Getting Used to Dismal

Far too many have noted that Americans are a narrow and insular people, with few holding passports and even fewer having used those passports to go anywhere in particular. That’s vaguely insulting, or is meant to be, but probably right – the larger world doesn’t interest us much. One writer has put it another way, saying there are only two kinds of people in America – those who stay and those who leave – and it seems most of us stay. There’s no place like home and what we know is fine with us, and what we don’t know is no problem, because we don’t know it after all, so there’s no way to even think about it. No one can think about what they can’t think about – so that’s that. The result is we go nowhere because there’s nowhere to go, at least nowhere we know about. It was different when the sun never set on the British Empire. The proud British knew where everything was, because it was now theirs and they were making wherever it was finally civilized and so on. The whole world learned cricket and everyone knew their geography. But we were never an explicitly colonial power – we’re more subtle about such things – so the only way we learned our world geography was through war. Not many Americans could find Vietnam on a map before the sixties, or Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan until recently. Now we know.

This is basically inertia – a body at rest tends to remain at rest. You could say we are fine with being stuck, as you can get used to anything as normal. Here in Southern California endless sunny days are normal, if a bit irritating after a while. One tends to long for a rainy day now and then, not once every ten months – but you get used to it – as they say, just another day in paradise. People stay here. Back in the seventies, in upstate New York, it was opposite. That was an odd place, and for the geographically challenged, New York is more than the Manhattan of Saturday Night Live and Woody Allen, where anything upstate is anything north of Yonkers. Way up north, west of Rochester, south of Lake Ontario, there’s a broad flat plane, a long extension of the Niagara escarpment, where the winter wind screams in from Canada across the giant lake and dumps endless snow through Easter, and where much of the rest of the time it’s moody and dark and cool, save for a stretch of crisp sunny days now and then. No one calls it paradise, and in fact, back in the seventies, the wags at the radio station out of SUNY-Brockport came up with an addition to their daily weather forecasts – the Dismality Index. That factored in more than rain or snow – along with temperature and humidity it included cloud-cover and dew-point and wind-chill and hours of available daylight and all sorts of things, sometimes having something to do with Wayne Newton, for the day’s reading of just how dismal things were. But people stayed there too, even if some of us headed off to Los Angeles. People live their whole lives there, happily, or happily enough. It’ll do. One can get used to anything. It’s a matter of what you expect, and also a matter of inertia.

And that is why, barring some surprise in the upcoming three debates, or Europe turning inside out and exploding, Obama will win in November. No, really. It’s the Dismality Index. It’s running high and Mitt Romney keeps saying look, it’s so very dismal – and it seems people say yep, it is dismal, but that’s the way things are and the way it seems they’re going to be, no matter who the president is next year or the year after that. Mitt is doing no more than talking about the weather. It’s not like he can make the sun come out. The sun will come out when it does, if it ever does.

The first hint of this was offered by Ron Brownstein in the National Journal where he says that a majority of Americans now define success as not falling behind – that’s as much as you can hope for. People somehow know that fundamental changes in the economy are making it more difficult for them to get ahead – and even harder for their children. Obama has nothing to do with it and Romney can’t fix it.

Actually he doesn’t say that. Allstate and the National Journal and Heartland Monitor did careful polling:

Although an overwhelming majority of Americans still define the U.S. as “the land of opportunity,” nearly as many agree that getting ahead is more difficult for workers today than it was for previous generations. Only about one in five Americans say they have been able to get ahead consistently in their lives; many more say they have moved forward somewhat but faced intermittent reversals. And while a plurality of adults believes they have more opportunity to advance than their parents did, Americans are much more uncertain that the next generation will have greater opportunities than their own – with whites far more pessimistic than minorities.

That’s the Dismality Index:

The survey captures systemic strain between the bedrock American belief that anyone who works hard enough can succeed and the uneasy sense that persistent, and perplexing, headwinds in a globalized economy are making it harder for workers to get ahead. It suggests that new realities are compelling the public to reexamine old assumptions about achievement from several angles, including the value of a college education and the definition of success. In one striking finding that reflects the years of economic uncertainty punctuated by high unemployment and foreclosure rates, a slim majority of Americans now say they define getting ahead as not falling behind – not losing ground or falling into debt – rather than the more traditional definition of enjoying steady increases in pay and income.

The whole item is full of fascinating details and depressing anecdotes, but one thing is clear – anyone promising success for everyone, in the case of Romney promising success like his, is detached from reality, promising California sunshine when anyone can look out the window and see that wall of dark Canadian clouds:

What’s clear in the poll, though, is that many Americans feel the economy is experiencing fundamental changes beyond the reach of any president to reshape quickly, or perhaps at all. Although some respondents said they believed that the 2012 election would determine the level of opportunity available for future generations, many others said that the nation’s economic trials reflect problems that have accumulated over time and are unlikely to be resolved soon. When asked to identify the barriers to getting ahead, more respondents picked the decisions by American companies to relocate jobs overseas than any other option.

Are you better off than you were four years ago? That snappy political question doesn’t work anymore, because it’s a mixed bag:

In the poll, likely voters split almost exactly in thirds between those who say they are better off than four years ago, worse off, and unchanged. Obama, however, not only holds a preponderant lead among those who say they are better off but also among those who say their finances are unchanged since 2008 – his advantage among the latter is 3-to-2. Only among those who say they are worse off does Romney lead.

For everyone else it’s kind of dismal, or barely good enough, but you get used to it. No one sees much point is changing presidents because of the weather, which confounds some conservatives like the New York Times Ross Douthat:

Barack Obama would win if the election were held today – and probably by a relatively comfortable margin. My wintertime prediction, Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy, the assumptions of Republicans and Democrats alike – all have been confounded by voters’ refusal to lean the way the unemployment rate suggests they should.

Why is this? In part, it’s the hangover from the Bush years, and the fact that Americans don’t yet trust the Republican Party given how little the party seems to have learned and changed since 2008. In part, it’s Romney himself, a deeply flawed candidate whose “47 percent” remarks look like the rare disastrous sound-bite that actually turns the polls against the candidate who uttered it.

But something deeper is going on as well. Remember that the economy is growing, however slowly, and most working-age Americans do have jobs.

That’s the core problem. Now more Americans are employed than when Obama took office, even if barely, and after all these years, and Douthat sees what that means:

It turns out that dreadfully slow growth isn’t nearly as politically damaging as decline, because voters can adapt to stagnation, and approach it as a kind of grim “new normal” rather than a disaster requiring an immediate response. Over the last two years, then, what still felt like an economic crisis during the 2010 midterms has become a grim-but-bearable status quo.

Douthat thinks that’s what gives Obama his cushion, as he those who report themselves worse off than four years ago are pissed, but outnumbered, and Obama leads easily among those who are doing no more than treading water, which they now see is the way things will be from here on out.

Douthat is not happy:

These signs of resignation are good news for the White House, but they’re bad news for the country’s future. Even if a rich nation like ours can learn to live with 8 percent unemployment and slow growth for now, the costs of persistent joblessness and sustained stagnation could be devastating in the long run.

What he means is this:

…the socioeconomic scars left by a period of mass unemployment get deeper the longer that period persists. Young people put off life decisions, delaying education, marriage, childbearing. Older people drop out of the work force permanently. Families are strained and split apart; people lose crucial years of saving and asset building; dependency on government assistance becomes a way of life. And a culture of fearfulness takes hold, discouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship even when better times return.

Meanwhile, every year with subpar growth makes our government’s existing liabilities larger – and the fiscal adjustments the country is facing that much more difficult to make. All of these problems will gradually intertwine, as they already do in Western Europe. Today’s stagnation means that Americans a generation hence will face bigger-than-expected deficits, even as today’s recession-dampened birthrate means there will be fewer younger workers to help pay them down.

Perhaps that’s so, or certainly so, but so what? Douthat himself admits none of that necessarily makes the case for electing Romney, tossing out Obama:

Indeed, Romney’s dismissal of the government-dependent 47 percent suggests a fatal misunderstanding of what should be his mission – namely, to persuade precisely those Americans clinging, understandably, to government programs in tough times to choose the risks of further change over the temporary security of stasis.

No wait – they have assessed the risks of further change, or more precisely, assessed the likelihood of anything coming from taking a risk on further change. You don’t need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing. The world has changed in some fundamental ways, even if Douthat doesn’t like it:

The costs of stagnation definitely make the case against the kind of resignation we’re now seeing in the electorate. Whatever happens in November, American voters should be asking for more – both for themselves, and for future generations – than an economy in which stagnation is the best that we can hope for, and the American dream just means barely getting by.

Yes, we all should ask for more – no more cold rain that turns to ice in early April – but asking doesn’t make it so – you have to move to Malibu or whatever. Asking that globalization and automation and most of the economy now being based on financial manipulation of imaginary assets and all the rest – asking that all that stop is just as foolish. It’s not going to happen. That old Dismality Index was a lame joke, but it wasn’t.

That’s why Romney’s planned referendum on President Obama got all turned around, and as Paul Krugman notes, turned into a referendum of a different kind:

Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy. Will they vote for politicians who want to replace Medicare with Vouchercare, who denounce Social Security as “collectivist” (as Paul Ryan once did), who dismiss those who turn to social insurance programs as people unwilling to take responsibility for their lives?

If the polls are any indication, the result of that referendum will be a clear reassertion of support for the safety net, and a clear rejection of politicians who want to return us to the Gilded Age.

If you live where it rains you want an umbrella. You have to have one, and a snow shovel for the rest of the year. There’s the real world out there. Big talk of personal responsibility is fine, but it doesn’t change the weather, and maybe it’s the big talk about everything that’s hurting the Republicans this time around, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman offers this:

For the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy. That is not “how things are supposed to be,” and Republicans sound apoplectic about it. But there is a reason President Obama is leading on national security, and it was apparent in his U.N. speech last week, which showed a president who understands that we really do live in a more complex world today – and that saying so is not a cop-out. It’s a road map. Mitt Romney, given his international business background, should understand this, but he acts instead as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes, where the menu and architecture rarely changes.

You don’t need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing:

Rather than really thinking afresh about the world, Romney has chosen instead to go with the same old G.O.P. bacon and eggs – that the Democrats are toothless wimps who won’t stand up to our foes or for our values, that the Republicans are tough and that it is 1989 all over again. That is, America stands astride the globe with unrivaled power to bend the world our way, and the only thing missing is a president with “will.” The only thing missing is a president who is ready to simultaneously confront Russia, bash China, tell Iraqis we’re not leaving their country, snub the Muslim world by outsourcing our Arab-Israel policy to the prime minister of Israel, green light Israel to bomb Iran – and raise the defense budget while cutting taxes and eliminating the deficit.

This is much like all the talk about personal responsibility and risk-taking:

It’s all “attitude” – without a hint at how we could possibly do all these contradictory things at once, or the simplest acknowledgment that two wars and a giant tax cut under George W. Bush has limited our ability to do even half of them.

Brownstein covered that poll about how the economy really is now for most folks, and how it’s likely to be from here on out, and Friedman does the same for geopolitics, discussing the real world:

It is a world that has become much more interdependent so that our friends failing (like Greece) can now harm us as much as our enemies threatening, and our rivals (like China) collapsing can hurt us as much as their rising. It’s a world where a cheap YouTube video made by a super-empowered individual can cause us more trouble than the million-dollar propaganda campaign of a superpower competitor. It is a globalized economy in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s largest business lobby, has opposed Romney’s pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator and is pressing Congress to lift cold war trade restrictions on Russia, a country Romney has labeled America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” It is a world where, at times, pulling back – and focusing on rebuilding our strength at home – is the most meaningful foreign policy initiative we can undertake because when America is at its best – its institutions, schools and values – it can inspire emulation, whereas Russia and China still have to rely on transactions or bullying to get others to follow. It is still a world where the use of force, or the threat of force, against implacable foes (Iran) is required, but a world where a nudge at the right time and place can also be effective.

Add it all up and it’s a world in which America will have greater responsibility (because our European and Japanese allies are now economically enfeebled) and fewer resources (because we have to cut the defense budget) to manage a more complex set of actors (because so many of the states we have to deal with now are new democracies with power emanating from their people not just one man – like Egypt – or failing states like Pakistan) where our leverage on other major powers is limited (because Russia’s massive oil and gas income gives it great independence and any war we’d want to fight in Asia we’d have to borrow the money from China).

That’s his Dismality Index, and he doesn’t call for isolationism, simply for dealing with reality:

For instance, if you had listened to Romney criticizing Obama for weakness after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, you’d have thought that, had Romney been president, he would have immediately ordered some counterstrike. But, had we done so, it would have aborted what was a much more meaningful response: Libyans themselves taking to the streets under the banner “Our Revolution Will Not Be Stolen” and storming the headquarters of the Islamist militias who killed the U.S. ambassador. It shows you how much this complexity can surprise you.

This is becoming absurd:

The one area where Romney could have really challenged Obama on foreign policy was on the president’s bad decision to double-down on Afghanistan. But Romney can’t, because the Republican Party wanted to triple down. So we’re having no debate about how to extricate ourselves from our biggest foreign policy mess and a cartoon debate – “I’m tough; he’s not” – about everything else.

That sort of thing leaves us all in the dark:

Voters will have to go with their gut about which guy has the best gut feel for navigating this world. Obama has demonstrated that he has something there. Romney has not.

That may be a stretch, but most everyone has consulted the Dismality Index – success is now no more than not falling behind, probably the best you can realistically hope for from now on, and geopolitics is no longer a matter of pushing people around and sneering, even if you’re the world’s only remaining superpower. Yep, that’s kind of dismal, but Romney isn’t surging ahead because things are dismal. He’s falling behind because they are just that dismal – and he hasn’t looked out the window at the cold rain falling. Everyone else has.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Getting Used to Dismal

  1. Reading Alan’s column from a cozy seniors haven on Vancouver Island, where the Dismal Index hasn’t much meaning. People have jobs. Education is affordable. Health care is guaranteed. And the weatherman tells us the sun will be out all week; we don’t need him to tell us which way the wind blows.
    I’ll be back in California next week, hoping my kids still have a school to go to and that nobody gets sick. We have our passports.

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