A Call for the New Possible

09/06/2010 01:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a lot of talk these days about something called the New Normal. Some of it is justified. Consumer spending, for example, will not be going back to pre-crash levels anytime soon. The heedless mass-consumption society looks to be behind us: Don't count on buying that new PlayStation for your kid this Christmas. Or the next one. It's hard to argue that a profound adjustment in the way we think about spending, saving and credit is happening whether we like it or not. This we must accept.

But sometimes talk of the New Normal sounds like a cover for the Old Status Quo. Experts tell us that we should understand 9.5 percent unemployment as a "structural" feature of the economy. Or they try to convince us that Social Security has to be rolled back because "we can't afford it." Is this a reaction to a new reality? Or is it the kind of thinking that benefits the same old powerful interests that helped drive the country into economic ruin? Like those who want to keep wages depressed, and those who desire to play with our national savings and charge high fees for it.

The Old Status Quo folks tell us that many of us will be jobless for now and insecure when we reach retirement age. "Call us when you get honest work!" wrote Fiscal Responsibility Co-Chairman Alan Simpson to a critic who called into question his views on Social Security. The program, he observed, is a "milk cow with 310 millions tits." This is the kind of attitude that tells us we had better just accept our economic defeat, even as we watch bailed-out financial institutions and corporate chieftains reap record-breaking profits. We should keep our heads down and realize that crumbling roads, second-rate schools, the destruction of nature and massive economic inequality are just "the way things are." This bleak message, discernible in the rhetoric of politicians, the antilabor strategies of the Federal Reserve, and the inequities of globalization, says that the lives of American middle and working class people are in decline and that we have only ourselves to blame. In our current unbalanced economy, large banks, multinational corporations, and wealthy individuals won't have to cope with the consequences of the New Normal. The rest of us will.

Rather than accepting this managing down of our expectations and the effort to make us meek in the face of injustice, maybe we should be thinking a bit more about what is Decidedly Abnormal. Like companies existing solely for profits no matter what burden they place on society. Or government policies that put corporate profits ahead of any other national agenda. If you look at the way things are done in other countries, the state of affairs that seems so natural in America doesn't look quite so normal anymore. In his latest book, Come Home, America, veteran reporter William Greider challenges us to reconsider how we think about some key fundamentals:

In the reckoning ahead, Americans are going to find themselves rethinking the meaning of "onward and upward." We will be compelled to redefine "progress" and "plenty." The core challenge will be to develop a new national culture and economy that yield more from less by producing more human satisfaction from less wasteful excess and destruction, as well as less greed and extremes of wealth.

Greider's book is an essential guide not only to honest conversation about the Decidedly Abnormal, but an inspiring blueprint for the New Possible -- a realm where long-held beliefs that no longer serve us can be discarded.

We have done this as a country before. In the 20th century, we moved from a society that tolerated and legitimized the discrimination of women and minorities to one in which civil rights are recognized for all. My grandmothers could not vote when they turned 18. At the same age, my mother was barred from attending most colleges and universities. And yet these women did not keep their heads down and accept the status quo. When my mother graduated from high school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was closed to women, so she attended the Woman's College in Greensboro. She went on to earn a doctorate in education and became the second female department head at North Carolina State University. Even so, I recall her story of going to the local department store to apply for a credit card. "No problem," said the store manager. "Just have your husband come on down here to sign for you." Unwilling to play along, she told him to keep his application. Later, after the manager's research apparently showed that she earned more money than her husband, Wachovia Bank called to say that she could indeed have a card in her own name. As a result of a hard-won, generations-long struggle against unjust and undemocratic attitudes that were once considered perfectly normal, I did not face these barriers. I reached my 18th birthday with the opportunities of my country open to me in a way that many would have found inconceivable a mere generation before. The struggles and triumphs of my foremothers tell me that if individuals push hard enough and long enough, old beliefs do get left behind. Transformation, we know from so many stories in our nation's history, is entirely possible.

The most insidious of our current beliefs -- one that was dealt a serious blow by the financial crisis -- is a cold-blooded ideology that holds that some people are naturally economic losers and some are winners. Over the course of a generation, this belief gradually became naturalized to the point that it seemed obvious and ineluctable. We learned to accept an economic system based on short-term gains and deceptions that denied our fundamental human needs and values. As Greider put it, we got used to a growth engine that "actively damages anything it does not itself value." Here is what this growth engine values: wealth accumulation at the top. Here are the things it does not value: justice, equality, morality, beauty, the future, the planet. It tolerates stripped pensions, sick bodies and polluted oceans. It is not interested in our well-being. Nor even nature itself.

Instead of accepting this regime of false belief -- as false as that which viewed women and minorities as less than human -- Greider encourages us to embark on a journey of self-discovery in which we ask ourselves searching questions about who we are, how we want to live and what we will tolerate. Rather than keeping our heads down, he urges us to rediscover our self-confidence by coming out of our isolation to talk to one another about what we think and feel and sharing the stories of struggle that have come down to us from our families and our communities. Uninhibited conversation, self-reflection and remembering the past can ignite the spark that will help us to consider turning our national focus from the accumulation of more wealth to the enhancement of human lives; from unfettered growth to sustainable development; from sitting on the sidelines of our democracy to participating in it -- loudly. Greider calls for nothing less that a new conception of progress focused on commonly-shared values about life. In the realm of the New Possible, there are things a child needs much more than a new Playstation. She needs parks to play in, schools to learn in and bridges that don't fall down. She needs a sense that she can safely explore the world, develop her abilities, make choices and a lead self-directed, fulfilling life.

Greider's investigation of the New Possible calls for restoring public obligations to corporations, confronting wage-depressing forces, and guaranteeing that our essential needs for food, shelter, and security are met. It calls for an economic system with less wasteful destruction and more responsiveness to society at large. And for decentralizing the power of the federal government so that states and communities can foster more social and economic innovation. Most importantly, it calls for strengthening our democracy by promoting citizens' ability to actively shape our social and economic landscape.

Proponents of the Old Status Quo and defenders of the Decidedly Abnormal want us to believe that all this boils down to questions of what we can afford. Champions of the New Possible know that it's more about what we value. How is it that we could afford to rescue banks in crisis and conduct repeated, unnecessary wars? Because we can afford it, or because these are the things powerful interests have insisted that we prioritize? Other countries do not have guaranteed health care, modern high-speed rail systems and affordable childcare because they are richer than we are. They have them because they have different, more human-centered and life-sustaining priorities embedded in their domestic agendas. Powerful interests want us to remain timid and defeated. They do not want us to be self-directed and to demand change, and they block our efforts with every bit of lobbying power and persuasion they have. They usually get to decide. That is not normal.

The Herculean task of transforming the corporate and financial sectors into partners in our human future will not happen quickly, and it will not happen without patient, sustained struggle. We will have to give them incentives for good behavior and penalize them if they continue their Abnormal ways, such as defrauding us, polluting our environment, or keeping wages down even as productivity rises. We will also have to trade our devotion to mass consumption for a commitment to investing in the hospitals, highways and schools we need for a productive economy and livable society. And most of all, we will need to rediscover that what we think and how we act as individuals matters. When the man at the department store tells us we will have to play his game, we have to firmly say "no."

The "good times" as we knew them are not coming back. But if we can summon the energy to construct a new framework for American life, better times may await us. Greider has challenged us to start the conversation. Let's do that. Today.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.