An Uneasy Feeling

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The New York Times

An Uneasy Feeling

I'm starting the new year with the sinking feeling that important opportunities are slipping from the nation's grasp. Our collective consciousness tends to obsess indiscriminately over one or two issues - the would-be bomber on the flight into Detroit, the Tiger Woods saga - while enormous problems that should be engaged get short shrift.

Staggering numbers of Americans are still unemployed and nearly a quarter of all homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Forget the false hope of modestly improving monthly job numbers. The real story right now is the entrenched suffering (with no end in sight) that has been inflicted on scores of millions of working Americans by the Great Recession and the misguided economic policies that preceded it.

As The Washington Post reported over the weekend, the entire past decade "was the worst for the U.S. economy in modern times." There was no net job creation - none - between December 1999 and now. None!

The Post article read like a lament, a longing for the U.S. as we'd once known it: "No previous decade going back to the 1940s had job growth of less than 20 percent."

Middle-class families in 2008 actually earned less, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999. The data for 2009 are not yet in, but you can just imagine what happened to those families in that nightmarish downturn. Small children over the holidays were asking Santa Claus to bring mommy or daddy a job.

One in eight Americans, and one in four children, are on food stamps. Some six million Americans, according to an article in The Times on Sunday, have said that food stamps were their only income.

This is a society in deep, deep trouble and the fixes currently in the works are in no way adequate to the enormous challenges we're facing. For example, an end to the mantra of monthly job losses would undoubtedly be welcomed. But even if the economy manages to create a few hundred thousand new jobs a month, it would do little to haul us from the unemployment pit dug for us by the Great Recession. We need to create more than 10 million new jobs just to get us back to where we were when the recession began in December 2007.

What's needed are big new innovative efforts to fashion an economy that creates jobs for all who want and need to work. Just getting us back in fits and starts over the next few years to where we were when the recession began should not be acceptable to anyone. We should be moving now to invest aggressively in a new, greener economy, leading the world in the development of alternative fuels, advanced transportation networks and the effort to restrain the poisoning of the planet. We should be developing an industrial policy that emphasizes the need for America to regain its manufacturing mojo, as tough as that might seem, and we need to rebuild our infrastructure.

We're not smart as a nation. We don't learn from the past, and we don't plan for the future. We've spent a year turning ourselves inside out with arguments of every sort over health care reform only to come up with a bloated, Rube Goldberg legislative mess that protects the insurance and drug industries and does not rein in runaway health care costs.

The politicians will be back soon, trust me, screaming about the need to rein in health costs.

We keep talking about how essential it is to radically improve public education while, at the same time, we're closing libraries and firing teachers by the tens of thousands for economic reasons.

The fault lies everywhere. The president, the Congress, the news media and the public are all to blame. Shared sacrifice is not part of anyone's program. Politicians can't seem to tell the difference between wasteful spending and investments in a more sustainable future. Any talk of raising taxes is considered blasphemous, but there is a constant din of empty yapping about controlling budget deficits.

Oh, yes, and we're fighting two wars.

If America can't change, then the current state of decline is bound to continue. You can't have a healthy economy with so many millions of people out of work, and there is no plan now that would result in the creation of millions of new jobs any time soon.

Voters were primed at the beginning of the Obama administration for fundamental changes that would have altered the trajectory of American life for the better. Politicians of all stripes, many of them catering to the nation's moneyed interests, fouled that up to a fare-thee-well.

Now we're escalating in Afghanistan, falling back into panic mode over an attempted act of terror and squandering a golden opportunity to build a better society.

Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert, former staff columnist for the New York Times focusing on politics, urban affairs and social trends, is now a distinguished senior fellow at Demos.

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