You know the Dickens: It's a "tale of two cities," "the best of times and the worst of times." On Wall Street, the big banks, basted with public succor, are ladling out record bonuses. Their leaders are arrogant enough to stiff the president's invitation to the woodshed. Even at AIG, still a ward of the government, the hubris is such that the executives that led the company into bankruptcy now are threatening to sue anyone who dares tamper with the million dollar bonuses that they once promised to return.
On Main Street, millions remain unemployed, foreclosures are rising, pain is spreading. Many of the best jobs that have gone are not coming back. The downturn has been particularly brutal on the young. As a New York Times editorial reports, the jobless rate for teenagers is the highest recorded since records began being kept after World War II. For low-income black students, only 4 in 100 found jobs this fall.
This is a social and human calamity. Without jobs, young people don't develop skills or discipline that makes them employable in the future. Robbing a generation of hope provides the kindling for explosion or implosion. Neither is acceptable.
Two cities. The mansion on the hill; the sorrows in the valley. This is the central economic and political challenge facing the country, the administration, and the Democratic Congress (Republicans, frankly, don't seem to give a damn. Early on, they cast their bet on failure and their strategy on obstruction. This seems to be working for them, so they are letting that bet ride. Not one Republican would even cast a vote for the mildest of financial reforms)
The economic challenge goes beyond recovery. In fact, Wall Street's rescue, while necessary, now stands in the way of a prosperous economy. Banks are emerging from free fall more concentrated than ever, with an explicit promise that they are too big to fail. This is a guarantee of future financial catastrophe. They must be broken up or regulated like utilities. Banker's bonuses are simply a leading indicator. Their return to record levels means exactly that we are headed into another mess.
The pain on Main Street is also not sustainable. The basic promises we make to one another -- a good education for our children, an opportunity for those who work hard, security in the golden years -- depend on an economy with a broad and vibrant middle class, where prosperity it widely shared. As the middle class struggles with declining wages and increasing insecurity, those promises can't be kept.
Politically, this reality will frame the choice in 2010 and beyond. Voters will want to know: Which side are you on -- Wall Street or Main Street? The myth that Wall Street's riches benefit Main Street -- that bankers are doing, in the words of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein, "God's work" -- has been shattered.
The political practitioners in both parties, who tend to be allergic to populist class politics, get this. Newt Gingrich early on conflated the recovery plan with the bank bailout, and charged Democrats with running up record debts to bail out the limousine liberals on Wall Street while ignoring Main Street. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now rolling out robocalls blasting Republican legislators for pocketing financial industry money while voting "to let Wall Street continue the same risky practices that crippled retirement accounts and cost taxpayers $700 billion..."
On these questions, the White House has been, at best, behind the curve. The president's economic team is understandably proud of having staved off financial collapse and global depression. They were slow to understand the scope of Americans' justified fury at a recovery that worked for the big banks and not the small businesses, for the mansions but not the homeowners.
Worse, this team of Bob Rubin protégés echoes the caution of the financial establishment. Although the president says we can't go back to an economy where Wall Street pockets 40% of corporate profits, his Treasury Secretary can't imagine reorganizing the big banks. Although the president will make jobs his top priority in 2010, his economists have yet to forward a plan large enough to meet the size of the problem. A direct public service jobs program - the only conceivable way to address the rising unemployment among the young in our cities - seems like an administrative nightmare. A $400-500 billion dollar jobs program - the size likely needed to create jobs and forestall what many, including Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, fear will be a return to recession - runs counter to their desire to take credit for an economy in recovery, and to placate the hysteria about rising deficits.
And as the health care debate shows, any jobs program must get 60 votes in the Senate. We know what the Senate wants: less. Less than any program that comes from the White House or the Congress. Less than what the country needs. The president would be wise to fight for a bold program, challenging the inevitable naysayers like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh. Take on the deficit hawks, demand action on jobs. But having suffered through health care, does he have the stomach for another inter and intra-party brawl?
All this will rollout in the New Year. The president will make jobs and financial reform the centerpiece of his State of the Union. After the final spasms around health care reform, the Congress will focus on a jobs bill and on financial reform (beginning with the vote on whether Ben Bernanke - architect of both the financial collapse and Wall Street's recovery - should be kept on as head of the Fed).
If Republicans continue to vote lockstep against everything, even a token jobs bill and cautious financial reforms like those passed by the House this month may well help Democrats frame the debate for the 2010 elections.
But neither will deal with the scope of the economic challenge we face. And inadequate reforms will truly risk, in the words of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, letting this crisis go to waste.
So get some rest. Enjoy the holidays. Hug your families. The debate about America's future has only started to heat up.