By Mike Whitney, CounterPunch
This piece first appeared at CounterPunch.
“The U.S. worked hard to create the American dream of opportunity. But today, that dream is a myth.” —Economist Joseph Stiglitz, Financial Times
If you follow the financial news, you already know that the American people are on an epic downer. Just check out some of these headlines I pulled up in a five minute Internet search and you’ll see what I mean:
“Gloom and doom? Americans more pessimistic about future” Las Vegas Review
“U.S. Standard of Living Index Sinks to 10-Month Low; Expectations for future standard of living drops more than current satisfaction” Gallup
“Americans Still Pessimistic About Economy–Almost 70 percent think the economy is in bad shape” Time Magazine
‘Slipping behind’: Are we becoming a nation of pessimists?” NBC News
Income Inequality in the United States Fuels Pessimism and Threatens Social Cohesion” Center for American Progress
And here’s my personal favorite:
“NBC/WSJ poll: 60 percent say fire every member of Congress” NBC News
Pessimism, pessimism, and more pessimism. It’s like the whole country is on the brink of despair. Maybe Phil Graham was right, after all. Maybe we are just a nation of whiners. But I kind of doubt it. What’s really going on can be summed up in one word: Frustration. People are frustrated with the government, frustrated with their jobs, frustrated with their shitty, stagnant wages, frustrated with their droopy incomes, frustrated with their ripoff health care, frustrated with living paycheck to paycheck, frustrated with their measly cat-food retirement plan, frustrated with their dissembling, flannel-mouth president, frustrated with the fact that their kids can’t find jobs, and frustrated with the prevaricating US media that keeps palavering about that delusional chimera called the American Dream.
What dream? The dream that America is the land of “land of opportunity”?
Tell that to the 23-year old college grad who’s stuck delivering pizzas to try to put a dent in the $65,000 tab he ran up getting his Masters in engineering. See how much he believes in the Dream.
All that stuff about “working hard and playing by the rules” has turned out to be pure bunkum, just like the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” horsecrap or the “owning a home enters one into the middle class” thing. What a freaking joke. 6 million people have been booted out of their homes since the bubble burst, and the Pollyannas on TV still drone on about “owning a home”. Get the gun!
No one’s buying that garbage anymore. Just like no one believes that our economic system is “a level playing field”, or that our kids will have a better standard of living then our own, or that tomorrow will be better than today. Every one of those “shining city on a hill” promises have turned out to be complete hogwash. The only city on a hill you’re going to find in the US, is the privately-owned gulag where petty drug offenders are locked up for life so some chiseling hedge fund manager can report record profits to his shareholders. There’s your shining city in a nutshell.
The American people aren’t whiners. They’re just tired of the lies, that’s all. Look; the country was in the throes of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, but the American people rallied, right? They came out by the millions to vote for the dazzling young senator from Chicago who was going to change everything and restore America to its formal glory.
So much for that fairytale. Can you really blame the people for believing the hype and pegging their hopes on a man who never had any intention of keeping his word?
No, of course not. The people did what was expected of them. They cast their vote thinking that their vote mattered, thinking they could change the system if a solid majority supported it. But they were hoodwinked, right? Because that’s not the way the system really works. In fact, the system doesn’t really work at all. Power is just handed from one group of scheming elites to the next behind the laughable, public relations charade we call political campaigns. The whole process is designed to pull the wool over people’s eyes, and to avoid the possibility of any real change. Isn’t that how it works?
So now we’re stuck with candidate Tweedledee and everything keeps getting worse. Unemployment is deliberately kept high so big business has a permanently large pool of desperate workers it can hire for a pittance. All the profits from productivity-gains are carved up by moneybags CEOs or divvied up among shareholders instead of going to working people. And the banks are given money at zero rates so they can roll over their gargantuan pile of toxic loans at no cost to themselves or increase the leverage on their illicit hedging operations which they keep off their balance sheets and away from the prying eyes of government regulators. The entire system is rigged from top to bottom to make sure that no one who isn’t part of the inner circle is ever able to lift himself above his present, clock-punching, mind-numbing, 9 to 5 drudgery.
And now things are suddenly getting worse. And they’re getting worse because the fatcats who run the system think that working people have had it too easy for too long and they want to tighten things up. They want to trim the deficits, dismantle vital social programs, and slash the unemployment rolls. As one Paul Ryan opined, “We don’t want the safetynet to become a hammock.” Indeed. Workers, you see, have had it too cushy up to now, so Obama ‘s going to change all that.
The American people know what’s going on. They’re not as dumb as the jowly, stuffed-shirt pundits on CNBC and Bloomberg think. They can see beyond the lies and political bloviating. They know their goose is cooked. That’s why they’re so depressed, because they feel powerless. Pessimistic, frustrated and powerless. And for good reason. Take a look at this from Farai Chideya at Huffington Post:
According to the Pew Research Center, in the first two years following the Great Recession, 93 percent of Americans lost net worth. Only 7 percent got wealthier. Forty-three percent of those sampled in a nationally-weighted survey I recently commissioned believe this is a permanent trend…
I ran the 2500-respondent query as part of an ongoing book project charting how America’s workers are faring, and (found) that nearly 35% of respondents said they had spent retirement or personal savings to supplement their wages. Twenty percent relied only on personal savings; four percent on retirement savings, like an early withdrawal from an IRA or 401k, and eleven percent spent both…
Even more arresting: 21 percent of those I surveyed agreed with the statement “In 2013, I borrowed money from friends or family specifically in order to pay household, medical or credit card bills.” (“Working on Empty: America’s Workers Are Spending Down Savings to Survive,” Huffington Post)
You’ve heard it all before. People are draining their savings just to make ends meet day to day. And what choice do they have? It’s not like they can just up-and-quit and get a better job down the street. There are no jobs! And the few jobs that are available, don’t pay a living wage. So they’re stuck. Everybody’s stuck. And you wonder why people are so glum about the future? It’s because America has changed, and not for the better.
Did you know that nearly 80 percent of the people who were questioned in a recent LearnVest and Chase Blueprint survey said the American dream involved owning a home?
Unfortunately, a mere 43 percent of those respondents said they think “achieving the American dream in this economy is possible.”
43 percent! Less than half the people believe the ideological gobbledygook we’ve been spoon-fed from Day 1. That’s got to mean something, right? It means more people are giving up, they’re throwing in the towel. Why? Because hard work, a good education and playing by the rules just doesn’t cut it anymore. The opportunities are gone, vanished, kaput. That’s what 30 years of outsourcing, offshoring and corporate-friendly policy does for a country. It turns it into a two-tiered system where all the gravy flows to the top and everyone else is left with table scraps. That’s why according to Gallup “67% of the people are Dissatisfied With Income, Wealth Distribution”. Check it out:
Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S. … Americans are much less optimistic about economic opportunity now than before the recession and financial crisis of 2008 unfolded. Prior to that, at least two in three Americans were satisfied, including a high of 77% in 2002.
And here’s more from another Gallup survey:
Americans’ Satisfaction With Economy Sours Most Since 2001–Public more satisfied on most other issues today than 13 years ago,” Gallup
Americans … are significantly less satisfied with the economy and the role the U.S. plays in world affairs. The 40-percentage-point drop in Americans’ satisfaction with the economy, along with a 21-point drop in the world affairs issue…
The U.S. has seen numerous changes since early 2001, but….The biggest change in satisfaction has been with the state of the economy — now much lower than it was then, at the end of the dot-com boom and before the major recession of 2008-2009.
No one needs Gallup to tell them that the economy stinks. We all know that. Just like we know that America is no longer the land of opportunity, which Gallup confirms as well:
In U.S., Fewer Believe “Plenty of Opportunity” to Get Ahead–Similarly, only half say the U.S. economic system is fair. Gallup
Of course, there’s no opportunity. Why would there be more opportunity when the government is cutting spending instead of creating jobs? That’s not how the economy works. You have to spend something, to get something. There’s no free lunch.
Obama has done nothing to help working people. He hasn’t lifted a damn finger, which is why “58 percent of Americans disapprove of his stewardship of the economy” (Wall Street Journal/NBC News and Quinnipiac University) It’s also why 78 percent said of respondents in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they think the country is “on the wrong track.” And it’s also why Obama’s personal performance ratings have slipped below those of George Bush in the fifth year of his presidency. Obama has been a disaster and everyone knows it. The impact of his misrule with be felt for years to come. Just take a look at this comment by University of Michigan economist Richard Curtain who explains the dramatic change he’s seen in consumer behavior due to the policies that were put in place following the Great Financial Crisis (GFC). The quote is from an analytic piece titled “Consumer Behavior Adapts to Fundamental Changes in Expectations” Economic Outlook Conference November 21, 2013:
I have been reporting on the economic implications of the latest twists and turns in consumer expectations at this conference for nearly four decades. From the heights of expansions to the depths of recessions, consumers had never deserted their bedrock belief that the economy would produce ever increasing levels of affluence. The Great Recession, unlike any other downturn in the past half century, has not only tarnished the American Dream, but has prompted some fundamental changes in consumer expectations and behavior. (“Consumer Behavior Adapts to Fundamental Changes in Expectations” Economic Outlook Conference November 21, 2013, University of Michigan)
How do you like that? After 40 years of watching this stuff, Curtin says he’s noticed a “fundamental change” in the “bedrock belief that the economy would produce ever increasing levels of affluence.”
This is quite profound, I think, with far-reaching implications for the economy. The pessimism that Obama (and Congress) have generated through their policies have dampened expectations and changed people’s views about the future. Most people no longer expect their wages to increase or their financial situation to improve. For a growing number of people, the American dream is dead. This is already having an effect on personal consumption, household spending and economic growth. It’s also effecting the way people view the government, and what we think of ourselves as a nation. As Curtin notes:
[The] deeply rooted uncertainty about future economic conditions…has been sustained by the growing recognition that no federal policy has yet emerged that will restore long term economic prosperity anytime soon for the majority of consumers. Optimism about long term job and income prospects are essential for maintaining high levels of economic motivation. Too few consumers have regained that optimism.
Exactly. “No federal policy” has been put in place to “restore long term economic prosperity.”
That’s the whole ball o’ wax, right there. The pols have done nothing.
The pessimism we now see everywhere, can be traced back to government policy. All the blame goes to Obama and Congress. They’re the ones who ended the American Dream. They killed it.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.