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All experience is relative. And so before I expound upon my experiences yesterday attending a forum on American economic insecurity featuring Ezra Klein, I ought to qualify my assessment by briefly listing what I imagine to be the three most significant recent events I believe to have possibly consciously and unconsciously colored my perception of reality throughout the duration of the panel:
1. The climate of the New America Foundation conference room relative to that in which I lost circulation in all but one of my fingers directly prior to the panel’s commencement while waiting to use the ATM machine.
2. The consensus views and philosophical stances of the panelists and attendees relative to those at the Atlantic Ideas conference, whose response to a sternly disapproving remark of Michael Bloomberg‘s about the disgraceful 40 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes consisted of clapping and cheering.
3. The equanimity with which I may have been cognitively biased to experience such an occasion relative to that with which I might have greeted it before my sister over the weekend bequeathed to me her bottle of hydrocodone cough syrup. (Because I have a horrible cold, not because I like purple drank.)
Anyway, the panel was convened to announce the results of the Survey of Economic Risk Perceptions and Insecurity (SERPI), a two-part survey completed by 2,084 of 3,657 randomly selected eligible adults and weighted to produce nationally representative results whose responses, according to the first page of the handsome 32-page booklet summarizing its findings, confirmed the findings of the Economic Security Index (ESI), an initiative developed by political scientist Jacob Hacker and guided by a technical committee retained by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of its Campaign for American Workers initiative and comprised of seven leading experts on economic insecurity whose names and affiliations were helpfully listed on the front inside cover.
The summary can be summarized as follows: The majority of Americans are economically fucked, and it is only via wholesale disassociation with reality that they seem to get through the day. You don’t really learn much from splitting the pie into quintiles depending on their income, race and/or level of educational attainment or by measuring the variances among respondents’ relative perceptions of their risks of vulnerability to the eleven most commonly feared economic shocks affecting the four domains of economic life, unless of course you find something illuminating about such revelations as, “It turns out that that capacity to draw upon one’s social networks for financial support is important with regards to one’s capacity to buffer in times of economic distress” (a sample quote I typed down from whoever was leading the accompanying PowerPoint presentation to keep from falling asleep) or “Economic Shocks Are Associated with Unmet Needs” (from the booklet).
Perusing the “Standing on Shaky Ground” booklet, the only revelation that struck me as surprising was that only 22 percent of respondents who had been laid off in the past six months and 33 percent of respondents who had been laid off twice in the past 18 months reported being “very anxious” or “extremely anxious” about their employment futures, whereas another bar graph reported that about 40 percent of all respondents said they were either “fairly worried” or “extremely worried” about losing their jobs. This disparity was puzzling. Is “anxious” really so different from “worried” for these purposes? Did the populace simply think of “anxiety” as a condition you only had if a doctor had recently written you an anti-anxiety medication prescription you couldn’t afford to fill? Maybe “anxiety” was a luxury people with multiple job losses under their belts simply couldn’t afford.
(At night after the hydrocodone wore off, I decided the survey takers had just asked respondents whether they were “anxious” early on in the survey and saved the question about whether they were “worried” for close to the end, after they had cross-examined respondents as to their perceptions of their risk levels with regard to each of the eleven varieties of economic shocks. At which point, if you hadn’t said, “Hey kid, here’s an idea, why don’t you call me back when you can send me a T-shirt with the words ‘My car broke down, my iPhone got stolen and I bailed my cousin out of jail last month and all I got was this fucking Brookings Institute intern politely informing me that I don’t qualify for any of the eleven official varieties of economic shocks’ printed on the front?” and hung up the phone, there was no way you weren’t at least fairly worried.)
After the PowerPoint presentation, there was a panel to discuss it, during which the only thing said with which I disagreed was that its findings were “groundbreaking.” (I think James Fallows of The Atlantic, who also noted that he’d broken his “one blurb per author per lifetime rule” to blurb two of Hacker’s books, was responsible for this characterization.) The political system was hearing none of it, all agreed. Instead, a bipartisan coalition of politicians had sought all year to slash social programs, decimate Social Security, dismantle health care reform, and render the worried and anxious and insecure masses all the more vulnerable to economic insecurities. “We’re not living in an alternate universe here,” someone said. Somewhere along the way, democracy had majorly malfunctioned. “There’s no evidence in anything you’ve presented that these problems are caused by too much government spending,” said a woman who identified herself as a primary care physician. “And yet that’s the idea that seems to be driving our elections!”
The problem wasn’t so much with the government as with the political system, Ezra Klein pointed out. “The capacity of the political system to respond to new challenges which appears to me to be somewhat deteriorated.” But, he added, the “lived experiences” of those within the system might also have contributed to Washington’s inability to grasp the magnitude of those challenges. Washingtonians, he pointed out, hadn’t experienced much of a recession. And there were other ways Washingtonians differ from the rest of Americans: for instance, in Washington, raising the retirement age is a more popular policy proposal than it is elsewhere in America. “A lot of people in my line of work, you’ll have to carry out of our jobs on a stretcher,” he joked, perhaps alluding to my recent call for Klein to retire.
This notion that Washingtonians were somehow constitutionally too industrious, too infatuated with their vocations, to truly grasp the reality of flyover America, struck me as fairly but not extremely obnoxious, since it was probably relatively true. What was more irksome was the sense that if not for the ubiquitous BlackBerries and the presence of the 26-year-old Klein, it might have been 1996. There was an obligatory defeatism about the whole thing that reminded me of something I attended that year on the eve of the passage of welfare reform. Why were good lefties still so fixated on the plight of the less fortunate, when it was so much more fun and efficient to focus one’s sights on that of the top 1 percent who haven’t suffered, who continue to reap the spoils of others’ misfortunes, whom our economic policies have rewarded so handsomely for destroying the economy, etc., etc., etc.?
I asked this question, and was testily accused of “making a statement, not a question.” This was annoying, not so much because my question (while rhetorical) had actually been phrased as a question, but because it’s not like anyone at that point was pretending to offer any answers.