Rutten: The end of American optimism


It’s sometimes useful to see ourselves as others do, and reports this Independence Day weekend in a couple of English-speaking newspapers usually sympathetic to the United States are sobering.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph — a conservative paper and that country’s bestselling broadsheet — diagnoses us as a nation depressed, and cites polling data describing alarming percentages of Americans who expect their own economic situation to deteriorate further and that of their children to be worse still. As Toby Harnden, the paper’s U.S. editor, wrote: “A country whose hallmark has always been a sense of irrepressible optimism is in the grip of unprecedented uncertainty and self-doubt. With the United States mired in three foreign wars, beaten down by an economy that shows few signs of emerging from deep recession and deeply disillusioned with President Barack Obama, his Republican challengers and Congress, the mood is dark.”

He goes on to cite one recent poll that found 39% of Americans now believe the recession-battered economy is in “a long-term permanent decline” from which it “will never fully recover,” and another survey that reported 57% of those questioned believe their children never will achieve the same standard of living they’ve enjoyed.


Pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz — a regular these days on Fox News — told the Telegraph that Americans don’t hold Obama solely responsible for the nation’s gloom. “Every institution in America has gone through a collapse,” he said. “The church is not what it was.... The media is much less trusted today.... Big business does not have credibility.”

One of the leading causes of this generalized collapse of confidence was noted in the Irish Times, the voice of that nation’s establishment. Columnist and critic Fintan O’Toole, a recent visitor to the United States, wrote of being struck by the breadth and depth of the damage the recession has done to the most vital engine of the nation’s economy — its great urban areas. “On their own, big U.S. cities make up some of the world’s largest economies. If they were countries, New York would rank 13th in the world, Los Angeles 18th and Chicago 21st. Even Washington, D.C., has an economy larger than Norway’s, Austria’s or South Africa’s. Ireland’s GDP is about the same as that of Minneapolis or Detroit.”

O’Toole’s statistics come from a report prepared earlier this year for the U.S. Conference of Mayors that came and went with far too little attention paid to its sobering portrait of the urban economy.

“These cities aren’t just crucial to the American economy,” O’Toole wrote, “They are the engines of globalization. They soak up immigrants and exports from every continent. The capital they generate fuels investment around the world, including, of course, Ireland. If they’re in trouble, then so is the whole model of economic globalization. And they are in trouble.”

As the mayors’ report pointed out, continuing unemployment — the so-called jobless recovery — is the root of that trouble. Since the crisis began in 2007, for example, New York has lost 385,200 jobs and Detroit 323,400 jobs. More than 330 metropolitan areas now have unemployment rates that top 6%.

The Los Angeles region lost 537,100 jobs during the recession, and according to the mayors’ report, it probably won’t get them back until 2018. “It is striking, it’s sobering and it’s a call to action,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Conference of Mayors’ president, told the New York Times.


In fact, O’Toole wrote, “Of the 25 metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment, 13 are in California and seven are in the ‘sunshine states’ of Florida, Nevada and Arizona. There are Californian cities, like Fresno and Modesto, with unemployment rates even higher than Ireland’s.”

The consequences of this lingering joblessness are amplified by the pervasive insecurity of those who are working — uncertainty about further job cuts and anxiety about the future, which growing numbers will face with little but underfunded 401(k)s and increasingly threatened Social Security and Medicare guarantees. Moreover, the decade just past was even worse for real private sector income growth than the 10 years following the onset of the Depression in 1929.

Unemployment and reviving the nation’s urban economies ought to be the defining issues of the coming presidential campaign. They probably won’t be. In that case, Luntz’s prediction to the Telegraph that 2012 will be a “none of the above election” easily could be true — and that’s an unsettling prospect.