First, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving last week – COVID-19 style of course. I took the week off from writing and had a minivacation at home cooking, baking, binging tv shows, and playing a new trivia game designed for multi-generation play (Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and GenZ). All in all, it was a good week.
The other task I hoped to work on last week was my infographic for this post. That did not happen though as I struggle to create the picture I have in my head. So I am hoping that if I write it out, the picture will come. This hypothesis calls for an infographic!
So back to my post about the election, and my hypothesis that we, Americans, have lost having each other’s best interests at heart. The first question probably to ask is ‘Did we ever have each other’s best interest at heart?’
Depending on where one sits in America’s hierarchy that’s a good question. I can acknowledge that Native Americans and African-Americans could have absolutely different feelings about this than I do as a white male. Europeans came to North America and totally changed the culture, land use, and direction of how this continent developed. Likewise, humans were ripped away from their homes in western Africa and enslaved; brought to this country and sold for the purpose of working farms for free and creating wealth for plantation owners. Therefore, I can understand that Native Americans and African Americans question the premise of this question. Because frankly, their history suggests we did not.
At the same time, many of our families immigrated to this country out of free will to seek economic opportunity, to worship freely, and/or to run away from something in the ‘old world.’ I know that my great grandfather left the Netherlands by himself, and left his family behind to deal with his mess(es). My great grandmother somehow chased him to Canada, and then Iowa with my grandfather and his siblings in tow. It was hard scrabble and messy. But somehow my grandfather worked with his fellow immigrants and built a business, a church, a town. They created a community, had families, defeated the Nazis and Axis powers, and moved forward together.
Of course, the 1960s and 1970s came, and America started to address its original sins by passing Civil Rights legislation. It also lost a war in Vietnam, felt the first wave of global competition via Japanese industry, and struggled with the malaise of the Carter Administration all while the Cold War was waged with the Soviet Union. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States found its footing, saw its economy grow, its place on the world stage renewed through the fall of the Soviet Union and clearly winning the Persian Gulf War. An optimism was generally restored.
By the end of the 1999, through the hard negotiating of the GOP and President Clinton, the federal government had a budget surplus, a peace dividend if you will. And the 2000 election saw the two candidates – George W. Bush and Al Gore – fighting primarily over what to do with the surplus. Candidate Bush wanted to provide Americans with a tax refund while Candidate Gore wanted to put it in a ‘lock box’ to pay back the Social Security trust the money it was owed.
Take a step back and think about the 2000 campaign compared to the one we just lived through. The major argument was about what to do with a surplus of money. Of course there were other issues too and how the candidates would address education, global warming, foreign affairs, et cetera. But the primary difference articulated was what to do with the surplus.
Today our country is in a much different financial situation. Consider that in the past 20 years we have lived through the Great Recession of 2008 when the capital markets seized and millions of Americans lost their homes through foreclosure and evictions. The Great Recession recovery was slow as one might expect since there was a significant hole to dig out of financially. And only when we started to see wage growth for lower income workers we were hit with COVID-19. This pandemic has eroded the food service, tourism, and hospitality industry like something never seen before. Following the initial CARES Act stimulus, our government has been unable to put the needs of working Americans in the forefront. Enhanced unemployment benefits and small business loans have stalled while arguments ensue about the size of the next stimulus. In the meantime, people are scared about losing their homes again, utility shut off notices, and food insecurity.
But that is getting ahead of ourselves when we think about the events of the past 20 years and how they have eroded our belief that we have each other’s best interest at heart.
As we all remember, the 2000 Presidential Election ended in the Supreme Court with the Bush v. Gore decision followed by Candidate Gore’s concession speech. Even though Candidate Gore had won the popular vote, he knew the rules of the Electoral College and acknowledged his defeat. Many on the left were upset following the Bush v. Gore decision, and in my mind this began the disintegration of our body politic.
As expected, President Bush followed through on his tax refund promise in 2001. And then the terrible events of 9/11 happened. From my view, patriotism was at an all-time high and there was an American consensus that a response was necessary. But what happened next did not keep the country together united. Instead we splintered into a variety of factions due to several events that have one thing in common – there was never a shared sacrifice.
Let me try to explain. Unlike in WWII or the Vietnam War, the 9/11 military response did not include conscription (i.e. a Military Draft). Our nation continued with its voluntary military force, which depends on first generation Americans, African Americans and Latinx citizens to maintain the preferred force size. Therefore, the sacrifice of life, disability, and extended family leave was borne on a disparate group of people. It was rare for community leaders – lawyers, bankers, small business owners, senior level executives, doctors, elected officials to have sons or daughters serve in the Armed Forces. Likewise, there was no requirement for community service work like consciousness objectors performed during the Vietnam War. Further, after an initial surge of patriotism enrollments following 9/11,the Pentagon resorted to mandated extensions and increased enlistment bonuses to maintain force size. Especially after our leaders decided to expand the 9/11 response into Iraq. In sum, the military response to 9/11 did not require a shared American sacrifice. Instead, it primarily harmed lower income and minority Americans.
The second choice after 9/11 that did not require a shared sacrifice was in 2003. The American economy had slowed and we were in the middle of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Unlike in WWII when Americans were asked to purchase War Bonds, grow Victory gardens, and pay more in taxes to fund the War, the Congress and President cut taxes which led to a large increase in the deficit and a reduction in safety net/social service programs. Again, the burden of this choice fell on lower income and minority Americans that used social service programs and did not see their taxes decrease in a meaningful way since payroll taxes (Social Security/Medicare) were not reduced.
As the Iraq War continued into 2006, there was growing frustration in the country over the loss of life, injuries, and the perception that we were losing like in Vietnam. Yet, for many there was a belief that returning veterans should not be stigmatized like those that came up from Vietnam. So, we wrapped ourselves in the flag, and patriotism – championing our veterans and their sacrifices all while public support for the Iraq War was falling dramatically. So much so that in the 2006 midterm elections the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives.
Clearly, there was frustration in the air, but rather than our political leaders bringing the country together toward a collective vision/direction as was done in 1994 when President Clinton and the Republican Congress negotiated a package that led to a budget surplus, gridlock ruled the day as a presidential election was coming in two years. Additionally, the direction of the Iraq War created a true divide among our elected leaders. It was a difficult moment that called for sacrificial leadership. Unfortunately it did not surface.
The next two years were full of economic challenges. Below is a chart of the Dow Jones monthly averages from 2000 – 2020. Between February 2001 and July 2006, the Dow fluctuated down, but recovered its losses, and by October 2007 it was up 1800 points from when President Bush’s term began. However, between October 2007 and the November 2008 election, the Dow had decreased over 6500 points. And by the time President Obama was sworn in January 2008, the Dow lost another 1000 points. Think about this, in October 2007 the Dow was at 17,356. In January 2008, the Dow was at 9,865 and it bottomed out in February 2008 at 8,666.
Our nation was facing a true crisis. We were in the middle of two unending wars that cost billions of dollars annually. Credit lines were seizing causing small businesses challenges. Banks were failing. Collateral debt obligations created millions of foreclosures and short-sales of housing stock throughout the nation. A new President had just been sworn in who just so happened to be the nation’s first minority President. And what happens?
More next week…