Friday, December 26, 2008

Structure or cycle?

Robert Reich, as he often does, expresses what many of us are thinking in succinct form. In a Wednesday post, he takes our current problems and contrasts the cyclic view to the structural view. Unless we understand from which camp someone is coming, we can't really ascertain what they're saying.

Reich summarizes the two thusly:
The emerging debate over Wall Street's and the Big Three's ongoing obligations to reform themselves is but one part of a much larger national debate we'll be entering upon in 2009 and beyond -- whether the economic crisis we're experiencing is basically cyclical (in which case, nothing really needs to change over the long term, after the economy gets back on track) or structural (in which case, many aspects of our economy and society will needs to change permanently).
If we listen to a lot of the power brokers and the pundits, it is clear that they believe that all that is happening is essentially cyclic, that we're going to tweak the economy through massive outlays of cash (either from the printing press or from our foreign friends) and, following some tough times, it will be back to business as usual. Home prices will rebound to their bubble prices, then go on beyond, everybody will be gainfully employed in jobs of their training and choosing, and we will go on as the dominant power, military and economic, in the history of the world. As Reich points out, this is the view of the Wall Street tycoons and the auto company executives, that, if the public can just get them over the hump, it will be business as usual and the good times will roll again.

And I am not such a pessimist that I wouldn't like all that to be true, but...

I think it's obvious to a lot of people, regular people who have to live their lives and make decisions and set priorities, that more fundamental changes have to occur, that mistakes have been made in the way this nation does things, and that it's time to fix them. And Peggy Noonan notwithstanding, I believe a large number of those Americans have a pretty clear view (and express it in letters to the editor and on blogs) of what they see as wrong and what they'd like fixed.

And they've elected one of the most unlikely Presidents ever in hopes that he will begin this process. They don't feel comfortable with the bailouts because those perpetuate the more-of-the-same mentality that they know is wrong. They're the ones who think about free trade, and listen to all the economists telling them that it's always beneficial, then look around at their dying town, and they wonder. They question how they're going to pay the massively-increasing tuition bills for their kids, while they take on ever more risk and their pay is flat. And on and on.

It's all too clear that there are things that are wrong, that there is a mismatch between the dream that is thrown around and the potential reality set. I'm not going to say that the problem lies 100% in the fabric of our society; people have some responsibility to look at that reality and understand that there are no guarantees, that there are no lottery tickets for life.

On the other hand, there are a lot of institutions insisting that people can have it all, that every boy (and girl) can be President, that success will be yours if you go to the right schools and work hard in the right jobs. We're learning that's just not true, and it probably never was, at least not totally.

But it seemed, not so long ago, that we were making progress toward extending those ideas to greater numbers of people. It's an amazing country in many ways, in that in our recent history we've allowed minorities and women to feel that they don't have to be locked into society's roles. They could feel that the American Dream, both materially and spiritually, applied to them as well.

Now, so many things point to a backsliding, a curtailment of that hope for so many. We live in a country that still seems to offer so much, yet it can't get decent health care to a large number of its citizens. We accept the tacit assumption that, somehow, executives are the ones who need protection from the greedy workers who actually make the products from which those nabobs derive their wealth. Productivity, that fabled economic measure, continues to rise, but the fruits of it are shared by fewer and fewer.

People don't see these trends as cyclic, because they've been building for decades, through Republican and Democratic governments, in good times and bad. They don't want the cycle to rotate around again, because more of the same isn't all that great for them. They're running faster and faster, and still falling behind, and they believe that it's a hallmark of the system, not a blip. And they're not seeing any of the fixes that have been proposed so far as doing anything other than perpetuating that system - it's past time for a change.

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