Five years ago this week, the giant investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. This set in train the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The world barely avoided a second depression. Now, the United States is technically in a recovery. It doesn't feel that way to most people. Unemployment, at 7.3 percent, is at a level that would have been considered a crisis in the post-World War II era. Now it's the new normal. The one-tenth of a percentage point drop in August came for the wrong reason, 312,000 people dropping out of the labor force — and these are not mostly baby boomers headed for secure retirement. Most of the jobs being created are in low-wage industries and many are part-time. Even if we continued to see 169,000 jobs per month added — unlikely — it would take until mid-2023 before we regained the employment level of 2008. A recession comes along about every seven years, so even that horrid timeline is unrealistic.
Something has gone drastically wrong in America. We no longer have a manned space flight program, even as China prepares a moonshot. We're not reaching for the stars, literally or metaphorically. The sequester ensures research funding is being slashed. The Large Hadron Collider, the greatest triumph of modern physics, is in Europe, not America. A "Manhattan Project" for renewable energy? Building high-speed rail and other advanced job-creating, productivity enhancing projects? Such all-American efforts are beyond today's America. Our infrastructure is in deadly bad shape. But we're incapable of doing more than patching a road-heavy transportation system — and we have too many roads already — geared to a much less populous nation with 1960s gasoline prices. A real college education is now the province of the well-off. So are good jobs. The ladders up that were so abundant here are mostly gone. No wonder about one third of the people stuck in minimum-wage jobs are age 40 or above. Adjusted for inflation, 40 percent of American workers earn less than the minimum wage in 1968. The shift of national income from labor to capital is startling, with the result being historic and rising inequality.
This state of the nation is inextricably tied to the situation in Washington, D.C. It is typically described as "gridlock" and the media are at pains to find the "extremes" of both parties holding up intelligent responses to our cascading troubles. This is not true.
Instead, the Republican Party has dedicated itself to the most extreme agenda in the nation's history. It is composed of equal parts corporatism, theocracy and doing everything in its power to destroy That (Black) Man in the White House. It's not just in Washington. State after state has fallen under Republican control, with the party taking control of governmental entities from school boards on up. Their broad agenda is not reality based. But it doesn't matter. Far from being equally stymied along with the Democrats by this "gridlock," the GOP is winning. Gridlock is a goal of the Republicans. If they can't run everything, they will wreck it. This is unprecedented in modern American history and calls into question the future of our democracy, which depends on deal-making and compromise.
Not that the rank-and-file feel triumphant. I was talking to a self-described conservative today who said, "these are dark days for conservatives," predicting we will have single-payer health care in five years. And this was not a stupid person. For the conserva-proles, a state of constant paranoia is necessary for the ongoing success of "the base." It's not just a fear of sharia-socialism, but watching demographic trends and the triumph of equal rights for gay people. But the latter is the only setback for the right. With congressional and legislative districts in most states set in place by the right wing, it can block and rule for decades.
Five years after the collapse of Lehman, not one major bankster went to jail. The rich are doing better than ever. All of the imperial elites — Military-Industrial Complex, big oil, big coal, big pharma, ever more consolidated industries, wealthy tax evaders — are doing better than ever. Our situation can't exactly be called "dysfunction," because it is functioning quite well for the powerful. They spent the past 30 years putting in place the policies to ensure this (see Hedrick Smith's Who Stole the American Dream?) The rest of us, and the commons upon which American power ultimately rests, are in steady decline. It has been hastened by the expenditure of treasure on endless war instead of nation-building at home. It is concealed by the endless flood of cheap distractions and an average of 34 hours of television a week.
As a sidelight, one consequence will be a freezing in place of metropolitan advantage or disadvantage. Thus, places such as San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston and, of course, dSi, cities that already had great wealth, talent and economic power, will retain it and perhaps amass more. Others will have a hard time amid slow or no growth and "austerity." It does not bode well for Phoenix, however much the suburbs seem to gain relative to the city.
The big problem is that our self-made mess is highly volatile, however much the masses are distracted by such things as this "Miley Cyrus" I keep hearing about. The big companies with their record profits may think we're just another market to use up and so what if more and more Americans can't make decent wages — but many of these overpaid sociopaths corporate leaders can't see beyond the next quarter. And the deregulated, highly consolidated, highly financialized contraption they have created is prone to repeating what began five years ago. Indeed, it is almost guaranteed to do so. Maybe the next Great Recession will wake people up. Or not.