THE BLOG
08/18/2010 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Debates We Are Not Having Are Essential

The double dip debate is heating up just as it becomes the central question of the 2010 mid-term elections. The two parties will be running on various theories of who is to blame -- the other guy -- for a rising tide of anger. Those who make their way to the polls in a bit more than two months will be angry and voting against the politician proxy of all that is wrong in their lives and the lives around them. The angriest Americans are likely to stay home in November.

This will be the saddeningly popular choice for many. Whichever party gets more of their angry and motivated people to the voting booth will win. Of course, the victors will speak of mandates and referenda on Obama and Congress. The defeated will talk of low turnouts and difficulty communicating message. Scandals and campaign missteps will be slavishly over reported.

Why so mad? Americans are scared and angry by the length and depth of the tough times. This story is older, deeper and more profound than the slump since 2007. Of course the colds and lumps of the last decades have blossomed into whooping cough and malignant tumor over the last 3 years. What it means to middle class has changed. What it means to be American has changed. Our political, economic and cultural leadership don't seem to understand this. We are recycling disappointing ideas from the past in an effort to confront new challenges. It is not working. It will not work.

The American middle class has lost one guarantee and perk after another. The last bulwarks against obvious vulnerability and poverty are all that remain, they are under attack. We have seen our wages and income stagnate for most of the years since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. What wage growth we have had has gone disproportionally to the highest earners.
2010-08-17-Incomelimitsbyquintile.GIF

Our pension system has shifted. Until the mid-1990s most people with pensions had defined benefit plans -- you know what you get when you retire, usually around 70% of your income in your final years at work. Now fewer people are covered and those who are covered have defined contribution pension plans. In these plans you control how much tax deferred income you put in. What you take out depends on how your investments do. For the last 10 years these contributions have bounced up, down and sideways. They value of leading US equity indexes are right about where they were 10 years ago. That money buys less now because of inflation. The security produced by assured pension benefits and rising stock market valuations have been replaced by fear. Health insurance alludes many. Those with insurance face quality of care and co-pay issues. To this has been added confusion and fear about the rules and implications of recent reforms.

Home ownership and access to credit were walls of separation between middle class life and what lies beyond and below it. America's home are places of foreclosure, sinking value and short sale these days. Few see or feel that home ownership is the vehicle for rising wealth and security. Home prices are battered and will likely stay below the highs of 2007 for many years. Home ownership is falling. The average household owns only 38% of their home. It was 60% in 2005. We borrowed too much and credit growth is now negative. Since 2008, the total debt held by American has declined. Soaring debt filled in the growing space between what middle class life costs and what middle class wages pay. Not anymore.
2010-08-17-totalconsumerdebt.GIF

The last protection against poverty and desperation are government programs. Over the years we have made these programs less generous and more temporary. This works relatively better in stronger job markets and relatively worse in weak job markets. You don't need me to tell you what type of job market we have today.

When all else failed Americans have long had a deep sense of the power and prestige of their largest companies and the military. Even these symbolic areas of strength have been battered. The massive costs -- in blood and treasure -- associated with Iraq and Afghanistan have not left most Americans feeling better about the strength of the armed forces. The recent resurgence in corporate profits has come amid scandals, stagnant wages and hiring. Thus, many people have come to feel more suspicious and hostile toward large companies and senior managements.

This is what lies behind the anger that will shape the midterm elections and policy choices after the elections. The first steps forward will not come until these issues are front and center. No decision we make on the location of an Islamic cultural center, illegal/legal immigrants, gay marriage, or any other fleeting scandal will begin to address the rising tide of anger. Time, patience and resources are running down.