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The American Economy Continues to Slide, But There’s Plenty of Optimism at the Top

Divided We Fall: a Tale of Two Economic Realities

by JASON HIRTHLER

“Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” These lines from schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind open Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, which satirized the quantitative ethics of 19th century utilitarians. The simple premise of utilitarianism pioneered by Jeremy Bentham was that an action or policy should be judged by a single criterion: whether or not it contributed to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It can feel, living in the early 21st century, that our leaders are operating on a principle of anti-utility, seeking the greatest happiness of the numerical few. The Washington establishment would dispute the truth of this claim, but then, as three examples will suggest, elites answer to a separate reality. To paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, let me tell you about the very rich. Their facts are different from yours and mine.

The C-Suite and Main Street

Earlier this month, March job figures coughed up a slim volume of 85,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent in February. As happens every month in this comical pantomime, the facts are shotgunned into the public consciousness by venerable propagandists like The New York Times and Washington Post, and the semi-articulate cable networks. The State Department then steps forward to impart a few rosy sentiments, although providing the necessary cautionary language lest our optimism overwhelm us.

The positivity of the official interpretation of the jobs report was belied by the 663,000 more citizen-consumers who slipped behind the black curtain of idle despair (47 percent of them women), not even bothering to seek work. According to Mike Gimbel, an analyst for socialist weekly Workers World, adding the decrease in the active labor force to the number of workers with insufficient part-time work, the unemployment rates skyrockets north of 20 percent. Nearly 90 million American adults are now out of the labor market, a new threshold of despair. (That’s nine times the number of unemployed at the height of the Great Depression, when there were only 123 million people in the country.) The jobs report complemented the specter of the sequester or a grand bargain still swirling overhead, promising to slice four trillion dollars from the economy over the next decade.

Yet a recent Financial Times survey of 400 global senior executives reports new optimism among business leaders, who project economic and industry improvements in the next six months. This peculiar optimism of corporate leadership, even amid the collapsing scenery of American society, is revealing on two levels. First, it evinces the degree to which Fortune 500s have uncoupled themselves from the American consumer market. The United States may be sliding toward Third World conditions, but expanding segments of Brazil and China are racing toward First World abundance. These markets, not ours, have laid claim to the attentions of corporate profiteers. What does it matter to the multinational if median income in the U.S. has climbed a mere $59 since 1966, when Brazil’s per capita income has nearly doubled since 1999? One salient example: Nearly seventy percent of Coca-Cola’s revenue comes from outside the U.S. In the first quarter of 2013, its international sales volume grew three times as fast as its American volume. Over the next five years, Coke plans to spend $30 billion on international expansion in China, India, Russian, and the Middle East. So long as one continent is in the ascendant, the fall of another is of little interest.

Second, the survey elicits the degree to which Wall Street financial markets have untethered themselves from Main Street industry. Industrial manufacturing has been in heavy decline as a percentage of American GDP, from a peak of 34 percent in the fifties to about 11 percent now. Perhaps as corollary, the GDP share held by the financial sector is on a steady uptick, now over eight percent and rising, while the total turnover of financial markets is many times our GDP. Derivatives, exempted from tepid Dodd Frank controls, are being purchased in bulk every month by the Fed, which is also holding interest rates at zero, ensuring banks can borrow for nothing, swivel on a dime and fleece credit card desperados at 18% a month. Why should corporate leaders care that it is slowly gaining a huge reserve army of American labor, to use Karl Marx’s term, which it can one day play off against some arriviste working class in a BRIC country?

Madison Ave and the 90 Million

Much like the heady delirium in the boardroom, these shadow facts too infrequently penetrate the optimistic consciousness of our vast marketing industry. As oil pipelines hemorrhage and radioactive waters sieve into the soil, we are admonished by a new nationally broadcast ad for the Acura RXL: “You wake up in your luxury bed and slide out of your luxury sheets. You get into your luxury shower and dry off with your luxury towel. You put on your luxury suit and your luxury watch. You grab your luxury coffee from your luxury coffee maker, and add some luxury sugar. You step out of your luxury house and step into your luxury car…which makes everything else seem ordinary.” Another class of commercials trots out sonorous-voiced actors like Tommy Lee Jones to lean on farm fences and talk about retirement planning, while Matt Damon’s soothing voice reminds how “common sense” is all we need to build a halcyon tomorrow. It always seems a healthy number of the wide-grinned retirees portrayed zooming down the California coast are minorities, often the African-Americans who lost half their wealth during the housing collapse.

What must the mass unemployed think as the television drones forth with this condescending drivel? The Boston Globe reports on a study by the Urban Institute that claims Generation X and Y—the two generations following the Boomers—have saved less than their parents did in their early adulthood: “Stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values are behind the issue and have kept young Americans from saving even as the economy doubled from the early 1980s, the study found.”

The drear state of the economy is compound by what the young do to counteract it—take out loans. The Globe story notes, ‘’‘People in my generation are of the opinion that it’s OK to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans,’’ said Young, who graduated in May 2012. ‘‘That puts them in debt right away.’’’ The article concludes that, with no savings, Gen X and Y will rely more on the social safety net, the very programs millionaires Barack Obama and John Boehner are so anxious to cut. But millionaires can afford to be utopian, hence the blandishments about the road to a stronger America.

If the actor in the Acura commercial were a genuine luxury guy living a genuine luxury life, and his address were placed on a title screen at the end of the ad, I suspect a large mob drawn from the 90 million unemployed would soon descend on his luxury house. As Obama rather imperiously told a frightened assembly of derivatives kingpins during the collapse, “I’m the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks.” Of course, the commercial is just another tawdry piece of condescension foisted on the masses from Madison Avenue, but it artlessly demonstrates the second disconnect in our storyline—between the media and the masses. The Acura RXL lists at $48,450. Average per capita debt is $47,500.

The White House and the Poor House  

It was Freud who said that if you wanted to know human nature, simply reverse its clearest moral injunctions. If we are forbidden to steal, it is because we are thieves. If adultery is verboten, it is because we are covetous. By that measure, perhaps we can discern the aims of Washington by reversing the desires of the American public. (Much like we can find countries that receive the most American aid by seeking out the nations with the most egregious human rights abuses.)

Testing Freud’s formula bears some interesting results. According to relentlessly consistent polling numbers, we oppose cuts to social spending such as education and Social Security and favor national health insurance provided by the government. Yet the policies we receive from either wing of the Business Party are healthcare reform that will leave millions still uninsured (but usefully fined), higher defense spending, lower education spending, and aggressive interventions across the planet. Far less than half of Americans want to prioritize immigration and gun control, but these topics dominate media coverage. We want jobs and a strong economy before a level deficit. Yet we get an austerity package designed to slow the economy and job growth. Even though our paychecks have flatlined for forty years, and our schools are growing poorer and our prescriptions dearer. Even though sixty percent of the jobs created by the stimulus were part time, and the piddling median wage in 2011 was $26,965.

At a macro level, the Freudian formula works the same. The Journal of the Academy of Arts & Sciences recently reported on the disparity between public opinion and policy. In polling, large majorities have favored federal policies to cut greenhouse emissions, even supporting tax breaks for corporations that reduce emissions—a stance that reflects global consensus on the reality of climate change and the need to do something about it. In fact, 118 countries have set national targets for renewable energy (RET). As the formula predicts, the U.S. has no national renewable energy target, placing it on the regressive right of the global political spectrum.

While nearly two thirds of Americans favorable developing renewables over oil, gas, and coal, we churn ahead with oil, gas, and coal exploration and encourage states to draft their own environmental targets. Extraction is keeping the federal government too busy to deal with such peripheral concerns. Substitute your own favorite federal failing and watch the formula work for you. Rather than prosperity, austerity. Rather than due process, solitary confinement. Instead of higher wages for Main Street, higher earnings for Wall Street. In lieu of jobs, offshoring. Instead of substance, rhetoric.

Here lies our third disconnect, between government and the people. Like the Wall Street and Madison Avenue realities, individuals in the highest echelons of federal power are wildly prosperous, moving seamlessly between the precincts of the state and the serene towers of global enterprise. They are showered with the patronage of both while employed by either, such that the distinctions between the two become opaque and nominal. The goals are common—dominion. The profits are shared—the costs socialized. And the media continually rehabilitates the profile of power like the Soviets rehabbed victims of the gulag—ex post facto. The facts of life for the obscenely rich are not like the facts for the majority. They are doing fabulously. Witness the outpouring of mawkishness in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death. In her first decade in power, she cut taxes on the wealthy by half while the income of the poor plummeted by forty percent. Who penned those lavish encomiums to sit atop Thatcher’s grave? Who but the survivors?

Interesting that the quote from Fitzgerald, about the rich being different from the rest of us, was from a set of short stories called All the Sad Young Men, largely about the rich and the shimmering anomie of the world they inhabited. Yet if the surveys, media, and policies on offer are any indication, all the sad young men have shed their survivor’s guilt and moved on. Life is a fairy tale waiting to be bought. Darker realities, like the distant wail of an ambulance, hardly register anymore.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 17-year veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.