “near full employment.” For Americans outside the bubble, such talk must seem nonsensical… for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work…”
- “...paid hours of work per adult civilian have plummeted by a shocking 12 percent thus far in our new American century.”
- “Which ‘Cold War babies’ among us would have predicted we’d live to see the day when life expectancy in East Germany [GDR] was higher than in the United States as is the case today?”
- “... for the first time in decades, life expectancy at birth in the United States… dropped very slightly…” from 2014 to 2015.
- Before that drop, “... the US gained only about a single day of life expectancy between 2012 and 2014.”
- “By 2013…, more people died from drug overdoses… than from either traffic fatalities or guns.”
- “Very rough calculations might… suggest that at this writing, America’s population of non-institutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past has almost certainly broke the 20 million mark by the end of 2016.” [to go with roughly 2 million incarcerated]. “That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.”
- “...geographical mobility has been on the decline for three decades and in 2016 the annual movement of households from one location to the next was reportedly at an all-time (postwar) low.”
- “... ‘labor market fluidity’-- the churning between jobs that among other things allow people to get ahead-- has been on the decline in the American labor market for decades…”
- “...the odds of a 30-year-old’s earning more than his parents at the same age was now just 51 percent: down from 86 percent 40 years ago.”
Thus, Eberhardt raises the alarm of class discontent. But his own class loyalties make him overlook the even greater pains suffered by the working class. He begins his essay by presenting an enigmatic fact: “Between early 2000 and late 2016, the estimated worth of American households and nonprofit institutions more than doubled…” But how could “Americans” be faring so poorly, if their wealth doubled?
It never sinks in that there really are two “Americas”: one whose wealth more than doubled through wealth inflation-- property values and financial instruments, and another that experienced little growth of wealth and inordinately suffered the ills that he lists. Thus, he makes the peculiar statement: “The abstraction of ‘inequality’ doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. The reality of economic insecurity does. The Great American Escalator is broken-- and it badly needs to be fixed.”
Of course inequality matters to people. That is why they are alienated from conventional politicians. That is why they have such a low opinion of nearly all US institutions. That is why so many voted for Trump.
As for the Escalator, it is not “broken” because growth is on the wane or workers have too many entitlements (Eberhardt wrote a book about this “problem”), but because one class systematically steals wealth from the other and has every intent to continue that theft.
Unlike those debating Russian meddling or leftist conspiracies as the cause of Trump’s victory, Eberhardt points to real, objective factors that have caused many voters to turn away from the elite playbook. Trump (and Sanders) drew their popularity from mass dissatisfaction with conventional politics.
With Trump, voters opted for the fuzzy, distorted mythical recollection of a post-war golden age when jobs seemed plentiful, wages rose with productivity, and benefits were relatively generous. Home ownership, consumption, and leisure seemed to be unlimited. Unfortunately, many associate that time with white supremacy, male dominance, and national pride as well. Despite Trump’s promises, that era was neither “golden” nor possible to be revisited. Its time has passed. The Cold War compromises are no longer on the agenda.
And the Sanders voters, similarly, cast their votes for an imagined social democracy associated with Europe-- welfare, comprehensive health care, affordable education, etc. But the history of the last decades shows that capitalism cannot and will not coexist today with even the tepid programs of the center-left. The “glorious” era of European social democracy is also a mere chimera, to be revisited only as a trip down memory lane. That project, too, is a remnant of a bygone time when the “threat” of Communism called for a kinder, gentler capitalism.
Given the choices offered, it is no surprise that an angry electorate turns to demagogy and idealism. But the next step is creating a new set of institutions to replace those discredited, a new set of institutions that serve the people. But standing in the way is bogus democracy and monopoly capital.