Uncertain America 

This post by Kevin Drum got me thinking. Drum writes:

I should confess here that I'm not a big fan of public employee unions. On my own personal scale of sympathy, I strongly support private sector service unions, I moderately support private sector industrial unions, and I only barely support public sector unions. So no one should expect me to go to the mattresses for public sector benefits. Still, Jon is right: one of the favorite tactics of conservatives is to set the middle class at war with itself. It's sort of the mirror image of corporate compensation committees, which keep CEO pay forever rising because no one wants their CEO to be paid less than average. With middle-income workers, by contrast, the CEO class exploits jealousy toward better compensated unionized workers in order to ratchet things down. The grocery clerks don't want to accept an insurance copay? Well, I have an insurance copay, so why shouldn't they? The truckers don't want to switch their pensions to a 401(k)? Well, I have a 401(k), so why shouldn't they? Etc., etc., ever more disheartening etc.


So now it's going to be a war of taxpayers against unionized public employees. It won't be hard, especially in lousy economic times, to convince envious clerks and factory workers that these guys need to be brought down a peg or two. It's just human nature. But wouldn't it be better if all these envious clerks and factory workers were instead asking why their pay and benefits haven't kept up with overall economic growth — which, after all, is all that public sector workers have accomplished? I don't know what the future of unions is in America, but for now they're really the only ones who are asking that question and putting some muscle behind it. Until someone else starts doing a better job of it, we still need them.

I’m sympathetic to all of this. In many ways, the America of 2010 is an America of uncertainty. We don’t have universal healthcare and generally if you lose your job you lose your health insurance as well. The new Affordable Care Act doesn’t really address this in the way that it should – in a way that could help put a salve on this particular uncertainty. And unemployment is at record highs. Nothing is guaranteed.

If you do have a 401(k) you were witness to its fragility in the face of a recession. It’s very rational to question the future value of that investment. It’s also perfectly rational to question the sustainability of programs like Medicare and Social Security, or with good old fashioned American stand-bys like home ownership. Everything, it seems, is in flux. Nothing is certain.

The only thing the middle class can really count on is that they’ll be working longer before retirement; that in order for a family to compete they’ll need to have two incomes; and that the cost of college will be more prohibitive than ever once its time to pay for their kids to attend.

Sure, the cost of goods and services have come down in many ways. Food and entertainment is cheaper than ever. The internet makes us all a little more connected, a little more powerful. There’s a good deal of really good progress that has been made on many fronts.

But something is missing. Our future still feels foggy. That great middle class dream of a home, a family, a brighter future – these are not necessarily real anymore. The white picket fence has begun to decay. An asterisk of uncertainty is looming over all of us, and I’m really not sure what’s to be done about it. Unrealistic pensions aren’t the answer, but a world of cheap goods and unaffordable retirements is not the America we had in mind. I think we can do better.

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