The lite beer election: serious and dangerous questions

The Long View

Part 1

At a dinner with friends of both the Republican and the Democratic persuasion, the question was raised: Do we have adequate choices in this coming presidential election? No one could answer “yes.” I added that the major candidates/parties resemble the combatants in the old “lite beer” commercials, where two theatrically angry sides faced-off to tear each other apart, Group A claiming the beer was less filling, and Group B that it tasted great.

Lack of substance, anyone?

My dismay I trace, in part, to my current research, which has me happily reading among our Founding Fathers and their contemporaries, who often dealt with weighty questions with measured reason as well as passion.

Consider, for its relevance, the opening paragraph of a Feb. 6, 1805, letter by former president John Adams to an old comrade-in-arms, the country’s most distinguished physician, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. Adams had been out of office four years, and Rush’s reputation had suffered tremendously since insisting that Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793 was not caused by something imported from abroad.

“Is the present state of the nation republican enough?” Adams asked. “Is virtue the principle of our government? Is honor? Or is ambition and avarice, adulation, baseness, covetousness, the thirst of riches ... the spirit of party and of faction, the motive and the principle that governs? These are serious and dangerous questions, but serious men ought not to flinch from dangerous questions.”

In this and my next two columns, I will address a few “serious and dangerous” questions from which our leaders are currently flinching.

My friends, family, neighbors and correspondents and I may not agree on their solutions — I’d be surprised if we did — but we agree that the candidates should be trying to address them rather than focusing on more trivial matters.

First and foremost: our economy. It is in bad shape, with few good jobs being created, housing prices continuing at a very depressed level, trillions in family net worth vanishing. This is not a matter of federal budgets, fiscal cliffs and entitlement programs — it’s the nature of the economy itself.

The political parties know about but will not address the consequences deriving from the seismic shift that has taken place in our economy. As recently as the 1960s, we were a manufacturing society. The day of reckoning for the loss of industrial jobs to “automation” was put off by the advent of computerization, which created many jobs, but it is now here. We have become an economy of middlemen and service providers, hyper-dependent on consumer spending, to the point that if retail sales fall a bit, or the price of a tank of gas goes up two bits, we go into recession. Jobs selling jeans and T-shirts, flipping burgers, entering data, and guarding buildings are low paying. No one has been able to tell me, with any credibility, how we will create jobs to replace the millions of mid-level ones lost — those paying $20-$25 an hour. One friend suggested the fracking industry, but that will create about 75,000 jobs at full tilt. We need 10 million.

If we cannot create middle-class jobs, our unemployment plus underemployment rate will grow, above the 15 to 17 percent current figure for the latter; and we will likely have 20 percent of our families in poverty rather than the current 15 percent.

Our candidates are not dealing with how unprepared our society is for such an eventuality. A permanently high rate of unemployment/underemployment would, for instance, push more people to take Social Security earlier, and hasten its insolvency. A 5 percent rise in the poverty rate would shred other portions of our safety net. Some 45 million Americans were on food stamps in 2011, up 70 percent since 2007. What if it were 62.2 million? A 20 percent poverty rate would mean at least that many.

In most states the eligibility requirement is an income of less than 130 percent of the poverty level, for a family of four, $2,442 per month. That household could have two adults, fully employed at the minimum wage, and still be eligible for, as well as in real need of, food stamps.

Middle-class job creation cannot be solved by less or more government spending, or less or more business tax breaks or incentives for hiring. We must figure out how to create better-than-minimum-wage jobs — private industry jobs — in an economy that does not manufacture much of anything, while making certain that our least fortunate citizens can exist without feeling forced into suicide parlors or open revolt.

Next time, three crumbling infrastructures: the physical one of roads, bridges, and public facilities; the health care system; and higher education.

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.