Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Everything is Not Awesome

It's always fun when you find an article so delusional that even its title gives it away as crazed, fantastical ramblings. As soon as I saw that there was an article called "Everything is Awesome!" I had a feeling I knew what I was in for, but I think even then I underestimated just how ludicrous the article would be. I actually had to verify that it wasn't satire--but it's not. Its author, Michael Grunwald, is a serious journalist, whose brilliance is illustrated by his statements that he doesn't care that a US citizen was killed by a drone strike and that he can't wait to defend the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange (in fairness, he admitted that one was dumb). So, sadly, this is all too serious.

The article came out just before Christmas, so my response is coming a bit late, but everything the article discusses is still relevant, and I've heard the same arguments in more places than just this one article. Anyway, here's how it begins:

Good news! The U.S. economy grew at a rollicking 5 percent rate in the third quarter. Oh, and it added 320,000 jobs in November, the best of its unprecedented 57 straight months of private-sector employment growth. Just in time for Christmas, the Dow just hit an all-time high and the uninsured rate is approaching an all-time low. Consumer confidence is soaring, inflation is low, gas prices are plunging, and the budget deficit is shrinking.

Obviously, a lot is being covered here already, so let's pick it apart a bit. The economy is growing, yes, fine. Certainly better for it to be growing than stagnating, so that's all fine and good. However, the fact the Dow is up is not really good news for all of us; it's good for those who have stocks, which means mostly it's good news for the rich. It doesn't do so much for the working class family struggling to pay their bills. The reduced uninsured rate is, again, a good thing (though it largely just means we're finally approaching every other industrialized country in one area we've lagged greatly behind in); consumer confidence is good for the GDP, but it does little to fix the fact that our economy remains excessively reliant on consumer spending. The low gas prices are nice (and helpful for people lower down on the economic ladder), but let's not lose sight of the fact that ideally we should be moving away from being so reliant on gasoline to begin with. As for inflation and the deficit, neither of those have been real problems in the United States the past few years; actually, a bit of inflation would be good, as it would help middle and working class Americans pay back their debts. A larger deficit would be perfectly acceptable, too, depending on what it's spent on. So, already, the picture's quite a bit more complex than Grunwald would have us believe.
You no longer hear much about the Ebola crisis that dominated the headlines in the fall, much less the border crisis that dominated the headlines over the summer.
This is just asinine. There was never an Ebola crisis in the United States, and the problem is still very real in the countries where there is an actual outbreak. The border crisis was another bit of fear-mongering as well; the actual cause of it--violence and poverty in Latin America--has certainly not magically disappeared in the course of six months. 
Crime, abortion, teen pregnancy and oil imports are also way down, while renewable power is way up and the American auto industry is booming again.
Great, except that the biggest threats to the country have little to do with crime, abortion, or teen pregnancy. The bit about oil imports and renewable energy is a bit more relevant, but seeing as potentially devastating environmental issues remain a very real threat, it might be a bit early to start celebrating.
You don’t have to give credit to President Barack Obama for “America’s resurgence,” as he has started calling it, but there’s overwhelming evidence the resurgence is real.
Why? Because we finally have an economy that's growing and we've started taking some basic measures we should have a long time ago? Call me crazy, but that doesn't exactly seem to outweigh the negatives of increasing inequality, a government controlled by corporate interests, militarization of our police forces nationwide, and the erosion of our civil liberties.
The Chicken Littles who predicted a double-dip recession, runaway interest rates, Zimbabwe-style inflation, a Greece-style debt crisis, skyrocketing energy prices, health insurance “death spirals” and other horrors have been reliably wrong.
And? For the most part, no one with any real credibility predicted these things. This is equivalent to saying we're in good shape because the alien invasion your mentally unstable uncle predicted hasn't happened. Most of these were never real threats to begin with, so the fact that they haven't happened means very little. 
Come to think of it, the 62 percent of Americans who described the economy as “poor” in a CNN poll a week before the Republican landslide in the midterm elections were also wrong. I guess that sounds elitist. Second-guessing the wisdom of the public may be the last bastion of political correctness; if ordinary people don’t feel good about the economy, then the recovery isn’t supposed to be real. But aren’t the 11 million Americans who have landed new jobs since 2010 and the 10 million Americans who have gotten health insurance since 2013 ordinary Americans? It’s true that wage growth has remained slow, but the overall economic trends don’t jibe with the public’s lousy mood.
Wage growth being slow is not some minor issue; without wage growth, a growing economy doesn't mean all that much for large numbers of Americans. And wage growth isn't a little slow or something along those lines; it's practically nonexistent. A higher GDP doesn't mean much if most Americans won't see the benefits of it, but apparently that's a minor detail in Michael Grunwald's mind.
Six years ago, the economy was contracting at an 8 percent annual rate and shedding 800,000 jobs a month. Those were Great Depression-type numbers. The government was pouring billions of dollars into busted banks, and experts like MIT’s Simon Johnson were predicting that the bailouts would cost taxpayers as much as $2 trillion. In reality, the bailouts not only quelled the worst financial panic since the Depression, they made money for taxpayers.
They made fifteen billion dollars, which is tiny when you consider the size of the bailouts, and that came at the expense of keeping the banks huge and unaccountable for their actions. So I guess if you're happy with a total lack of accountability in the financial sector and an economy that continues to work for a small elite, all for the government to collect a whopping fifty dollars for every man, woman, and child in America, the bailouts were just awesome, to use Grunwald's favorite word. 
This bah-humbug brand of moral superiority has flourished since the crisis: How dare you celebrate this or that piece of economic data when so many Americans are still hurting? It’s awkward to argue with that view, since many Americans are indeed still hurting. But the economic data keep showing that fewer Americans are hurting every month. No one is satisfied with 5.8 percent unemployment, but it’s way better than the 10 percent we had in 2010 or the 11 percent Europe has today. Declining child poverty and household debt and personal bankruptcies are also worth celebrating. Better is better than worse. Whether or not you think Obamacare had anything to do with the slowdown in medical cost growth, it’s a good thing that Medicare’s finances have improved dramatically, extending the solvency of its trust fund by an estimated 13 years. It’s a good thing that U.S. wind power has tripled and solar power has increased tenfold in five years. And while it’s true that the meteoric rise of the stock market since 2009 has produced windfalls for Wall Street, it has also replenished state pension funds and 401(k) retirement plans and labor union coffers. It definitely beats the alternative.
So, apparently, the only choice is between the current situation or a worse one.  Yes, it would be worse if the things Grunwald mentioned were getting worse instead of better, but isn't it just a tad selective to only look at what's getting better and ignore what's getting worse? You wouldn't celebrate the fact that your Hot Pocket is a delicious golden brown if your house was burned down in the process of making it.
Let’s face it: The press has a problem reporting good news. Two Americans died of Ebola and cable TV flipped out; now we’re Ebola-free and no one seems to care. The same thing happened with the flood of migrant children across the Mexican border, which was a horrific crisis until it suddenly wasn’t.
Yes, the press, being owned by corporations, focuses much more on what will get attention (and thus money) rather than giving us a full picture. Isn't that, you know, sort of a bad thing? That the media is increasingly owned by a smaller and smaller number of corporations? Seems a little contrary to the idea that things are "awesome" in America.
The media keep us in a perpetual state of panic about spectacular threats to our safety — Ebola, sharks, terrorism — but we’re much likelier to die in a car accident. Although, it ought to be said, much less likely than we used to be; highway fatalities are down 25 percent in a decade.
This is just getting farcical. Not even deranged right-wing demagogues tried to convince us that highway fatalities were going to destroy the country. Who cares if they're down? Sure, it's nice, but bringing it up just distracts from any of the threats that the country actually faces.
The other problem in acknowledging good news, not just for the press but for the public, is that it has come to feel partisan, like an endorsement of whoever occupies the White House. Republican leaders have exacerbated this problem by describing everything Obama has done — his 2009 stimulus package, his 2010 Wall Street reforms, his 2013 tax hikes on high earners, his various anti-pollution regulations aimed at coal-fired power plants, and most of all Obamacare — as “job-killing” catastrophes that would obliterate the economy. It’s hard to point out that the economy is humming along nicely without making those doom-and-gloom predictions sound ill-advised and over-the-top. Because they were. Liberals who predicted disaster when Obama refused to nationalize the banking system during the financial crisis and when Republicans insisted on the harsh budget cuts in the 2013 “sequester” were wrong, too. Disaster hasn’t happened.
I don't know of any liberals who predicted "disaster" when Obama didn't nationalize the banking system or when the sequester went into place. I do know of a number of liberals who predicted that bailing out the banks with no strings attached would keep them unaccountable and "too big to fail" (it did) and that the sequester cuts would hurt the economy and lower-income Americans (they did). But why bother with actual facts when you can stoop to lazy false equivalencies and absurd oversimplifications? 
As ideologically inconvenient as that may be for chronic complainers on the left and right — and for pundit types invested in their bad-year-for-Obama narrative — it’s wonderful for the country. You don’t have to endorse Obama’s economic philosophy to realize that it hasn’t wreaked short-term havoc, just as you don’t have to endorse the Obama or George W. Bush anti-terror philosophies to acknowledge that America hasn’t endured a rash of terror attacks since 2001.
Virtually the only people who predicted that "short-term havoc" would come from Obama's economic policies were those on the far right. The left-wing criticisms of them have consistently been more focused on long-term, not short-term, effects, and the long-term outcome is not all that bright. The line about terror attacks sums up this article pretty well, though; let's celebrate the fact that something didn't happen when there was no credible reason to think it would, anyway. And now for the big finish:
The U.S. is still plagued by inadequate public schools, crumbling infrastructure, soaring college tuition costs, stark inequality. Many Americans want accountability for reckless bankers, torturers and fatal choke-holders. Washington is still almost as dysfunctional as everyone says it is. Congress this session really was the second least productive ever. And even though Obama is winding down the U.S. involvement in overseas wars, the world remains a scary place. There’s still plenty to worry about.
But for now be merry! And may the new year be as awesome as this year.
Yeah, we have subpar public schools, subpar infrastructure, above average income inequality, unaccountable bankers, unaccountable cops, unaccountable federal agencies, and a government that doesn't work. But other than that, things are awesome! Oh, and I like how the new Iraq-Syria War we've gotten ourselves involved in still just doesn't count in the minds of people like Grunwald. Seriously, though, how could he not just read that paragraph and realize what a stupid idea this article was? It's fine to want to discuss good news, but you're actually going to say things are looking good in a country with these sorts of problems (many of which are getting worse, not better)?

There's a pretty simple reason that Michael Grunwald would write such a brain-dead article (apart from the fact that he himself is pretty brain-dead): a small amount of research exposes him as yet another Obama defender far more concerned with preserving a good image of the president than actually examining the facts in a meaningful way. His case is much like that of many other Democratic Party loyalists. But the thing is, things aren't awesome in America, and Americans know that. Pretending they are doesn't change anything, and it also doesn't get Democrats elected. It just makes the people who do it look like idiots; but then again, with Grunwald here, if the shoe fits...

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