Embracing the Dismal

Some of us are now willing to join that War on Christmas that Bill O’Reilly keeps talking about – but not because we’re secular humanist abortion-loving dope-smoking gay hippies left over from the counterculture sixties we could never let go. And we’re not atheists either, or grumpy and sarcastic Upper East Side Woody Allen liberal Jewish types, amused by the goys and their foolishness. Hell, the city is way cool at Christmas time – even if the annual Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, with the camels and the angels and Jesus and Santa, and the leggy Rockettes too, is a silly mess, even if heartwarming in an odd way. That show runs every afternoon and evening in December, pretty much right across the street, Sixth Avenue, from the Fox News studios. Bill O’Reilly doesn’t mention it, as its a mishmash of the secular and the crass worldly stuff with the humble birth of the soon-to-be martyred savior of mankind from its awful and inherent sins would only confuse matters. Fighting to keep Christ in Christmas is a losing battle, one that was actually lost long ago. The holiday is a bit of everything now, and it also involves a lot of tedious and endless shopping for just the right gift for each someone special, which is never quite the right gift at all. It’s anxiety followed by depression, then self-recrimination and a sense of inadequacy, then a stab at good cheer. The special someone will say they love the gift, which you couldn’t afford and only puzzles them, and everyone smiles. All is well, and luckily, few Christmas trees catch fire these days. No one’s house burns down.

Perhaps that’s cynical but this is a holiday to fear, because of its built-in sadness and despair. Andy Williams may be quite thoroughly dead now, but he’s on the radio singing about how it’s the most wonderful time of the year – as Syria loads up the chemical weapons to wipe out its own people and there’s rioting in Egypt as their amazing democratic revolution went all sour on them, and our folks are still dying in Afghanistan, being shot dead by the folks we’re training there to run things once we leave. It’s a wonderful life – that movie seems to be on television three times a day too, the one about the fellow who wants to commit suicide on Christmas Eve but is saved by a bumbling angel named Clarence. All is not hopeless and the world needs the guy, really – but Frank Capra was full of crap. In his movie, the local slumlord and majority shareholder in the Building and Loan tries to persuade the board of directors to stop providing home loans for the working poor, but everything eventually works out. That’s not the world we know. There are few local Building and Loans now, and the big banks that ate them up do other things with their money, trading those exotic financial instruments with each other. They got burned on home mortgages and will never play with them again, and there’s no money to be made there anyway, or not enough money. Meanwhile, down in Washington these days, we’re coming down to the wire on that fiscal cliff thing. The Bush tax cuts will expire and everyone will pay more, removing cash from the money supply and collapsing consumer demand, and automatic severe across-the-board spending cuts will kick in, slowing a big chunk of economic activity to a halt, unless something is done. Obama is saying keep most of the tax cuts but bump up the tax rates on the rich right now to their previous levels, to give us some revenue for wiggle room. Republicans are saying no – keep the rich paying less, or have them pay even lower taxes, or the whole deal is off and we’ll go over that cliff, with misery for everyone. Their thought is that what will give us some revenue for wiggle room is cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, drastically, as all that feckless spending on the working poor and the unemployed and the elderly and the disabled is what is really killing the economy. Obama won’t budge, as he won the election on protecting the weak and asking those with lots to chip in a bit more, and because all the polling shows that more than two thirds of the country agrees with him, even rank-and-file Republicans who were asked about it agree with him. The polls showed that long before the election and show that now, but the Republicans won’t budge. Raising taxes on anyone at all is always the wrong thing to do – period. Thus we have a standoff. We are going off that cliff. It’s a wonderful life. Merry Christmas folks….

All that means the only Christmas song cynics like is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – the saddest one of them all, all about how from now on all our troubles will be out of sight, maybe. It certainly won’t be this year. The song itself is from 1944, near the end of the war when our guys were far away, fighting and dying in Europe and in the Pacific. It fit the times. This year too Christmas is so sad you just want to cry, or punch Bill O’Reilly in the nose.

The sadness peaked at the end of the first week in December this year, the day before Hanukah began at sundown, with this depressing scene:

Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Friday dashed any hope that the lack of public evidence of progress in talks to avoid the “fiscal cliff” might mask some movement behind the scenes.

“This isn’t a progress report, because there’s no progress to report,” Boehner told reporters Friday at a hastily announced public appearance at the Capitol. “When it comes to the fiscal cliff that’s threatening our economy and threatening jobs, the White House has wasted another week.”

Boehner and Obama had told everyone to back off. The two of them would meet face to face, alone, and work things out, which gave some people the hope that we’d seen the last of all the public posturing and indignant righteousness nonsense. These sorts of things are always worked out behind closed doors, except when they’re not. This was bad news:

Public signs of progress have been so elusive that the mere fact that Obama and Boehner spoke by telephone this week seemed to herald a new, more promising phase. Right? Not so much. Boehner said on Friday “The phone call was pleasant, but was just more of the same, the conversations that the staff had yesterday – just more of the same,” the speaker complained. “It’s time for the president, if he’s serious, to come back to us with a counteroffer.”

Yes, but everyone has made their offers, and this complicates matters:

If the president’s re-election depressed Washington Republicans, his emphasis on campaign-style events rather than negotiation has left them steaming.

“We’re ready and eager to talk to the president,” Boehner said at his press conference, which more than once took on a plaintive tone. “When is he going to take a step toward us?”

Hey, John, he IS talking to you, and he’s also going out and cementing public opinion against you, making your already untenable position even worse. He is, however, playing fair. You could do the same, but who would you talk to, and who would listen to you?

Boehner and crew know they have a losing hand here. Key voices on the right know this too. John Podhoretz, in the New York Post, offers this bit of dismal assessment:

If you want to know why Republicans and conservatives are in a political crisis, you need only consider the fact that the Right’s deeply held view now boils down to this: Taxes should not go up on the wealthy, and your health benefits should be cut.

That’s just about it, and that’s deadly:

Political folk talk a lot these days about “messaging” – a neologism designed to describe the way in which parties and politicians consciously characterize their efforts. It is only intended to be positive – i.e., “our messaging is designed to show we care.” But what if there is very little way to convey a positive message with the policies you are advocating? What if your message is this: If we don’t do unpopular things, we are all going to die? What of your “messaging” then?

Podhoretz goes on to discuss how the conservative movement and the Republican Party are absolutely right on policy but dead wrong on the politics here:

As a matter of policy, increasing taxes on the most economically productive group, which already generates 60 percent of the nation’s federal revenues, during a sustained period of economic doldrums, is a wretched idea. Such an approach simply moves capital from the private sector to the public sector – which takes a huge bite out of it and then transfers the rest to others.

And as every sane person with an understanding of the trajectory of the federal budget understands, without sustained cuts in federally guaranteed medical benefits as the baby boomers retire en masse, first the states (including New York) and then the federal governments are going to go belly-up – so opposing tax hikes on the wealthy and advocating for benefit cuts are worthy – and (especially when it comes to entitlements) nothing less than visionary.

Podhoretz seems to be hoping for someone on his side who can actually articulate that vision. Someone needs to tell him that Ayn Rand, like Andy Williams, is also thoroughly dead, and moody adolescent boys got over her long ago anyway. Still, Podhoretz is in despair over what he’s hearing from his side now:

They’ve somehow been maneuvered into arguing that benefits must be cut and taxes on the wealthy must not be raised – without having a single populist argument in their favor. The only one that comes close is the invocation of the pain small businesses will experience from a tax hike. Fine, but unless you yourself are a small businessman or employed by one, you might not care all that much…

Thus, the political movement that came to maturity by advocating for dynamic American optimism has morphed into what it was at its most pinched and parched in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s: the eat-your-vegetables-and-shut-up party.

It’s not a wonderful life for Podhoretz:

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel in the Republican message, no promise of better things to come. There’s only the present stagnation, followed by a slow decline. The public will continue to live in fantasy rather than accept such a harsh reality. Right now, the GOP “messaging” is: Tough.

Yeah, that’ll work.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog tries to help out this depressed man, offering his take on what the real problem is:

In recent years, the GOP hasn’t been “the eat-your-vegetables-and-shut-up party.” It’s been the party that always wanted, um, certain people to eat their vegetables and shut up. You know who I mean. Immigrants. “Union thugs.” Single women who have sex. People who aren’t country music lovers and NRA members. People with particular melanin levels. Those people.

But this year – especially after Mitt Romney mouthed off about the “47%” – we learned that there seem to be more of those people than there are the GOP’s people, and many of the people the Republicans thought were theirs felt that all this Republican talk about “takers” who aren’t “makers” was aimed at them…

There’s no winning this. Maybe next year or from now on all their troubles will be out of sight, but probably not. There’s a reason that sad Christmas song from 1944 has been played endlessly each Christmas season since Judy Garland first sang it. Sometimes things don’t get better, ever, and perhaps Bill O’Reilly should declare war on that one song alone.

At least there was some good news from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 146,000 in November, and the unemployment rate edged down to 7.7 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. …

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Northeast coast on October 29th, causing severe damage in some states. Nevertheless, our survey response rates in the affected states were within normal ranges. Our analysis suggests that Hurricane Sandy did not substantively impact the national employment and unemployment estimates for November. …

Everyone predicted half that number of jobs and the unemployment rate hasn’t been this low since before Obama took office. Felix Salmon argues here that “the employment emergency is over” now:

America should have millions more people at work than it does, and there’s a very strong case, looking at levels alone, for further economic stimulus to help us further in the right direction. But there’s something oxymoronic about the concept of a permanent state of emergency. And in terms of how strong the recovery feels, first derivatives are just as important as levels: if unemployment has fallen from 8.7% to 7.7% in the past year, that feels better than an economy where unemployment has risen from, say, 6.1% to 7.1%.

Yeah, well, it feels good anyway, but this time of year there’s always a Grinch, like James Pethokoukis with this:

In November, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 4 cents to $23.63. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen by 1.7%. Unfortunately, inflation – as measured by the consumer price index – has risen by 2.2% over the past year, meaning average hourly earnings have fallen by 0.5% in real terms.

Look closely and things aren’t that good, and Jared Bernstein adds this:

Factoring in today’s report, the average pace of payroll growth over the past three months is about 140,000 overall and 150,000 in the private sector. That pace is consistent with an economy growing at a decent clip and with a slowly declining unemployment rate. It is not, however, fast enough job growth to quickly reduce the large gaps in output, employment, and earnings that continue to hold back working families.

Tim Iacono adds this detail:

Construction jobs declined by 20,000, manufacturing employment fell by 7,000, and a decline of 1,000 in government payrolls rounded out the declining categories as modest hiring at the state level was more than offset by job losses at the federal and local level.

Bah, humbug! And Greg Sargent comments here on the effect this jobs report might have on the current political agenda:

Some Dems in Congress were planning to seize on today’s jobs numbers to renew the push for more stimulus in any fiscal cliff deal – an extension of unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut, and more infrastructure spending to boost the economy. The fact that today’s jobs numbers were more decent than expected should not change this. Millions of Americans are still suffering.

This was good news, but not good enough news to change anything, and Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal takes the long view, considering the long-term exit of men from the workforce, specifically men with high-school educations or less:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s [David] Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce – one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

To women, men who either can’t or don’t earn a decent living are less necessary and desirable as mates; they’re just another mouth to feed. This helps to explain why rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth have risen to hitherto unimaginable heights among the less educated. Causality also flows in the opposite direction. The very fact of being married brings men a premium in their earnings, research shows, and makes them steadier workers, presumably because they have more stability at home. “Marriage is an institution that makes men more responsible in their pursuit of work and in their work-related duties,” said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project.

That takes the long view, and Kevin Drum adds this:

I think this is actually even worse than Autor suggests. Yes, women up-skilled as they broke free of postwar gender constraints starting in the 60s, but that trend has pretty much run its course. Female labor force participation peaked around 2000, and since then it’s been falling too.

What’s the answer? Liberals suggest more vocational education. Conservatives think we should stigmatize non-work and reduce welfare transfers. Everyone agrees that more kids should go to college.

But will any of that work? Craft work has long since given way to factory work, and if Chinese workers will do factory work for less than American workers, then more vocational education won’t do much good. Likewise, if there just aren’t enough jobs for the weakly educated, stigmatizing non-work won’t do any good either. It will just immiserate people for no reason. And the kind of people who are most affected by all this – high-school dropouts and those who barely got diplomas – aren’t going to college no matter how much we push them. It’s just not going to happen.

Drum says it’s hard to be optimistic here, no matter what one job report or the next says, because something bigger is going on:

Until about 2000 or so, you could argue that declining male labor force participation was mostly due to increasing female participation. But that doesn’t wash anymore. Since 2000, work attachment has been going down for everyone. There’s something else going on, and I suspect it’s very strongly related to increased automation. We’ve seen this especially strongly since the 2008 recession, as businesses let go of millions of workers and then discovered they just flatly didn’t need them back when the economy started to recover.

This is only going to get worse as automation gets better and better. Things will probably improve a bit in the short term as the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession (assuming we don’t idiotically force ourselves into a double-dip via bad fiscal policy). But the longer-term trend is pretty stark, and it’s not clear what the answer is. I’m not sure there is one.

Maybe from now on all our troubles will be out of sight, but probably not, or certainly not, as he explains here:

It’s quite possible that, say, fifty years from now the production of nearly all goods and services will be automated. And this might usher in a golden age of solar-powered plenty that allows us all to reach new pinnacles of human potential. Let’s just stipulate this for the sake of discussion.

But what happens while we’re busy getting there? Answer: the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work. Liberals will continue to think that perhaps this can be solved with better education. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn’t be coddled. The lucky owners of capital won’t care. Their numbers will decline, but the ones who remain will get richer and richer. The rest of us will have no jobs, and even with all this lovely automation, our government-supplied welfare checks will be meager enough that our lives will be miserable.

Someone had to play the Grinch, so Kevin Drum did.

So yes, have yourself a merry little Christmas, as one day soon all our troubles will be out of sight – a stab at good cheer is always a fine idea. But the depression and self-recrimination and a sense of inadequacy are always in the air too. Bill O’Reilly simply made up all that stuff about that wholly imaginary War on Christmas, but maybe there really ought to be one.

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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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3 Responses to Embracing the Dismal

  1. Madman says:

    Alan,
    I find it rather eerie that I find your commentary so agreeable, so much of the time. I am left merely mentioning small grammatical errors or spelling, as there is nothing else to argue against here. I note that homophones continue to plague you:
    “Maybe next year or from now on all their troubles will be out of site…” and “Maybe from now on all our troubles will be out of site….”

    Perhaps two Wrongs DO make a Right: “… as one day soon all our troubles will be out of sight….”

    I am certain that you aren’t the only writer who longs for a SpellCheck that ferrets out these annoying homophones! The Devil is indeed in the details.

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