There's been a lot of negative news coming our way for several years now.. A constant drumbeat of recession, foreclosures, bankruptcies, increases in poverty, sky-high prices for energy and health care; while, they tell us, the American dream is a fading vision for many young people who can't get jobs, can't afford college, have lost the Puritan work ethic and given up on American optimism.
In fact, the drumbeat has been so loud, for so long, I'm beginning to wonder. I do not believe in American exceptionalism -- how narcissistic is that! -- but I do believe in capitalism, competition, entrepreneurship and the American can-do spirit.
The list of seemingly insurmountable problems goes on and on: The stock market has gone nowhere for the past decade. Real wages are actually lower than they were in 2000, while unemployment is higher, the poverty rate is higher, and prospects for almost everyone seem more clouded. Meanwhile, Social Security is beginning to run up against its inevitable, long-term demographic problem -- too many recipients and not enough contributors -- while Medicare is facing even more daunting financial prospects.
Health care gobbles up more and more of our financial resources, while many people are simply left out of the health care system because they don't have the money to pay a doctor, or because they don't have the right connections (work at the right company or belong to the right association) to get affordable insurance. Meanwhile, it could be argued, as a country we squander huge medical resources on the extremely elderly while we deny simple health care to many of our children and young adults.
We face stronger and stronger competition from other countries around the globe. Third-World people who understandably want a bigger piece of the economic pie, are willing to work for wages much lower than workers in the Unites States. Yet, Europe is falling apart, threatening to bring the American economy down with it, while reports from Asia suggest China is slowing down, meaning less opportunity for our exporters and maybe less enthusiasm for buying our debt.
The housing market is moribund, becoming a dead weight on the American middle class. Housing prices have fallen an average of 33 percent since 2006, and some people like Jennifer Bridwell at PIMCO and Robert Shiller of Yale see another 5 to 10 percent decrease over the next couple of years -- with no recovery in sight for years to come.
State and local governments are going broke. Central Falls, a town in the economically devastated state of Rhode Island, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in August. Just last week Jefferson County, Alabama, was filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U. S. history. Meanwhile, by one estimate, budget shortfalls in 44 states could reach $140 billion for fiscal 2012.
Many American households are no better off. Last year almost 3 million homes went into the foreclosure process because people either couldn't or wouldn't pay their mortgage. Consumer debt currently stands at 112 percent of income.
Meanwhile, a record number of Americans are out of work. The official unemployment rate is calculated at 9 percent, but the real rate of people who want to work, but can't find a fulltime job, stands at about 16 percent. Historically, after a recession ends, it takes about six months to return to the normal employment picture. This time around, at the current rate of growth and job creation, McKinsey, the management consulting firm, estimates it will take another five years. Others calculate it will take even longer, as people who are unemployed for extended periods find that their job skills become outmoded, making them essentially unemployable. And the long-term unemployed tend to get depressed; they suffer greater health problems and have shorter life expectancies.
Will small business perform its usual function as the engine of job growth? Loans to small business actually dropped somewhere between 8 and 14 percent last year. Are our young people being trained for future jobs? According to the most recent study from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U. S. ranks 28th among 41 developed countries in math skills, behind most European countries (including the Slovak Republic) and Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. U.S. students rank 22nd in science, and 29th in problem solving.
Meanwhile, we can't get anything done because of our polarized political situation -- some 25 percent of Americans sympathize with the Tea Party while, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 30 percent sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
A recent Yahoo! finance poll found that 41 percent of Americans say that the American dream has been lost. And only 45 percent of Americans believe that their kids will be better off than they are.
Despite all these negative numbers, I'd still like to think America can find its way out of the woods. Remember the 1970s? They were pretty moribund. But then came the end of Cold War and the beginning of the Internet revolution, and we were back on the road to prosperity.. Can it happen again?
What say you? Vote in the poll at right. Explicate below if you can offer any insights, explanations or suggestions.