The Shipwrecked Lives of the Great Recession

The disdain that the Amish faithful feel for family members who reject their all-encompassing religious worldview is such that they refuse to dine with them at the same table.

That is exactly how mainstream politics treats those spurned by its decisions. While many speak of a "recovery" from the recession, most people and most places have experienced nothing of the kind. But the affluent remain affluent, and by this debased standard, the meal at the main table is ample, albeit awkward in its silences.

The insular conversation of the main table cannot dwell on the analysts from the nation's preeminent investment bank who wonder whether capitalism is "broken," for instance; nor can it take meaningful notice of the publicly-owned companies that have drifted from mainstream accounting practices and that, should they return to them, profits would evaporate ("Under generally accepted accounting principles, net income at the same 380 companies in 2015 actually declined almost 11 percent from 2014").

Likewise no one cares to admit that there is substantial justification for skepticism of a monthly unemployment rate that does not account for record low labor participation. Once adjusted to standard norms, the unemployment rate is about 10%, typically viewed as enough to doom an election for an incumbent; among communities of special concern--like the young, African-Americans, and women over 50 years of age--the unemployment rate (20-40%) approaches figures usually regarded as grounds for revolution.

Nevertheless, according to the Obama administration and the leading lights of the Democratic Party, the meal at the main table tastes good.

Yet in the midst of celebrated abundance, we read of a 30-year record high suicide rate in the United States, fueled in part by substance use that the perverse incentives of a "war" profits from while driving addicts deeper into despair. In spite of a rising death toll, not a single politician has responded to the call of grieving loved ones to alter the criminalization of addiction and other forms of distress. As rip tides swirl beneath the surface, the powerful see only choppy waters.

It is this pervasive unwillingness to acknowledge discomfiting realities--the banishment to dine at a separate table--that prompts disturbing questions about our political system. As the shipwrecked lives of the Great Recession find refuge in temporary shelter, or drown for the lack of it, they find their troubles do not even register with the rest of us. Their struggles go unnoticed; their perspectives unheard.

While insurgent political campaigns scout the fertile ground of discontent, their most penetrating critiques center on the narrow self-regard of the political establishment itself. This is a particularly stubborn sort of navel-gazing and so far nothing has dislodged it. Bewildered members of corporate media might tentatively revise glib assurances regarding the benefits of trade agreements; they might on occasion be jolted by the observation that two separate panels convened to analyze systemic problems of racism and mistreatment plaguing the Chicago police department "found the same problems 43 years apart." But these and other encounters with the lived experience of Americans are conversational asides, not organizing truths.

Layered in between the profound and most obvious instances of alienation is the more nuanced story of the major institutions of American life, steered by power-brokers who have used the job scarcity of the Great Recession to promote obsequiousness over expertise, and to reward not merit but the ability to control its designation. While hardly a new story, the tendency to waste talent in order to retain and enhance personal networks of control has now become extravagant; a default norm, rather than a tolerated excess.

I will know President Obama is serious about economic recovery for ordinary Americans when he ends his persecution of truth-tellers and acknowledges the damaging distance between what W. Michael Reisman calls the "myth system," an outward script designed to secure legitimacy from the public, and the "operational code," the true protocols governing any given profession. Pragmatically speaking, it's quixotic to hope that the myth system will ever conform to the operational code in every respect--and, I would argue, equally so to hope that legitimacy can be sustained when the two diverge as dramatically as they do now.

Institutional leaders have been greatly empowered by the dearth of good jobs, and in some cases, abetted by the logic and tools of security politics. Whether it is police providing false testimony in a drug trial, or Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lying before Congress, for those embedded in a professional culture, the seemingly binding oaths of the myth system are but one more cloak to hide behind. For establishment insiders, an opportunity to lie is an expression of loyalty to the operational code, and those willing to articulate it in its most difficult setting are embraced as leaders.

In this context, it becomes clear that President Obama's assertion that whistleblowers should pursue their agenda through internal remedies and appropriate channels is, at best, sarcasm. At worst, it is an indirect order for still greater silence and obedience. Talented professionals like Thomas Drake, formerly of the National Security Agency, have done precisely what the President recommends, only to find themselves queuing up for unemployment benefits, or faced with criminal charges. Though ostensibly a process to appeal, internal remedies and established channels actually function to identify those who are aggrieved, screen their evidence, and dispose of them both.

What's most irritating is that this gloomy assessment is not dictated by severity of our challenges. As a historian with more than passing knowledge of darker days, I have never lost faith in this country's ability to surmount what it faces. But I continue question its ability to do so in the hands of an establishment guided by a skewed moral compass, tilted off course not just in terms of the decisions its members make, but also and more importantly, in light of the safeguards and procedural checks they disregard. Rather than view this as smugness or privilege, as others have done, I think of it as the corrosive effects of monopoly and collusion: too few in control of too much, or "elites," if one can use the term without any meritocratic inference, who have persuaded themselves that their work and sacrifice entitles them to disdain the work and sacrifice of others.

The concentration of different sorts of power in less than deserving hands has been the most neglected aspect of the Great Recession and its "recovery." One commonplace reason why Americans lack confidence in the future is because they see who is in charge, and what sort of behavior elicits approval, in the present. If not shipwrecked and under duress, millions of Americans have been given ample reason to entertain grave doubts.

But the meal at the main table tastes good. As the conversation turns to political campaigns not sanctioned by the political establishment, its members darkly intimate of class conflict. Yet the disturbing thing is not that those exiled from privilege have decided to take a head count; it's that, amidst dwindling numbers and the diminishing plausibility of merit, the faithful who cannot bear dissent do not even pause in their unearned privilege to take a head count of their own.

Below is my own idiosyncratic list of institutions damaged by a culture of silence; I haven't formally searched or sought to compile one in a systematic fashion. Since this is from memory and my own impressions, the selection is heavily weighted toward recent news stories. It would be idiotic to assume that the issues besetting these institutions are limited only to those reported in the news media, or that this list is in any way comprehensive.

  • Click here for more on Thomas Drake, William Binney and others at the NSA: "computer expert Thomas Drake thought blowing the whistle on what he considered unconstitutional NSA programs would shake things up there. Instead, what got shaken up was his own life."

  • Washington Metro (WMATA); Issue: Safety "Many employees fear being disciplined or branded as malcontents if they point out flaws. The problem, which Wiedefeld hopes to rectify, has a corrosive impact on subway safety and service."
  • Environmental Protection Agency; Issue: Flint Lead Crisis "people trying to do the right thing are constantly being subjected to intense scrutiny as if we were doing something wrong," he wrote...It's all of this 'don't find anything bad' crap at EPA that is (the) reason I desperately want to leave."
  • Securities Exchange Commission; Issue: Non-Enforcement or Tepid Enforcement
  • Department of Defense; Issue: Procurement, Sexual Harassment
  • Veterans Administration; Issue: Wait Times for New Patients "And in classic VA fashion, almost no one has been seriously held accountable for any of this wrongdoing," Mr. Miller said.
  • USAID; Issue: Inspector General Corruption
  • University of California; Issue: Sexual Harassment, Uneven Application of Punishment