Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Economy: More Fragile Than it Seems?

Fragile in what sense? After all, some believe the economy is quite strong. Except there's this: Many activities that citizens once actively engaged in, are gradually being reserved for a relative few in society. For those who lack money or social positioning, it's becoming difficult to make a real difference in the world, or even to get things done which were once considered quite ordinary.

Today's money/status approach to economic activity, also suggests that millions could lose the ability to fully participate in the left behind regions of today's advanced economies. For that matter, much of the near future work in these regions is composed of low paid services. The fact these jobs can't fully support existing community infrastructure and its associated costs, doubtless has bearing on the unsettled political landscape of our time.

This past week left little breathing space between outbreaks of violence, which included domestic terrorism as well. The Squirrel Hill massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and the pipe bomber incident, are only the latest reminders of a world which feels unexpectedly - and inexplicably - fragile.

Might we have entered a state of prolonged, if not completely acknowledged grief? How much do the structural economic changes of our time affect this state of affairs? Are economists in denial about their contributions to the apparent zero sum struggles of our time?  How can anyone miss the fact there is no longer room for many would be participants in today's world? How can economists believe their discipline is crucial for economic prosperity, while taking refuge in cultural and sociological hand waving and dismissing out of hand the connections between economic and political circumstance?

Meanwhile we continue to lose our positive social connections. This, even as some economists stress economic conditions of recent centuries which helped build these connections, as if that were sufficient to negate the present dilemma. How long have we already mourned what is being lost now? Only recall a descriptive five stages of grief model, and what it suggests about this reality. While these stages don't assume a linear nature or occur in all instances, the processes of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, can still be understood in an economic framing.

Where we observe these responses, depends in part on how societal roles are internally and externally perceived. Clearly, the anger element is most obvious, not only in the media but also in our daily surroundings. Recently I was reminded of the fear based anger I suffered during the Great Recession, when I overheard a conversation in a nearby discount store. Indeed, this individual felt the need to repeatedly explain to his friend what had occurred, before he finally calmed down. The story? He had been certain of acquiring a good job with benefits, only to lose the job to someone else. The struggle over today's imposed zero sum circumstance, was highlighted by the fact neither job applicant was white (one black, the other Mexican). Was there "favoritism" toward the one who might not have been in the country legally? In any event, this became the story teller's rationale for his loss.

Whether or not his story was honest, this individual had the good fortune to meet up with a friend who was willing to lend him (again) a couple hundred dollars till he succeeded in his job search. Admittedly I'm glad that bout of fear induced frustration was peacefully resolved, since for a moment or two I wasn't sure about my safety on the next aisle. That's one thing about anger which stems from abject fear: It's not easy for others to immediately discern whether we might also "act out" on our frustration.

What about aspects of grief other than anger? While denial can be attributed to economists who did not see the Great Recession as a time to closely review ongoing strategies or explanations, they certainly aren't alone. Possibly the greatest denial thus far, is the fact many near future jobs aren't going to carry the extensive economic benefits of the recent past. Unfortunately, we may not be able to successfully navigate this new era of wage limits with the monetary requirements of aging infrastructure maintenance, not to mention the services cost burdens of our retirement years. If we aren't able to productively respond and soon, the problems of our uneasy political climate will only get worse.

Depression is quite different from anger, in part because it makes us want to isolate ourselves from the world, so as to hide what we suffer. That's why it can so difficult to make plausible estimates of depression, whereas anger prompts an almost opposite response of wanting the world to be fully aware of our grievances. It's easy to imagine anger can somehow be reduced by acting out or - at the very least - verbalizing how one feels. On the other hand, depression simply contributes to the social isolation which has become so prevalent in recent decades.

So who tends the bargaining role, in all this? For all its seeming implausibility, the slogan "Make America Great Again" was an attempt to address real societal losses that had basically gone unnoticed. Inexplicably, many economic processes end up as government responsibilities when they aren't productively addressed by private enterprise. And if private industry creates enough zero sum wealth capture, eventually people end up with zero sum realities. No wonder government "bargaining" feels so regressive, since it includes the same mercantilism Adam Smith argued against, centuries earlier. Had there been a well reasoned response to the Great Recession, when citizens and economists were still engaged in what could have been productive dialogue, perhaps we wouldn't be stuck now with rhetoric better suited to earlier economic circumstance quite different from our own.

Alas there will be no acceptance of what's at stake in this economic dilemma, if we can't successfully get past denial. Yes, it's a fragile world. But that doesn't mean we have to give up hope.

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