In the end, our history tells us that the New Deal and the Great Society were essentially aberrations in the larger American saga of governmental timidity. Only occasionally has the fear of not doing something outweighed the national inclination not to act.
That fact is that what defines the tea partyers is not, as they claim, adherence to self-defined and bizarre constitutional principles, or a groundswell of anger at intrusive government. Rather, it is an appeal to the basic and ridiculous American fear of government. So, though they purport to be a bold new populist force in the American polity, the tea partyers are actually a manifestation of a timid old force. And that's a problem. Why?
- Because change is only a slogan for them,
- because Americans don't have the political will to encourage their government to act boldly when necessary, and
- because we shrink from addressing the things that assail us.
And so it is that we aren't likely to get the car out of the ditch anytime soon, Obama's pronouncements notwithstanding.
And yet, while Americans cling to their self-image of intrepidness here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we keep demonstrating in the privacy of the voting booths that we are anything but. We just don't seem to have the nerve to act, politically, on our innermost beliefs.
Instead of bold adventurers, confronting our demons, we are a nation of the frightened, hoping to somehow turn back the clock as we rail against the only tool that can really help us: political action.
The price we are paying for our cowardice
In the wreckage of lost jobs, there is lost power in the international marketplace.
Alone among the world's economic powers, the United States is suffering through a deep jobs slump -- that can't be explained by the rest of the economy's performance.
The gross domestic product here -- the total value of all goods and services -- has recovered from the recession better than in Britain, Germany, Japan or Russia. Yet it's a greatly shrunken group of American workers, working harder and more efficiently than ever, that is producing these goods and services. Which means that our unemployment rate is higher than in Britain or Russia and much higher than in Germany or Japan, according to a study of worldwide job markets that the Gallup organization recently released. The American jobless rate is also now higher even than China's, Gallup found. The only European countries with worse unemployment than the United States tend to be those still mired in crisis, like Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Economists are now engaged in a spirited debate, much of it conducted on popular blogs like Marginal Revolution, about the causes of the American jobs slump. Lawrence Katz, a Harvard labor economist, calls the full picture "genuinely puzzling."
That the nearly worldwide financial crisis originated here, and was so severe here, surely plays some role. The United States had a bigger housing bubble than most other countries, leaving a large group of idle construction workers who can't easily switch industries. Many businesses, meanwhile, are reluctant to commit to hiring new workers out of a fear that the current bumper crop of heavily indebted households won't spend all that much in coming years. Better to force existing employees (intimidated and fearful as they have been made to become) to work twice as hard (lest they loose their jobs as well).
This jobless recovery, after all, is the third straight recovery since 1991 to begin with months and months of little job growth. But why is this happening?
The growing imbalance of power between employers and employees
Relative to the situation in most other countries -- or in this country for most of the last century -- American employers operate with few restraints. Unions have withered, at least in the private sector, and Republican-supplied courts have grown friendlier to business. Many companies can now come much closer to setting all the terms of their relationship with employees, letting excess workers go as soon as they become the slightest drag on profits and relying on remaining workers (and temps) when business picks up.
Consider the main measure of corporate health: profits. In Canada, Japan and most of Europe, corporate profits have still not recovered to pre-crisis levels. In the United States, on the other hand, profits have more than recovered, rising 12 percent since late 2007.