11.23.11

Economic News We’re Thankful For This Thanksgiving

Let’s take a pause from the cascade of negativity on this day of thanks and be grateful that 90 percent of Americans have jobs—and that we’re not Europe, says Zachary Karabell.

As we turn to Thanksgiving, let us a pause for a moment and take a time-out from the storm of gloom that has descended across this land and so many others. If you pay even passing attention to politics, to the economy, to Wall Street, or to public sentiment, you know the mood is bleak. The litany of woes is well known—ranging from a sclerotic and debt-plagued Europe to a dysfunctional Congress to a possibly slowing China to high unemployment and widespread dissatisfaction with an economic system of uneven rewards. It is enough to make Agnewesque nattering nabobs of negativism proud.

The cascade of negativity, however, is starting to detach from the lived reality of many, many millions—and I don’t mean the 1 percent tucked away in gated communities surrounded by the tumbleweeds of foreclosure. There is much to be thankful for, and all is not as bad as it seems.

First, for Americans, we can be thankful that we are not Europe. This is not a gratuitous dig at European problems, which if they become much more severe will most certainly be our problems. It is, however, a recognition that the task facing Europe is much more complex than whatever challenges America faces. Americans have both the material question of how to sustain affluence and the existential one of what America is to be in a post-American world. But we do at least have one currency and one government, however inept it is. Europe is engaged in a multi-decade experiment to weave together disparate nations that share anything but a warm and fuzzy collective history, and trying to do so now under financial duress. Let us hope they succeed and give thanks that we are not them.

We can also be thankful that about 90 percent of Americans have jobs, 90 percent are current on their mortgages, and 90 percent are current on their credit-card payments. Yes, many of those jobs are poorly paid and deadening, agreed and acknowledged. But contrary to the common refrain, the vast majority of Americans take on debt they can afford, within their means, and work hard to create lives for themselves and their families. This is not a statistical portrait of a profligate people or of a nation drowning in debt.

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And we can give thanks that the numerical construct called the “U.S. economy” is growing slightly rather than contracting mightily, and that unemployment remains structurally high but is not getting structurally higher. Solving a structural problem requires time and space, neither of which exists when the system is shedding jobs by the millions, as it was in 2009. While our political class has demonstrated little aptitude for addressing these issues, the American economy at least is stable, even as it remains troubled.

There are also pockets of innovation and imagination that continue to amaze and intrigue, with a particularly high concentration in Silicon Valley. Apple is only the most noticeable exemplar. And though the economic virtue of social media has yet to be demonstrated, the combination of venture capital and thousands of startup companies trying to give people the tools to reduce energy consumption or find the latest app to fit their needs is a potent one. The problem is that there aren’t more such pockets, but we at least should celebrate those we have.

We also can recognize that for the world as a whole, this remains the most robust period of wealth creation and poverty annihilation the human race has ever known. From the engine that is China to swaths of sub-Saharan Africa that are finally emerging from their decades of despair, from the favelas of Rio to the teeming apartment blocks of Mumbai to the tumultuous changes of the Arab Spring, much of the world has moved beyond the United States and Europe and is shaping its own destiny.

The vast majority of Americans take on debt they can afford, within their means, and work hard to create lives for themselves and their families.

While Americans at times seem at sea in the midst of these changes, it is a world that generations of Americans strove to create, a world where ideas, goods, and, yes, money flow relatively freely. The downside is greater systemic risk; the upside is an explosion of energy and growth. The downside is relentless pressure on wages in the affluent world and real strains on the environment; the upside is the demonstrable ease of producing food, goods, and diversion on an unprecedented scale. None of this is perfect, far from it, and we all know the problems. But we live in a dynamic era, though you wouldn’t know that listening to the grim words and watching the grim faces of the denizens of the old capitals of the world, in Washington, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris, and London.

So as financial markets roil and dance on the edge, and as the political season shines bright lights on all that ails us, as Europe engages in a slow-motion train wreck that is still likely to end well short of our worst fears, in the real world of real people, much of this is both abstract and unreal. The anxiety is ubiquitous, but most people are simply going about their lives, striving and often succeeding in a world that is far less dire than our daily dose of commentary would suggest.