Try as I might, I can't figure out what it is. Today the American Zeitgeist changes from moment to moment, tweet to tweet. Or perhaps, to the extent that the word implies intellectual fashion or school of thought, it doesn't exist at all. We don't think. We consume.
Which is not to say that most of us don't work like dogs to do so. So perhaps inequality is new the American Zeitgeist. Maybe this will be the year of raising the minimum wage. This is certainly au courant in Seattle — a campaign to hike it to $15 an hour in the state with the highest minimum already. I see it all over our atomized (formerly mass) media.
Something needs to change. By any metric one wishes to choose, inequality is at highs not seen since the eve of the Depression or even the Gilded Age. It is bad for the economy, bad for out democracy. But the roots of the trouble go far beyond the minimum wage, and few Americans want to go there.
They include decades of tax cutting, really, really bad trade deals, often with bad actors in the world economy (e.g. China) — or, not so much "bad" as playing a very different game. In addition, the destruction of unions, offshoring of jobs, hollowing out of the middle positions and industry consolidation.
Fly out of almost any airport now and you see lines of empty ticket counters. They once belonged to an airline that no longer exists. It has been bought up as part of the greatest concentration in airline industry history. Many thousands of jobs have been lost, competition cut and service degraded (I think of the destruction of the fine Delta hub in Cincinnati).
Play this out across scores of industries and you get a big part of our national mess. You get cities and towns whose local elevator speech is, We used to make this and that and be the headquarters of all these companies — but now our largest employer is health care!
Or, consider the retailer formerly known as the service station. In my neighborhood, we has several. Each was owned by an individual, who also employed people, including mechanics making good money. The "mechanic on duty" sign was always a comforting amulet for a motorist. Service meant just that: You sat in the car while the attendant pumped your gas, checked your fluids and tire pressure, and wiped your windshield. Clean restrooms were a selling point and maps were free.
I know what median-age-of-thirty-seven America is thinking: Spare me the boomer nostalgia. Or, "huh, do what?" But my point is that all across the nation, these independent local retailers have been annihilated and replaced with company owned mega-self-service stations.
Some of this has come from economic shifts, but most has been the result of policy changes pushed through by the wealthy. Now it has become an art form. In my lifetime, America has gone from the greatest middle class in the history of the world to the greatest redistribution of income up in American history.
Yet a plurality of Americans blames not the oligarchs, but the blacks, Mexicans, gays, single women for foisting SOCIALISM on the land.
Anyway, I don't know how we address this by mandating a somewhat higher wage for the working poor alone. Notice nobody is talking about real game changers, such as returning to 70-percent tax rates on the richest, a transaction tax on Wall Street, a carbon tax, etc.
No! We are broke, cuts to Social Security and Medicare must be made, or so we are told. This even though all the evidence is quite the contrary. With proper tax policy, including collecting from corporate tax cheats, we could afford the social compact, good schools, high-speed rail and the Military Industrial Complex.
Too bad the policy of austerity has been a key factor in keeping the economy in the doldrums for five years after the end of the recession. But facts are so boring.
People are cold, too. Headlines warn of "catastrophic" snow and ice storms in the South. The seeming disconnect between winter and global warming can be easily addessed, but only for those interesting in learning, which lets off a huge piece of the nation.
I wonder how much the 24/7 media combined with ever-shorter attention spans acts as an accelerant in this phenomenon. For example, I remember winters in southern Oklahoma and north Texas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It always snowed some. Ice storms were common (I recall one that left an impenetrable layer of ice for two weeks). If anything, as far a I can tell, these kind of cold snaps are lessening.
Anyway, the last thing that would constitute the American Zeitgeist of 2014 is an urgent demand that we address climate change. How many "America is the new oil superpower" stories even mention this?
It will soon be 100 years since the beginning of World War I, but I doubt this will cause widespread reflection — not when it must compete against Honey Boo Boo.
The Republicans will roar back bigger, harder, deeper, well financed by the oligarchs and poised to take the Senate from the hapless Democrats. Rand Paul and libertarianism will be taken with great seriousness by the chattering classes.
Am I the only one who worries that the problems in our ICBM force are a sign of a deeper rot that might come back to smack us in a most unpleasant way?
Another thought: Everything that runs our complex and fragile society moving to "the cloud." This, even as we see massive security breaches at Target and elsewhere and China has hacked plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and, perhaps, the more effective (and stupidly canceled) F-22. I keep thinking about how in Battlestar Galactica, the great vulnerability was networked computers. But this vulnerabilty is not fiction. Makes me miss my Franklin Planner and for more than an objet d'art.
So as far as I can tell, our holiday from history is continuing. Until it's not.
You tell me.