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Better Off Than in 2008?

Good numbers and the truths they hide about America’s divided soul

The Dow Jones Industrial Average stock market index is up over 12,000 points, compared to 2008 when it fell to 8,000. Real, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product is up, even here in the slow-growth Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area, where the 2008 number was $42 billion but the 2012 number is over $45 billion. Employment has rebounded: According to the New York State Department of Labor, there were 7.3 million private-sector workers in 2008 before the crash of Lehman Brothers in September of that year sent the global economy into a two-year tailspin that was even worse than the recession of the first two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Today, according to a press release issued earlier this week, there are 7.3 million private-sector workers in New York State. More than 330,000 new jobs were created in New York State last year.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney may be better at numbers than his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, the trust-fund kid who never mentions that it was Social Security survivor benefits, and the family wealth from public-funded road construction, that put him through private college. Ryan, after all, can’t distinguish between being an exceptional athlete who can run a marathon race in under three hours and being a pretty damned good recreational runner who once ran a marathon in under four hours. He got confused about the difference between three and four.

He also can’t distinguish between a plan to reorganize Medicare such that $716 billion in program savings are reinvested in patient care, as is the case in “Obamacare,” and his own plan to cut $716 million outright from Medicare. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office does not weigh in on the merits of claims about who did what in a 26.2-mile footrace, but the CBO did score the Ryan budget plan and the version of the Obama budget that was passed by Congress, and found that Ryan’s plan would increase the federal deficit massively over the next decade, and also that the deficit-swelling effect would be worse, much worse, were it coupled with Ryan’s proposals on Medicare.

Clever writers like Dave Roberts, who coined the phrase “post-truth politics,” and the estimable Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine, keep doing the reading public big favors by dissecting the fabulations and outright lies that the Republican campaign is repeating in political ads made possible by the unprecedentedly large sums of money at their disposal. The truth is scarce, but as the neuroscientists cited in Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain: the science of why they deny science – and reality, the truth is really not an effective rebuttal to this messaging. The reason Democrats may lose the White House and the US Senate in 2012, as they lost the House in 1994 and again in 2010, is because Democratic consultants generally take the approach of fact-citing lawyers, not of story-telling marketeers. Lawyers argue facts. Marketing pros press emotional buttons, using images, body language, and sometimes direct and sometimes oblique references to psychologically powerful themes.

Do you feel lucky?

Democrats explain, Republicans evoke. When Clint Eastwood got the Republican crowd going in Tampa with his call-and-response performance of the notorious “Make my day” sequence from Dirty Harry, everybody who had ever seen that movie instantly had their memories of that scene replaying in their minds’ eyes, thus: White guy with .357 Magnum stands over the downed black perp. The first part of Eastman’s performance was Obama as Richard Wright’s Invisible Man. The next part was 1970s vigilantism. Could it be any more heinous? Democratic politicos just aren’t as good at harnessing the anger and resentment of the wounded, because Democrats aren’t as willing to go to war with Caucasians as Republicans are with anybody with more melanin than me.

But, at the risk of losing Republican attention, let us restate the facts: Unemployment is down, employment is up, and notwithstanding the refusal of the Republican House of Representative to support Obama’s initiatives, private-sector employment is back to where it was before the calamity of September 2008. Can all the new college graduates be absorbed? No. Are far fewer re-employed workers covered by health insurance than before? Yes, which is why Obamacare is good news for low-income workers. And though Obama now campaigns against Romney’s blame of public workers, public-sector employment is down significantly, about 10 percent below a 2008 peak of almost 1.6 million in New York State, and hundreds of thousands of jobs short nationwide.

So while Republicans hammer away at the electorate’s consciousness by claiming that the economic recovery from 2008 has been disastrously anemic, inadequate, and evidence of Obama’s insufficient expertise and experience in the private sector, it is actually the private sector that is doing much better than it was, while government employment has fallen. Sharply. So sharply that were public jobs back to where they were, unemployment would be at pre-2008 levels.

The truth lurking in the numbers is that we are being governed in an environment of austerity, and that we never have been very close to achieving a progressive agenda. That’s because Obama had a Senate and House majority for only about the three months before Ted Kennedy died, and no House to work with since January, 2011.

Structurally stuck in a suburbanized economy

Another way to put it is that the structural challenges that many on the Left hoped for—a vigorous alternative energy policy, an assault on the status-quo norm of sprawl development, a repatriation of manufacturing, some restraint on fossil fuel development, and serious mitigation of, and maybe even reversal of, the trend toward low-wage employment for the worst-off workers—has instead faced a reality of no change in sprawl, income polarization, the spatial isolation of the poor, reliance on fossil fuels, or any of the other issues except, briefly, alternative energy development. It’s not only that the post-2011 Congress thwarted Obama’s progressivity on energy, income stimulation through public works, urban policy, and of course on tax policy. It’s also true that Obama’s own team has vigorously pursued oil while leaving Wall Street undisturbed, sprawl unchallenged, and the Republican predilection toward assaulting public sector workers not with a rebuttal, but with an ally.

But it could be worse, much worse. And if Romney is elected, it will get worse: an anti-science agenda, an economic policy that will consist of capital-friendly tax changes that further injure what is left of the pockmarked progressivity of the current tax code, and all-out war on the alternative fuels industry in favor of very aggressive stimulation, through tax expenditures, of the petroleum industry, which already enjoys heavy subsidy.

One is left to wonder whether progressives will ever be able to be as competent in campaigning as Republicans are. The Obama calculus for adding up electoral seems to be resilient, but the Democratic Party’s ability to deliver a Congressional majority is not in doubt: Nobody who counts noses thinks it will happen in 2012.

That’s because the urban-suburban split was amplified in the post-2010 reapportionment process. In the westernmost part of New York State, Brian Higgins got a much more Democratic and urban district, while Kathy Hochul lost near-in suburban areas and gained exurban and rural territory. Higgins won’t be credibly challenged by a Republican; it is a testament to Hochul’s political skills, and to her challenger’s negatives, that she hasn’t already been written off as a sure loser. But even if Hochul should prevail through an aggressive advocacy of pro-middle-class tax, entitlement, and healthcare policies, that urban-suburban divide will continue to inflict damage on the regional economy.

Here’s how: by making low- and moderate-priced labor unable to physically get to work; by keeping regional utility prices and property-tax costs much higher than they should be due to the added, avoidable expense of having too many miles of transmission lines, sewer lines, water lines and roads for the relatively small population; and by the perpetual wastefulness of sprawl development that adds ever-greater numbers of “market-price” housing and commercial real estate to an already over-retailed and over-housed regional market. Add to those simple numbers the moral hazard of developer-driven subsidies and you get what we have: an engine that continues to eviscerate the urban core, empty strip malls in the older suburbs, make zombies of very recently filled storefronts, and sustain a political dynamic that serves only bankers.

Suburban America serves the Republican narrative, as does abandoned, distressed urban America. At the moment, the Democratic narrative of economic self-interest, based on facts, seems a reasonable pathway to victory. But these are not reasonable times.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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