The Third Narrative

There was the Greatest Generation. They won World War II – Humphrey Bogart took care of the Nazis in Casablanca and John Wayne took care of the bad guys in the Pacific, and William Bendix was the comic relief. That was the narrative – we got things done, the right things. And the narrative was continually reinforced. Hollywood just kept pumping out the war movies, about the war that had ended long ago. In fact, Twentieth Century Fox saved the studio in 1962 with The Longest Day, revisiting D-Day once again. It was a smash success, and as that Burton-Taylor Cleopatra movie had effectively bankrupted the studio, they needed to find something that was a sure thing. Selling off the back lot to Alcoa – what is now Century City out here – didn’t raise enough funds. They went with the core American narrative – we were the good guys, who did the hard thing, but the right thing. And we didn’t complain, and we didn’t boast, and we didn’t think about any subtleties. We just did the job – with no bullshit. And we won D-Day one more time. After all, we do the job – that’s who we are – and the hero comes home to the modest but spunky and loyal little wife and the little house with the white picket fence and the elm tree. And he spends the rest of his days selling insurance and going to Rotary meetings. Richard Burton in a skirt just didn’t cut it. And in 1998 Tom Hanks saved Private Ryan. You can always go to that well again. Never underestimate the power of narrative.

And that’s what made the sixties so odd. It introduced a counternarrative – something had gone terribly wrong, or at least had grown stale, and now the young were going to take care of that. They were going to change the world. Forget the little house with the white picket fence and the elm tree, and bag those Rotary meetings. Loosen up, take a toke, free your mind – and stop this war stuff. What’s the point in that? Join the revolution. And of course this was worse than Richard Burton in a skirt. Half the country refused to give up the tried and truer than true narrative. Why did these young people hate America? Why didn’t Johnny cut his hair? Did he just say never have to cut it because it stops by itself? And Sally wasn’t wearing a bra. And what’s this Alice’s Restaurant? And carrying around Mao’s Little Red Book wasn’t funny at all. And none of these kids wanted to settle down and sell insurance. It was so wrong.

Maybe you had to be there, at the time, with the uprisings from Prague to Paris to the riots at that Chicago convention and Woodstock and all, to get a feel for what happens when narratives collide – although the disputes continues even now. Many were upset by the election of Kennedy – he was too young, and although he had fought in the war he shrugged it off. That was old news and he really didn’t seem to want to start another war – he started the Peace Corps. And he talked about the passing of the torch to a new generation. Things were going to change, but why should they? What was wrong with things as they had always been? He wasn’t popular, and a great president, until he was dead.

And now it’s Obama’s turn. We have the greatest healthcare system in the world and Obama wanted to change it, and did. And he keeps saying we can do better with this and that, regulating Wall Street, or with his wife, getting kids to eat healthier food – as if we’ve been doing the wrong things. That’s why people say he keeps apologizing for America. Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne never did that. And what’s this with letting gays serve openly in the military? We’d have lost World War II if we had allowed that – although the man who led the Enigma team and broke the Nazi Ultra Code and made winning the war possible was queer as a three-dollar bill – for what that’s worth. Maybe the exception proves the rule, or something. Old narratives die hard.

And now we may be entering a time when there’s an even newer narrative – yes, things are bad, but maybe they just can’t be fixed. Screw it all. It’s every man for himself – deal with it.

A minor example is Chris Hayes explaining why the Washington elite don’t seem to see high unemployment as an urgent problem:

There are two numbers that go a long way toward explaining it. The first is 4.2. That’s the percentage of Americans with a four-year college degree who are unemployed…. So while the overall economy continues to suffer through the worst labor market since the Great Depression, the elite centers of power have recovered. For those of us fortunate enough to have graduated from college – and to have escaped foreclosure or an underwater mortgage – normalcy has returned.

The other number is 5.7 percent. That’s the unemployment rate for the Washington/Arlington/Alexandria metro area and just so happens to be lowest among large metropolitan areas in the entire country. …

What these two numbers add up to is a governing elite that is profoundly alienated from the lived experiences of the millions of Americans who are barely surviving the ravages of the Great Recession. As much as the pernicious influence of big money and the plutocrats’ pseudo-obsession with budget deficits, it is this social distance between decision-makers and citizens that explains the almost surreal detachment of the current Washington political conversation from the economic realities working-class, middle-class and poor people face.

And Kevin Drum concurs:

Hell, I’m an employed college grad who lives in an area with a relatively good economy, and I certainly don’t fool myself into thinking that I have the same sense of urgency about unemployment as someone in Los Angeles or Detroit.

But I think there’s another factor at work here: deep in their hearts, nobody in Washington really believes they can do anything about unemployment these days. Republicans don’t truly believe in their “growth agenda,” they just want to cut taxes and slash spending on social programs. Democrats would like to believe that fiscal stimulus works, but I suspect the reality is that most of them are pretty skeptical. Ditto for jobs programs, training programs, mortgage cramdown legislation, and much more.

What’s worse, even if you do believe these things work, it’s pretty plain that no one’s figured out a way to convince the public they work. Democrats barely even tried to persuade voters that the 2009 stimulus worked, and ended up getting completely hammered on the subject by Republicans. A few would occasionally mutter on camera that things would have been even worse without the stimulus, but that’s a pretty tough sell even if you say it with conviction, and very few said it that way.

So we have a new narrative:

In some sense, this is the ultimate triumph of conservatism: no one in Congress, and no one in the electorate, really believes any longer that Washington can do much about the economy. And even if you think otherwise, what’s the point of putting your career on the line over further stimulus if you know you won’t get any credit for economic improvement regardless of how it turns out?

It comes down to this:

The public believes that Washington can control inflation. They believe that Washington can control the deficit. And they believe that Washington can control taxes. But they no longer believe that Washington can control unemployment. And neither does Washington.

And Catherine Rampell here discusses the upcoming jobs report, noting that the “median forecast, according to Bloomberg’s survey of Wall Street analysts, is a net gain of 196,000 nonfarm payroll jobs, after a gain of 36,000 in January” – not that it makes any difference:

If from here on out we have job growth of 200,000 jobs a month, it’ll take more than three years before the economy regains the employment levels it had before the recession. And that doesn’t even account for the fact that the working-age population has continued to grow, meaning that if the economy were healthy we should have more jobs today than we had before the recession.

We’re screwed, and Alexei Bayer here discusses just how screwed recent graduates are:

New graduates have faced dismal job prospects since 2007. Most recent graduates don’t show up in unemployment statistics because they don’t collect benefits. Some have chosen to go to graduate school in order not to be looking for work in an extremely difficult environment, while others have moved in with their parents and taken up part-time or unskilled work. In addition to 8 million jobs lost since the start of 2008, there have also been millions of jobs not created to accommodate the natural rate of expansion of the labor force.

Maybe there’s no fixing this. Neither the Greatest Generation nor the Flower Children can fix this. It is what it is.

And sometimes you just want to stop things, as Time’s Joe Klein explains as he discusses Republican efforts to defund the financial regulation reform bill passed last year:

The Dodd-Frank law was an imperfect remedy…. But it did boost the power of the SEC and CFTC to regulate derivatives trading, and it set up a new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), to protect consumers from the shyster army peddling tricky mortgages, usurious credit-card rates and unscrupulous payday-check-cashing shops. The agencies need larger payrolls to perform those functions, and the Republican House has now stripped much of that money from the federal budget. “It’s a back-alley maneuver,” says Representative Barney Frank, whose name is on the law. “Unlike health care or environmental regulation, the Republicans didn’t try a frontal assault. They hid behind the budget, which means that they’re embarrassed by this. They don’t want people to know that they’re letting Wall Street off the hook.” …

And then there’s the question of Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who invented the idea of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and should be its first director. The Administration seems undecided on whether to appoint her, fearing a Senate confirmation battle that could last for months. “The banks are scared to death of her,” one Senator told me. “She speaks in clear, simple sentences. That terrifies them.”

Which means this is a fight worth having – and a way to dramatize the complicated issues at the heart of regulatory reform. The President should appoint Warren. The Senate should be forced to vote on her, so the public will know who really wants to clean up Wall Street and who doesn’t.

But does the pubic care? One senses they too have given up. And again, Kevin Drum comments:

No, Dodd-Frank wasn’t perfect. In fact, that’s being rather too nice about the whole thing. But it was at least a step in the right direction following an unprecedented meltdown of the global economy caused almost entirely by the misbehavior of the American financial industry.

And he points out that one of the themes of the Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson book Winner Take All Politics
is that income distribution is far more influenced by politics than most economists think:

One of the reasons I was so enthusiastic about the book is that it mirrors my own views, which have become rather more radicalized over the past three years. Think about it: during the aughts the financial industry was so wildly out of control that Wall Street touched off the biggest financial collapse and biggest global recession since World War II – a recession that’s required unprecedented government intervention to stabilize; featured massive bailouts of the banking industry; and has caused widespread misery among the working and middle classes, including an epidemic of home foreclosures, plummeting state-level services, and an unemployment rate that’s still near double digits more than two years later. And yet, Republicans were not only united in trying to prevent any action whatsoever to re-regulate Wall Street last year, they’re making it one of their top priorities this year to defund the very modest bit of regulation that was passed over their near-unanimous opposition.

I don’t know how you can watch all this unfold and not conclude that the super-rich and their interests are all but politically invulnerable in America these days. It’s both wrong and dangerous, and more of us should be pushing the public’s nose in it. The whole thing is obscene.

But it is what it is. How can this change? Imagine John Wayne deep in the jungle of some god-awful Pacific island, with a thousand Japanese troops massing around his guys in the dark, saying, well, we’re screwed – not much we can do now.

Maybe the third narrative is implicit in all this. Forget D-Day and Woodstock. Are America’s best days behind us? That’s the topic Fareed Zakaria discusses in his new Time feature story:

I am an American, not by accident of birth but by choice. I voted with my feet and became an American because I love this country and think it is exceptional. But when I look at the world today and the strong winds of technological change and global competition, it makes me nervous. Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that while these forces gather strength, Americans seem unable to grasp the magnitude of the challenges that face us. Despite the hyped talk of China’s rise, most Americans operate on the assumption that the U.S. is still No. 1.

But is it? Yes, the U.S. remains the world’s largest economy, and we have the largest military by far, the most dynamic technology companies and a highly entrepreneurial climate. But these are snapshots of where we are right now. The decisions that created today’s growth – decisions about education, infrastructure and the like – were made decades ago. What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and ’60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world and generous immigration policies. Look at some underlying measures today, and you will wonder about the future.

He sees a nation that just gave up.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they’re not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.

Many of these changes have taken place not because of America’s missteps but because other countries are now playing the same game we are – and playing to win.

And we’re just playing around:

Sure, the political system seems to be engaged in big debates about the budget, pensions and the nation’s future. But this is mostly a sideshow. The battles in state capitals over public-employee pensions are real – the states are required to balance their budgets – but the larger discussion in Washington is about everything except what’s important. The debate between Democrats and Republicans on the budget excludes the largest drivers of the long-term deficit – Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare – to say nothing of the biggest non-entitlement costs, like the tax break for interest on mortgages. Only four months ago, the Simpson-Bowles commission presented a series of highly intelligent solutions to our fiscal problems, proposing $4 trillion in savings, mostly through cuts in programs but also through some tax increases. They have been forgotten by both parties, in particular the Republicans, whose leading budgetary spokesman, Paul Ryan, praises the commission in the abstract even though he voted against its recommendations. Democrats, for their part, became apoplectic about a proposal to raise the retirement age for Social Security by one year – in 2050.

Instead, Washington is likely to make across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, where there is much less money and considerably less waste. President Obama’s efforts to preserve and even increase resources for core programs appear to be failing in a Congress determined to demonstrate its clout. But reducing funds for things like education, scientific research, air-traffic control, NASA, infrastructure and alternative energy will not produce much in savings, and it will hurt the economy’s long-term growth. It would happen at the very moment that countries from Germany to South Korea to China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption – exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth.

We just do what is politically easy:

The key to understanding the moves by both parties is that, for the most part, they are targeting programs that have neither a wide base of support nor influential interest groups behind them. (And that’s precisely why they’re not where the money is. The American political system is actually quite efficient. It distributes the big bucks to popular programs and powerful special interests.) And neither side will even talk about tax increases, though it is impossible to achieve long-term fiscal stability without them. Certain taxes – such as ones on carbon or gas – would have huge benefits beyond revenue, like energy efficiency.

It’s not that our democracy doesn’t work; it’s that it works only too well. American politics is now hyper-responsive to constituents’ interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future. There are no lobbying groups for the next generation of industries, only for those companies that are here now with cash to spend. There are no special-interest groups for our children’s economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now. The whole system is geared to preserve current subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes. That is why the federal government spends $4 on elderly people for every $1 it spends on those under 18. And when the time comes to make cuts, guess whose programs are first on the chopping board. That is a terrible sign of a society’s priorities and outlook.

We somehow got stuck in doing nothing much and we won’t look elsewhere:

A crucial aspect of beginning to turn things around would be for the U.S. to make an honest accounting of where it stands and what it can learn from other countries. This kind of benchmarking is common among businesses but is sacrilege for the country as a whole. Any politician who dares suggest that the U.S. can learn from – let alone copy – other countries is likely to be denounced instantly. If someone points out that Europe gets better health care at half the cost, that’s dangerously socialist thinking. If a business leader notes that tax rates in much of the industrialized world are lower and that there are far fewer loopholes than in the U.S., he is brushed aside as trying to impoverish American workers. If a commentator says – correctly – that social mobility from one generation to the next is greater in many European nations than in the U.S., he is laughed at. Yet several studies, the most recent from the OECD last year, have found that the average American has a much lower chance of moving out of his parents’ income bracket than do people in places like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Canada.

And then he broadens this:

And it’s not just politicians and business leaders. It’s all of us. Americans simply don’t care much, know much or want to learn much about the outside world. We think of America as a globalized society because it has been at the center of the forces of globalization. But actually, the American economy is quite insular; exports account for only about 10% of it. Compare that with the many European countries where half the economy is trade-related, and you can understand why those societies seem more geared to international standards and competition. And that’s the key to a competitive future for the U.S. … Successful societies get sclerotic; the solution is to stay flexible. That means being able to start and shut down companies and hire and fire people. But it also means having a government that can help build out new technologies and infrastructure, that invests in the future and that can eliminate programs that stop working.

Is that too much work for us? Or are we just in a rut?

For all the partisan polarization there, most Republicans know that we have to invest in some key areas, and most Democrats know that we have to cut entitlement spending. But we have a political system that has become allergic to compromise and practical solutions. This may be our greatest blind spot. At the very moment that our political system has broken down, one hears only encomiums to it, the Constitution and the perfect Republic that it created. Now, as an immigrant, I love the special and, yes, exceptional nature of American democracy. I believe that the Constitution was one of the wonders of the world – in the 18th century. But today we face the reality of a system that has become creaky. We have an Electoral College that no one understands and a Senate that doesn’t work, with rules and traditions that allow a single Senator to obstruct democracy without even explaining why. We have a crazy-quilt patchwork of towns, municipalities and states with overlapping authority, bureaucracies and resulting waste. We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future. And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government, handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18th century and who serve as models for us today and forever.

America’s founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship.

And the narrative is all wrong:

What is really depressing is the tone of our debate. In place of the thoughtful concern of Jefferson and Adams, we have its opposite in tone and temperament – the shallow triumphalism purveyed by politicians now. The founders loved America, but they also understood that it was a work in progress, an unfinished enterprise that would constantly be in need of change, adjustment and repair. For most of our history, we have become rich while remaining restless. Rather than resting on our laurels, we have feared getting fat and lazy. And that has been our greatest strength.

But that’s a different narrative. Now it’s something new – things are perfect so you cannot fix them, or they’re not but there’s really no way at all to fix them. We’ve gone from change nothing to change everything all the way through it doesn’t matter much either way. That seems to be the new American narrative. And the odd thing is that it sounds kind of French – like Camus and the absurd, as he liked to explain life. Ah, we finally became existentialists.

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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