Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What exactly is the USA?

These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again. Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes. Paul Krugman - New York Times
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Right now the question would have to be, what exactly is the USA? The people? The system? The economy? Whose economy?

What exactly is the USA?

This is really important in America's case, more so than in other countries, because "American" isn't an ethnic group or a religion or even a language and shared history, and people move around a lot and are not deeply rooted; and to top it off the family structure isn't very strong. All of these factors are what normally make up a "nationality". So the question, "what exactly is the USA" is something every new generation of Americans has to answer... and I believe it is getting more difficult.

When, back in the 50s "Engine Charley" Wilson enunciated his famous formula: "what is good for General Motors is good for the USA and vice versa", he was probably right, or it least  the phase made  some sense at that time. Today, could you say something like that about General Motors or substitute any other American corporation's name for GM's? Would it still make any sense? Try it with "Goldman Sachs".

Right now, we are looking at the possibility that the economy may "recover", but that its "recovery" will not mean any jobs. So we have to go back to the original question, The people? The system? The economy? Whose economy?  What exactly is the USA?

I think that the difficulty in answering this question, "what exactly is the USA", is what makes the situation much more worrisome today than the crisis of the 70s or even the 1930s. DS

PS:  Roger Cohen's article in the NYT relates nicely to what I am talking about:
On a weeklong visit, I found a mood of deep unease in an America that seems to have descended into tribalism — not ethnic, but political, economic and social. Uncertainty is pervasive. The government’s rescue of Wall Street combined with the acute difficulties of a middle class struggling to get by on stagnant or falling incomes has sharpened resentments.(...) Fragmentation holds sway. The stock market used to be a fair proxy for the state of the economy. Now it’s a market of traders, not investors. They want to know what the spread is today and tomorrow; they can make money on the way up or down; they care far less about U.S.A. Inc. So the market goes where it goes — up of late but largely directionless (which makes it harder on those up-or-down traders) — while out on Main Street the struggle to make family payroll continues. People work longer hours, they juggle how to cover their kids’ needs, how to de-leverage just a little — and they’re still meant to “consume” for the economy’s sake. The share of national income held by the top 1 percent of American families has doubled in recent decades to 20 percent. That’s a huge shift. I spoke to Doug Severance, a Vietnam vet who’s a hotel employee in Aspen, Colorado. “When I moved here in 1984 we were all family,” he said. “Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

1 comment:

Publius said...

Great question. The fragmentation is getting extreme, even within families.
My brother, for example, thinks things are great. He has a job and can go out and buy a $1000 racing wheel for his triathlon bike.
Others are losing their homes, en masse.
My brother is typical: the system is working great as long as he is OK.
I see him as being extremely narcissistic, but I believe him to be typical due to a number of factors that would be an essay in itself.
End result: the ship of state is surrounded by dragons and whirlpools