If Biden Can’t Build a Better Economy, America Is Fucked
If the rich keep getting richer and everyone else struggles to keep up, we’ll have a new, nastier Trump type in not so many years.
Donald Trump’s finally gone, but if Joe Biden wants his return to normalcy to be any more successful than his predecessor’s appeal to greatness, he’ll need to take on the real issues dragging red and blue America down: economic torpor, ever increasing inequality, and policies that diminish people’s prospects of making it into or maintaining their positions in the middle class.
These pressures are felt most among the young, a third of whom suffer from anxiety disorders and who collectively have very low levels of optimism about the future—with good reason. Many express their frustration in shockingly violent ways, sometimes by dressing up as “riot ninjas.”
What we have been witnessing—during the protests this summer and after the canard of a “stolen” election—reprises the often inchoate peasant rebellions that happened periodically in Medieval Europe. More troubling still are similarities with the German Weimar Republic, evidenced by the mass support of a would-be despot in the White House, rising anti-Semitism, an out-of-control upper bureaucracy, a politicized media, and the rise of armed militant groups at both extremes of the spectrum in a modern version of the street fights between Communist and Nazi street gangs, committed to bashing each other and undermining basic civil order. Acquiescence and outright approval for looting, burning and even takeovers of urban neighborhoods were widespread among progressives this summer. The people who stormed the capital on Jan. 6 may see themselves as “patriots,” but they acted more like Nazis.
Ultimately the problem is twofold. As in Weimar, many of the leaders on both sides have little use for convention or Constitution; one side endlessly winks and nods at political violence in the service of the “right cause” and wants to limit contrary speech, eliminate the electoral college and pack the Supreme Court; the other has embraced certifiable conspiracy theories and mob violence to try and overturn an election their candidate lost. Trump may be gone and largely disgraced, but a new American-style fascism still seems to be looming as control of information is increasingly in the hands of a few unelected tech companies. This control over the media is something people from countries which have experienced one-party dictatorship firsthand, like Russia’s dissident Alexei Navalny, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Mexico’s President Andres Obrador, now rightly warn us about.
During Trump’s first three years in office, America’s working class had experienced significant wage gains for the first time in decades, along with historically low unemployment numbers for minority workers. But COVID wiped out these gains, particularly among minorities and millennials, further accelerating the inequality and lack of mobility that have led America closer and closer to a precipice.
The poor have borne the brunt of the pandemic itself, as well as its economic impacts, in part, a new paper suggests, because they are far less able to socially distance either at home or at work. The worst death rates have generally been concentrated in places like New York’s outer boroughs, the South Side and West Side of Chicago, and south and east Los Angeles County, as well as rural pockets like native American reservations and along the Mexican border.
More than a year into the pandemic here, millions of Americans have fallen into poverty or are on the verge of destitution. Meanwhile the Trump-approved stimulus has largely been a handout to corporations. While large chains have reported record sales during the lockdowns and stock markets keep hitting new highs, over 160,000 small businesses—the heart of Trumpian support—have closed. While surviving small businesses are wrestling with this existential threat, Amazon tripled its profits and Jeff Bezos made $70 billion since March as billionaires altogether “earned” over $1 trillion. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft now make up a staggering 20 percent of the stock market’s total worth.
Similarly, the well-educated minions of the oligarchy—academics, big media workers, and elite bureaucrats—also are zooming their way through the crisis. Barely 3 percent of low-wage workers can telecommute but nearly 50 percent of those in the upper middle class can. Even amidst the economic decline, they remain “the privileged stratum,” in the words of the French leftist analyst Christophe Guilluy, operating from an assumption of “moral superiority” that justifies their right to instruct others.
In the years before the great middle and working class rebellions of the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the ruling orders were “sleeping on a volcano.” Biden’s great challenge is stemming the turmoil below—not controlling speech for the benefit of our over-educated scolds, or appointing more women and minorities to top posts, or “saving ” the planet with draconian regulation that impoverishes all but few. You won’t start having “unity,” as former Time Warner and Citicorp CEO Dick Parsons has noted, until people “feel it in their pockets.”
Biden needs to focus on the basics, like promoting domestic industry, keeping energy prices low and investing in economically useful infrastructure. Instead of a Green New Deal, which would devastate our already weakened productive economy, he needs something more like the original one that aimed, first and foremost, at improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Neither Trumpism nor wokeism—each embracing their own brands of resentment—is likely to do much to meaningfully improve conditions.
The new president can best serve the country through a laser-like focus on improving the conditions for most Americans, particularly the diminished ranks of young families, and not feathering the nests of the ultra-rich and the politically well-placed. Nothing else will reverse the pattern of internecine violence that can only end in the ultimate American tragedy.