Everything Old Is New Again

A few weeks ago, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote the following:

The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.

Parents now fear something has stopped … they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes–too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it–will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up. And then there is the world: nuts with nukes, etc.

Optimists think that if we manage to turn a few things around, their kids may have it … almost as good. The country they inherit may be … almost as good. And it’s kind of a shock to think like this; pessimism isn’t in our DNA. But it isn’t pessimism, really, it’s a kind of tough knowingness, combined, in most cases, with a daily, personal commitment to keep plugging.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal also published this piece by Mort Zuckerman:

Our brief national encounter with optimism is now well and truly over. We have had the greatest fiscal and monetary stimulus in modern times. We have had a whole series of programs to pay people to buy cars, purchase homes, pay off their mortgages, weatherize their homes, and install solar paneling on their roofs. Yet the recovery remains feeble and the aftershocks of the post-bubble credit collapse are ongoing.

Are we at the end of the post-World War II period of growth? Tons of money have been shoveled in to rescue reckless banks and fill the huge hole in the economy, but nothing is working the way it normally had in all our previous crises.

Rather, we are in what a number of economists are referring to as the “new normal.” This is a much slower-growing economy that, recent surveys have revealed, is causing many Americans to distance themselves from the long-held assumption that their children will have it better than they.

Is disparity, rather than prosperity, really the “New Normal”? Or is there something else? Hot Air’s “Doctor Zero” posits an interesting theory:

The New Abnormal is becoming a big part of the Democrats’ pre-election spin. Americans are supposed to accept their reduced standard of living and shrunken economy. They should lift their watery eyes in gratitude to the noble Democrat Party, which won’t let any semblance of fiscal responsibility stop them from looting the future to provide endless unemployment benefits. The entire concept of unemployment has become a welfare hammock, with people like Biden essentially telling the jobless that a substantial number of them (eight million!) can expect to spend the rest of their lives that way.

I don’t think the “New Normal” is new at all. Rather, it is very reminiscent of 1979 – 1980. Although I was young, I remember those days very well. I remember the national mood, the somber discontent that became characterized as “malaise”. We had double-digit unemployment, inflation, and borrower’s interest rates; the media began regularly reporting something they called the misery index. Pundits were telling us that we had danced through the 1950’s and 1960’s as the world’s preeminent superpower, and now we had to pay the fiddler for all the wars and needless suffering that we had caused.

The economy was wrecked, but not because the “best and brightest” hadn’t tried one theoretical solution after another. They couldn’t control runaway inflation and interest rates and half-mile long lines at gas stations with regulation, price controls, and rationing, so we were left with the assumption that those things simply couldn’t be fixed. State-run economies seemed to be doing just fine; perhaps it was capitalism itself, driven by greed, that was really the problem. Whatever the reason, pundits agreed that the post-WWII good life was over, and we had better start getting used to it.

Of course there are other comparisons we could make between today’s economy and past perilous economic times; for example I think there is a valid comparison between Barack Obama’s effete intellectualism, prickly personality, and economic policies that prioritized the shoring-up of unions, big business, banks, and other special political interests with billions in government aid, and the nearly identical personality traits and economic policies of … Herbert Hoover.

But for me, the “malaise” comparison is particularly strong. Why? Because the malaise of 1979 – 1980 brought a man named Ronald Reagan to the forefront of American politics. Due to a combination intellectual aloofness and emotional attachment to their accomplishments, the ruling class and pundits of 1979 could not envision an America that was different from the one that their policy initiatives had ultimately shaped. In fact, they seemed to be telling us that we should actually be thanking them for keeping things from being even worse. No one imagined that in a mere five years interest rates would be cut in half, inflation would be tamed, the economy would post a 7% annual growth rate, and the Soviet Union would start showing outward signs of an impending implosion. No one that is, except Ronald Reagan.

Reagan imagined a strikingly different America, and he had the ability to convey his vision of America as a shining city on a hill to the American public at large. Reagan’s economic and foreign policies, combined with his political savvy, certainly contributed to America’s great recovery during the 1980’s. But it was his optimism and belief in the greatness of America and its people — not the greatness of himself or the ruling class or the Federal government — that created the sense of confidence and hopefulness that made the recovery really happen.

I am optimistic that there will be another Great Recovery. I realize that the barriers are bigger (the financial and regulatory burden of ObamaCare alone indeed looks almost insurmountable) but I still believe in the can-do spirit of the American people. What we need is a great leader who believes in that spirit as well.

I hope we find one in time.

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