It’s not the econ­omy, stupid

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAVID BROOKS David Brooks writes for The New York Times.

We’re en­joy­ing one of the best economies of our life­time. The gross do­mes­tic prod­uct is grow­ing at about 3.5 per­cent a year. We’re in the mid­dle of the sec­ond-long­est re­cov­ery in Amer­i­can his­tory. If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. econ­omy triple in size over the course of your life­time.

The gains are fi­nally be­ing widely shared, even by the least skilled. As Michael Strain of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute re­cently noted, the me­dian usual weekly earn­ings for work­ers who didn’t com­plete high school shot up 6.5 per­cent over the past year. Thanks mostly to gov­ern­ment trans­fer pro­grams, in­comes for the bot­tom fifth of so­ci­ety have in­creased about 80 per­cent over the past four decades.

And yet are we happy? About 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are dis­sat­is­fied with the way things are go­ing in this coun­try. Re­searchers with the Gallup-Share­care Well­Be­ing In­dex in­ter­viewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity, so­cial re­la­tion­ships, sense of pur­pose and con­nect­ed­ness to com­mu­nity. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-be­ing of any since the study be­gan 10 years ago.

As the re­cov­ery has ad­vanced, peo­ple’s faith in cap­i­tal­ism has ac­tu­ally de­clined, es­pe­cially among the young. Only 45 per­cent of those be­tween 18 and 29 see cap­i­tal­ism pos­i­tively.

So why the long faces? Part of the prob­lem is Don­ald Trump. Peo­ple can’t feel good about things when they think the coun­try is dis­as­trously led.

Part of it, as Noah Smith of Bloomberg the­o­rizes, may be dis­ap­point­ment among the welle­d­u­cated young. They grad­u­ated from col­lege, sad­dled with debt, and nat­u­rally ex­pected the world to em­brace them as their par­ents and schools had done. In­stead, many en­tered into the gig econ­omy, where a lot of work is tem­po­rary and in­se­cure.

How many un­paid in­tern­ships can you en­dure be­fore you lose faith in the sys­tem?

But the big­gest fac­tor is the cri­sis of con­nec­tion. Peo­ple, es­pe­cially in the mid­dle- and work­ing-class slices of so­ci­ety, are less likely to vol­un­teer in their com­mu­nity, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neigh­bors, less likely to be mar­ried than they were at any time over the past sev­eral decades.

And they are dy­ing. On Thurs­day, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion re­ported that life ex­pectancy in the United States de­clined for the third straight year. This is an ab­so­lutely stun­ning trend. In af­flu­ent, well- con­nected so­ci­eties, life ex­pectan­cies rise al­most as a mat­ter of course. The last time the Amer­i­can mor­tal­ity rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, dur­ing World War I and the flu pan­demic, which took 675,000 Amer­i­can lives.

And yet here we are — a straight-up so­cial catas­tro­phe.

Eco­nomic anx­i­ety is now down­stream from and merged with so­ci­o­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual decay. There are thou­sands of em­ploy­ers look­ing for work­ers and un­able to find any. Many young peo­ple do not have the sup­port struc­tures they need to per­se­vere in school and get skills.

Many work­ing-class men have not been raised in those re­la­tion­ships that in­cul­cate the soft skills. A 2018 LinkedIn sur­vey of 4,000 pro­fes­sion­als found that train­ing for those soft skills — lead­er­ship, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion – was the re­spon­dents’ high­est pri­or­ity. They val­ued these flex­i­ble skills more than spe­cific tech­ni­cal ones, and find them in short sup­ply.

There’s an in­ter­est­ing de­bate go­ing on in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles over whether we have over­val­ued to­tal GDP growth in our eco­nomic pol­icy and un­der­val­ued pro­grams that specif­i­cally fos­ter dig­ni­tyen­hanc­ing work. The way I see it is this: It’s non­sense to have an eco­nomic pol­icy — or any pol­icy — that doesn’t ac­count for and ad­dress the so­cial catas­tro­phe hap­pen­ing all around us. Ev­ery sin­gle other is­sue ex­ists un­der the shadow of this one.

Con­ser­va­tives were wrong to think eco­nomic growth would lead to healthy fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties all by it­self. Mod­er­ate Democrats were wrong to think it was suf­fi­cient to max­i­mize growth and then ad­dress in­equal­i­ties with trans­fer pay­ments. The pro­gres­sives are wrong to think life would be bet­ter if we just made our po­lit­i­cal econ­omy look more like Den­mark’s. Danes and Swedes take for granted a co­he­sive so­cial fab­ric that sim­ply does not ex­ist here.

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