Americans have long been pretty discontented about the direction of the country. In my lifetime, only two periods – the mid to late 1980’s and the mid to late 1990’s – show a strong and rising confidence in the overall direction of the country. In other periods, Americans have oscillated between uncertainty and downright despair. When Gallup asks people is they are generally satisfied or dissatisfied with the direction of the country, the last time a majority said they were satisfied was in December 2003, and that was one of a number of “war blips.” During the entire Obama presidency, the high water mark of satisfaction came in August 2009 (36%) – at least things were better than October 2008, at 7% satisfied! However, the Obama years did not witness the recovery of confidence that marked the presidency of Reagan and Clinton – satisfaction numbers nearing 70% late in the terms of both men. By contrast, the latest poll, in August, shows only 27% satisfied.
There is surely not one explanation for this long-term dissatisfaction. It seems reasonable to think the insurgent candidacy of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are fueled by many who are dissatisfied, but perhaps for very different reasons. Strong and conflicting dissatisfactions surely makes politics harder and more polarized.
But certainly an aspect of this dissatisfaction has to do with the standard one uses for comparison. And in many ways, all groups tend to use postwar America as their benchmark. If Trumpers want to “make American great again,” Sanders voters were really seeking to “make America the Great Society again.” Economically, Left and Right are increasingly (and in increasingly polarized ways) grasping after policies and attitudes that recovery the broad, expansionary age of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
And this is wrong and dangerous. Setting aside the environmental impossibilities of returning to that age, the reality is that there is simply no way to achieve the kind of economic growth that happened in that period (and to a significant extent, before that period). The “big book” of the season in economic circles – one writer compares it to Piketty – is Robert Gordon’s massive study of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. The sobering reality Gordon finds is that the growth of the century from 1870 to 1970 was fueled by a set of “one-time-only” leaps in productivity that made possible the broad increases in the standard of living that happened in that period. Formulas to “recover” that growth rate have repeatedly failed to yield the kind of sustained gains, because the gains aren’t primarily a matter of different macroeconomic policy but of innovations that made workers vastly more productive. Those gains are largely behind us; gains may still be had, but they are likely to be incremental. The message is not no growth, but slow growth.
This is why the political imagination of the “great America” is wrong. It’s dangerous because of what economist Fred Hirsch noted four decades ago: it sets up continued expectations for material progress that can never be realized. And that expectation gap leads to dissatisfaction, which then leads to the seemingly inevitable blame game, which is almost always oversimplified and spun for partisan advantage.
But this doesn’t have to be bad news, if we are able to adjust our expectation in two ways. And these two ways are, happily enough, central to Catholic social teaching. First, the limits to economic growth are only a problem if we continue to measure our lives, individually and collectively, in terms of increasing material standards of living. This is a mistaken measure, from Catholic perspective, one Fr. John Ryan dubbed “The higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” This is why the disposition to luxury is a genuine social problem under our circumstances. We can and should continue to make progress as a society, but we have to stop thinking of progress primarily in terms of material progress.
Second, the inability to rely on growth means we must turn to forms of sharing if we are to practice solidarity. Too often, “sharing” gets immediately translated into redistribution, but this shows the poverty of our economic imaginations. We need to conceive of economic sharing in much more expansive and interesting ways, ones more akin to Pope Benedict’s “quotas of gratuitousness.” Sure, the Buffett rule for billionaires is a good idea, but levying taxes on the 1% can’t get us anywhere near addressing the economic problems so many still encounter in an economy where there is more than enough. And (this is the big Sanders illusion) no one will get elected who proposes more taxes on people making $100,000 a year. What we need are humane economic systems of exchange to get those folks to share reasonably in the course of their daily lives. We also need families and communities where there is trust and stability, which facilitate a not-insignificant amount of sharing. And there’s plenty more.
It should be added that, in an election season dominated by daily gotcha news instead of policy discussion, the presidential candidates are night and day on this. According to the fiscal hawks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Clinton pays for every single proposal she makes, adding very little to the deficit over ten years. Donald Trump pays for nothing, and explodes the deficit. There is not even a pretense of fiscal probity. This isn’t surprising, given that Trump has always been about peddling fiscal fantasies of massive wealth without much work. It’s the core of who he is.
Let’s not make America great again. Let’s make America greater – by better learning collectively the virtues our parents taught us: to restrain ourselves and share with others.