An Economy that Grows Anger

09/24/2016 03:33 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2017

This election season has revealed a lot of anger in the electorate directed against establishment thinking and establishment figures in each party. Ted Cruz defied the Republican establishment for not living up to traditional values. Donald Trump continues to defy the Republican establishment for not being tough enough on immigration and trade deals. Bernie Sanders still calls for a revolution against the establishments in both parties for not standing up to corporate interests. Hillary Clinton is in the unenviable position of defending the status quo with credentials as an adept institutional player. She is the Washington insider standing against the anti-establishment storm.
And then there were two. The home stretch pits Trump and Clinton against each other with each summoning the highest disapproval ratings of any major party candidates in history. More anger, now about the choices, with many voters lining up against Clinton on trustworthiness and against Trump on character. Our current political scene operates with a Hollywood-type "anger management" approach to outbursts of anger. While Trump hopes to ride the wave of anger to victory, Clinton presents the calm alternative, with promises to manage the maddening issues. It's a campaign between Stoking the Outrage and The Empathy of the Well-Connected.
Meanwhile, there is little attention to why so many people are angry in a country that seems to have so much going for it. The US enjoys almost unrivaled general prosperity compared to most nations; the unemployment rate is relatively low; inflation has been moderate on average. But this portrait from numbers belies lurking structural problems.
The economy provides abundant ways for the wealthy to become wealthier, while the working class hangs on with frequent underemployment and many citizens too discouraged to enter the statistical count of joblessness. The bipartisan anger against Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf showed the depth of outrage over the sense of entitlement among the rich and powerful. Entry into the cutting-edge of the economy requires years of education, which is becoming so expensive that it reinforces the feeling that it takes money (or enormous debt) to make money. And the relatively low retail prices that consumers do enjoy often come with outsourced jobs, which bring short-term price gains but long-term community erosion; meanwhile, prices on things that cannot be outsources, not just education, but also housing and health care, continued increase dramatically.
The anger emerges less from outbursts over immediate suffering than from perceptions that opportunities are slipping away. The reason for the low candidate approval ratings is that this looks like an election between a sensible and well-informed Democrat defending a crazy system and a sometimes crazy-sounding Republican who brashly calls for changes as yet undisclosed.
Beneath all these structural issues is a commitment to constant growth, growth that cannot be sustained in the long run without some new smart choices. In the face of consensus over extravagant growth, the candidates are caught in a wrestling match over claims to the best ways to achieve great growth; and they spend even more time pointing out the faults that keep their constituency from getting its piece of the growth pie.
They are like crabs in an unsustainable boiling pot with each one trying to stop the other one from getting out using its favored path. But each way out has to go through the boil: the values path blames the nation's straying from traditional morality; the toughness path blames leaders for not being aggressive enough in staking America's claim to supremacy; progressives blame corporations for seizing more power even as citizens crave their goods; mainstream Republicans blame the government for inhibiting the ability of business to prosper even if at the expense of natural or community well-being.
Meanwhile, the pot of constant growth keeps boiling away, with more growth the sole measure of a better life. Some growth is good, but as with anything, it has its excesses. The goal should be healthy growth. In the language of economics, growth is healthy as long as the benefits exceed the costs, but when the generation of goods and services becomes massive, the costs far outstrip the benefits. So excessive growth can be unhealthy. In fact, in medicine, it's called cancer.
We now have parties that agree on extravagant growth and agree to overlook its major problems. Clinton calls for taxes and laws to pay for programs that will stimulate growth in domestic jobs and maintain protections for workers. Trump suggests that a wall keeping out Mexican immigrants and his tough negotiations on trade deals will make the economy "great again." Meanwhile, constant growth will deliver its paybacks in the cost of government programs coping with its side effects, the pressure on companies to engage in harmful practices to keep profits flowing, and the tendencies to extract prosperity from powerless people or landscapes.
If we didn't crave as much growth, there would be little need for the candidates' policy proposals to cope with its problems. Politics could turn to its prime goal of stimulating creativity and cooperation to sustain well-being and prevent assaults on its health. The pioneer economic theorist John Stuart Mill observed that with less growth, there would be "as much room for improving the Art of Living and much more likelihood of its being improved."
A media celebrity recently said, "being paid more than you're actually worth is the American Dream." That's an expression from the high wave of extravagant growth, and when expressed by a celebrity, it shows our aspirations. This outlook sets a model for all of us smaller fry to try to live up to that overabundant standard. And there is plenty of media attention to stars whose commodity is fame and who circulate in a whole different economy of luxury and privilege.
The nation's first Republican President presented a different picture of the American Dream based on getting an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. Abraham Lincoln recognized that people will rise and fall to different stations in life, but those differences in status should emerge, he hoped, based on equal opportunity and individual merit rather than special privilege. This vision of democratic social life requires a government that insures fair play for all, and it calls for individuals to bring ingenuity and planning to their efforts to make their own living or become economic players in their communities or beyond.
Lincoln expressed this vision at a time when many other Americans sought to achieve the American Dream by extracting their income from the work of others. While Lincoln presented a model for healthy growth, slaveholders sought unhealthy growth through slavery. Today, media celebrity is promoting unhealthy growth through extravagance.
Americans agree that the presidential choices are not perfect, but in that contest as in the down-ticket races, citizens would do well to support candidates who support the health of the economy and society, not just constant growth.

-Paul Croce is Professor of History and Chair of American Studies at Stetson University, and writes for PubClassroom.com and the Huffington Post.