Friday, February 03, 2012

Sign of the Times

Our country struggles through this election cycle without much enthusiasm. Once, people spoke excitedly about the promise of substantial reform. Now, the Republican Presidential contest meshes well with the sentiment of the times. Few GOP voters like the choices presented to them, but they'll have to vote for someone. In general, Americans resemble the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free in Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet. In November, they will cast their ballots with strong reservations, regardless of what party they favor.

Once, immigrants (though notably not immigrants of color) fled the poverty and religious persecution of their homelands to settle here. Passage to the New World was expensive and time consuming. Despite the risk, they were willing to risk disaster itself to start afresh. They arrived, wave after wave, and most of us are their descendants. This country once held a strong promise for those who knew, in their native land, that they could never rise above the station of their birth.

Years of recession have now made social mobility difficult. The laws of scarcity reign yet again, with their emphasis upon coveting, hoarding, and guarding against potential famine. Politicians, without skipping a beat, speak about dismantling or gutting outright essential safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security. In their way of thinking, we are flat broke and austerity measures like these are imperative.

What is for sure is this: certain longtime ideological arguments will have to be scrapped, perhaps forever. What really matters are not the measures and counter-measures being considered. The daily lives of the American people are not abstract notions. Their basic struggle should not be reduced to spreadsheets and acronyms. They have good reason to be cynical, though right now everyone's mostly just exhausted.

The energy and hopeful spirit of four years ago feels like it belongs to someone else’s group consciousness. To many, 2008 might as well be ancient history. Most don't pause to dwell on it for very long. They simply don't have the time to be contemplative to no good end. As they wearily rise each morning for work, Americans focus instead on more pressing needs. Should they not have a job, they then try to accustom themselves to another day of a long, often frustrating search. Many have learned that in this new paradigm, interviews are infrequent and offers even more so.

And with each passing year, those who are close to retirement silently push their intended date forward in time. Some invested in the stock market, only to find that nest eggs shrank at an alarming rate. A younger generation openly doubts it will ever even be able to even retire at all. After lengthy stints of underemployment, some head to grad school to retool. In so doing, they ring up substantial student loan debt, often piled high on top of existing loans. As they see it, it’s better to be doing something than nothing.

In some ways, these sour times were a long time in coming. Greed has brought down many societies over time. In any system that rewards the accumulation of capital, it almost always does. But before invoking catastrophe, let's try to keep things in perspective. Predicting the imminent ruin of the United States is a bit like predicting the end of the world. It makes for a perverse kind of comfort to believe that our collapse is imminent. Should we believe in it, we no longer have to bite our fingernails, nervously. We don't have to worry about the uncertainty of the future.

Too much has been invested in this country. We did come to the brink of disaster back in 2007, but those lessons are too glaring to be quickly forgotten. China and other foreign countries have a strong interest in keeping the American economy afloat, particularly because of how much of our debt they own. No one of any nationality knows quite where we’re headed. In the midst of all the analysis, we are only certain of uncertainty.

In a jittery, nervous time, we turn to economists to spin their yarns. The soothsayers of this age, each trots out slightly different numbers and figures to explain their theories. In the end, we must contend with competing pronouncements and declarations, which provide no one much in the way of comfort.

The anxiety we feel now is existential. Though we may be slowly recovering, financially, the psychological impact left behind will be felt far longer. The aftermath of the recession has profoundly affected individuals, small towns, and cities alike. How it has affected the American psyche has not been as easily discussed. We dare not even speak its name. This lingering trauma will be the hardest to heal.

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