Polarized Washington Ignores Long-Term Issues At Its Peril
Scandalfest continues. Official Washington is still flitting from one minor controversy to another, with the news media breathlessly reporting the latest leaked email or unsubstantiated accusation. Clearly, the chattering classes have declared the jobs crisis ended and the economic recovery complete.
While the Obama administration hasn’t popped open champagne bottles to celebrate, the air of silliness that hangs over the Beltway is a reminder that the worst is over. After all, the stock market is soaring. Consumer confidence is climbing.
The latest national unemployment number is down to 7.5 percent, the lowest level since December 2007, when the economy started its steep descent. Indeed, the sustained economic uptick may have a direct tie-in to Washington’s current obsession with less consequential matters: The economy is strong enough to have persuaded Republicans to stop blasting President Barack Obama over joblessness, so they’ve had to find other issues with which to batter him.
Here’s an update from outside the Beltway Bubble: The jobs crisis is not over. Average Americans are still struggling through an ugly economic transformation — a structural change decades in the making that jumped into overdrive with the Great Recession. Millions of Americans of working age remain unemployed, while others patch together two or three part-time jobs to keep food on the table. Still others have found full-time jobs but at far less pay than they used to earn.
A recent Quinnipiac poll provides a clear look into the minds of voters, who have little interest in the imbroglios of the moment. Rightly, 44 percent believe the revelations about the Internal Revenue Service, which singled out conservative organizations for unfair screening, as most important among the current controversies. Only 24 percent cited the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, despite the GOP’s obsession with it. Far fewer, just 14 percent, listed the Justice Department’s scrutiny of reporters.
But here’s the news you may have missed: An overwhelming 73 percent said that boosting the economy and creating jobs is more important than any of the other three issues. If politicians were as poll-obsessed as they are rumored to be, they’d at least pretend to be devoting most of their time to helping middle-class Americans get back into stable jobs with good pay.
The jobs crisis has been decades in the making, an economic restructuring fueled by globalization and technology. Think about it: Those Bangladeshi textile workers killed in an April building collapse were doing work once done in the United States. No matter how many affluent Americans protest the conditions and boycott the designers who contributed to the disaster, those jobs are not coming back to these shores. Manufacturers will continue to pursue cheap labor.
As a result, the jobs that once guaranteed good wages and stable futures to generations of Americans without college degrees have all but disappeared. That transformation, which started in the 1970s, has contributed to the wage gap, the ever-widening rift between the haves and have-nots. The average American worker has been losing economic ground for decades.
Politicians ignore that growing gap at their peril. The notion of an America where everybody has an equal shot has always been more myth than reality, but there was once a time when it was not so difficult for young adults to imagine a more prosperous future than their parents had. That is no longer a likely scenario.
That’s a very difficult problem to solve, which helps explain why politicians don’t like to discuss it. It calls for a multigenerational response, the sort of bipartisan approach that is usually reserved for battles against foreign enemies.
But Washington is stuck in a period of deepening polarization, incapable, it seems, of even agreeing on the causes of our economic woes. Democrats, at least, have a language for discussing widening income inequality. Republicans haven’t yet come to terms with its existence. So the sorry spectacle continues.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)