The single-most important economic issue of our time has been largely ignored in the course of this dispiriting presidential campaign, namely, the need to generate tens of millions of quality paychecks in an economy now decades removed from having enough of them.
Yes, President Barack Obama talks frequently about the 5.2 million jobs that have come into being over the last two-plus years. But in the context of America's fundamental problems, that's like discussing a light shower in the midst of a half-century of drought. Most of these jobs are low-paying service sector positions that pay far less than enough to support a family. While modest job growth is certainly better than the disaster Obama inherited, it is a long way from restoring the country to what it once was: a place where people who worked hard and stayed out of trouble could count on basic economic security.
Yes, Romney has repeatedly promised that his victory will somehow add 12 million jobs to the economy (presumably, right after the skies stop raining gold bars and the Tooth Fairy adds a million bucks to everyone's retirement accounts). But he has provided few details on how he would pull this off, and his economic principles are cause for extreme skepticism. His go-to economic policy -- tax cuts for the rich, and trickle-down for everyone else -- has long been discredited as a means of promoting healthy growth.
So, for a nation that keeps telling pollsters that the economy is the key issue, here are the storylines on offer: The incumbent asks us to buy into the notion that a chronically weak economy is better than it looks, while his challenger tells us that lean times will suddenly turn fat if only he gets to add the White House to his lengthy list of residences.
These dueling narratives are not only devoid of substance, but also disconnected from the pursuit of the new economic strategy the country so critically requires. Both candidates are acting as if relevant history began only recently: for Romney, it began back in January 2009, when Obama stepped into the White House to supplant Adam Smith with Karl Marx; for Obama, it began during the tragicomic reign of George W. Bush, who presided over the weakest economic expansion on record and glibly dismissed signs of the unfolding Great Recession.
The right place to start the needed analysis is in the 1970s. That's when wages began to stagnate for most working people, and that's what generated a desire for the bogus fixes that have followed, from the tax cuts championed by President Reagan in the 1980s, to the Wall Street-facilitated credit bonanza that unfolded under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. As paychecks failed to keep pace with the cost of living, people resorted to unsustainable schemes to support their families: reckless tax cuts, stock market speculation, funny-money mortgages.
In 1969, the average rank-and-file American worker -- about 80 percent of the workforce -- earned an average of $327 a week in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Labor Department. The four-plus decades that followed saw no shortage of advances. Men walked on the moon. Personal computing proliferated. Medical technology accelerated.
But in one key regard, it was as if time stopped: Most working people have failed to see their fortunes improve. By the time Barrack Obama became president, those inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings had slipped to $288, a drop of roughly 12 percent over 43 years.
These numbers need to be seen in context. Tens of millions of women entered the working world over those decades, and so did minorities and immigrants, bringing down overall wages. But the basic truth is inescapable: Over the last four decades, a working person who has merely managed to maintain his or her earnings has done better than most.
Dig deeper into data and the extent of backsliding looks even starker. Over the last 20 years, the share of male college graduates who are employed has dropped from 84 percent to 77 percent, according to the Labor Department. Over the same timeframe, employment among African American men has slipped from 60 percent to 54 percent.
The American economic model has broken down. For the vast majority of working people, upward mobility has been replaced by a struggle merely to hang on. Yet this reality has been all but absent from the campaign, along with the important question of what we ought to do about it.
In a provocative analysis last week in The New York Times, David Leonhardt suggests that the absence of a discussion about declining living standards reflects the fact that the root causes -- principally globalization and automation -- generally cannot be addressed via government policy.
Leonhardt helpfully knocks down one frequent scapegoat for declining American living standards, illegal immigration. He puts the onus on education and progressive tax policy to ameliorate the strains of globalization and automation, while better spreading the spoils.
But this idea that presidents are impotent in the face of decline is unsatisfying, even when the causes are diffuse and complex. What about large-scale public works? How about even more aggressive championing of renewable energy, in addition to the substantial efforts Obama has already delivered? How about escalating efforts to put seed capital in the hands of entrepreneurs? What about large-scale forgiveness of principal balances on underwater homeowners to spur consumer spending in the short term, along with hiring teachers and researchers to boost intellectual capital over the long term?
Most but not all of these things require the assent of Congress, where Republican obstructionism has sabotaged the president's agenda. But shouldn't we be using the campaign to discuss what is really needed, rather than accepting the constraints on possibility in Washington? Forty years of limiting the conversation to what is politically feasible has savaged the middle class and the poor.
Romney will not have an authentic conversation about how to address the ingrained shortage of jobs because that necessitates thinking about government as a change agent. In today's Republican party, the only role for government is to step aside and let unregulated markets do their magic.
But the president's failure to reckon with these deep-seated troubles is harder to understand. In the most generous reading, Obama's silence seems like tacit admission that he has no answer to Republican obstructionism, which could severely constrain the achievements of a second term. In the worst analysis, Obama seems to lack plans of consequence for the next four years beyond guarding the fruits of the last four, not least his Medicaid expansion. His bid for another term appears to rest on the proposition that a Romney administration would be a grave threat to the economic wellbeing of anyone unfamiliar with the workings of Cayman Island banking -- true enough, as it happens, but hardly comforting.
Last week, in what seemed a clearly reactive move to defend himself against the charge that he has failed to lay out plans for a second term, Obama released a book that attempts to fill the void, "The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security."
But the "plan" is really just a repackaging of the elements Obama has been discussing for months: greater support for education, advancing renewable energy, reviving manufacturing and helping small businesses. Nothing wrong with this prescription, but nothing new about how he plans to go about it. And dumping these elements into a supposed strategy hatched with two weeks to go in the campaign hardly gives it the imprimatur of a genuine policy.
Treating such an important subject in such a opportunistic way actually undermines the message that must be delivered to the public on a sustained basis: The middle-class crisis will continue until we have a new economic model that substantially increases investment in education and infrastructure.
We have missed an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about our entrenched condition of underemployment. Not that we will lack for other opportunities. After the election, whoever occupies the White House will confront the same basic condition: There simply aren't enough ways for hard-working Americans to make a decent living.
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