A-n-x-i-e-t-y

(This song is from a band I briefly managed back in the ’80s).

I was listening to “The Charlie Rose Show” on my way into work for my Sunday shift, and he was interviewing investor Robert Altman about the state of the economy — you can watch the full interview here:

The line of questioning was simple:  it was just announced that GDP in the U.S. is at 3 percent, the stock market indicators are stronger than they have been in a long time, and the unemployment rate is officially at 4.1 percent — which means full employment.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 5, 2017

So why are people still anxious about the economy, jobs, healthcare, the environment, and the like?  Altman has some good answers in that interview, but he also references a Stanford University economist, Raj Chetty, who studies income gaps, wage stagnation and the like. His organization, The Equality of Opportunity Project, has a lot of information on these topics and some solutions. The novelty of this project is that they are using “Big Data” to find pathways to greater economic mobility. All well and good, but will the political and business class listen?  In politics, compromise is a dirty word, polarization between the parties is sky-high, and because of gerrymandering, you’re seeing (mostly on the right) the most extreme candidates run and get voted into office.  Far right authoritarians in the GOP and news media are using Soviet-era propaganda techniques to keep their flock siloed and force-fed a steady diet of half-truths, full on lies, and distractions to keep them from understanding why, for example, a massive tax cut for rich folks won’t affect the upward mobility for those stuck in an economic limbo.

But it goes both ways — though, not equally.

There are many people who only want to believe that which gives them comfort, so they embrace said propaganda because it gives them a sense of “rightness” about their team.  In the center-left and left in the country there’s a vocal minority who are still battling the last presidential primary between Clinton and Sanders.  Their desire to see the rightness of their cause has made them narrowly focused on rigged primaries in 2016 and poor strategies in the general that they are not looking at getting people registered, getting out the vote, and winning special elections this year.

When you have a daily dose of all this rancor fed to us on social media, the traditional media, and just talking with people who are exasperated, it creates a heightened sense of anxiety. But it’s not just politics with the underlying evidence that members who put the current administration in office colluded with Russia on a number of levels or charges that Hillary Clinton’s campaign rigged the primaries in her favor with her deal to help the DNC get out of debt, it’s a sense that things are just not getting better.

Why is this the case — if you factor out all the political hair on fire moments —  when economic indicators say otherwise? Altman and Chetty have some conclusions:

  1.  Economic mobility is less likely for those between 18-25 than it is for any other generation.
  2.  Changes in capitalism have decreased the economic disparities between populations in North America and many other parts of the world. There’s more global investment that’s pushing wages up in poorer parts of the world, while more wealthy areas are seeing stagnation.
  3. The U.S. — like Japan — is seeing a decline in its workforce.  Not because of unemployment, but because there aren’t enough workers to drive growth beyond 2-3 percent GDP.
  4. A lack of political will to drive government spending into infrastructure spending in the U.S.
  5. Wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living because of global realities about the cost of labor for certain classes of jobs, and zero to negative growth of unions in many workplaces.
  6. Government spending in education is low relative to the needs of business.
  7. Automation of some tasks is phasing out jobs faster than new jobs can be created.

Are there political solutions to this?  Yes, but it doesn’t seem likely considering gerrymandered districts, the flow of unregulated money into the political system, and hyper-partisan media who work in lock-step with the Executive Branch in a Pravada-like symbiosis.

So what are the solutions?  One solution would be to elect a majority of consensus politicians in the political sphere. Having wild swings between partisans (left or right) won’t solve any of the issues above because politics to them is about the zero-sum game of team sports.  The current generation of politicians won’t change because most are in safe, gerrymandered districts. Only the Supreme Court can break up that racket and get district maps redrawn so the voting populations aren’t so ideologically rigid. Another thing would be to bring back The Fairness Doctrine (or a revised one) so the way issues are reported aren’t filtered through a partisan lens. However, you’ll still have the “Internet problem” of people expecting content to be free (which makes it difficult to create a business model where journalists can make wages for a more stable middle-class life).

I don’t hold out hope any of this will happen — which is probably why feel a sense of anxiety that many others feel as well.

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