'People Are Close to Revolt': Views From Afar

Three days ago -- just before the Republican debate in California and then the President's speech on jobs, jobs, jobs -- I quoted Congressional staffers on the increasing, cynical destruction of the legislative process, and a librarian from the Midwest who said that because of economic insecurity "people are close to revolt." Several messages in response to those items, with emphasis added.

First, from an American in Europe:

>>I've been living in Germany for a few years now, and every year the idea of ever returning to the US grows more and more distasteful. The (metaphorical) air in the US grows ever more caustic, the desperation more palpable, the citizenry increasingly turns on itself.

I'm young, highly educated, and can live anywhere - I found Berlin to be an easy place to adjust to, and while Germany certainly has its serious problems, it is nevertheless free of America's caustic, suffocating atmosphere. Last month, some friends from the US came to visit me. To a man, they all said the same thing, that I was right to have left the country, and that they're very seriously thinking of doing the same. I don't think it was idle chatter.

As the US feels more and more like a failing state, I think this phenomenon - an exodus of the most educated and employable - will rise and become difficult to ignore.<<

Having spent several extended periods of my adult life outside the U.S., I have thoughts on this point -- but that will be after the jump, and after a few other messages.

From another reader in the Midwest, about the plight of the well-meaning small business owner:

>>While I do talk to people with much the same narrative as your university librarian (we live in a college town, I work at a nearby branch of the state university), I'd note that I could sit here and type out similar narratives of frustration and despair, but from people who are almost by definition semantically excluded from those categories. 

They're people I work with in church and Scouts and neighborhood activities who own and run businesses of three to thirty some fulltime employees, and they talk about how hard it has become to have fulltime employees, to manage their businesses, and to navigate local, state, and federal regulation.  Any entrepreneur over 25 talks constantly about the upsweep of the curve, and in my opinion, especially the three or four I know most personally, how challenged they are by the whole health insurance situation along with all that.

My sense is that they WANT to do right by their employees, and they want to be above, but not ridiculously above, the average wage rate for our area, but the gamesmanship of finding a plan for their twelve or twenty employees is sucking huge amounts of their time, and only to end up paying dramatically more for what they then have to tell their employees is less coverage, both in their contributions and co-pays, and in what gets covered.  I am president of a non-profit with twenty to thirty employees over these last eight years I've been in the saddle, and every two years we go thru exactly that, so I know what they're talking about.

I try to present the upside of a basic single payer national health policy, and removing health care insurability from employment status, and they're intrigued and attracted, but ultimately, fearful of a health care bureaucracy that echoes what they already deal with in employment and workplace issues, and so turn away . . . and are easily lured to the simplistic rants of Tea Party "starve the beast" anti-Obama voices.

That said, I do think there's a progressive/moderate case to be made that government is getting too intrusive into daily life (just got back from a parent meeting where we were told, due to federal regulations, that no bake sales can happen at school for any reason, period -- there's one fine example right in front of me), and yet is not as responsive as it should be when it ought: if I may mention your competition, this web article has gotten much play among the folks I'm talking about .

So there's a "mood of revolt" among those who have not, and I am both concerned by and sympathetic to the reasons why that is, but I think there should be a fair presentation of the "mood of resistance" that is out there among those who could be hiring, but are saying "yes, I have an extra $50,000 in the budget, but if I hire someone and it costs me $75,000, it could bring down half the company, so NO."

I hope that view from Ohio is useful to you.<<

From a reader who is moving from Europe to the United States:

>>I was struck by the quote you brought about people being close to revolt. Considering the recent riots in Britain, this is a serious concern, and all the more noteworthy since your reader claims to have the moral support of her conservative colleagues.

This makes me wonder if some conservatives are starting to feel that the effects of capitalism are less conducive to a conservative lifestyle than traditional American ideology would have us believe. Indeed, a recent essay in the BBC News Magazine made the point that modern capitalism is, in fact, threatening the traditionally "conservative" middle-class life with its focus on self-reliance, saving for a rainy day, buying a house, and settling down. The "creative destruction" of capitalism can destroy in a matter of months what you have carefully built up over decades.

Personally, I am looking for a job after recently moving back to the US with my American wife, and although I have saved carefully and never spent more than I have earned, I now find myself pinched  by the cost of moving across the Atlantic and the fact that yet another round of stock market turmoil has shaved yet another 25 percent of my savings - the savings that were supposed to support us while we were settling back in the United States. We have planned and saved for this moment, but the "creative destruction" has destroyed our plans while there is, as yet, little sight of it creating any new alternatives. Will people perhaps one day realize that destruction can also be destructive?

To return to the question of revolt, it is hardly surprising that there was a fair number of "conservatives", who attributed the recent riots in Britain not to the frustration and uncertainty brought on by the workings of modern day markets, but to the relative security of modern welfare states! To free-market fundamentalists, uncertainty and insecurity are good. Insecurity keeps people competitive and productive; too much security makes them lazy and complacent. Particularly since the collapse of socialism in Europe, the free-market argument has more or less consistently won any argument, so that in the past decade even early childhood and primary education has been drawn into the logic of competitiveness. The highest levels of educational leadership have been taken over by the managerial class groomed in the world of business, and in their worldview insecurity is good, so let us find some teachers to fire - oh, and death to the unions, death to tenure, death to job security, etc., etc., etc. All in the name of competitiveness....

But perhaps the letters from your Midwestern reader is a sign that people have had enough of being creatively destroyed and are starting to get angry, really angry. In a country with such a widespread availability of firearms, this could get very ugly indeed!  But if a riot or some sort of revolt is really brewing, let us at least hope that the people in Washington will come to their senses and act to improve the lives of ordinary people before it actually breaks out. There is some hope to take from American history. The New Deal was partly inspired by unrest and the fear of a revult in rural America, Social Security was a response to the unrest among industrial workers, and the GI Bill which did so much for the prosperity of post-WWII America was put in place partly to ensure that there would be no new Bonus Army.

Having reported so extensively from outside the United States, you would probably be in an ideal position to inform readers that it is possible to combine the benefits of a free-market economy with high levels of social security, and maintain a competitive economy with high levels of consumption even with higher taxes. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany even contains a clause requiring the country to have a social free-market economy!<<

And, from a professor in the American South:

>>You wrote: ". . . today's fatalistic exasperation about the basics of self-government -- about whether a rich and still-powerful nation can address its rudimentary and most obvious challenges -- is more than I remember in a long while. "

Yeah. That's because you're not old enough. [JF: I don't hear that a lot!] Neither am I. Neither is anyone else.

My mom (who is old enough for this much) says it reminds her of the 30's. That's probably true economically but not so much socially and politically. To see a historical parallel to today, with economic stratification on a grand scale, government in thrall to bankers first and the wealthy next, a Supreme Court pushing backwards as hard as it can, and a series of major economic dislocations caused by a seemingly intractable boom and bust cycle, you have to go back to the Gilded Age, and the decades leading up to and culminating in the McKinley administration (which, incidentally, Karl Rove has always held up as his icon of what America should be). The Panic of 1873 was known, until the 30's, as the Great Depression, caused by a silver bubble, lasted until 1879 and was followed by the depression of 1882-5 caused by a railroad bubble (and financial panic of 1884 caused by a financial crisis due to overlending), a financial crisis caused by a bunch of bad international loans, and the Panic of 1893, caused by another railroad bubble, and which until the 30's was the worst depression ever.

What grew out of this was the progressive movement. One can only hope for history to repeat itself.<<

On the third writer's point, about Germany: one thing I have learned from seeing the U.S. from outside is that what works in Germany, or Sweden, or Japan, etc, will not necessarily work in the United States. My friend Tom Geoghegan's book about contemporary Europe, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, is a great piece of writing; but we have a different history, culture, and political tradition to work with here. That was the point of the book I wrote after living for several years in Japan, More Like Us -- that we need American ways to accomplish the same goals.

On the other hand, you'd have to be blind, incurious, or uninformed -- flat-out moronic, even -- not to be worried about the trends mentioned in these letters, or not to recognize that some other societies have worked out solutions to problems that now seem impossible for us. I am in Australia right now, a place I admire, enjoy, and visit frequently (for a role at the US Studies Centre in Sydney.). But unlike the first reader quoted above, from Berlin, I am too wholly a creature of American culture to imagine not having that as the base for my identity, concerns, and efforts. More to come on this theme; the point for now is these are times that demand better public efforts than we now seem able to give them.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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