Our Miserable 21st Century

Our good friend and fellow Watchers council member The Glittering Eye alerts us to a must-read post at Commentary magazine that explains why Americans feel their country is on the wrong track. “So general economic conditions for many ordinary Americans—not least of these, Americans who did not fit within the academy’s designated victim classes—have been rather more insecure than those within the comfort of the bubble understood. But the anxiety, dissatisfaction, anger, and despair that range within our borders today are not wholly a reaction to the way our economy is misfiring. On the nonmaterial front, it is likewise clear that many things in our society are going wrong and yet seem beyond our powers to correct.”

It’s a must read.

For generations Americans came to expect a rising standard of living. But the jobs that provided that for those without a college degree are pretty much gone, and the college degree itself has become increasingly expensive and its value debased. Many of the same trends that gutted the manufacturing sector such as offshoring in search of cheap labor and increased mechanization are now moving into the service sector. For many Americans it has become a Red Queen’s Race to maintain their current lifestyle, often they often resort to credit to do so. For others their standard of living is in decline and they know it.

Then there are the young, facing college degrees that cost well into the six figures which deliver incomes only into the middle five. Education was always the “ace in the hole” for Americans, but while degrees are used to weed out candidates, unless they are in very specific niche fields they rarely justify the expense to obtain them.

I am middle aged, married and by most measures comfortable. Yet I have no retirement savings, I am still paying off my wife’s medical school loans, and I worry about the job prospects of our adult child. I feel like ours was the last generation to advance up the ladder through conventional means (hard work, sacrifice and education) and that after we arrived someone pulled the ladder up behind us.

How are people now in their teens and twenties supposed to succeed if their aren’t any well-paying jobs?

Of course there will always be entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, but we can’t be a nation of Steve Jobs especially when Apple is the biggest company in the USA yet employs less than 70,000 people here. We need the equivalent of the old manufacturing companies that employed hundreds of thousands of people at salary levels that would be well into the six figures by today’s standards.

Sure the stock market is reaching highs, but most people don’t own stock and most that do can’t touch that wealth until they retire. Will it still be there when they do?

Americans know something is wrong, but we haven’t put our fingers on exactly what yet, and even when we do it’s not clear to me what the solution is.

How do we employ millions of people at $100k a year or better? I have no clue and neither do any of the Nobel prize winning economists.

We are entering uncharted territory. It is possible that the gap that has become a gulf between the wealthiest and the rest of of us will continue to grow, in which case the only solution might be some form of redistribution. But the wealthy are very good at protecting their wealth and can move it as a last resort should the less well off demand “their fair share.” Raise taxes on the wealthy and their money will disappear in the blink of an eye.

As an American I am supposed to be optimistic about the future, but I’ve seen too many smart people make stupid decisions that make things worse for everyone to be anything but pessimistic.

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