Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reading the signs

The media generally wears political bifocals... they can see clearly only when they fit into the pre-determined focal lengths: left vs. right, Dem vs. Pub, big vs. small, partisan vs. bi-partisan.

While this creates clarity and surety (attributes that people prefer in our cultural narratives), it doesn't always serve us well.  Sometimes, there are complex dynamics at play -- dynamics that are "messy."  And when political reporting skirts these complexities, we get the equivalent of listening to music in "mono" (vs. stereo), or watching a television show in black & white (vs. color).  We lose critical dimension that tells us a lot more about what we're observing. 

In the most recent incident of this bifocalization of politics, the narrative has been painted opportunistically by the Republicans that, well, Democrats are back in power... and look at how they spend your tax dollars!  

And Obama and the Democrats fell into the that brand trap so easily and readily, it's almost as if they hadn't been aware of their brand problems regarding spending and taxes over the past, say, 40 years. 

So, predictably, the media "reports" what the Republicans decry, and with no meaningful counter-narrative from the Democrats, the dye has been cast in the media's eyes: Obama's popularity is fading because of how he mishandled the health care reform debate, and that he didn't focus enough on "jobs, jobs, jobs."

But, there is a lot more color around the politics du jour than is being painted.  There are many sources of social noise that simply can't be located when listening to politics in mono. 

What is really at issue here is a trend that has been tragically under-reported:  the economic shift that started in the early 1990s and continues at a rapid pace today:  the globalization of the economy.

"Outsourcing" has been the evil mask we're affixed to this overarching dynamic.  The populist media found an easy, comprehensible target and flooded our national narrative with outsourcing as the evil face of globalization.

Yet the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries is merely one facet of globalization's impact.  The more systemic and troubling development (at least, for America) is that with capitalism, markets tend to become more efficient, and find equilibrium.   And as we continue to embark on global capitalistic endeavors and trade deals, America's disproportionate high standard of living is rubbing up directly against standards of living that, on average, are far, far lower almost anywhere else in the world.

The result?  In an open, transparent market, America's standard of living is guaranteed to be reduced in the face of open competition from lower standard of living regions and countries.   We as Americans -- especially the politically potent of us -- are hooked on affluence.  We believe as a culture (many religiously) that we are destined and chosen to live more secure, happier, plush lifestyles simply because we are American.  

But since the early 1990's, reality is creeping up on us.  Our global economic and moral hegemony is on the decline, and all we can really do is just hang on and try to delay the slide for as long as possible.

Which is why we have become so gosh-darned conservative and economically imbalanced over the years.  Avoiding an uncertain and unflattering future is a conservative stance.  And while most people would never articulate their fears and concerns the way I just did, I believe that people intuitively understand what's going on.  But what they are doing politically is the equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and screaming "la la la la la!" so as not to address these issues head-on.  Because no matter what we do, the issues are going to reduce our standard of living for a long time -- and possibly permanently.

The irony is that a decline in our aggregate lifestyle will be the best thing that ever happened to this country.  Our country has become a singularly-focused culture on wealth, wealth creation and wealth protection.  This is quite unhealthy socially, and we are seeing the results of this social obesity throughout our system.  People are much richer, yet much less happy.  People have less time to enjoy life.  Parents have less time to raise their children.  Americans are becoming historically obese and overweight.  Our culture of convenience has made us generally more lazy, and less fulfilled.  And it can't existentially or morally be fulfilling when the affluent feel increasingly victimized by taxation as they turn a blind eye toward the plight of the poor and working class. 

Nevertheless, nobody wants to slide toward less affluence, less protection and less economic freedom.  Yet that is where we're heading.  And it's because of this macro-social-economic trend that President Obama is having a difficult time running the country.  Wall Street, realtors, small and large businesses alike are all on the lookout and grasping for the next scheme they can latch onto on the way down the economic slide -- any scheme that will prop them up long enough so that they can cash out and surf the decline in relative style. 

You can't really blame these people and institutions for trying to scour the system for a few last-minute jackpots.  It's the natural thing to do.  And you can't really blame our political leaders for not being honest with us about the situation at hand (who would win on that platform?).   But I'd argue you can blame the media for not making this the narrative that we all need to discuss and chew on as a culture.  At length.  Only after mainstream America understands and comes to grips with the future will we have the fortitude to look for political leaders who will need to deal with the future as it's going to be -- not sell us a lie about our future.

I want to point out that I am not being a pessimist.  I believe very strongly in the power and capability of Americans to innovate and create new, unprecedented value in the global marketplace.  And I believe that our military might will keep the country quite relevant on the global stage.   But our ability to innovate and create new economic value has very little to do with the global lifestyle equilibrium being so out of whack for so long.  With global trade, the equilibrium will inevitably slowly converge, with developing countries trending up toward average, and America trending down toward average. 

This trajectory will be very good for the people in the world.  More people will be lifted out of poverty as a result.  We are embarking on a historic transfer of wealth from America and The West to developing markets. And it's happening through the free markets and increasing trade -- not some socialist agenda.